I've learned that we HIV-positive folks finally have a leader we can stand behind: Danny Pintauro! After all, he's no longer a sinner and sees the light, so he's one of the "acceptable" HIV-positive people.
But wait a minute -- who the hell is Danny Pintauro? And why are we talking about HIV and morality like this is a public service announcement from 1996?
The Internet tells me that Pintauro was a child TV star who started his career before I was born and whose fame ended when I was in kindergarten. I'm 31. After some years in obscurity, Pintauro is making a comeback as a "Beacon of Light" -- the name of his inspirational tour to spread the gospel of how not to act.
Pintauro, now HIV positive, is doing the daytime television circuit to explain that, once a drug-addled person who had sex (scandalous!), he's now seen the light. His on-the-record redeemer appears to be Oprah Winfrey. After an interview with Oprah, Pintauro went on ABC's expired talk show, The View, and took a conciliatory, hopeful tack despite a barrage of stigmatic, junk science sputtering from the people interviewing him. He says he lived with crystal meth addiction and acquired HIV as a result of his choices, and now he's branding himself as a cautionary tale.
It's good business. After all, America loves a prodigal son who returns to the puritanical bosom of society. And, it's compelling television -- at least in the minds of people watching network TV at home at 11:00 a.m. on a weekday. Our society's attention is devoted only to those shedding bitter, maudlin tears in soft white light during softball interviews.
Mic's Mathew Rodriguez, former community editor here at TheBody.com, relates that The View hosts, Candace Cameron Bure and Raven-Symoné, asked Pintauro if he took "responsibility for [his] actions, for being promiscuous, going into a lifestyle of having heightened sex because of the meth that [he] was using."
(I'll give you a moment to look up who Candace Cameron Bure is too. Like Pintauro, she is a former child star -- which probably explains a lot about the interview.)
Writers nationwide have pointed out that the language used during The View interview was "problematic," that catchall phrase we on the left use to mean "bad." I'll be more specific. The entire HIV/AIDS discussion, including the language used, was problematic because it was ignorant -- rife with HIV stigma and as outdated as The View's format.
Raven-Symoné even wondered quizzically about the myriad ways human beings can "get AIDS." The wicked part of me wants to say "swimming pools and toilet seats," but the responsible part of me will say that AIDS is a condition brought about by untreated HIV infection. HIV is the virus, AIDS is the life-threatening decline of the immune system brought about by HIV. The virus is transmitted through normal human behaviors like unprotected sexual intercourse or intravenous drug use (IDU).
Yes, I'm saying those actions are normal human behaviors.
I'm not saying that they're the healthiest choices, and, speaking from personal experience, I'd say that the quickest way to destroy your life is through IDU. But getting high to escape is a perfectly natural response to life if you're an addict like I am -- or if you're simply a human being.
Still, IDU certainly is the fastest route to nowheresville. For me, the only way I can stay alive is through recovery and complete abstinence from all drugs, including alcohol. What works for me isn't a realistic public policy prescription though, so we ought instead to look at harm-reduction models.
Having sex is perfectly natural, too. And, sex between consenting adults is a fine thing. It requires no footnotes or moral qualifications, no certificate or endorsement from the state. In fact, sex for pleasure is, arguably, a revolutionary act.
It's also, unfortunately, an effective way for queer and straight people alike to transmit a host of bacteria and viruses, including HIV.
People are going to put things into their bodies no matter what we say, whether those things are drug needles or penises. So we should teach folks that steps exist to prevent HIV and still engage in human behaviors, even the not-so-healthy ones. Telling people that they have to stay inside a plastic bubble sipping chocolate milk and reading Chicken Soup for the Soul isn't effective in preventing HIV.
Similarly, we ought not to present the false choice of either monogamous heteronormative marriage or HIV exposure in bathhouses in the throes of crystal meth addiction and complete spiritual dereliction.
There's no either/or scenario. You can be sex positive, polyamorous, abstain from drugs or even use drugs and still prevent HIV. Needle exchange programs, sexual health education, condom distribution, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), treatment as prevention (TasP): These things prevent HIV.
Junk science and moralism don't prevent HIV.
When Pintauro nobly tried to explain what "undetectable" (essentially non-contagious) means, his interviewers seemed unimpressed, baffled. This isn't surprising given that Americans still equate HIV with stigmatic, fatalistic images. Still, following Pintauro's appearance on The View the enlightened Internet exploded with lamentations and gnashing of teeth. How can people be this ignorant in 2015?
Well, it's simple, really.
We still treat HIV status as a kind of lurid, voyeuristic game of peekaboo in which we equate being positive with antisocial, inhuman behavior. Despite Pintauro's apparent admirable aims of decreasing stigma and increasing education, so far he's failed because of a media and society completely uninterested in the facts.
These facts include that, for many HIV-positive people, living with the virus is akin to any other chronic, manageable illness, such as diabetes. As with those illnesses, while most people living with HIV respond to modern treatments, some don't. And treatments are costly, both to individuals and the state, so we should try to prevent the virus in the first place.
In other words, we ought not shame people into public mea culpas for their sinful behavior. Instead, we should look at HIV as a public health matter to be approached with candor, commonsense and science.
I understand Pintauro's position. It's not his fault that folks in the mainstream are ignorant. His presentation, though, bothers me.
"I don't want to be a hero," Pintauro asserts. "I want to be the example of what can happen if you get into drugs, if you're being promiscuous, if you're not taking care of yourself, if you're not being checked, if you're not living a healthy, responsible lifestyle."
Be careful kids, and just say no -- otherwise, one day, you'll have to sit on a couch in a studio and suffer fools gladly, inadvertently perpetuating HIV stigma along the way, because you need to promote your inspirational speaking tour.
If you ask me, the kind of extremist, moral posture we saw from the interviewers on The View -- sinner versus atoner, slut versus puritan, drug addicts versus responsible citizens -- is what keeps HIV infections humming along at a steady clip.
Stigmatize behaviors long enough and people are going to get a case of the "fuck-its" -- where they're not interested in even acknowledging that they engage in those behaviors, let alone taking steps to prevent HIV.
If we're truly serious about preventing HIV or eradicating AIDS and not simply playing peekaboo with the pain of others, we should probably focus exclusively on science and HIV prevention -- not so-called sins.
Josh Kruger is an award-winning writer and commentator in Philadelphia. His work often focuses on HIV/AIDS, cultural stigmas and social problems. You can follow him on Twitter @jawshkruger.