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Missouri Youth Faces Stiff Sentence Under Stigmatizing HIV Criminalization Law

By Olivia Ford

January 29, 2014

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Olivia Ford

Olivia Ford

Not surprisingly, I have a Google Alert for "HIV" -- each day I receive an email with links to all headlines across the Web with the term "HIV" in them. For several days this past week my alert email was dominated by headlines regarding the same news story:

HIV-Positive College Student Secretly Filmed Sex Tapes With 32 People

HIV-Positive Man Allegedly Videotaped Himself Having Sex With Victims

HIV-POSITIVE MAN RECORDS HIMSELF HAVING UNPROTECTED SEX WITH 31 PEOPLE, IS WORST HUMAN BEING EVER

Barebacking HIV-Positive College Wrestler Made 32 Videos of His Exploits

WTF!? HIV-Positive Man Knowingly Had Unprotected Sex With 31 People

Oh, there are more. But I'll stop there. The headlines refer to the case of a 22-year-old Missouri man facing several felony charges for "recklessly infecting" one person with HIV, and "recklessly exposing" others, under the state's HIV-specific criminal law. The young man, a university athlete, had been given an HIV diagnosis in January 2013, according to the Indianapolis Star. In October of that year, he was arrested after a past partner told police he'd been diagnosed with HIV and gonorrhea after having sex with him. Last week, police uncovered more than 30 videos from the young man's laptop of him having sex with different men.

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Before I go further, I want to state, firmly and for the record, that I am by no means making light of the life-changing reality of receiving an HIV diagnosis. Despite miraculous advances in treatment and care, we have no cure; living with HIV is still a lifetime prospect, and finding out one is HIV positive is often devastating, even for those who are educated and aware of their risk. It is well documented that a significant part of what renders an HIV diagnosis such a brutal experience is the stigma and demonization of people living with HIV that media coverage around HIV criminalization cases, like this one, encourage.

Coverage like this is not only extraordinarily hurtful and damaging on an individual, interpersonal and community level; it also gives the false idea that you can control the "public health nightmare" of HIV transmission by criminalizing sex while HIV positive, when criminalization itself is the nightmare and only fuels the epidemic. According to the Center for HIV Law and Policy and ally organizations, research shows that HIV-specific criminal laws do not keep people from becoming HIV positive. These laws in fact punish people who've taken the proactive, health-affirming step of knowing their HIV status, because someone can only be prosecuted if he or she has had a positive HIV test result.

These laws codify HIV stigma, discrimination and exceptionalism, and provide tacit approval of statements like, "This guy is despicable" and "In a word ... gag" -- and calling a person like this young man the "WORST HUMAN BEING EVER." This stigma discourages people at risk from doing anything that might associate them with HIV (such as requiring condom use during sex) and makes it even harder for people to disclose their HIV status to sexual partners and others.

Thus, the vicious stigma cycle continues, spurred by HIV criminalization laws and demonizing coverage of cases like that of this young Missouri student -- and fed by other overlapping forms of discrimination. The media has also seized upon this case as yet another opportunity to reinforce the U.S.'s chronic pathologizing of black male experience and sexuality, and the prevailing image of black men as criminals. If all the sex this young man allegedly had was indeed unprotected, then his actions are not the norm for African-American men like him, whom studies have found use condoms at a higher rate than men from other ethnic groups. But do media outlets ever miss a chance to plaster their pages with a black man's scowling mug shot, as if to remind readers and viewers this is who you should always be afraid of?

Members of the HIV community are of many minds as to what level of disclosure is appropriate, and whether criminal law ought to play a role. Some may be incensed by this young man's alleged lack of disclosure, and wonder why a person who'd experienced the blow of a diagnosis wouldn't go out of his way to keep others from knowing what that's like.

But disclosure of one's HIV status is nothing if not fraught with complexity. There are myriad reasons, very human ones, why a person might not disclose that have nothing to do with intent to harm others: a horror of rejection, the threat of potential violence, concerns about privacy, and many more -- virtually all driven by forms of stigma.

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