What Are Heterosexual Men’s HIV Prevention Needs?
Prepared by Joshua Middleton and Reverend William Francis
Community Engagement (CE) Core | March 2018
Heterosexual men are affected by HIV
HIV is a concern for heterosexual men, as almost 14% of new male HIV cases in 2016 occurred among heterosexuals, through sex with a woman (9.5%) and injecting drug use (3.9%). Most of those cases were among Black (63%) and Latino (22%) men, and men living in the Southeast (62%) and Northeast (19%) of the US.
These statistics, however, may not give us an accurate picture of HIV among heterosexual men. Because sexuality is complex, some heterosexually-identified men may have sex with men, but still identify as straight. The CDC tracks HIV infections through means of infection, not by a person’s identity. Therefore, a heterosexual man who tells his healthcare provider he ever had a sexual encounter with a man is categorized under “men who have sex with men,” and if he says he has ever injected a drug, is categorized under “people who inject drugs (PWID).”
Because of this, heterosexual men are seldom mentioned or addressed in the world of HIV prevention, care and research—where men are classified based on federal guidance and misconceptions, and not on men’s own identity. This may be helpful for tracking the HIV epidemic, but it hampers service organizations who want to serve straight men who are at risk for or living with HIV, because funding for programs is linked to mode of transmission.
Misunderstanding, discrimination and HIV stigma. Heterosexual men may be reluctant to access testing and education programs at HIV-related organizations because they are concerned they might be labeled as gay or in the closet. Heterosexual men living with HIV can feel excluded from HIV clinics that brand their sites as safe and inclusive spaces for gay and bisexual men, which may be less about homophobia, and more about wanting a safe space for connection with and support from their community.
HIV criminalization. Straight men often are blamed for the HIV epidemic among heterosexual women, and may carry guilt, shame and fear of criminal charges. Between 2008 and 2016 in the US, there were 279 cases of HIV criminalization. This occurs when a person is prosecuted for not disclosing their HIV status to a partner. The majority of prosecutions are of heterosexual men.
Religion. Religion is an important part of many heterosexual men’s lives, yet sometimes the church may be the place where they are exposed to the beliefs that HIV is a punishment from God, and homosexuality and sex outside of marriage are sins. These religious views may deter open dialogue around HIV, such as HIV testing and prevention, or disclosing HIV status.
Addressing issues that impact heterosexual men as a whole person—body, mind and spirit—can be more effective than addressing HIV transmission mode. Health inequalities and structural barriers, not necessarily sexual risk taking behaviors, make men more likely to contract HIV and less likely to seek and have access to HIV programs.
Family, relationships and intimacy. It is important for heterosexual men to explore their identity as a father, a romantic partner and a member of a family unit. Men view intimacy in many different ways, including being able to communicate with their partner, being transparent and comfortable expressing their feelings, spending quality time with their partners, and having healthy and satisfying sexual lives. Men and boys may need support developing communication skills with their partners.
Social injustice and resilience. The largest proportion of heterosexual HIV cases occur among Black men in the Southeast. This is also true for other race/ethnic groups except American Indian/Alaska Native where the largest number is in the West. The second largest number of cases among Black, Latino, and White men occur in the Northeast US. Latino men, the second largest race/ethnic group with HIV also are most affected in the South and Northeast US. Black and Latino men also face disproportionate rates of unemployment, racism, incarceration and lack of education, which can be more pressing issues to contend with than HIV and healthcare. Despite these challenges, many Black men have supportive communities, are highly resilient and persevere. HIV prevention and care services can support Black men by partnering with educational and vocational services to bolster men’s efforts to survive and thrive amid their adversities.
Incarceration and post-incarceration services. Programs for heterosexual men should address the impact of incarceration on men, their partners, family and community. Sex with men, sexual assault and injection drug use are risks while incarcerated. People living with HIV (PLWH) may face treatment interruption both in prison and jail, and upon release—which can increase their viral loads and infectivity. Programs can provide education and risk reduction for men affected by incarceration, as well as support finding employment, healthcare and housing upon release.
Talking about health. Many men don’t feel comfortable talking about their sexual health and behaviors with their doctors, and doctors typically don’t ask these questions. Cultural male stereotypes and seeing the bulk of health services and promotions focused on women, hamper men’s willingness to seek out health care services, including HIV testing. Healthcare providers need to take a proactive role engaging men, and provide a non-judgmental, safe environment where men can feel free and safe to talk about their sexual health.
HIV testing. Providers and clinics need greater awareness that heterosexual men can be at risk for HIV, and should offer all men HIV testing, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). Half of heterosexual men living with HIV were diagnosed 5 years or more after they were infected, later than any other population. Providers should talk to men of every age about HIV and HIV risk reduction, and let them know that HIV testing is a part of routine healthcare.
HIV treatment and PrEP. PLWH who are on antiretroviral treatment and have undetectable viral loads do not transmit the virus to their partners. PrEP, a medication for people who do not have HIV, can be used by men and women to protect themselves from HIV safely. These medical breakthroughs can help heterosexual men avoid HIV transmission, safely have children, reduce stress and worry, and increase trust and sexual pleasure in relationships.
Resources and programs
There has been resistance in the HIV community to track, fund, research and provide HIV services for heterosexual men, perhaps due to the focus on the mode of transmission and reluctance to acknowledge men’s own heterosexual identity. For example, for the past five years there have been more new HIV cases from heterosexual transmission than from injecting drug use transmission among men, yet programs and services for PWID far outnumber those for straight men.
Programs for heterosexual men should collaborate with mainstream organizations, as straight men are less likely to use HIV-specific services. Programs should reach out to places where straight men go, such as the grocery store, gym, barbershops, sporting events, clubs, churches, colleges, vocational services. Heterosexual men prefer to hear messages from other straight men in community locations.
Programs, providers and researchers can do a better job of supporting Black men’s strengths and stop highlighting weaknesses. Increasing HIV testing, education, care and treatment, including PrEP for heterosexual men, can help address HIV. Increasing quality education, job and housing opportunities, as well as providing safe spaces for Black men that foster social support can also address HIV.
Making a difference
It is time to recognize and fully address HIV among heterosexual men. Organizations, health departments and clinics should consider the needs of heterosexual men when planning their budgets, and include men in program planning, service delivery, research and policymaking. Straight men can help fight stigma and invisibility by speaking up, disclosing their status, working in HIV organizations and taking their place at the table to advocate for funding and programs.
“Until we all come together, HIV is not going to end.” -Rev. Francis
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Special thanks to the following reviewers of this Fact Sheet: Tony Antoniou, Lisa Bowleg, Derek Canas, Hector Carrillo, Todd Genre, Barbara Green Ajufo, Davina Jones, Steve Kogan, Steven Lamm, Daryl Mangosing, Arik Marcell, Ashley Murray, Bob Siedle-Khan, Michelle Teti, Pamela Valera, Bill Woods
Reproduction of this text is encouraged; however, copies may not be sold, and the University of California San Francisco should be cited as the source. Fact Sheets are also available in Spanish. ©2018, University of CA. Comments and questions about this Fact Sheet may be e-mailed to CAPS.firstname.lastname@example.org. This publication is a product of a Prevention Research Center and was supported by Cooperative Agreement Number 5U48DP004998 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.