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Tell your story - how are you impacted by HIV criminalization?

| 5 Comments

Understanding the unintended impacts of the criminalization of HIV exposure or transmission - way beyond the relatively few individuals who are accused, arrested and/or prosecuted - can play a crucial part in advocating against such laws and prosecutions.

Over the next few months, there are going to be multiple opportunities to highlight issues such as:

  • Creating fear and confusion about relying on disclosure to prevent HIV risk, and when disclosure is legally necessary
  • Making it harder for people living with HIV who are having problems maintaining safer sex to talk with healthcare workers due to fear of prosecution
  • Increasing HIV-related stigma
  • Creating a false sense that HIV is someone else's problem, rather than a shared responsibility
  • Providing an additional disincentive for people to learn their HIV status

These opportunities will arise via the Global Commission on HIV and Law's High Income Country Dialogue that will take place in Oakland, California on 16-17 September (click here for more details);  the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board (PCB) meeting focusing on HIV and Enabling Legal Environments that will take place in Geneva, Switzerland on 13-15 December; and through an ongoing project by IPPF, Behind Bars, that highlights a wide range of personal testimonies about the impact of HIV criminalization.

I'm hoping that POZ readers will help me collate personal testimonies about the impact of HIV criminalization on their own lives. You don't have to be an HIV professional or have been involved in a case to have been impacted (although such testimonies are very welcome).

As the example I'm about to show you illustrates, you can simply live in fear of the law because you are living with HIV.

If you have a personal story to share, you can either paste it into the comment box below.  Your stories will be highlighted in IPPF's Behind Bars collection, on POZ's HIV criminalization page, and my blog and may also end up in testimony to the Global Commission on HIV and the Law and the UNAIDS PCB meeting.  Submissions can be anonymous (but I will require some evidence of authenticity), and if you do use your real name, please indicate whether it can be used in full or not.

Here's Jonas's story (not his real name) from Norway.  The use of Paragraph 155 (known as the 'HIV Paragraph') is currently being evaluated by a Government committee's thorough investigation into the appropriateness of HIV criminalisation. The committee should produce its recommendations by Spring 2012, although there are no guarantees that a version of this law will not remain on the books and continue to be enforced when their deliberations end.

Paragraph 155 of the Norwegian Penal Code, an infectious-disease law enacted in 1902, essentially criminalises all unprotected sex by HIV-positive individuals even if their partner has been informed of their status and consents, and irregardless of viral load or a desire by a couple to conceive.  Both 'willful' and 'negligent' exposure and transmission are liable to prosecution, with a maximum prison sentence of six years for 'willful' exposure or transmission and three years for 'negligent' exposure or transmission.


Paragraph 155 - and a story from a partially unlived life

In my teens I turned off my sexuality. Even as my hormones were reaching boiling point, I managed to shut down. I felt that my desires were wrong, and I am a strong-minded person. In my twenties, I told my family and friends that I was gay. I began to have sex carefully, but I was never in any relationship.

When I reached 30, and after some therapy, I began to feel ready to try enter into a relationship. In January 2000 I took the HIV test, together with my best friend, since it was the "millennium change." My test turned out to be HIV-positive, and the shock was devastating. I was very far from having a wild sex life - it was just very bad luck. Like many other HIV-positive persons, I later came to understand what my doctor told me following diagnosis:  "You are going to be fine. HIV is no longer a death sentence." The words were a great comfort. I still had so much unlived life in me.

Life with HIV was difficult at first, but slowly I came to accept the new situation, the same way I had earlier come to accept my sexual orientation. But because of Article 155 must I, as a virile, and still fairly young man, now live like a monk - an asexual monk? What kind of life will that be? Would I be able to live like that?

Last time I had sex was some months ago. I was dating a nice guy I was attracted to, and we were at his place. Sweet music was playing. I lied and said I did not have the energy to have sex after my gym work out, but that I would like a massage instead. I got the massage. A very nice massage. The atmosphere got hot. I felt both excited and uneasy. He said he wanted to have sex with me. I said no. We continued with massage and kissing for a while. "Just a little?" He asked again. I gave in. We began to have sex. We got a condom and lubricant ready. Then the thought hit me hard, like a powerful wave. What if the condom bursts? It could happen, even if it is very unlikely. "Exposure to potential risk," says the HIV Paragraph.

