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Third Eye

Let's Talk About Sex

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 8/20/2003

Recent media coverage on black men having sex with other men on the "down low"--a term used to describe homosexual behavior among men who don't openly identify as being gay or bisexual--is timely and should be most welcomed, especially in Baltimore where black people comprise 65 percent of the population and rates of HIV infection are out the door. Underlying issues include health risks to the men involved, as well as their (often unsuspecting) female sex partners and offspring. The coverage has also highlighted the need for more open dialogue about chronic--and sometimes pretentious--homophobia in black culture.

The media's attempts to explore and shed light on the down-low culture are welcome. But as much is being made of the emotional and physical toll such behavior takes on women whose men are tipping, other issues await confrontation--like, among some women, the almost mythological belief that the Poonany holds power over men.

Granted, sexual behavior that's all at once nebulous and graphic, deceitful and truthful, newfound and ancient, doesn't offer quick understanding. A nonsatisfying attempt was recently made by Benoit Denizet-Lewis' "Double Lives on the Down Low," featured in the Aug. 3 New York Times Magazine. After spending six months burrowing into a very guarded, social order among black men, the journalist (who acknowledged being white) reduced subjects like "Jigga" and "Rakeem" to sinewy caricatures who get their freak on in sex dungeons near and far, acting out secretly against women and families.

To his credit, Denizet-Lewis raised issues of denial, social stigmas, and family letdowns as rationales used by men on the down low to explain and justify their behavior. But readers learn little or nothing about how such men feel about things like loyalty to loved ones, conventional romance, staying healthy, or raising kids--things that could help foster wider dialogues and understanding. Instead, readers are left to peek through a kinky keyhole.

On Aug. 4, the Washington Post's Jose Antonio Vargas weighed in on the matter with a headline trumpeting: "Black Men's Hidden Sex Lives Imperiling Female Partners." Vargas shifts the focus from boogie-down male freaks to emotionally blind and victimized women who contract HIV from husbands or lovers (and who, sadder still, pass the virus on to their babies). While the reality check about the risks to women is well-founded, the commentary in Vargas' article borders on insult.

"Black women, for the most part, don't question what their men are doing. They don't confront them. They are willing to put up with things that I, as a gay black man, would never put up with just to keep a man," said Ron Simmons, executive director of Us Helping Us, an organization for gay and bisexual men in Washington.

Simmons' high-handed remark is reiterated with more understated eloquence by national gay activist Keith Boykin who, in a May 2002 column on Gay.com, cautions the media against "[v]ilifying men on the down low" and "discourag[ing] black women from exercising personal responsibility" for their sexual health. Further, Boykin writes, "after all this media attention, we still don't know the cause of the high infection rates among young black gay men. The media didn't stick around long enough to answer those questions. They moved onto sexier topics--straight black women and the implicitly guilty black men who infect them."

Stripped of their self-righteous tone, the points of both gay men are well taken: Black men on the down low only have as much control over the sexual and emotional health of black women as such women allow. It is a point that self-empowerment guru Iyanla Vanzant has consistently raised over the years, along with a slew of authors and lecturers featured in magazines like Essence and at national conferences like "Women on Tour." And does anybody remember the impact Waiting to Exhale had not just on Terry McMillan's wallet but also on black women's psyches as they decided to make better choices about their love lives? Nowadays, women, especially young ones, seem to have relapsed, hyperventilating over men to the point of being delusional.

"Pussy don't fail me now/ I gotta turn this nigga out/ So he don't want nobody else/ But me and only me," Missy Elliott raps on "Pussycat." I could go on and on, citing other black female pop stars who gyrate to sexually explicit lyrics in music videos, and whose influence--especially as some of their careers segue into television and movies--teaches young women to use sex appeal, and sex, as a means to get and keep a man.

Though wiser to the pitfalls of dating and mating rituals, mature women aren't exempt from letting their bodies fall prey to an underlying belief that for every good woman, there's a good man. Maybe so, but if we are to believe what we read (and what some women are experiencing firsthand), there's still no guarantee that minds and bodies won't play tricks.

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Sappy Anniversary (5/12/2004)
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Om (5/5/2004)
Efforts to snuggle closer to the Big Dawg seem more doable--not to mention, if heaven awaits, more worthwhile.

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