Moving beyond "the down low": a critical analysis of terminology guiding HIV prevention efforts for African American men who have secretive sex with men

Soc Sci Med. 2009 Jan;68(2):390-5. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2008.09.052. Epub 2008 Nov 9.


HIV continues to affect African American populations in the United States at disproportionate levels. Recent reports have described potentially high-risk behaviors of African American men who identify as heterosexual but who engage in secretive sex with other men. These men have been referred to as being "on the Down Low," and this terminology has been used to label subgroups of African American men and explain sexual risks for HIV infection in the African American community. In this paper, we argue that an uncritical use of this terminology for guiding public health and HIV prevention strategies can be problematic and counterproductive because it (a) stigmatizes and exoticizes secretive same-sex sexuality as a unique issue among African American men, and (b) ignores the social conditions under which HIV transmission occurs. We explore some historical roots contributing to current perspectives on African American men's sexuality, describe the use of the term "on the Down Low" and its application to same-sex behavior among African American men, and explain how this term can both clarify and potentially ambiguate efforts to address HIV risk among African American men. Recommendations for research and HIV prevention strategies are also provided.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • African Americans*
  • Attitude to Health
  • Bisexuality / ethnology
  • Confidentiality
  • Cultural Characteristics
  • Cultural Competency
  • Gender Identity
  • HIV Infections / ethnology*
  • HIV Infections / prevention & control*
  • Homosexuality, Male / ethnology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Prejudice
  • Self Disclosure
  • Terminology as Topic
  • United States
  • Unsafe Sex / ethnology