Although I hadn't told him myself, I knew that he knew a guy who knows that I am HIV-positive, someone I met at a seminar for HIV-positive people some years before. But I did not know this guy well, and I share my diagnosis only with people I have known for a long time, and trust, like friends and family. What if he tells his friend about this incident? Perhaps his friend would guess who I am and say, was his name xxxx? 'Ah yes, he has HIV, like me!' What if he then calls the police? Reports me? What if the police comes to my home? Brings me in for interrogation, and puts me in a prison cell? What about my important meeting next week? Mum will be crushed if I go to jail. For having sex.

I pulled away. I used the oldest excuse in the book: headache. And low blood sugar. I put on my clothes and left. I never called him again. I have thought about him several times.

I will not be able to live my life without sex. I'm not a big fan of the word injustice. Nature is not fair. But Paragraph 155 criminalises me for wanting to live a full life - and that includes a sex life. Me - who has studied law just because everyone said I was always so fair and wise.

I feel like a victim, even though I often criticise the role of the victim. A victim of this discriminatory law that criminalises the sexuality of people affected by HIV. A victim of prejudice related to HIV, which few seem to bother to care about. Norwegian society likes its scapegoats. I want to remove the criminalisation of sexuality in Norway. I want a good life. In Norway. In 2011. And in the rest of the years I will live in this beautiful country.


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Comments on Edwin Bernard's blog entry "Tell your story - how are you impacted by HIV criminalization?"

It has had no effect on me other than to remind me that having sex without disclosure is an unwise idea.. It did not prevent me from getting tested and no one I know has ever confessed that they haven't gotten an HIV test because they're afraid of disclosure issues if they test positive.

However, I do agree that too much of the burden is placed on those who are HIV+. Sex takes at least two people to participate. Even if someone isn't HIV+ there is still syphilis, herpes, hepatitis B, chlamydia, etc. Even if you know someone to be HIV- it is still a good idea to use condoms.

But it is still a good idea to disclose. The people who are against disclosure laws are usually the ones who want to be able to have sex with people without telling. I have no desire to put someone at risk unless they are aware and have chosen to accept that risk.

i can not say i have enjoyed experiencing the fear of HIV-criminalization, i certainly haven't. in my own case i apparently even had some degree of investigation of my sex life by Homeland Security(!) after discussing my (always open, full disclosure) sex life in a non-gay online setting. not to mention that the laws criminalizing non-disclosure essentially taint my own ethical impulse to disclose my status with the self-interest of avoiding prosecution

frankly, i do not share any hope of decriminalization, and i'm not sure it's a good idea myself. if i were being raped (by anyone), i wouldn't feel the slightest responsibility to disclose my status unless i knew it would stop the rapist...but beyond that, there r extremely few sexual partners who do NOT have the right to know the HIV-status of the other partner(s). i am not moved by any ethical arguments to the contrary...and most practical arguments r fig leafs against that responsibility as well.

furthermore, in my experience the great bulk of Americans feel much as i do. responsibility for infection prevention is indeed shared, but that does not extend to making disclosure optional...and there is simply no public support for the option to not disclose hiv+ status, either. quite the opposite.

as such, i have growing qualms about the recent effort to decriminalize HIV at the Federal level...if that recently introduced Congressional bill decriminalizing HIV does NOT die in committee, it is likely to become a radioactive political football over the next year's election cycle.

when (not if) the Tea Party and Evangelicals and other hard-line conservatives leap onto this effort to demonize it as best they can, does anyone really think they won't GAIN significant political victory as a result?

