Downlow Culture: A Necessary Evil?

What exactly is the “down low culture”?

According to an article published at the University of Southern California, down low culture is defined as a culture in which “Men who identify as “straight” but discreetly have sex with other men while
maintaining a sexual/emotional relationship with women. These men do not consider themselves to be gay, bisexual nor do they identify with such sexual labels. Female partners are unaware their men are having sex with other men,thus the term “downlow.””

In his article “Secret sex and the down low brotherhood,” Justin Luc Hoy discusses this newfound down low culture by explaining the history behind the creation and the perpetuation of this culture. While Hoy negates the assumption that the down low culture is one exclusive to the black community, he does acknowledge the fact that the down low culture is more prevalent in the black community in comparison to other communities. Why might this be an issue so common to the black community?Hoy suggests that to understand this question, one must “look at the issue critically through a sociological lens” (Hoy 380). To completely understand the issue, one must first understand the intersectionality of identities. In the case of black men, they are marginalized primarily for race, so any further marginalization is deemed, and righteously so, unwanted. In comparison to white men who identify as homosexual, it is much harder for black men to gain acceptance in the gay community. These men are forced to face discrimination coming from both whites and blacks.  Also, seeing as how religion is central to the black community, it is easy to see how black men would be afraid to express their sexuality publicly due to the regulation of their sexuality by different entities such as the church and their families. Because members of the black community view homosexuality as “a white phenomenon that afflicts weak brothers or sisters,” many black men refuse to identify themselves as gay in hopes of avoiding any further social marginalization (Hoy 381). Furthermore, seeing as how black masculinity is viewed by society as inherently inferior to that of white men, having someone delegitimize one’s masculinity even more could be detrimental to one’s livelihood. Because of the aforementioned reasons, these men are forced to negotiate an identity. The down low culture has provided a space for these men to do just that. It also provides black men with a space to embrace their sexuality and provide support from men they can relate to. By refusing to identify as “homosexual,” these men have consequently created another identity in which they are considered on the “down low” or “DL.” Hoy does a great job at romanticizing and expressing the need for the down low culture; however, though he touched on the topic briefly, I think that he should have focused a bit more on the consequences of the creation of such culture.

While reading this article, one question that came to mind was “How are the women who believe that they are in monogamous relationships with straight men affected?” As pointed out by Hoy, these men’s refusal to inform their female partners of their sexual encounters with men is indeed “indicative of the reality of men’s sense of social superiority and privilege” (Hoy 382). Many women, specifically black women, view this behavior as both unacceptable and selfish. The problem here does not lie in the fact that these men are having sex with other men, the problem is more so the fact that these men  participate in these encounters and refuse to tell their partners- thus disregarding the health of that partner. While these men may think that they are disadvantaged due to the fact that they have sex with men but can not, because of social pressures, identify as homsosexual or bisexual, they are actually exhibiting privilege by refusing to inform their female partners of their outside relationships and intercourse. As Hoy pointed out, by not telling their girlfriends/wives that they are participating in sexual encounters with other men, these men are implying that it is not their responsibility to protect their female partners from sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS- a disease that has been linked to anal sex.


(Jo (played by Janet Jackson) finds out that she’s contracted HIV from her husband Carl (played by Omari Hardwick) in Tyler’s Perry film For Colored Girls)


It is interesting to think about how these men are able to construct their own identities while voiding the identities placed on them by society. In this way, men who are a part of the down low culture are privileged. In comparison to the women in the documentary Buying Sex whose identities were constructed by different societal factors, these men have the power to construct their own identities. Why is it that only certain bodies are granted these privileges? While some may disagree, I think that this is a display of male privilege. This is privilege that all men get to experience despite sexuality. This is the privilege that makes it possible for men to define, or in this case to redefine, themselves. The sex workers were labeled and because of the identities placed upon them, they were not only marginalized socially, they were also marginalized economically and politically. Furthermore, these women are criminalized and stripped of their rights.

I write this not to discredit the necessity of a down low culture but to expose the privilege that these men, though they may not realize it, possess. What exactly does this say about privilege? Are the men who participate in the down low culture victims or aggressors? While creating a safe place for self, are these men simultaneously creating a danger zone for others?

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