I’ve been married to the same man for more than three decades. Last month I got tested for HIV on live TV. Thankfully my test came back negative. Some of my friends ask me, “Why bother when you’re married?” I tell them: “I love and trust my husband, but I’m not with him 24/7.”
As much as we may love our boyfriends and husbands, there are no real guarantees of fidelity. If your partner has even one act of unprotected sex outside the relationship, there is a chance he could contract HIV and bring it home to you. Black women are particularly vulnerable. Fewer than 15% of American women are black yet we account for nearly 70% of all female HIV infections. Our infection rate is 20 times that of white women.
How are these women getting HIV? Most black women are
infected by black men. Some of those men contract the virus through
relationships with other women. Some get HIV while incarcerated, by sharing
needles or having unprotected sex with other inmates. And some are on the down
low, meaning they have sex with other men while maintaining a relationship with
For almost 20 years I was a primary care doctor in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. My patients included many women who believed they were in monogamous, committed relationships, but who turned out to have HIV. Sometimes a woman would suspect her husband or boyfriend of being unfaithful but still wouldn’t insist he use a condom even if he was returning from time spent in prison. The ignorance wasn’t blissful. I had to tell many of these women that they’d been infected years earlier and now had AIDS – a condition that earlier treatment could have delayed.
Black women are often shocked to discover that their partners have had sex with other men. The fear and discrimination associated with homosexuality is strong in the black community, and this stigma keeps men and women silent about what is going on behind closed doors. As a result, we’re missing many opportunities to stop the spread of HIV. The simple truth is, we all need to know our status, and the only way to know is to get tested!
I’d like to hear your thoughts about all this. How can we encourage safer sex in the black community? Are too many of us getting into more than one relationship? Are there women out there whose experience we could learn from? If so, I hope you’ll share your stories.