After reading J.L. King‘s On the Down Low: A Journey Into the Lives of “Straight” Black Men Who Sleep with Men, and thinking about it a couple weeks, I’m pretty much where I was before I read his rambling narrative. I’m resigned to the harm people quite willingly do each other, but also hope they will change. It seems to be that the Down Low is largely another example of exploitive behavior. The roots of that behavior may be as deep as the human psyche itself.
The book was preceded by a plethora of publicity. King appeared on Oprah. Periodicals as diverse as Essence and the New York Times have examined the phenomenon known as the Down Low. Both people new to the topic and experts wonder if bisexual men who hide their preference for both genders are responsible for the high rate of HIV infection among African-American women. Some gay activists and men on the Down Low are angry that King revealed the secret. Other people have thanked him for putting the interest of millions ahead of his own.
As someone already familiar with the controversy, I hoped King’s book, which made the New York Times Bestseller List, would shed light on how the grand deception of so many women was perpetrated. Instead, I was reminded that being on the list and being a good book are not necessarily synonymous. Interest in a topic by a segment of the population, for example the far Right or black women, can propel a mediocre book onto the list. That is what has occurred with On the Down Low. Yes, King does address how men on the Down Low deceive women into having unprotected sexual intercourse with them. But, the conclusion he reaches — that any man might be sleeping with other men and deceiving the woman in his life — is hardly a prophylactic. His advice amounts to: Be suspicious.
The other aspect of the book is biographical. One learns that King deceived himself for more than 20 years after he began having sex with men, as well as women. Indeed, self-deception seems to be as important to understanding him as deception of others. He actually believed he could convince his wife that he was not bisexual after she literally watched him have anal sex with another man. A reader finds herself thinking ‘Buy yourself a clue, dude.’ King says that he no longer deceives himself or other people. Women who enter into relationships with him are told in advance he also has sex with men. Other facets of King’s life remain blurry. It is not clear how he earns his living. Though he professes a deep religious faith, there is ambiguity in how it and his life style, both past and present, fit together. Indeed, church seems to have been a main source for meeting prospective male lovers for him. It is also uncertain whether King will devote any of the considerable profits from the book to HIV/AIDS education.
There is a temptation to perceive J.L. King as representative of men on the Down Low. It should be resisted. We do not know that King is typical, only that he is the first of the group to speak out loudly and forcefully. Despite my reservations about some of his character traits, I strongly commend him for having done so. On the Down Low is worthy of reading for that reason.
Note 2: There is more good blogging at Mac-a-ro-nies.