The “Down Low,” also known as “the DL,” is a term that originated in the African American community, referring to a subculture of black men who publicly identify as heterosexual but secretly have sex with men. The term has expanded in recent years to include males of other ethnicities who outwardly live a masculine, heterosexual life but privately have sex with other guys. Many of these individuals date and marry women, limiting their male on male encounters to bathhouses, sex clubs, public parks and restrooms, and quick hookups with guys met on the Internet or using smartphone hookup apps.
The issue of guys living on the down low – men having sex with other men unbeknownst to their wives and girlfriends – first captured media attention in the early 2000s after articles on the topic appeared in several major newspapers, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. However, it wasn’t until 2004 that the concept of “living on the DL” truly entered the cultural zeitgeist, when J.L. King, author of On the Down Low, appeared on Oprah and discussed his secretive sexual behaviors.
Much of the still ongoing DL-focused media attention centers on the perceived link between DL sex and the spread of HIV to straight, often monogamous women (primarily in the African American community). The basic contention is men who secretly have sex with other men return home to their wives and/or girlfriends and infect these unfortunate women with HIV. Usually the men have never mentioned to their significant other that they even have an interest in gay sex – let alone the fact that they’re running around on a regular basis having unprotected coitus with multiple anonymous partners. This contention is not yet supported by epidemiological data, and there are certainly other forms of potential transmission, but it does seem likely that at least a few women have been victimized in this way by their man’s secretive gay dalliances.
A lot of times, men living on the DL are homophobic and deeply ashamed of their own thoughts, feelings, desires, and behaviors. (That homophobia can be turned outward, inward, or both.) Because of this, they sometimes use drugs to disinhibit themselves so they can act on their sexual attraction to men. Their wives, children, friends, and neighbors usually see them as model citizens, sometimes even as paragons of virtue. But when the lights are off and nobody’s looking they snort cocaine, shoot meth, and search out and engage with as many anonymous gay sex partners as they can find.
Because men on the DL are constantly battling their own true nature – sinking ever-deeper into the quicksand of internalized homophobia – they are more likely that the general population, and, in fact, more likely than gay men in general, to suffer from addiction (both substance and behavioral). The guilt, shame, and paranoia they have about their sexual activity creates and/or exacerbates anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, which the DL man self-medicates with more disinhibiting drugs and more of the sexual behavior that causes the uncomfortable feelings. Needless to say, it’s a vicious, downwardly spiraling cycle.