A new study seeking to clarify the causes of the staggering rates of HIV among gay black men has attributed them to a confluence of factors that include age gaps between partners, sexual networks more tightly drawn by race, and the fact that partner familiarity affects condom usage. Numerous previous studies have found that, while black men who have sex with men (MSM) have the highest incidence of HIV over any demographic, they actually do not engage in greater risk behaviors on average as compared with other groups. For this study, which was published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, investigators recruited 143 HIV-negative MSM younger than 40 of diverse ethnicities from across the United States and had them keep a weekly diary of their sexual encounters during a 12-week period.

While black MSM reported significantly less unprotected sex than other racial groups, they were the most likely to have sex with other black men: African Americans were 11 times more likely to have black partners than partners of another race. By contrast, Latinos were three times more likely to have Latino partners than someone of a different race, and whites were two times more likely to partner with other whites. Thus, black MSM were more likely to be exposed to HIV by virtue of having sex within a group that has higher HIV rates.

Black MSM were also the only racial group to be less likely to practice unprotected sex with older partners—who would be more likely to have HIV as compared with younger men—and to forgo condoms when they had sex with another man repeated times. On the flip side, white MSM were more likely to have unprotected sex with younger partners, who would be less likely to be living with the virus.

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