Professor’s goal: Separate HIV facts from fiction

Dexter VoisinBefore becoming an associate professor at the University of Chicago, Dexter Voisin worked for years as a social worker/mental health counselor in large urban areas such as Atlanta and the Bronx. Often, he was the only black male therapist in a social services agency and was assigned to counsel young black men.

Many of them were growing up in violent neighborhoods. The young men told Voisin their stories of desperation: Some had witnessed friends being killed; others had been the victims of incest; still others had been abandoned by drug-abusing parents. Too many of these young people also were infected with HIV through heterosexual contact, with some dying from AIDS.

So Voisin, who has a doctorate in social work and now teaches in the university’s School of Social Service Administration, began to research why teens who live in violent communities might engage in risky sex.

“We know that living in a violent community affects young people in terms of their mental health outcomes, low school achievement, gang involvement,” said Voisin. “But no one had looked at the relationship between violence and sexual risk-taking.”

Was it that kids who lived in unsafe communities believed they didn’t have much to lose, so they engaged in unsafe sex? What Voisin found as he began to examine the issue surprised him.

One study, which was released last month, began in 2006 when Voisin held lengthy discussions with a group of black males, between the ages of 14 and 18, who were living on the South Side and attending Chicago Public Schools.

It soon became clear that the teens who didn’t practice safe sex (such as using a condom) weren’t doing so just because living in a stressful, high-risk community predisposed them to other high-risk behaviors, as Voisin initially believed.

Surprisingly, the young men were engaging in unsafe sex because they didn’t believe the dire statistics surrounding HIV infections and young black males. In 2007, for instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that black adolescent males were approximately eight times more likely to become infected with HIV compared with white males and three times more likely than Latino males.

The black teens believed the numbers were manufactured to make them look bad. They also said that the HIV-infection rates of their white peers were suppressed because they could use private doctors. The youths added that their white counterparts were more sexually promiscuous but that message intentionally was tamped down.

Ironically, the qualities that were helping the young black men cope in tough neighborhoods ? their desensitization to violence; their being vigilant and hyper-suspicious in assessing whether a person is friend or foe ? were placing their lives in jeopardy when it came to preventing HIV.

“In the end, the youth who subscribed to conspiracy theories engaged in unprotected sex,” Voisin said. “But those who believed what they were being told about HIV/AIDs and infection used a condom when having sex, or had little or no sexual activity.”

That study led to another, and this time Voisin interviewed focus groups of college students of different races. He found more conspiracy theories among the black students, some of whom believed that if there was a cure for AIDS, it would be withheld from them. Others didn’t believe former basketball star Magic Johnson was infected with the virus because he looks so healthy.

Voisin found that while white students had better access to HIV-prevention information from health care providers and high school sex-ed classes, black college students received the bulk of their information from friends and the media.

The black students said they didn’t buy the public service announcements that ran on television networks such as BET because those warnings were overshadowed by the more sexually explicit and protracted content of music videos.

In addition, the black students said that celebrities weren’t credible sources for prevention messages because students view them as merely paid pitchmen. Students said they would prefer to hear from regular people infected with the disease.

Why the conspiracy theories?

“I think there’s still so much silence and secrecy around AIDS and HIV,” Voisin said. “When you look at some of the biggest socializing structures in the black community ? the church is one ? there are still conservative attitudes and misinformation that this is a gay disease, when heterosexual transmission is the fastest-growing proportion of HIV cases in the black community.”

(c) 2010, Chicago Tribune. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.