September 29, 2009
This blog previously appeared on The Center for HIV Law and Policy's Web site and has been reprinted with permission.
On September 18th, ABC's "20/20" program aired a piece on five Texas women who slept with "HIV criminal" 53-year-old Philippe Padieu, convicted and sentenced to five concurrent 45-year sentences for infecting these women with HIV after failing to disclose his HIV status and having unprotected sex with them. I anticipated yet another sensationalized "expose'" pitting one or more unaware female victims against the evil person with HIV, narrated by a stunningly uninformed member of the media. Sad to say, I mostly got what I expected.
Padieu came across as an irresponsible freeloader hooking up with older women, giving them affection, intimacy, and sex (and HIV) in exchange for vacations, cell phones, and other perks. He apparently lived in denial about his HIV status, taking no effort to protect his sex partners from HIV and other diseases, or to protect himself from any STIs that they might have. With no evidence that he set out with a goal to infect his partners, he nonetheless seems to have set out to court and sleep with as many women as he could (although he also had sex with men) without concern or understanding of the risk of HIV and other STI transmission to his partners. He was chronically dishonest, lying about and hiding his other relationships, perhaps promising monogamy when it wasn't in the cards. Of course, at the same time his sex partners were exposing him to whatever STIs, diagnosed or otherwise, they might have, from herpes to hepatitis -- viruses that could further compromise his health and also increase the likelihood that sex would result in HIV transmission.
The sad story of these women provided a teachable moment for useful public education about HIV -- how it's transmitted, how even suburban women of means can become infected, how women can protect themselves, how unprotected sex can put any of us at risk -- and ABC blew it. The bottom line could have been that HIV is a virus, not a character flaw, and that even the kindest, most thoughtful, sexiest hunk in the world can have HIV and transmit it to you if you decide to roll the dice of unprotected sex. Instead, ABC opted for the sensational alternative reality of HIV risk as coming from serial predators motivated by the urge to infect women, and as a risk that couldn't reasonably have been anticipated or averted.
Years ago in Chautauqua, New York, after a young black man, Nushawn Williams, appeared to have infected several women, officials went into school rooms with pictures of this "AIDS Monster," as the press tagged Williams, and told the young women that they needed to get tested for HIV if they had slept with this man. ABC's Elizabeth Vargas chose to imitate this approach. Referring to Padieu's picture, Vargas intones, "if you had sex with this man, see a doctor." What she might have said, after exploring ways to address the vulnerability and self-esteem that motivate people to take risks with their health, is that yes, even nice middle-aged suburban white people get AIDS; that informed women know that it takes two unprotected people to transmit HIV; and that it is better to be safe than sorry, because you can't tell who's infected by looking or asking.
These women deserve empathy, although their reaction to their exposure and infection is disturbing. Decades after HIV's appearance, they believe that because they weren't sex workers or heroin users or women of color, they could never have anticipated being exposed to HIV. When asked about what they saw as their personal responsibility in the situation, each woman insisted that the responsibility was all Padieu's, that he misled them, and intended to harm as many women as he could. In the entire program, there was not one word about HIV being preventable, about the bottom line that anyone, male or female, who engages in unprotected sex based on a partner's statement's about their health status must assume a certain level of risk in doing so. It isn't cynical to say we can't rely on someone else to take care of our sexual health, it's common sense; most of the people spreading HIV don't even know they're infected.
So ABC may think they scored with yet another salacious tale of an AIDS monster ruining the lives of innocent women, but the true story is more complex; when it comes to public education and responsible, honest reporting, they utterly failed to make the grade.