Dr. Hill and students

Hager gets lowdown on 'down low'

COS Sarah Hager 382x255

Community of Scholars project explores sexual phenomenon 

SPARTANBURG, S.C. - The concept of keeping something on the “down low,” or secret, is familiar to most people. In the African American community, though, the term “down low” has a more specific definition. It refers to men who may be straight, sexually, and identify themselves as such, but who have sex with other men – often a friend – without disclosing it to their female partners.

Sarah Hager, a senior at Wofford College, first learned of the phenomenon – men leading secret lifestyles and separate lives – while she was studying in Morocco. Guided by her mentor, Wofford professor Dr. Kimberly Rostan, who specializes in African American literature, Hagar decided to make the subcultural phenomenon the topic of her Community of Scholars research. She titled it “The Lowdown on the Down Low.”

Hager, from Rock Hill, S.C., was one of 19 student research fellows who participated this summer in Community of Scholars, an interdisciplinary undergraduate research program.

“This is a serious topic,” says Hager. “So much has come out about it since it first was brought to light in the early 2000s.”

To study the topic, she had to overcome two huge obstacles – her gender and her race. She says that being a white woman made it difficult to obtain information about a phenomenon that affects black men, especially when there were possible ties with the rise in HIV infection rates of heterosexual black women. When she began, that’s who her focus was on.

“I began my research with an interest to understand this secretive lifestyle and what effects men living on the down low had on the black female population,” Hager says. “As my research went on, however, I began to realize the goal of my research must be to understand more of the ‘why’ and not the ‘who.’”

Hager found ample discussion on the topic for her research. From talk show host Oprah Winfrey to civil rights activist Cornel West, the number of esteemed members of the African American community who have weighed in on the down low is great. Some claim that the incidence of HIV/AIDSs in black women can be traced directly to black men on the down low. However, it was a fellow Community of Scholars student, a white male named Ben Rush, who helped Hager change the direction of her research.

“Ben is doing his project on AIDS prevention strategies, and some of his research showed that there really wasn’t a correlation between African American women getting infected and cases of the down low phenomenon,” Hager says. “I spoke with Dr. David Malebranche, assistant professor of medicine at Emory University in Atlanta – the city where the down low became more widely known, and he specializes in the topic. He told me the AIDS claims are unfounded.

“I concluded that the religious community along with the historical sexualization of black men has led to the demonization of black men on the down low," she says. "The media has portrayed black men on the down low as a perpetrator and black women as victims, but they're not looking at the racial and sexual prejudices that they're reinforcing.

“It’s a social phenomenon,” Hager says. “Even in the African American churches, they have programs designed to convert gay men (to heterosexual). Black men tend to reject a gay culture they perceive as white and effeminate.”

It’s not just black men who have a hard time seeing black men as gay. Hager asked people – on a scale of 1 to 10, with one being “no big deal” and 10 being “very surprising” – how people would feel if they saw a couple consisting of two white females, two black females, two white males and two black males. Two black males got much higher scores.