Masculinity myth putting black men at risk for HIV?

OPINION - A recent study showed an obvious preference for partners who appeared to be 'masculine' under the belief that effeminate men pose greater risk...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Young black men who have sex with other men are nearly five times more likely to be infected with HIV than men of other races with similar sexual interests.

Finding an explanation for the discrepancy has longed stupefied researches. Now in a study entitled “Young Black Males’ Conflict between Masculinity and Homosexuality: Implications for HIV Risk,” a group of John Hopkins investigators have introduced findings that suggests an adherence to traditional gender roles may play a part in this ongoing problem.

The study found that many young black MSM — men who sleep with other men and identify themselves as gay or bisexual and those that do but avoid such titles — tend to select partners and rate their HIV risk factors based on their levels of masculinity.

The men interviewed showed an obvious preference for partners who appeared to be “masculine” under the belief that effeminate men pose greater risk for contracting HIV. Because of this, researches say this may shed light on why young black men who have sex with other men are contracting HIV more often than their racial counterparts.

Jonathan Ellen, a pediatrician and teen health expert at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, said, “There may be no difference in HIV prevalence between masculine- and feminine-looking men, but because black MSM perceive masculine men as lower risk, their sexual encounters with such men may make HIV infection more likely.”

This reported overall preference results in the acceptance of their more masculine partners as dominant in sexual acts — leaving them to make the decision about condom usage.

Their findings are based on interviews with 35 black men ages 18 to 24 who have sex with men in NYC, upstate New York, and Atlanta, GA.

With such a limited sample pool, critics have warned that statements like “because black MSM perceive masculine men as lower risk” are far too generalizing. Others worry that this study has only gained traction in the media given its ties to black pathology, particularly black masculinity.

There are some nominal levels of validity in each sentiment.

Yet, while the insertion of a “some” and a more targeted tagline about the age levels of the men interviewed may help appease the criticism of this study’s detractors, it should not discount a much-needed conversation about whether or not the pursuit of traditional gender roles is contributing to the decline of an untraditional group.

In their study, investigators highlighted that participants voiced feelings of pressure from family, peers, and the community around them to maintain conventional notions of manhood. Behavior outside of that was perceived to be feminine and something to be avoided. This isolation and conflict over failure to reach certain cultural expectations is not new and it’s long been suggested that a lack of social support can lead to risky behavior.

There is something out there still encouraging some women and gay men to overshare responsibility with their sexual partners. If the same questions have done little in the way of advancing the fight against the disease, why not encourage the call for new questioning and conclusions regardless of the perception it gives?

Excessively masculine behavior is encouraged in groups of every hue and orientation, but if there’s the slightest chance that it poses more dangers for black men it should be further examined.

To the researchers’ credit, they do plan to further study the issue.

Lead author of the study, Errol Fields, says, “I think that we need to do more to understand this phenomena. But, I think it’s also important to actually take action as well, and I would hope that this information would help those who develop interventions.”

If this study can lead to special programs that will help develop better prevention strategies, semantics aside it should be celebrated.

To those that worry about us looking bad, if you’ve ever read a recent CDC report about HIV levels you probably know that at this point we can’t look any worse.