Bad Chart Thursday: Straight Men Can’t Get HIV Because “Science”

Sometimes, a perfectly good chart can be used to make flawed, even downright harmful arguments. It’s not the chart’s fault. It’s just hanging out, unassumingly presenting some data about, say, oranges, when someone decides to use it to make a point about apples. Sometimes this person just misunderstands the chart or doesn’t read the context or even the title of the chart. Sometimes the person leaves off the footnote or specific source citation. Regardless, they toss it all into a blender with some rotten arguments and a dash of toxic additives, then expect their readers to swallow it.

And some do, not because it’s good but because they want it to be good. The same process can be used with different results that aren’t so palatable to their pre-existing beliefs and they won’t be so willing to raise a glass.

For example, Mike Cernovich recently wrote a post defending a post he wrote a few years ago in which he claimed that “If you’re a straight man, you will not get HIV.” (I’m linking to archived versions because, as Tauriq Moosa pointed out, Cernovich has a habit of editing old posts in substantive ways after receiving criticism without acknowledging the changes in the posts themselves.)

In both posts, he uses this chart from a CDC fact sheet to make his point that straight men can’t get HIV. (In the most recent post, you’ll have to scroll through some rambling about his “haters,” because apparently his audience is 12 or something, plus a short tinfoil hat fashion show about government/media conspiracies, but you’ll get to the chart eventually–a chart, incidentally, made by a government organization, but apparently it’s trustworthy when that’s convenient for him.)

CDC HIV most affected

Right away, you can see that the chart refutes his point by showing 2,700 heterosexual men with new HIV infections that year. But suddenly he’s talking about just straight white men. Yet he continues to use “straight men” without the qualifier as though white is just a given. But he’s not racist because science.

Apparently using a chart based on science automatically makes your racist comments somehow not racist, even if they’re not in any way based on the chart at all. Is it just CDC charts that have this reality-changing force field around them, or will any chart do? And does the magic just work with racism, or is it more of an all-purpose bigotry cleanser? Maybe he’ll start selling it with all his books about the magical powers of juice.

So, anyway, his actual point is apparently that not including white heterosexual men in the chart means there have been zero new HIV infections in these men, even though the title clearly states that the chart is about only the most-affected sub-populations.

Zero new cases tweet

Following that logic, we can see from this CDC chart that several races of people are immortal, or at least did not die in the United States in 2012 or 2013:


Perhaps the secret to defying death is somehow tied to an anti-drowning superpower (at least in swimming pools):


Obviously, reading chart titles, footnotes, and the context for these charts explains the absence of information, just as it does in the HIV chart. (Nothing can explain the CDC’s choice of background image for that drowning chart, though. WTF?)

At some point over the three years since first posting the CDC HIV chart, Mike got around to reading its title. Maybe.

In any case, his latest post presents another chart from the CDC showing diagnosed HIV infections from heterosexual contact by sex and race/ethnicity in 2012. Different year than the chart above, but it doesn’t really matter because Mike would have dusted off the No True Scotsman fallacy regardless of the year. He explains that the 508 new HIV infections in heterosexual white men are not actually due to heterosexual transmission because these men are lying about having sex with men, intravenous drug use, or sex with prostitutes who use intravenous drugs. Every one of them. Lying.

Presumably, every man in other studies showing heterosexual female-to-male transmission are also lying. Because people sometimes lie if they feel ashamed of something, Mike has decided that this must be the case for all of the people under discussion. And men should go ahead and risk sex without a condom because Mike believes it’s more plausible that all of these people are lying than that a heterosexual man can contract HIV from a woman. Or, rather, that a heterosexual white man can contract HIV from a woman. Apparently this transmission is possible in black men, or maybe Mike thinks they are all lying too.

