February 17, 2019

Why Is HIV Still So Stigmatized?

“You know what an HIV criminal looks like. It is Zdeněk Pfeifer, the Czech ‘HIV spreader’ who infected his homosexual partners apparently deliberately. It is Daryll Rowe, the British hairdresser who said he was ‘riddled’ with HIV and infected five men. Rowe also sabotaged condoms during sex with five others, and told one of his victims: ‘I got you. Burn. You have it.’ The HIV criminal is Valentino Talluto, an accountant from Rome who met women online, had sex with them and left them diseased. It is the scheming, feckless tabloid villain with his or her – it’s mostly men, but there is the occasional woman – trail of infected and appalled lovers, reckless with sex, and intent on harming others. These monsters, these deliberate infectors.

In 2006, Leslie Flaggs met a man at her Bible study group. She was a 40-something HIV-positive woman in Sioux City in Iowa; he, it turned out, was an abusive partner who regularly beat her. He told her that if she called the police he would say that she had exposed him to HIV. She didn’t call the police, but neighbours did. Under Iowa’s 709c law, she got a 25-year suspended sentence, four years’ probation, and 10 years on the sex-offender register after her partner claimed she had not disclosed her status. Flaggs, a victim of domestic violence, became an HIV criminal. And in 2009, Nick Rhoades from Iowa was sentenced to 25 years in prison for not disclosing his HIV status to his partner. The same year, Robert Suttle made a plea bargain when he was accused of not disclosing his status by an ex, and served six months in a Louisiana jail.

Flaggs, Rhoades and Suttle have something in common besides HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus: they didn’t infect anyone. Nobody came to harm. But you don’t have to infect someone to be judged an HIV criminal. Between 2013 and 2015, Russia arrested, prosecuted or convicted at least 115 people for HIV crime, a broad category that includes non-disclosure (not telling your sexual partner that you have HIV), exposure (putting someone at risk by sexual or drug activity because you have HIV), or transmission (infecting someone); the United States imprisoned 104; Italy at least six; Australia at least five; Germany the same. Between 2015 and 2017, Belarus prosecuted 128 cases under Article 157, an HIV law considered one of the most draconian in the world, as it prosecutes infection by thoughtlessness or ‘indirect intention’. In Utah, HIV-negative people involved in prostitution or using a prostitute get a misdemeanour sentence of not more than six months; for an HIV-positive transgressor, the offence is a felony with a five-year prison term whether anyone was infected or not.”

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