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Straight Talk

When it comes to deceitful mates and unprotected sex, women say they're not down with the "down low."

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"This has been going on for a long time," says Murphy, a married mother of two. "To me, it's a simple reason of health," she says of why she and her friend Nicole Archer have come to hear King.

"You think you're dealing with a monogamous relationship," Archer says. "But with men on the DL, it could be your husband, your brother, your uncle."

Murphy adds, "Every woman needs to know what's going on and what to look for."

City public health officials agree.

"Richmond has a serious STD problem," says Angela Jackson-Archer, a spokeswoman for the city. That's one of the reasons officials wanted King to come here. With Joint Venture Productions and WBTJ 106.5-FM "The Beat," Richmond co-sponsored a visit by King to the Landmark Theatre Aug. 3.

Many of the 200 people at the event appear to have come straight from work, still wearing employee IDs. All but a handful are African-American women. Patiently they wait a half-hour or more in the tiled lobby with two tables topped with King's books and instructional CDs. Some already have the book and hope they'll get it signed. Many have come because they've seen King on "Oprah."

But what is billed as a lecture followed by a question-and-answer session turns out to be more of a gospel hour followed by a well-rehearsed testimonial. King oozes celebrity — he's been in green rooms and on magazine covers — but there's little trace of contrition.

While it's unclear whether King has reformed his ways, he's quick to trumpet his reformed status: He's divorced and his secret is out. Today, he uses his experience not necessarily to preach against "down-low" behavior, but rather its deception and consequences.

"Eight-hundred and fifty thousand Americans are walking around today with HIV and don't know it," he says. "Look at the person to your right. Look at the person to your left. That is the new face of AIDS in America. I don't tell DL brothers to stop having sex with men. I tell them to give their wives a choice."

Both Murphy and Archer are in their mid-30s, married and trust their husbands. Still, they think King's directive of honesty and his call for protected sex applies to everyone.

"When we meet men we don't talk enough before," says Murphy, the mother of a 5-year-old and a 17-year-old. She said she plans to discuss King's message with her teenage daughter, however difficult the subject. "We need to do more research before we get involved. We spend more time picking out a pair of shoes than we do becoming intimate with a man."

"If you haven't investigated your mate," Archer says of HIV testing, King's "down low" accounts provide reason. His clandestine encounters also provoke discourse among women who might otherwise have remained confused, alone and at risk.

"It's hard enough being in a regular relationship," Archer says.

"We cover up a lot and make a lot of excuses," Murphy adds.

Still, the two friends — unlike some at the event who appear nearly fanatic about King — are circumspect, refusing to lionize the author. They say men on the "down low" present a moral dilemma to the women they deceive.

"Everything seems acceptable today," as long as it is talked about openly, Archer says. "Where do we pull the plug on that?" S



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