Disclosure and HIV
February 8, 2018
Table of Contents
Disclosure means telling someone that you are living with HIV (HIV+). Sharing your HIV status can help with the stresses of living with HIV. However, deciding whom to tell and how to tell them can be complicated and difficult.
There is no one best way to tell someone. Similarly, there is no sure way to know how those you tell will react or whom they may choose to tell. To prepare, it may help to ask yourself a few questions:
Consider where you want the disclosure to take place. It could be at home, at a friend's house, or in a health care setting so that support is readily available. The important thing is that you choose a place that is comfortable for you.
Disclosing your HIV status can be stressful. While you may receive love and support from some of the people you tell, others may not be as accepting. Try to find someone that can support you through this difficult process. If you have not told any family or close friends yet, turn to your health care provider, social worker, counselor, or AIDS service organization (ASO). To find the ASO closest to you in the US, click here. To find services worldwide, visit AIDSmap's e-atlas. If you would like to connect with other women in The Well Project community, visit our page on Getting Connected.
Disclosing your HIV status will also have an effect on the people you tell. People will react differently to the news. Your friends and family may immediately embrace you and accept your diagnosis. Others may react negatively or need some time to process what you have told them. They may be scared -- for you or for themselves -- and may need some information in addition to time to adjust.
Some people, especially sexual partners who may be afraid they have acquired HIV, may react with anger. If you feel threatened or unsafe, it is important that you get safe and stay safe. Call the National Domestic Violence hotline in the US at 800-799-SAFE and check our fact sheet about Violence Against Women and HIV.
Just like you, people you tell will need support. Try to leave them hotline numbers, brochures or books about HIV that they can look at later. Give them the addresses of websites that provide information (a good government site is at www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics). Also let them know who else is aware of your status, so that they can go to each other for support.
You do not have to tell everyone that you are living with HIV. It may be important that you tell your current and past sexual partners and anyone with whom you have shared drug injection equipment. This way, they can be tested and seek medical attention if needed. If you are afraid or embarrassed to tell them yourself, the health department in your area can notify your sexual or needle-sharing partners without even using your name.
You also need to tell your health care providers to ensure you receive appropriate care. Your health care provider may ask questions to determine if you are at risk for other diseases, such as hepatitis C or other sexually transmitted infections (STIs or STDs).
Sharing your HIV status ought to be a personal choice in every case. However, in the case of sexual relationships, it can be a legal requirement. Whether or not your partner becomes HIV+, and whether or not prevention methods were used or the person living with HIV meant any harm, they may face criminal charges if a partner accuses them of not disclosing their HIV status in a sexual relationship.
Most states in the US have laws requiring that you disclose your HIV status before knowingly exposing or transmitting HIV to someone else. Penalties vary from state to state. In many states, you can be found guilty of a felony if a sexual partner brings charges against you for not telling them that you are living with HIV before having intimate contact.
These laws are unfair for many reasons. For one thing, it is difficult to prove disclosure, and many people living with HIV, particularly women, have been taken to court by partners who claim they did not disclose when they say they did. For another, a person may have had no intent to do harm, and yet the punishment a person must endure if convicted is virtually always much worse than the harm done to the complainant (person bringing the charges).
But nevertheless, the laws exist. To find information about disclosing in your state, look at this map provided by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). To learn how to protect yourself in case you are charged with HIV nondisclosure, read this pamphlet from the Sero Project. UNAIDS reports that over 60 countries have laws that penalize people living with HIV who engage in sex without disclosing their status. Outside the US, click on this link to AIDSmap's list to find information for your country's laws about disclosure.
If you are in a serious relationship, telling your partner is one of the first things you will probably think about. Many turn to their partners for comfort and support. However, some people worry that they will lose their partner's love when they disclose. It is normal to feel nervous, embarrassed, or even fearful of your partner's reaction.
Since you and your partner most likely have a sexual relationship, it is important to practice safer sex. If you have already had sex without condoms or treatment-as-prevention methods, you may need to let them know that they may have been exposed to HIV and should get tested. Keep in mind, and feel free to share with your partner, that after many years of research and evidence we now know that a person living with HIV who is taking HIV drugs and is virally suppressed (has an undetectable viral load) is unable to transmit HIV to a sexual partner. For much more information on this exciting development, see our Undetectable Equals Untransmittable fact sheet.
Disclosing your HIV status can put a strain on the best of relationships. It is important for you to think about when and how to disclose. However, keeping the information to yourself for too long is probably not a good idea. If you find it difficult to decide when and how to tell your partner, it may be helpful to get some professional counseling.
It is important to recognize that some partners react to HIV disclosure with anger and even violence. If you are worried that your partner may become violent, try the following to reduce the risk of violence:
Women who are dating have to face the question of disclosure with each new relationship. Some women prefer to get the issue out into the open immediately. Others prefer to wait and see if the relationship is going to develop beyond casual dating.
Although many people know about safer sex and how HIV is transmitted, fear and stigma are still a reality. Your HIV status will prevent some from wanting to see you, while others will not be put off by the information.
This article was provided by The Well Project. Visit The Well Project's Web site to learn more about their resources and initiatives for women living with HIV. The Well Project shares its content with TheBody.com to ensure all people have access to the highest quality treatment information available. The Well Project receives no advertising revenue from TheBody.com or the advertisers on this site. No advertiser on this site has any editorial input into The Well Project's content.
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