December 31, 2004

Implicature in the service of a moral panic

There's a lot to be unhappy about in J. L. King's recent book, On the Down Low (Broadway Books, 2004), but most of it doesn't have to do with linguistic issues. However, one of King's aims in the book, to sound the alarm about "straight" black men who have sex with men and the danger they present to black women, is furthered by the way he phrases his warnings. Implicature is working in the service of a moral panic over DL men.

[Added 1/1/05: Linguistic and sociological background (perhaps more than you wanted to hear, but people have been asking)... "MSM" stands for "men who have sex with men", which does not refer, as you might have imagined from working through simple compositional semantics, to men who at least sometimes engage in gay sex, but is a technical term in the social services and sociological literature for one specific subset of such men, namely men who consider themselves to be "straight" but seek out and engage in gay sex with some frequency while concealing their form of sexuality from most of the world. MSMs -- don't fuss at me about this pluralization -- are thus to be distinguished from what I call "frankly" gay and bisexual men, who identify as either "gay/homosexual/queer" or "bisexual", can be either closeted or open about their sexuality, and can be either sexually active or not; MSMs are by definition both closeted and sexually active. The expression "the DL" stands for "the Down Low". Men "on the DL" (or "in the DL life(style)"), also known as "DL men", are the black-on-black variant of MSMs, where "black" is a synonym for "African American". So "DL" is a specifically U.S. expression, and it's a folk term. In contrast, I've seen "MSM" used in U.S., Canadian, U.K., and Australian contexts, usually as a technical term; white MSMs mostly have no term for their sexual activity (which they tend to view as something more akin to a hobby than a sexuality), though they do recognize the ordinary English expression "men who have sex with men" as applying to them, which is why the expression is useful in attempts at outreach to MSMs, of whatever race or ethnicity.]

Life on the DL was last discussed here back in July. Since then I've read King's book, with some dismay, though possibly not as much as Keith Boykin, as expressed in his article "Not just a black thing" in The Advocate of 1/18/05, pp. 31-3 (Boykin, an openly gay and politically very active black man, has a book Beyond the Down Low soon to be published.) Boykin is particularly outraged at King's claim that men on the DL are the vector for the spread of HIV/AIDS among black women; he notes that the phenomenon of "straight" men having sex with men is as widespread among whites as blacks, yet HIV/AIDS is much more prevalent among black women than among white women. So Boykin sees King as engaged in a campaign of blaming the gays.

My dismay, on the other hand, is over King's fomenting a moral panic -- in this book, in television interviews, and in public appearances -- about the prevalence of DL life. Now, King lived on the DL himself for years, and he's writing about what he knows, which includes a very large number of men on the DL, so in his world the Down Low is all over the place. This view of the world finds expression in the way he frames his warnings to black women (the bold-facing is mine):

The first thing I want to say to women who are seeking DL signs or behavior traits is that not every black man is on the DL. Not every black man in your life is on the DL. (p. 128)
I also want to make sure that I am clear when I say not all black men are living a double life, a double lie. (p. 129)

Well, that's generous. Not all gay men are child molestors. Not all straight men are gay-bashers. And so on. But all these assertions that not all Xs are Y implicate that a large percentage of Xs are Y. King might well believe, given his life history, that a large percentage of black men are on the DL, but this claim is almost surely false. Estimates are hard to come by, but many studies put the percentage of men who are gay in a broad sense (including bisexuals and, despite their self-identifications, MSMs) at around 5%. Let's opt instead for the larger figure of 10% that is often bandied about. Surely MSMs are no more than half of this population, probably a good deal less. So a very generous estimate of the incidence of guys on the DL is 5%. Not an insignificant number, but scarcely a omnipresent threat to women.

King's recommendations to women are in line with the sense of omnipresent threat and moral panic that he projects. Although he concedes that

You cannot be with him twenty-four hours a day. You don't have access to his e-mail accounts or his phone calls, and you don't always know if he is where he tells you he is. (p. 128)

this very phrasing suggests that it might be a good thing if you (the typical black woman) could do all these things. He counsels vigilance ("A woman should... keep up with her man's comings and goings" (p. 131), "A woman should know her man's schedule" (p. 132), "Come home early from work one day; surprise him" (p. 132)) for pages, offering detailed accounts of how guys on the DL cheat and lie, how they hook up with one another, and so on, and even suggests drastic action:

I don't have a "sure list of signs" that will give women the answers they seek. Women can hire a private investigation company or get a very masculine-acting and -looking gay man and have him approach their man.

No, I'm not making this wild-eyed paranoia up. The irony here is that men in general, and MSMs especially, complain that their women are too controlling, interfering, demanding, full of "drama and hassles" (p. 142), so that they feel the need to escape the ol' ball and chain for undemanding companionship with other men (which for MSMs comes with easy uncommitted sex).

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 31, 2004 01:45 PM