Are Open Sexual Relationships Killing Black Americans?
It's no surprise that people who engage in sex with multiple partners are more at risk for HIV and other STDs than those who are monogamous. But a recent Dutch study found that swingers--couples who trade sexual partners--are more likely than prostitutes to catch sexually transmitted infections!
According to the research, which looked at nearly 9,000 patients who sought treatment at three sexual-health clinics, the STD rate among swingers was 10.4 percent; among female prostitutes, under 5 percent. The high rate of infection among swingers was particularly worrisome because this group is not often the target of safer-sex campaigns, the study authors found. Nor are swingers targeted in the United States.
Among Black Americans, that study could have further implications. Not only do groups such as the Black Swingers Club and the Black Swingers Alliance suggest that swinging is alive and well among African Americans, but open relationships are prevalent too. In fact, media personality Michael Baisden has regularly discussed swinging both on his radio show and on TV One's Baisden After Dark, and promotes African Americans exploring open sexual lifestyles in his documentary Michael Baisden Presents: Love, Lust & Lies.
"Open relationships exist both in dating and in marriage," says LaDawn Black, a self-described relationship expert who fields calls and talks about what African Americans are doing under the covers on her Baltimore radio show. Many singles "don't have faith in the traditional mode of relationships where you date and get married and raise a family and are together forever," says Black. "So people are saying, 'Instead of getting in these relationships and marriages that will eventually end, I'm going to leave it open, and if we can see other people, no one can be disappointed.' "
Though open marriages aren't new among African Americans, recent media coverage of celebrities who practice the lifestyle has raised eyebrows and interest. In March, actress and comedienne Mo'Nique told Barbara Walters that she and her husband were free to have sex outside of the marriage. While never admitting that they have an open marriage, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith have hinted about it, sparking curiosity about the lifestyle.
While swinging and open marriages may no longer be as taboo as in years past, more prevalent in the African American community is the "polygamous relationship," says sex therapist Gail E. Wyatt, Ph.D., associate director of UCLA's AIDS Institute. "In these relationships, there is one man and several women." Some women tolerate it because "it is better than being alone," Dr. Wyatt explains.
But when Black couples engage in concurrent sexual relationships, are they practicing safe sex? Statistics suggest that many are not. Blacks have 8.8 times the reported chlamydia rates as whites, 7.9 times the reported syphilis rates and 20.2 times the reported gonorrhea rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Blacks also account for almost half of HIV diagnoses. Sharing partners--knowingly and unknowingly--is now believed to be a major factor driving HIV's spread among Blacks, since diseases move quickly through sexual networks.
Other men and women are hooking up sexually without being in "official" relationships at all. "You have 'friends with benefits,' or you don't have to have a commitment and you can just be sexual," says Gary J. Bell, executive director of BEBASHI, a Philadelphia AIDS-service organization. Unfortunately, there's often no sense of obligation to communicate about how both partners are protecting themselves when having sex with others. "There seems to be an understanding that this isn't really a relationship per se, so it's not as if we need to discuss it," Bell adds.
Not only that, but despite its prevalence among Blacks, many people still don't understand all the ways that HIV is transmitted, says Celia Maxwell, M.D., who heads HIV routine screening at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C. "We remind people to engage in safe behaviors and tell them what those behaviors are," Dr. Maxwell says. For example, people may be given information about safer alternatives to sexual activity, such as mutual masturbation and body massage, or be reminded to use dental dams for oral sex, and gloves for finger sex.
If a couple is in a monogamous relationship and both parties have been tested and found to be free of HIV and STDs, it may be safe to forgo the condoms, but Dr. Wyatt stresses that it takes time for couples to trust that cheating and dishonesty aren't in play. "That doesn't come with just liking someone or six months of dating someone," she says.
Bottom line: Regardless of what sexual lifestyles people choose to live, everyone can take precautions to protect themselves from HIV and other STDs.
Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes frequently about emotional health and wellness.