The (Public Service) Announcement: Black Women & HIV

12 Mar

March 10 was National Women and Girls HIV Awareness Day, a nationwide observance that is used to help raise awareness about the peculiar impact of HIV/AIDS on women and girls. One of the goals of the day is to help facilitate discussions and disseminate information about prevention, testing, and/or living with and coping with the disease.  On March 11, I watched the ESPN documentary The Announcement, which traces Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s discovery that he had contracted HIV in 1991 and the subsequent narrative around it, including his emergence as a spokesperson against the disease.

Needless to say, this weekend I felt hyperaware and re-reminded of the impact of HIV/AIDS on women’s lives, particularly black women’s lives.  Cookie Johnson, Magic’s wife, emerged as a heroine in the documentary, never wavering in her commitment to her husband and staying committed to him even after his announcement.  Cookie was HIV-negative, but she represents thousands of women who are unknowingly exposed to the virus and hence at risk.  A recent study states HIV is five times more prevalent among black women than previously thought.   Black women currently make up 60 percent of new infections and 13 percent of the total AIDS epidemic.  Heterosexual black women have the second highest rate of new infections and contract the disease at 15 times the rate of white women.  These statistics are consistent with conversations I have (over)heard and had over the past few years, but I cannot help but wonder why this is such an un(der)discussed and underpublicized phenomenon.  Why are the numbers getting larger instead of smaller?

Amidst a firestorm of political and social debates and cultural conundrums about women’s bodies, choices, sexuality and needs, it is important that we talk to (as)  black women about this issue.  We need to talk to our family, friends, daughters, protégés, ourselves, about the risks and why we are taking them.  I never imagined that twenty years after Magic Johnson’s announcement, which for the first time gave HIV a public and black face, and despite our national and historical awareness of how the disease is spread: having sex without a condom; sharing needles, syringes or drug works; and pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding, that HIV is still spreading at such an alarming rate.  I personally suspect it is a combination of immortality complex (the belief some people have that they are immune to the consequences that other people suffer for bad choices) and misinformation about HIV/AIDS (i.e., that you can tell if someone has HIV by looking at them, or that as long as you are not having sex with someone who uses drugs or is promiscuous, you are safe).

For many women, it is bigger than the virus.  There are social and environmental issues that contribute to the epidemic.  When folk are living in communities and under circumstances that constantly find them in desperate situations and disparate conditions, HIV infection is just another of countless dangers they encounter on a daily basis that puts their lives at risk.  For example, the CDC recognizes challenges such as socioeconomic issues like poverty, limited access to health care and housing, limited access to HIV prevention education, lack of awareness of HIV status, and stigma, fear, discrimination, homophobia and other negative perceptions about being tested as deterrents to prevention.

According to a recent study, black women in six urban areas have some of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS:  Baltimore, Atlanta, Raleigh-Durham, NC, Washington, D.C., Newark and New York City.  Further, according to the CDC,  “The greater number of people living with HIV in African American communities and the fact that African Americans tend to have sex with partners of the same race/ethnicity means that they face a greater risk of HIV infection with each new sexual encounter.”

And let’s not dismiss the very vulnerability for intimacy and connection that oftentimes causes young women to make reckless choices about sex.  When teaching a class in central Florida and discussing strategies for encouraging safe sex a student, who worked at a health clinic part time, noted that young women would come in and be treated for STI’s.  She said that even though the staff would give them tempered warnings and free condoms those same young women would come back, weeks or months later, with another STI.  When confronted about the risk of unprotected sex they responded “my boyfriend doesn’t like them,” or “he says we don’t need them (because we are in love).”  These girls were as young as fifteen and had already exposed themselves to the possibility of contracting a lifelong disease.  According the the CDC, 1 in 32 black women will be diagnosed with HIV infection in their lifetime.  87% of them will have gotten the infection by having unprotected sex with a man.  While HIV is no longer a death sentence, there is no cure.

In many ways we have heard/seen the public service announcements, we know the warnings and the risks, yet we continue to make problematic choices.  Perhaps this generation has become desensitized to the risks associated with unprotected sex.  Protected sex is not only about preventing pregnancy.  It is about preventing STI’s, one of which is HIV.  One study states that sometimes women who use hormonal birth control are more likely to contract the disease because while they are careful about protecting themselves from pregnancy, they are not always equally mindful of sexually transmitted infections.

A new campaign, Take Charge Take the Test hopes to raise awareness and urge black women to get tested and know their status.

At the end of the documentary, Magic Johnson says that his contraction of the virus has been both a blessing a curse.  A blessing, he says, because it has helped to raise awareness about the disease.  A curse because his wellness seems to be attached with a nonchalance, rather than fear, about the seriousness of HIV.  While there have been amazing medical interventions that make living longer and healthier lives (with medication) possible, there are other factors that must be considered.  One of which, as Magic explains, is that the disease affects different people differently.  Not everyone will respond to treatments in the same way that he has.  And not everyone can afford the (expensive) treatment.

