To Take Down HIV Criminalization Laws, You'll Need to Develop Talking Points

HIV Is Not a Crime

Much of the discussion at the 2014 HIV is Not a Crime Conference stresses that HIV criminalization laws are bad policies that have extremely negative results for public health and the personal quality of life for people living with HIV. But how can advocates best discuss this issue with others who are not as familiar with its troubling consequences? Laurel Sprague of the Sero Project affirmed that, even among HIV community members, there is some discord when discussing HIV criminalization.

Participants in a workshop at HIV is Not a Crime developed talking points around HIV criminalization, referencing legal issues, public health practices, social implications and human rights. Below is the list, along with a brief explanation that gives details for each talking point.

  • HIV criminalization laws often force people living with HIV to serve long, unnecessarily harsh sentences even if there was no real chance of exposure. Many of the cases involve HIV disclosure or exposure laws, but the people penalized rarely ever actually transmit HIV. These people are forced to serve decades-long sentences in solitary confinement simply because they have HIV. This sends the message that people living with HIV are dirty and unworthy of love and respect.
  • HIV should not be a criminal justice issue, it should be a public health issue. Dealing with HIV using the criminal justice system just serves to augment the United States' already over-stuffed criminal justice system. Putting people in prison for having HIV is not the answer to any problems.
  • HIV criminalization laws usually hurt innocent people. Though it may be hard to discuss who is actually "innocent," we know that HIV transmission or exposure laws usually penalize people who never actually transmitted HIV, and are more used as a tool to police the sexuality of people living with HIV.
  • HIV criminalization prevents testing and getting on treatment, so it actually serves to spread HIV. Have you heard the phrase "take the test, risk arrest"? Since HIV criminalization laws make knowing your status a potential liability, people may choose not to take the test to avoid criminal charges. The Sero Project survey of HIV-positive individuals found that half of respondents said that it was reasonable to not to get tested, and thus get on treatment, to avoid jail time. Another study in Canada showed that, in the aftermath of a highly publicized criminalization case, testing rates subsequently plummeted. As we know from the Treatment Cascade, only 25 percent of people living with HIV in the United States are on successful HIV treatment. Criminalization laws will make the disparity on the cascade stay the same or worsen.
  • HIV criminalization laws place the responsibility of personal and public health solely on the shoulder of HIV-positive people. These laws make HIV-positive people responsible for all HIV transmission. They do not address the responsibility of HIV-negative people to ask about a partner's HIV status and to protect themselves, or to become educated about the (negligible) risk involved with having sex with someone who is HIV positive and has an undetectable viral load.
  • By imprisoning people living with HIV, you further marginalize an already marginalized population. People living with HIV are already marginalized in the United States, and HIV already disproportionately affects many marginalized populations, including people of color, people living in poverty, and LGBT people, just to name a few. By putting these people in prison and making them register as sex offenders, we restrict their access to education, housing and other tools that are essential to surviving and thriving.
  • Denying people living with HIV all the rights denied to sex offenders puts sex offenders and people living with HIV on the same level. Are sex offenders and people living with HIV who have had consensual sexual relations really on the same level?
  • Children of HIV-positive women face extreme scrutiny when their parents have been criminalized. Tiffany Moore, a woman living with HIV, said that because she had been convicted under an HIV criminalization statute, she was forced to speak about her status to her child's teachers, the principal and other officials, and her child's friends are not allowed to come over and socialize.
  • Criminalization laws spread fear and ignorance. Living with HIV in 2014 is not the same as living with HIV in 1984. If you test and treat early, living with HIV can still lead to a normal lifespan with a good quality of life. These laws make the transmission of HIV a worse offense than assault with a deadly weapon, even though having HIV is not a death sentence.
  • Criminalizing HIV is not cost-effective. Criminalizing HIV is likely to put more costs on the state to monitor and penalize the person, rather than solely the money it would cost to treat and keep the person healthy. It's an unnecessary burden on taxpayers.
  • Criminalizing HIV is the enemy of reproductive justice and racial justice. Women, people of color and their families are negatively affected by these laws.
  • HIV criminalization makes people living with HIV enemies of HIV-negative people, rather than their allies. If we are to beat the HIV epidemic, it will only happen if people of all serostatuses fight in the epidemic together.
  • Because HIV criminalization stops people from getting tested and identified as HIV positive, the number of HIV-positive people is underreported. Because of underreported numbers, some states are denied the resources necessary to fight the HIV epidemic.
  • HIV criminalization polices the sexuality of HIV-positive people -- especially those living with HIV who are already part of marginalized groups. For people living with HIV, because these laws rarely actually penalize transmission, they are ways of denying intimacy for people living with HIV, especially women of color living with HIV.
  • The criminalization of HIV is a part of the criminalization of sex work. Sex workers are people who do sex work in order to make a living. For women and men living with HIV who are sex workers, these laws make it even harder for them to survive and thrive.
  • HIV criminalization laws deny people living with HIV a healthy, fully realized sex life. Period.

In "FACE OFF -- An HIV+ Man Faces His Accuser," Mark S. King dramatizes what might happen when an HIV-positive gay man faces the sexual partner accusing him of non-disclosure. It was shown at the opening session of the 2014 HIV Is Not a Crime Conference.

Mathew Rodriguez is the community editor for and

Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.