Black Sexuality, Social Construction, and Research Targeting
‘The Down Low’ (‘The DL’)
CHANDRA L. FORD,
D, MPH, MLIS
, KATHRYN D. WHETTEN,
SUSAN A. HALL,
, JAY S. KAUFMAN,
, AND ANGELA D. THRASHER,
PURPOSE: The purpose of this commentary is to explain how social constructions of black sexuality are
relevant to research targeting black sexual behavior and the ostensibly new and race-speciﬁc phenomenon
known as ‘‘the Down Low’’ (the DL). The term ‘‘the DL’’ is widely used to refer to black men publicly pre-
senting as heterosexual while secretly having sex with other men and presumably spreading human immu-
nodeﬁciency virus and acquired immune deﬁciency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) to unsuspecting women.
METHODS: We brieﬂy review lay and public health literature from 1998 to 2004 about the DL, describe
existing social constructions of black sexuality, discuss two implications for epidemiologic research, and
offer recommendations to guide future research.
RESULTS: The lifestyle referenced by the term the DL is neither new nor limited to blacks, and sufﬁcient
data linking it to HIV/AIDS disparities currently are lacking. Common perceptions about the DL reﬂect
social constructions of black sexuality as generally excessive, deviant, diseased, and predatory. Research tar-
geting black sexual behavior that ignores these constructions may unwittingly reinforce them.
CONCLUSIONS: Unaddressed social constructions of black sexuality have implications for epidemio-
logic research targeting black sexual behavior. Explicit examination of these concerns is necessary to elim-
inate fundamental causes of health disparities.
Ann Epidemiol 2007;17:209–216. Ó 2007 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
: HIV Infections, Prevention and Control, Epidemiologic Methods, African Americans,
Sexual Behavior, Sex.
‘‘Ideas about race, gender, sexuality, and black people
as well as the social practices that these ideas shape
and reﬂect remain intricately part of the new racism,
but in changed ways.’’
dPatricia Hill Collins (1)
Although racial disparities in human immunodeﬁciency
virus and acquired immune deﬁciency syndrome (HIV/
AIDS) have persisted for more than two decades (2–4)
and African Americans account for increasing proportions
of infections (5), research typically does not examine rela-
tionships between the social context of US racism and the
processes and assumptions informing research that targets
black sexual behavior. Increasingly, many people attribute
racial disparities in HIV/AIDS to an ostensibly new
phenomenon known as ‘‘the Down Low’’ (‘‘the DL’’) (6–
8). This term has been part of black vernacular connoting
secrecy of some sort since the early 1990s; for example,
someone might say ‘‘I will tell you why I am upset if you
keep it on the DL.’’ Keeping a thing on the DL did not nec-
essarily connote perceived wrongness; it reﬂected ﬁrst and
foremost a desire for discretion. The original connotation
of the DL with regard to sexual liaisons referred to hetero-
sexual relationships. Recently, however, it has come to be
used in variety of overlapping ways to denote: 1) presumed
straight black men; 2) who are in primary relationships
with women; 3) secretly have sex with other men; and, 4)
are presumed HIV-positive as the result of male-to-male sex-
ual contact (9).
The DL gained considerable notoriety from publicity sur-
rounding the publication of popular books and news features
on the phenomenon (10–14). Most framed it as black men’s
deviant immoral sexual behavior and focused on implica-
tions for ‘‘innocent’’ women partners as well as higher rates
of HIV among black relative to white women to emphasize
the DL as a public health emergency (15–17). Public reac-
tions to the existence of a DL phenomenon echo responses
in the early 1980s to emergent news of the HIV epidemic
and to earlier panics about black men as sexual predators:
widespread fear; scapegoating of minorities; and attributing
infection to sexual immorality (18, 19). Historically,
From the Departments of Social Medicine (C.L.F), Epidemiology
(S.A.H., J.S.K.), and Health Behavior and Health Education (A.D.T.),
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC; and the Departments of
Public Policy and Community and Family Medicine (K.D.W.), Duke Uni-
versity, Durham, NC.
Address correspondence to: Chandra L. Ford, Department of Epidemiol-
ogy, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, 722 West
168th Street, New York, NY 10032. Tel.: 212-304-6424; fax: 212-544-
4221. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Received June 12, 2006; accepted September 29, 2006.
Ó 2007 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. 1047-2797/07/$–see front matter
360 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10010 doi:10.1016/j.annepidem.2006.09.006