Friday A/V Club: Ice-T's Guide to Sexual Subcultures

When the down-low panic came to Law and Order: SVU


As I read Elizabeth Nolan Brown's description yesterday of Law and Order: SVU's attempt to do a GamerGate story, I remembered one of my favorite misbegotten SVU episodes. It's 2004's "Lowdown," a mystery whose solution hinged on the discovery that certain characters were on the down low.

What's "on the down low," you ask? Here, let Ice-T explain it to you:

In case you're wondering how Detective Tutuola concluded that these men were having sex parties: I have no idea. His comments come out of the blue. The writers evidently didn't think they needed to include actual clues and other staples of the police procedural. Not when there were headlines to be ripped.

In 2004, the words down low really were in the headlines. Black women were getting HiV at a much higher rate than white women, and a popular fear blamed black bisexuality for their infections. Men were secretly having sex with other men, the story went, then passing the AIDS virus along to their wives and girlfriends. Newspapers wrote about it; Oprah talked about it; eventually, inevitably, it found its way onto Law and Order: SVU, with a storyline about a closeted black man giving his wife HiV. I'm just surprised there wasn't a Lifetime movie too.

Was any of this true? Well, obviously there really are outwardly heterosexual men who have sex with other guys on the side. But the idea that this was why black women had higher HiV rates was just fearful conjecture; as the CDC eventually explained, "there are no data to confirm or refute publicized accounts of HIV risk behavior associated with these men." It's not surprising that the data didn't exist, given that covert activities are, by definition, hard to track. When some CDC-funded researchers did undertake an investigation, they concluded that "contrary to what has been reported in the popular press, down-low identity was not associated with engaging in greater sexual risk behavior with female or male partners."

That study had its limits, which the authors acknowledged. But while evidence could conceivably emerge someday that downlow culture has played a substantial role in black women's HiV rates, no one's been able to prove the idea yet.

In the meantime, those fears spiked. "This panic has created a whole industry of 'experts' dishing out advice to straight women who want the real deal on what their men are doing behind closed doors," Jason King reported in The Village Voice. "J.L. King offers lectures like 'The Five Personality Types of DL Men' for up to $10,000 a pop." That was in 2003, but in 2010 you could still read articles like Madame Noire's unintentionally hilarious "How to Identify Men 'On the Down Low." (Among the warning signs: He's no longer attracted to you, he has sex with you less often, and he spends a lot of time on the phone with another man. Apparently, any fading relationship where the husband has a buddy could conceal the dread demon Down Low.)

In between, we got that SVU episode. If you want to see the whole thing, Hulu has it here. If you just want to watch the best part, here you go:

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)