If you are HIV-positive, dating and sex always involve the sticky questions of if, when, and how to disclose your HIV-status. Should you do it before you have sex? During the first date? Only if asked? Only if it becomes "serious"?
For each individual, the answers to these questions evolve from a blend of ethical, personal and practical considerations. People living with HIV have strongly advocated every position from "when you first meet" to "never."
At the point when you decide to have sex, however, the disclosure question is no longer solely up to you and your conscience. At that point, your decisions may have legal ramifications. Failing to disclose your HIV status to your partner may make you vulnerable to criminal prosecution or to being sued by your sexual partner.
Criminal convictions for exposing another person to HIV through sex are rare. Since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, more than 300 people have been criminally prosecuted for exposing another person to HIV. Only a fraction of these cases involve exposure through consensual sex. (The others involve activities such as biting, scratching and spitting, or violent sex crimes such as rape or forcible sodomy.)
Of the cases involving sex, most have been brought against female prostitutes (and not their male customers) or by military prosecutors against military personnel. Less than one-sixth of these cases have resulted in convictions, and more than half of the convictions have been against military personnel.
While most of these prosecutions have proceeded under general criminal laws such as attempted murder, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, attempted manslaughter and manslaughter, a number of states have passed specific statutes that make it a crime for a person to expose another to HIV through sexual activity.
California's "Willful Exposure" Law
The law makes it a felony punishable by up to eight years of imprisonment for an HIV-positive person to "willfully expose" another person to HIV through unprotected sex.
The law is narrowly drafted, however, so that it only applies to individuals who intend to infect others with HIV through sex. It is designed to prosecute cases like one in New York, where one man infected more than a dozen young women, not to police every sexual encounter engaged in by people living with HIV.
To be prosecuted under the law, you would have to do all of the following:
Have anal or vaginal sex. You cannot be prosecuted for oral sex. As to anal and vaginal sex, the law applies equally to men and women; tops and bottoms. The law punishes exposing someone to HIV through these types of sex. Your sexual partner does not have to actually become infected.
Know that you are HIV-positive. You cannot be prosecuted for sex that you had before you knew that you were HIV-positive.
Fail to disclose your HIV status. If you disclose before insertion, you cannot be prosecuted.
Fail to use a condom. Even if you do not disclose, you cannot be prosecuted unless you have "unprotected sex." The law defines "unprotected sex" as failing to use a condom. This means that every inserting penis has to be covered. Even if you are on the receiving end, you have a legal obligation to make sure that your partner wears a condom.
Have the "specific intent" to infect the other person. Most likely, this element will prevent the statute from being used to harass people living with HIV. To be prosecuted, you have to engage in the sexual activity with the specific intention of infecting the other person with HIV. Just knowing that you had HIV when you had sex will not be enough. The law explicitly states that: "Evidence that the person had knowledge of his or her HIV-positive status, without additional evidence, shall not be sufficient to prove specific intent."
Because of this specific-intent requirement, the law is narrowed in scope to only cover individuals who want to infect other people, and who are probably expressing that desire. If you slip up one time, it's unlikely that you will be prosecuted. However, the best way to stay clear of this law, and other legal liabilities, is to always disclose your status and/or practice safer sex.
A Comparatively Lenient Law
While California's willful exposure law may seem like just another way to make scapegoats out of people living with HIV, it is extremely lenient in the context of similar legislation that has been passed in other states.
The AIDS Policy Center in Washington, D.C., reports that 27 other states have established criminal penalties for knowingly transmitting or exposing another person to HIV. Most of these statutes have been passed as the result of political grandstanding by social conservatives and the religious right.
Unlike the California statute, under most of these state statutes individuals can be prosecuted if they know they are infected and engage in sexual intercourse without disclosure. Some of the laws are even more broad and vague. In Alabama, you can be prosecuted for "conducting oneself in a manner likely to transmit the disease," and in South Carolina, for "exposing another person to HIV without first informing."
Other Legal Liabilities
How the law will impact prosecutions under California's general criminal laws, such as attempted murder, is not clear.
It is likely that prosecutors will move toward restricting suits unless the elements of the willful exposure statute can be met. Prosecutions under the general law have been rare in California, and have usually accompanied charges of violent sex crimes.
However, some of these general criminal laws do not require specific intent. For these crimes, a conviction can rest on proving recklessness or criminal negligence. Because the potential still remains for prosecution under these general criminal laws, you should not risk relying on the specific intent requirement of the willful exposure statute to avoid liability. The best policy to protect yourself from any criminal liability is to disclose to your sexual partners and to use a condom.
Civil Cases Brought to Trial
Following these precautions will also protect you from civil liability. In addition to criminal prosecutions, a number of civil cases have been brought in which individuals sue sexual partners with HIV disease for monetary damages. These cases proceed under the tort theories of negligence, battery, fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The most famous of these cases occurred in California. Mark Christian, the sexual partner of Rock Hudson, sued Hudson's estate and received a jury award of $5.5 million. Christian claimed that, despite his repeated inquiries, Hudson and his private secretary denied that Hudson had HIV. Christian won this award even though he did not become infected. Like most civil cases, he claimed as damages the emotional stress caused by being exposed to the virus, not actual infection.
Other civil cases have not faired as well. These cases are frequently dismissed because the plaintiff cannot allege the necessary facts. Criminal statutes are often used by civil courts to set the standard for what type of conduct is considered negligent. California civil courts may dismiss negligence claims unless the infected person's conduct meets the requirements of the new willful exposure statue.
To sum up, if you have safer sex and disclose your status to your sexual partners, you will not violate California's willful exposure law, and will protect yourself from any form of criminal or civil liability.
Brad Sears is the Legal Check-Up attorney in the HIV/AIDS Legal Services Alliance. This article originally was published in the November 1998 edition of Positive Living.