A few lessons settled with me as I pushed my chair back from the articles, turned off the tv, and felt the full weight of the words, the announcements.  The lessons felt clear and intentional, like the script of an afterschool special.  I am left writing out what I want to say to every black woman I know (and will ever meet)…

  1.  Love yourself more than anyone else. 
  2. Sex should always be protected (unless you are in a committed and monogamous relationship and you have both tested negative!)
  3. Conversations about sex and past sexual partners and status should be foreplay to the foreplay.  If you don’t feel comfortable enough to have this conversation with your sexual partner, perhaps you shouldn’t be having sex with them.
  4. Use condoms even if you are on other methods of contraception for birth control.
  5. Talk to other women about knowing their status and encourage them to get tested.  (Volunteer to go with them when they go!)
  6. Initiate a conversation!  Don’t assume people (especially young people) know what they need to know about HIV.

11 Responses to “The (Public Service) Announcement: Black Women & HIV”

  1. MSWORLD March 12, 2012 at 4:53 AM #

    Thank you for delivering the message with lots of love and clarity! I love your term “immorality complex” because that is so real.

  2. Raylene CapnMorgan Yarmum March 12, 2012 at 7:48 AM #

    I think you make good points, but in your list of things you’d like to say, I’m confused as to how you can put #2 in the list without clearly defining it. I have never believed I was in a nonmonogamous or non-committed relationship (even when I had had sex outside the relationship), nor have most of my friends (even when they were clearly being cheated on). I personally (mostly due to a pregnancy phobia) ALWAYS used a barrier method of birth control on top of using the pill, but I know PLENTY of people who, because they think their relationship is monogamous and committed, don’t use a barrier method. Not surprisingly you hear comments like “we love each other”, “we’re going to get married”, and “I trust him/her” to justify failing to use a barrier method. Then there’s “he says it’s uncomfortable” or “I think it doesn’t feel as good” (both from women). What exactly constitutes SAFE application of the label “committed” or “monogamous”? I think to say married is still not monogamous is a bit much (aside from in instances of clear poor relationship quality), but I think the average person is erring on the LESS cautious side and saying if they don’t BELIEVE their “relationship” is a hookup, then it’s committed. Thoughts?

    • crunktastic March 12, 2012 at 9:28 AM #

      It sounds like what you are pointing to is dishonesty or intentional misrepresentation( at worst) or miscommunication (at best). But that doesn’t indicate a lack of clarity in the post. Based upon all the exceptions you point out, it is clear that you are quite clear about what monogamy means. We assume the rest of our readers are as intelligent. It therefore seems like what you are calling for is not clearer definitions but transparent communication and conversation, a point which the author makes several times in her list.

    • rboylorn March 12, 2012 at 10:34 AM #

      Sex should never feel like a game of Russian roulette and trusting your partner should not prevent conversations about sex or passes on opportunities to be tested. HIV, like many STIS, can live in your system asymptomatically (without any symptoms or evidence that something is wrong) for years! So you may never be able to trace back where you got it.

      I agree that monogamy, if it is being misunderstood or mis-defined in how young women are characterizing their relationships, should be more clearly defined. Let me first say that I believe that monogamy is something that you should not have one conversation about in your lifetime with your partner, and just assume that things will always be the same. The same way we should say we love you more than once and not assume that initial announcement rings true forever, nor should a commitment of monogamy (for example, when you are a teenager) not be revisited again. People may not always be forthcoming about things and if you ask them outright, it gives them an out and an opportunity to be honest/real. Don’t assume he loves you because he never says he stopped, and don’t assume he is disease free because he was ten years ago. Things change. People change. And if there is ever a possibility that something happened that could jeopardize that fidelity, don’t bet your life that your longtime love or longtime commitment makes you safe.

      In terms of clarity, monogamy essentially means that you are having exclusive sex with one other person who is also having exclusive sex with only you, and that you both tested negative before you started having unprotected sex. Unprotected sex means you are not using a barrier method of contraception to prevent the spread or transfer bodily fluids between you (and it can also mean that you are not using any contraceptive method to prevent pregnancy). When you say that you “have never believed you were in a non-monogamous or non-committed relationship (even when you had had sex outside the relationship), nor have most of your friends (even when they were clearly being cheated on), there is a clear misunderstanding here. You are not describing monogamy, you are describing an open relationship. People in monogamous relationships do not willingly and/or knowingly allow for outside sex or cheating. So, in many ways, your examples are about deception. If at any point someone who is supposedly (or supposed to be) in an exclusive/monogamous relationship is having sex with another person and/or knows their partner is having sex with another person, they are no longer in a monogamous relationship (and this is true, whether they are aware of the infidelity or not, and if they are in denial or not). Monogamy is not about love, it is about trust. Monogamy is not about one person’s intentions, it is about two people’s actions. Monogamy is only monogamy when it is reciprocated. If one person breaches, then their infidelity cancels out your faithfulness. You cannot be monogamous by yourself.

