March 10 was National Women and Girls HIV Awareness Day, a nationwide observance that is used to help raise awareness about the peculiar impact of HIV/AIDS on women and girls. One of the goals of the day is to help facilitate discussions and disseminate information about prevention, testing, and/or living with and coping with the disease. On March 11, I watched the ESPN documentary The Announcement, which traces Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s discovery that he had contracted HIV in 1991 and the subsequent narrative around it, including his emergence as a spokesperson against the disease.
Needless to say, this weekend I felt hyperaware and re-reminded of the impact of HIV/AIDS on women’s lives, particularly black women’s lives. Cookie Johnson, Magic’s wife, emerged as a heroine in the documentary, never wavering in her commitment to her husband and staying committed to him even after his announcement. Cookie was HIV-negative, but she represents thousands of women who are unknowingly exposed to the virus and hence at risk. A recent study states HIV is five times more prevalent among black women than previously thought. Black women currently make up 60 percent of new infections and 13 percent of the total AIDS epidemic. Heterosexual black women have the second highest rate of new infections and contract the disease at 15 times the rate of white women. These statistics are consistent with conversations I have (over)heard and had over the past few years, but I cannot help but wonder why this is such an un(der)discussed and underpublicized phenomenon. Why are the numbers getting larger instead of smaller?
Amidst a firestorm of political and social debates and cultural conundrums about women’s bodies, choices, sexuality and needs, it is important that we talk to (as) black women about this issue. We need to talk to our family, friends, daughters, protégés, ourselves, about the risks and why we are taking them. I never imagined that twenty years after Magic Johnson’s announcement, which for the first time gave HIV a public and black face, and despite our national and historical awareness of how the disease is spread: having sex without a condom; sharing needles, syringes or drug works; and pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding, that HIV is still spreading at such an alarming rate. I personally suspect it is a combination of immortality complex (the belief some people have that they are immune to the consequences that other people suffer for bad choices) and misinformation about HIV/AIDS (i.e., that you can tell if someone has HIV by looking at them, or that as long as you are not having sex with someone who uses drugs or is promiscuous, you are safe).
For many women, it is bigger than the virus. There are social and environmental issues that contribute to the epidemic. When folk are living in communities and under circumstances that constantly find them in desperate situations and disparate conditions, HIV infection is just another of countless dangers they encounter on a daily basis that puts their lives at risk. For example, the CDC recognizes challenges such as socioeconomic issues like poverty, limited access to health care and housing, limited access to HIV prevention education, lack of awareness of HIV status, and stigma, fear, discrimination, homophobia and other negative perceptions about being tested as deterrents to prevention.
According to a recent study, black women in six urban areas have some of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS: Baltimore, Atlanta, Raleigh-Durham, NC, Washington, D.C., Newark and New York City. Further, according to the CDC, “The greater number of people living with HIV in African American communities and the fact that African Americans tend to have sex with partners of the same race/ethnicity means that they face a greater risk of HIV infection with each new sexual encounter.”
And let’s not dismiss the very vulnerability for intimacy and connection that oftentimes causes young women to make reckless choices about sex. When teaching a class in central Florida and discussing strategies for encouraging safe sex a student, who worked at a health clinic part time, noted that young women would come in and be treated for STI’s. She said that even though the staff would give them tempered warnings and free condoms those same young women would come back, weeks or months later, with another STI. When confronted about the risk of unprotected sex they responded “my boyfriend doesn’t like them,” or “he says we don’t need them (because we are in love).” These girls were as young as fifteen and had already exposed themselves to the possibility of contracting a lifelong disease. According the the CDC, 1 in 32 black women will be diagnosed with HIV infection in their lifetime. 87% of them will have gotten the infection by having unprotected sex with a man. While HIV is no longer a death sentence, there is no cure.
In many ways we have heard/seen the public service announcements, we know the warnings and the risks, yet we continue to make problematic choices. Perhaps this generation has become desensitized to the risks associated with unprotected sex. Protected sex is not only about preventing pregnancy. It is about preventing STI’s, one of which is HIV. One study states that sometimes women who use hormonal birth control are more likely to contract the disease because while they are careful about protecting themselves from pregnancy, they are not always equally mindful of sexually transmitted infections.
A new campaign, Take Charge Take the Test hopes to raise awareness and urge black women to get tested and know their status.
At the end of the documentary, Magic Johnson says that his contraction of the virus has been both a blessing a curse. A blessing, he says, because it has helped to raise awareness about the disease. A curse because his wellness seems to be attached with a nonchalance, rather than fear, about the seriousness of HIV. While there have been amazing medical interventions that make living longer and healthier lives (with medication) possible, there are other factors that must be considered. One of which, as Magic explains, is that the disease affects different people differently. Not everyone will respond to treatments in the same way that he has. And not everyone can afford the (expensive) treatment.
A few lessons settled with me as I pushed my chair back from the articles, turned off the tv, and felt the full weight of the words, the announcements. The lessons felt clear and intentional, like the script of an afterschool special. I am left writing out what I want to say to every black woman I know (and will ever meet)…
- Love yourself more than anyone else.
- Sex should always be protected (unless you are in a committed and monogamous relationship and you have both tested negative!)
- Conversations about sex and past sexual partners and status should be foreplay to the foreplay. If you don’t feel comfortable enough to have this conversation with your sexual partner, perhaps you shouldn’t be having sex with them.
- Use condoms even if you are on other methods of contraception for birth control.
- Talk to other women about knowing their status and encourage them to get tested. (Volunteer to go with them when they go!)
- Initiate a conversation! Don’t assume people (especially young people) know what they need to know about HIV.