Men On The Down Low: Misinformation and Fascination
Nordette Adams (First published May 2006)

Another look with talk show host Lisa Durden at men who have sex with men, don't consider themselves gay, and keep their alternative sex life a secret from their female lovers.

Durden’s not willing to leave the blame only at the dishonest male’s doorstep when it comes to contracting HIV. She doesn’t believe women should leave their health in the hands of men who are struggling with sexual identity.

Lisa Durden“All this talk about brothers on the down low is hype. Ain’t nothing new about men having sex with men.” Newark native Lisa Durden, host of The Lisa Durden Show, hears this type of comment often when she begins to discuss her controversial documentary Project W.O.W.: A Look Into The Lives of Men Having Sex With Men On The Down Low.

“It may not be news to that person, but it’s news to someone,” says Durden. “What makes the down low phenomena unusual is that these men believe they are straight. They do not identify themselves as bisexual or homosexual. They don’t want to be associated with the stigma of being called gay or fag.

“They see being gay as a lifestyle, going to gay clubs, calling each other queen, acting feminine,” explains Durden. “Well, Lisa Durden’s not going to argue with anybody about what they want to call themselves. If they consider themselves heterosexual, I’ll call them heterosexual.” But she also thinks, “These men have not accepted yet that they are gay.”

Author J. L. King

The “down low” refers to anything done secretly. However, with the high visibility of black author J. L. King who wrote the scorching book On the Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of "Straight" Black Men Who Sleep with Men, the phrase “on the down low” or “the dl” has become associated with black men.

Ironically, King himself no longer considers himself “straight.” He’s declared himself bisexual. “I see it as a process they go through,” says Durden.

Men on the “down low” rarely tell their heterosexual female partners that they are having sex with men also. Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control documents that because these men consider themselves heterosexual and not gay, “…they may not relate to prevention messages crafted for men who identify themselves as homosexual.”

Consequently, men on the down low may not take measures to protect themselves from contracting HIV from their male partners. In turn, they expose female partners to higher risks of HIV without the female’s knowledge or consent.

For instance, if a woman’s husband or long-term boyfriend has sex with other men, but doesn’t tell his wife or long-term girlfriend of his alternate sexual behavior, the woman’s unlikely to have him wear a condom. It’s this dishonest behavior that’s prompts an outcry of slurs such as “cowards” and “murderers” against men who practice down low behavior.”

Durden’s not willing to leave the blame only at the dishonest male’s doorstep when it comes to contracting HIV. She doesn’t believe women should leave their health in the hands of men who are struggling with sexual identity.

Four years before King published his explosive book, Durden had already begun researching her documentary and interviewing men who have sex with men. While she agrees that men on the down low should be honest with their female partners, she also thinks women should take responsibility for their own bodies.

“If you have any doubt at all about whether your man is faithful, cheating with female or male partners, it’s your body! You can tell him to wear a condom,” she says.

However, Durden admits that if it were her and she had that much doubt about a partner, she’d just leave him. “But not everyone has the means to leave or strength to leave. While you’re trying to figure it out, protect your life. Use a condom.”

Terry McMillan's Divorce

Her advice seems clearer to some women with the publicized collapse of novelist Terry McMillan’s marriage to Jamaican Jonathan Plummer. The couple divorced last year after Plummer, who is the man on whom McMillan based her book How Stella Got Her Groove Back, announced he was gay.

McMillan has been extremely vocal in her outrage about Plummer’s deception accusing him of attempted murder. The author was included with King, Durden, and feature filmmaker Bill Dukes, director of the new movie Invisible in BET’s documentary The Down Low Exposed. Duke’s movie deals with a young black doctor drawn into having sex with another man. The BET documentary aired March 28 setting off renewed furor on the down low topic.

BET brought Durden in to interview King. Its documentary also used footage from Durden’s Project W.O.W. such as clips of her interviewing male prostitutes on Newark’s Prostitution Stroll.

Human Anatomy, Condoms, and Male Female Relationships

"The ‘Down Low' is one of those subjects that fascinate people. There are e-mails circulating that accuse people; folks buy books and see lectures on the subject," said BET President of Entertainment Reginald Hudlin in a press release about The Down Low Exposed. "But with all that talk, people aren't learning what's really going on.”

One thing that’s really going on but seems to be overlooked frequently in the discussion is human anatomy. Some people believe the risk to women’s health is overblown. When Durden appeared on the Internet radio talk show He Said, She Said,, one person commented that “Until we know all the ways you contract AIDS then we can’t even be sure that women are getting AIDS from men on the down low. And what about women on the down low?”

However, health care professionals say such statements are misleading. Most women contract HIV during sexual intercourse with men. While some of these men may have contracted HIV using contaminated needles, a significant number contracted the disease by having sex with other men.

As Stacey Little, senior public health specialist at the Academy for Educational Development Center on AIDS & Community Health explained in a December 2004 interview with the Washington Post, “Women's physiology makes them more vulnerable to the virus. It is easier for women to contract HIV through sexual intercourse than for men who contract it from women.”

In a January 10 congressional briefing sponsored by the American Psychological Association, panelists said, “In the United States, African Americans and Latinas account for 78 percent of new HIV diagnoses among women, despite representing less than one-fourth of the nation’s female population.”

However, panelist Cynthia A. Gómez, co-director of the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies, assured Congress that “race is not the cause.” The panelist said that ignorance of risk factors, female physiology, socioeconomic factors, and gender roles that discourage women from asking partners to use condoms all contribute to the rise of HIV among women of color.

Religion and The Down Low

Durden hopes that her documentary as well as more open, compassionate discussion about the HIV epidemic and high-risk sexual behavior will help men on the down low to accept themselves and be honest with their partners. However, she recognizes attitudes must change on a societal level.

“Stop saying prison (exposure) is making men come out and have sex with other men. Stop blaming playing with dolls or looking for reasons like he always liked to clean the house. Just accept that some people like sex with the same sex,” says Durden.

Her Project W.O.W. documentary is named for Project W.O.W. Youth Center in Newark, an organization that MSMs go to for HIV/AIDS testing, condom distribution, counseling, Health Education Risk Reduction Seminars and activities. It's the only organization of its kind in the country, states Durden’s documenatry literature.

The documenatry includes footage of support group sessions in which young men, some who are openly gay and others who don’t consider themselves gay, discuss how they feel about their lifestyle choice and how they are treated by others. They even discuss sexual experiences with women and what they will and won’t do with a woman sexually.

The men who are openly gay also voice anger at down low men who pretend to be straight so they don’t have to face the stigma of being called gay. Some of these down low men are known “gay bashers.”

“Why are you doing what I’m doing and then turning around and calling me fag?” is one young man’s question.

However, the unkindness isn’t just among down low men, asserts Durden. The religious community and these men’s own families usually make honesty difficult. She recalls one young man in her video who was outed when as a teen.

“His family dragged him to church and people did an exorcism on him. Many of them struggle with coming out because of religion,” she says.

Finally, Durden asks “Aren’t we supposed to love everybody? Why was he given an exorcism? Love your children anyway. If not, I question are you Christian or are you religious?”

You may view the trailer for Durden’s documenatry on her website For more information you may also visit Project W.O.W. Trailer .