by Dr. Boyce Watkins, KultureKritic.com
When NaturallyMoi.com released an article stating that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention said that nearly half of all black women were infected with herpes, I was intrigued by the responses that I saw. At least half of the reactions were negative attacks toward the authors for even reciting information from the CDC, as if they’d worked overtime to paint a negative portrayal of black women. It should be noted that a high infection rate among black women does not imply that black women are more promiscuous than anyone else. It might actually be the promiscuity of men that is the source of the problem (i.e. the good girl who loves bad boys and catches whatever the bad boys bring home while they’re out “being bad”).
I was even attacked for sharing the article on my Facebook page. Somehow, by sharing information that I felt to be a critical public health alert, I was somehow conspiring with “the man” to make black women look bad. Sorry, but I was trying to protect my daughters from a world that is designed to destroy them. I believe what the CDC has to say, because I’ve seen too much evidence to support the conclusions. If we don’t like what we see in the mirror, we can’t get angry at the mirror, and just telling people what they want to hear doesn’t lead to much progress either.
Finally, there were those who felt that the data was simply a lie.
“I don’t believe this BS,” some people would say. Another person mentioned that none of her five girlfriends have herpes, so the study can’t be real. Someone else even felt that the data had to be inaccurate because they hadn’t tested her specifically, meaning that they couldn’t have tested everyone. Without insulting this person, I’d just encourage them to take a statistics class, which would help us realize why you don’t have to test an entire population in order to come to a conclusion (I humbly submit that I taught Math and Statistics at the college level for a few years, so I’ve studied these methods closely). Every poll, survey or statistical analysis is based on a random sample and various tests are performed to ensure that the sample is adequate enough to get an inference on the population. The CDC has lots of good statisticians who know how to perform this exercise carefully.
So, assuming that the CDC has not conspired with the KKK to hurt black people’s feelings by falsely telling us that we have an STD issue on our hands, I’d like to lay out a few reasons why we might actually have the perfect storm among us that creates the conditions for a significant STD problem:
1) Serious and persistent denial: I am constantly stunned by how many black people there are who simply don’t want to hear bad news. They laugh when you mention that greasy food can give you heart disease. They don’t want to hear you tell them that partying instead of studying is going to cause them to drop out of school. They even get angry when you suggest that perhaps Whitney Houston’s decision to use drugs might have played a role in her “shocking and totally unexpected” death. Many of “us” also don’t want to hear you say that there is an STD epidemic in black America. They especially don’t want to hear this from a white person.
The black church is largely responsible for creating a culture of silence on STDs, since many church leaders talk about sex as if it did not exist. The stigma of being the “good church girl” with an STD is too much for many black women to bear, so the majority of those affected won’t even share this information with their closest friends. Men can be even worse, since a lot of men never get tested in the first place. So, the most horrible stories are never told and many of those affected suffer in silence, leaving the next generation to make the same mistakes because no one ever told them any better.
2) Prison Rape: Soooo, you think that all the men being raped in prison are being raped by STD-free men wearing condoms? Do you think that these men aren’t having sex with women when they come home? Do you think these men are going to readily tell their female partners what they were doing behind bars? Do you not think that every felon whose been entirely marginalized from job opportunities, voting rights and anything else worth living for is going to always be incredibly careful, thoughtful and disciplined in his sexuality? Keep dreaming.
The prison rape problem has long been something that people joke about at cocktail parties, but it’s more serious than you might think. Not only does it constitute cruel and unusual punishment for those who’ve been incarcerated, it also increases the spread of STDs once the men come home and sleep with women with whom they associate.
Most men have a pretty strong appetite for sex, and it’s not uncommon for a man (especially an attractive one) to have sex with quite a few women. Also, as a black man, I can say that many of my brothers are not very quick to go to the doctor for anything other than a missing body part. Therefore, it’s not entirely inconceivable that a great deal of infection is occurring once men leave jails and prisons, especially if they do not have or choose not to utilize adequate healthcare and get full STD screenings.
This is not to put the entire STD problem on the backs of prison inmates (we already have a witch hunt in place against gay men without even considering the role that heterosexual men are playing in all of this). Instead, it’s to say that the mass incarceration problem in America is one that affects the black community in more ways than one. When a man has nothing to live for and is living a dangerous life to begin with, he is not always going to take the time to protect the sexual health of women that he’s sleeping with. Not all inmates are affected by these psychological maladies, but we know quite a few who are.
3) A lack of testing: You hear a lot of people brag about getting an HIV test, but how many people mention that they’ve gotten a full STD screening? You do realize that there are other diseases out there besides HIV right? In fact, many of these diseases, such as HPV, can kill both men and women. So, you meet that really handsome guy that every other girl wants, and he makes it clear that he’s not committed to you (which translates to the fact that he can do whatever he wants). You responsibly ask him his HIV status. He impresses you by showing up with a clean bill of health from his doctor, disclosing his latest negative HIV test results (assuming you wait to see the results before having sex, which many people do not), and you take the condom off (for either oral, vaginal or anal intercourse – a condom is supposed to be worn for all three, right?). Do you think you’re completely safe? Think again.
