Missouri Youth Faces Stiff Sentence Under Stigmatizing HIV Criminalization Law
By Olivia Ford
January 29, 2014
We can't know what got in the way of wearing a condom or sharing his HIV status -- assuming that all the sex was in fact condomless, and that this young man did not disclose to any of his partners (which we don't know for certain since inferences have crept into the story to fill in for missing facts). Had he shared his status with anyone at that point? Was he getting support and information around living with HIV? Was he openly gay and supported in that aspect of his life? Did he have mentors in the LGBT community, HIV positive or not, to advise him and be models for living well and proudly after a diagnosis? Has he even met one person who's openly living with HIV?
We can ask similar questions regarding how his partners came to believe that asking if someone "has any diseases" was an effective way to stay HIV negative. Some may believe that -- barring scenarios in which uneven power dynamics between partners, material survival or other forms of coercion render a person unable to require condom use during sex -- when we don't use condoms we "'take' HIV from another person just as much as they 'give' it to us." Equal access to accurate, affirming information and support for all people living with or potentially at risk for HIV, particularly young gay men of color (not to mention the elimination of poverty, homophobia, lack of health care access and other disparities) could make it possible for all to enter into sexual encounters with eyes open, and relationships balanced. Mainstream media could support these sociopolitical and public health goals by being aware of the punitive language it uses, and not dropping curtains of stigma and misinformation over the facts about HIV. Had these conditions been in place, this man's story -- as well as the stories of his sex partners -- might have turned out very differently. But in most corners of U.S. society, people are just not well informed; and so, in the absence of information and in the presence of stigmatizing images, many may believe that all they have to protect themselves is blame.
There is so much blaming and shaming language around HIV, even from those who otherwise support people living with HIV but adhere to Madonna/whore models when talking about it -- as in this recent Slate article by an otherwise well-informed author that posited condomless sex as a reward of monogamy, which begs the comparison of condom use to punishment for having multiple partners. I often wonder why so many people are so doggedly protective of their right -- their privilege, really -- to judge others, particularly those whose identities and experiences are already vulnerable to scrutiny and misunderstanding. The 30-some-odd people who had sex with the young man in this case are not his victims, as multiple outlets have stated; they were his willing sexual partners. It's no crime to have multiple sex partners; and blame and shame, stigma and criminalization, do not make that sex any safer.
I can't assume too much about the character or experience of a person that I don't know. Still, I find myself feeling a great deal of fierce protectiveness toward this young man. Maybe it's not internalized HIV stigma, misinformation, lack of social support or a crushing desire to be accepted and touched that allegedly held him back from disclosing his HIV status to his partners. Maybe he is simply inconsiderate. But his actions taken by themselves are not proof of this. Besides, even inconsiderate people deserve protection under the law, not to be singled out and criminalized for being aware of their HIV-positive status. This story, the realities of unprotected sex and HIV disclosure, are infinitely more complicated than most media outlets tend to make them.
If this young man did indeed videotape people without their consent, then Missouri has a hidden-camera statute under which he can be charged. There are crimes, and then there's HIV. HIV is a virus, not a crime; there are many ways we can respond to HIV in our communities, but one thing we cannot do is legislate it away.
Olivia Ford is the executive editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
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