On the Down Low: Black Men at the Bathhouse With Girlfriends at Home

Once again we renew our call for the closure of all sex clubs and bathhouses, which as, this article shows, are helping to victimize straight spouses who are unaware of their partner’s secret perversions.– Peter LaBarbera

The following is excerpted from Double Lives on the Down Low, by Benoit Denizet-Lewis, published Aug 3, 2003, by The New York Times Magazine:

…In its upper stories, the Flex bathhouse in Cleveland feels like a squash club for backslapping businessmen. There’s a large gym with free weights and exercise machines on the third floor. In the common area, on the main floor, men in towels lounge on couches and watch CNN on big-screen TV’s.In the basement, the mood is different: the TV’s are tuned to porn, and the dimly lighted hallways buzz with sexual energy. A naked black man reclines on a sling in a room called ”the dungeon play area.” Along a hallway lined with lockers, black men eye each other as they walk by in towels. In small rooms nearby, some men are having sex. Others are napping.

There are two bathhouses in Cleveland. On the city’s predominantly white West Side, Club Cleveland — which opened in 1965 and recently settled into a modern 15,000-square-foot space — attracts many white and openly gay men. Flex is on the East Side, and it serves a mostly black and Hispanic clientele, many of whom don’t consider themselves gay…

Today, while there are black men who are openly gay, it seems that the majority of those having sex with men still lead secret lives, products of a black culture that deems masculinity and fatherhood as a black man’s primary responsibility — and homosexuality as a white man’s perversion. And while Flex now offers baskets of condoms and lubricant, Wallace says that many of the club’s patrons still don’t use them.

Wallace ticks off the grim statistics: blacks make up only 12 percent of the population in America, but they account for half of all new reported H.I.V. infections. While intravenous drug use is a large part of the problem, experts say that the leading cause of H.I.V. in black men is homosexual sex (some of which takes place in prison, where blacks disproportionately outnumber whites). According to the Centers for Disease Control, one-third of young urban black men who have sex with men in this country are H.I.V.-positive, and 90 percent of those are unaware of their infection…

Many of the men at Flex tonight — and many of the black men I met these past months in Cleveland, Atlanta, Florida, New York and Boston — are on the Down Low, or on the DL, as they more often call it. Most date or marry women and engage sexually with men they meet only in anonymous settings like bathhouses and parks or through the Internet. Many of these men are young and from the inner city, where they live in a hypermasculine ”thug” culture. Other DL men form romantic relationships with men and may even be peripheral participants in mainstream gay culture, all unknown to their colleagues and families. Most DL men identify themselves not as gay or bisexual but first and foremost as black. To them, as to many blacks, that equates to being inherently masculine.

DL culture has grown, in recent years, out of the shadows and developed its own contemporary institutions, for those who know where to look: Web sites, Internet chat rooms, private parties and special nights at clubs. Over the same period, Down Low culture has come to the attention of alarmed public health officials, some of whom regard men on the DL as an infectious bridge spreading H.I.V. to unsuspecting wives and girlfriends. In 2001, almost two-thirds of women in the United States who found out they had AIDS were black.

With no wives or girlfriends around, Flex is a safe place for men on the DL to let down their guards. There aren’t many white men here either (I’m one of them), and that’s often the norm for DL parties and clubs.

Continue reading at The Balm in Gilead…

This article was posted on Friday, November 3rd, 2006 at 8:09 pm and is filed under Bathhouses, Down Low, News, Physical Health, Public Sex in Your Neighborhood?. You can follow any updates to this article through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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