The bottom line? There are other diseases out there besides HIV and people are catching a lot of them. Also, if you like that man, chances are that other women like him too. Finally, if he’s not a man that is careful about his sexual health or buys into the BS notion that black men are supposed to sleep around, chances are that he’s got a disease that even he doesn’t know anything about. When my friend (a strong black man who is not part of the “CDC conspiracy”) went to a barbershop and tested 20 black men for Chlamydia, he found that over half of them were infected and had no idea. Why? Because people don’t get regularly tested for that disease until they start showing serious and painful symptoms.
4) Hip Hop “playa playa” culture: Sooo, you think that a little boy who grows up hearing Lil Wayne and other rappers measure their manhood by how many women they sleep with every year isn’t going to be influenced by these messages? You don’t know a single handsome man who brags about his “way with the ladies,” running from house-to-house and woman-to-woman every other night? You don’t think that perhaps it’s possible that, the same way one man can impregnate several women, that this same man can’t also infect several women too? Let’s please do the math people: a man sleeping with lots of women who rarely gets a full STD screening has a very good chance of being a carrier of one of the major STDs (the same is true for women who like to “get around”). Also, any woman sleeping with him and touching his genitalia with either her mouth, anus or vagina has a good chance at being infected. That’s just a simple fact. Excuse me for not using standard Dr. Boyce language, but when people are dying, I tend to believe that honesty is the best policy – I am also equally honest with my daughters.
5) People not asking enough questions: For too many men, the question of whether or not you should sleep with a woman is simple: “Is she attractive?” If the answer is “yes,” then you’re supposed to have sex with her. Many women, unfortunately, have adopted the same irresponsible policy. A lot of fleeting relationships come and go without any knowledge of whose genitals were there before your own. Conversations about STD screenings and HIV status tend to dampen the mood, and that person who is “fine as hayell” brings so much pleasure into your bones that you might be tempted to believe that the things you’re doing together can’t possibly hurt you. This is what leads to disaster.
6) Fewer people getting married: I am not bible thumping and I am not saying that everyone needs to run out and get married (I’ve never been married myself and most marriages, quite honestly, end in divorce). I am referring to a simple fact: Most people have more sexual partners when they are single than they do when they are married (at least that’s the way it’s supposed to be); this is especially true for black Christian women (of course there are exceptions).
Fewer black women getting married means that single men have more pickings to fulfill their sexual desires, and women are having more relationships too. Just think about that single, 30-something girlfriend you have who always seems to have a story about relationship drama or a sexual experience she’s had with a man that she’s known for less than six months. In each case, she’s taking on years of sexual baggage from all the women (and/or men) that this person has been with before her. But in many cases, it’s “out of sight, out of mind.”
7) The imbalance between women and men: Because of the prison industrial complex creating felons left and right, poor inner city educational systems, a lack of employment opportunities and racist media creating hoop dreams for too many black men, there is an imbalance between marriage-ready black men and women. Women grow up dreaming of becoming corporate executives or attorneys, while too many brothers grow up trying to become LeBron James. So, after his hoop dream is busted and he has no education to fall back on, many men become marginalized by society.
The imbalance between educated black men and women changes the manner by which men and women respond to one another. Many men “get around” more than they normally would because they’ve got so many options, and many women accept things that they might not normally consider. This creates an environment where a small number of men may end up infecting a large number of women, because the women don’t halfway care whether the man is already taken or not.
For men, think about stories that “your boys” tell you about the women they’ve been sleeping with. Or, think about that woman who tells horror stories about the man she was with who ran through “side chicks” like they were going out of style. That’s where diseases are being spread, in these short, casual relationships, as some people move from partner-to-partner, claiming to be looking for something that may not even exist. It might be fun, and I am not here to judge, but I firmly believe that you can’t just do whatever you want, with whomever you want, and think that there aren’t significant risks involved.
A scientist once told me that women have a psychological tendency to notice the more attractive men over the less attractive ones. This means that many men in the “attractive” category tend to be chased by all the same women. If that man has been given a license to mate as much as he wants with whomever he wants, some of these men can become walking time bombs, like the married pastor in Atlanta who was accused of sleeping with women in his church, even though he allegedly knew that he had HIV.
Perhaps it’s time that we all wake up. This stuff is real. Stop believing this is a conspiracy theory and get tested….for everything. The data is accurate and there really is a problem. Ignoring this issue and not talking about it won’t make it go away, and we must all make sure that we’re healthy. Stop living in denial.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here. To check out Dr. Watkins in the Janks Morton Film, Hoodwinked, please visit this link.