      Having explained what monogamy is, it may have been simpler to define it by what it is not: Love is not monogamy. Good sex is not monogamy. You being faithful to him, while he is out “doing his thing,” with/out your permission, is not monogamy. Tit-for-tat cheating, even if you use protection, is not monogamy. Marriage proposals and wedding rings do not ensure monogamy. The only way to know is to ask and wait for an answer!

  3. k-boogie March 12, 2012 at 1:49 PM #

    I think the reality is that even people who ASSUME they are in monogamous relationships can’t guarantee that their sexual partner a) won’t cheat and b) will use protection if they do. Indeed, most people who cheat do NOT use protection. So being in a monogamous relationship, hell even being married, isn’t the guarantee that too many people think it is.

  4. March 12, 2012 at 3:33 PM #

    “A few lessons settled with me as I pushed my chair back from the articles, turned off the tv, and felt the full weight of the words, the announcements.” This just humanized the ENTIRE blog for me. I have always felt like I’m reading words produced from a non-human source, but now, these same words feel ALIVE…like I can relate to them.

    At the end of the day crunktastic, people gonna do THEM. They are going to carry on as if they live in the era before the advent of HIV & other STIs. Apparently, Magic is too far removed from my generation for them to care about his message. Apparently the messages from our contemporaries are not hard-hitting and convincing enough. Apparently most of us are not quite as intelligent as we seem.

  5. Alisha M.Gray (@ZenMamaPolitic) March 12, 2012 at 10:15 PM # The (Public Service) Announcement: Black Women & HIV-More Comments.

    HIV Historical Link:

    This is another very important & more scientific explanation. HIV now has a vaginal blockage gel for women (esp. Black women in Africa) Black women are not more susceptable because we are more promiscuous, but because we have been adversely affected by poverty, commodification of resources, and being the carriers of children. This is the important thing to remember; whether or not you understand (or believe)that it is being used as a form of population control. We must force the government to offer this new form of vaginal HIV prevention, to all women around the world-as soon as available. There is no excuse for women not being given this gel for preventive treatment. Also; there is no excuse that HIV testing is not promoted w/every Dr.’s visit for women. There is still a huge stigma, even in medical fields.

    However; the largest stigma that I can see still revolves around the fact that Black women are Hottentot’s and thus more susceptible to this virus, when in actuality this is untrue. Consequently, Black women are being unduely chastised and stigmatized in areas, where there is ignorance and fear of both Black women and this designer disease. I personally do not have HIV; yet can state that many who do (esp. Black Women)..suffer in silence. It is time for this to end. This is not to play the blame game. This is only to allow for open conversation; which will lead to faster change within the understanding of this potentially deadly virus. No woman should be raped, harassed , or terrified into thinking that she has been one of the sole causes of this virus; or into thinking that she cannot be a positive part within finding a solution. I do not like it when there are statistic given ONLY, without facts and historical content. There are literally both biological and demographical historical reasons why Black women have higher numbers in the HIV virus game. Let this be known. However; let it also be known that it does not absolve our responsibility towards trying diligently not to spread this virus any further.

    @ZenMamaPolitic, @crunkfeminists

  6. Kjen March 14, 2012 at 9:09 AM #

    You made a great point that monogamy – honestly checking in to see if your partner is still faithful – should be asked more than once – like telling someone you love them more than once during the span of your relationship. #

    Because anyone can be cheated upon, and anyone can contract AIDS, then the only way to be safe, other than not having sex at all, is to never have sex without a barrier method.

    Part of me feels stronger recognizing that I am the one who is in charge of my own health, but I have to admit that a part of me wants to weep at the dying of the little girl fantasy of ‘honesty=security=trusting my partner enough to look out for my health/well being’ that I still carry around

  7. brown betty March 15, 2012 at 11:44 PM #

    Thank you for this post! So important that we as black women feel empowered to not only put our health first by protecting ourselves, but that we break the cycle of shame, silence, and denial around HIV/AIDS. We are beginning to talk to our daughters, nieces, mentees, etc. around breast health, nutrition, body image, and birth control, but I feel like the topic of HIV continues to be avoided. The numbers clearly indicate our risk is great, so our response should align with that fact. I am overcoming my reservations by having conversations with my 14 year old, urging her to OWN and be responsible for her body. Although it gets funky and wildly awkward at first, I know it’s cultivating a new understanding of wellness for her. Thanks for giving me fuel to continue my conversations with her.

  8. The One March 29, 2012 at 11:00 AM #

    These HIV stats to me are a clear indication of what happens when a whole race of women & girls are declared worthless (Except for one thing) garbage to use (For that one purpose) and throw away.


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