Of course, one of the reasons Mike might think heterosexual transmission to men is so unlikely is that he doesn’t understand how it works. In his first post, he claims that a man can get HIV from a woman only if he has an open sore and her saliva or blood comes in contact with that sore. He apparently doesn’t realize that HIV can be transmitted through the urethra. He also believes tea tree oil and coconut oil are antiviral and therefore sufficient protection against HIV (if you believed it were possible to contract it as a True Straight Male, which he doesn’t). But his position is totally based in science. Because he says so, despite the evidence. And that’s how science works.

But even if there is a risk, the risk is small. This is pretty much as close to the truth as Mike gets. But then he goes and ruins it by advocating that heterosexual white men should look at their risk of contracting HIV in comparison to completely unrelated risks that don’t even compare in any way–the odds of dying from various accidents and injuries. This is really helpful because you can completely prevent getting struck by lightning by wearing a condom. Wait, no, that’s HIV.

Still, it’s helpful as far as demonstrating clearly that the existence of more likely risks means you shouldn’t worry about less likely risks, even if they are easily preventable. This is fantastic news for all you heterosexual white guys itching to try heroin. As this (no doubt magic) chart from the CDC shows, a smaller percentage of HIV transmission in men occurs from intravenous drug use than from heterosexual contact.

Transmission pie chart

Why worry about getting HIV from drug needles when there’s a far greater risk of getting it from heterosexual sex? Why worry about getting HIV from heterosexual sex when you’re more likely to die from a bee sting? Why worry about a bee sting when you’re more likely to die in a car crash? Why wear a seat belt when you’re more likely to die from cancer? Why take any steps to minimize risk for anything at all knowing that the most likely risk to your life is heart disease?

Of course, as the source of his “odds of dying” list makes clear, these odds cannot be applied to individuals, which is the case with odds in general. Individual factors (such as, say, an allergy to bees) will affect your own odds of dying from any particular cause, and individual factors (such as, say, wearing a condom) will affect your odds of contracting a disease.

On a similar note, the odds he gives (1 in 5 million) for a man to contract HIV through heterosexual sex are affected by factors such as whether his partner has HIV and whether she knows she has it. The single-act risk of a man contracting HIV from a woman who is HIV+ without condom use is significantly higher (closer to 1 in 2,500 in high-income countries). The risk increases with high viral load, which is typical of a late-stage infection as well as the initial stage of infection, when a woman might not know that she has an infection. Sorry, bees. You don’t even compare.

Also, the risk he provides of contracting HIV from heterosexual contact is a single-event risk, rather than lifetime odds, which is what he’s comparing the HIV risk to. This is maybe fine for him, but for all the heterosexual men who will have sex more than once in their lifetime, it’s a pretty useless number to give. Mike does acknowledge this flaw in the comparison, but adds, “this is the best comparison we can make,” perhaps not considering door number 3: not making this useless comparison at all.

So, if you are a heterosexual man who plans to have sex more than once and who does not have telepathic powers, chart- or juice-related reality-changing force fields, or the ability to test your partners for HIV through time travel to allow a sufficient amount of time without having to wait to have sex, you might want to, you know, just wear a condom.

Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer living in a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband, two kids, dog, and two cats. When not making fun of bad charts or running the Uncensorship Project, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and putting out random dumpster fires. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Instagram.

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  1. If it hasn’t been pointed out yet, Figure 4 on the next page estimates 620 new cases of HIV in heterosexual white men.

  2. One aside: One reason there are more heterosexual cases of HIV than IDU cases is because sharing needles is a fringe activity, limited to use of illicit substances. (Syringes are cheap, but difficult to get without a prescription.)

    That said, to deny heterosexually-transmitted AIDS is foolhardy. I’m tired of these “I can’t get AIDS, _insert factor that, at best, reduces your risk, but doesn’t really eliminate it_.” arguments. We should’ve ended those some time in the 80s. Complacency and hubris, all of it.

  3. He was stupid for making the argument but you are not smarter. The CDC screwed up with the chart this guy used by leaving off “White Heterosexual Men”.

    1. Who cares who is stupid or smart? That’s irrelevant.

      The CDC chart shows only the most affected subpopulations, which does not include white heterosexual men.

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