my impression from recent coverage on the matter from POZ.com and other sources is that prosecutions of HIV+ people have increased and gotten more egregious over the years. given that even ostensible "allies" like gay-male sex columnists Dan Savage and Michael Alvear of Manhunt have viciously attacked non-disclosure (and the ASO's that tacitly accept it, in Savage's case), who in their right mind thinks Middle America's reaction will be any less vicious? Alvear even went so far as to insist his readers out the serostatus of anyone they know to be HIV+ to
their friends, *just in case their friends MIGHT have sex with that person!*

it seems like the effort to decriminalize HIV is already backfiring, and i see the activist community running headlong into a minefield on the issue.

i'd suggest some private polling research on the matter of national attitudes to HIV decriminalization posthaste. i'm not looking to be Willie Horton in 2012...no one should be.

i have lived in nyc most of my life. it was in this state i became positive. i never felt discriminated in nyc and was sexually active. i took it upon myself to protect any casual partner without disclosing. but i would disclose to a potential partner. i never felt scared, i lived my life normally. it was when i moved to my hometown in puerto rico, that HIV reared its ugly head. i never had a problem disclosing. so i disclosed to a group of gay ppl within a 'gay church' i was part of.. while many knew my condition some wanted to date me, but were not my type so i turned them down. i was looking for a monogamous relationship and one day i went to san juan to a club with a church friend and saw this dude i was attracted to. luckily the church friend i was with knew him, so i was introduced to the guy.. we started talking and we took him home. but the church friend wanted a threesome, i didnt. church friend got angry. before i went on to having intimacy with the guy, i told him i was positive. he was nice, and told me i was a brave guy for disclosing and that he wouldnt mind dating me.. the problem was, he was told behind my back to be careful with me since i was sick... i thank GOD i had disclosed for i dont know what would have been the reaction had i lied!!!.... now i live in ohio, where hiv is a crime, it has changed my life tremendously when i found out hiv is a crime in this state!! i asked myself why?, i stopped dating and my depression started taking the best of me, i felt worthless for some reason, i had never seen myself the way the state of ohio made me feel... i thank God i met someone positive like myself and im in a relationship right now... i think sex is a responsibility for everyone involved not just the affected person, we all know HIV exists, therefore if a person is negative they should be the more careful and avoid exposure, why should the law be biased?? now-a-days noone should be having unprotected sex, not only cuz hiv but any other stds!.. i think its wrong, and unfair...

I am from New Zealand. The legal situation here (and this is from a Court ruling) is that so long as the HIV+ partner takes all reasonable precautions i.e. uses a condom and doesn't expose their partner to blood or semen, that is all that is required. If the condom breaks by accident there is no criminal offence even if they have not disclosed.

If someone with HIV deliberately removed or damaged a condom that would be criminal - but very hard to prove.

Nearly all the prosecutions here have been for heterosexual men not using condoms. The court has ruled that while disclosure might be an ethical requirement it is not a legal one. The only major gay male case came about with a guy who repeatedly denied he was HIV+ to his sexual partners. He deliberately chose young men from online sites, (the youngest was 16 when he got infected), persuaded them not to use condoms & infected at least 15 before he was stopped. He was arrested and hanged himself in jail before his trial.I'd argue his case is exceptional - his behaviour was sociopathic rather than that of a typical PWLHA and symptomatic of much deeper personal issues.

The effect has been mixed. While many poz people here now prefer to disclose, even though it is well publicised that we don't have to, others still feel too stigmatised to do so. Most HIV neg people think disclosure should be mandatory.


I think there are situations when transmission should be treated as a criminal event, such as the one I outlined above - but these should fall into the same category as other criminal acts of reckless endangerment - there shouldn't be a separate "HIV Transmission" law. Sometimes HIV transmission is an act of criminal negligence or wrongdoing - sometimes it is just bad luck - that distinction needs to be maintained.

My personal feeling is are we our all responsible for our own health !! If your an adult and old enough to sexual relations ,everyone knows the risks involved .
It's not as if HIV was just discovered as a new disease ,sad thing is the stigma
attached to it even among the gay community .
The U.S. had a travel ban for years that did not allow those of us that were poz to
enter there country ,so perhaps for those that think being poz is a crime the real crime is ignorance .
Same sex couples in the U.S. want the right to get married considering how long it took to have the travel ban lifted do not think it will be happening anytime soon .
Being a long time survivor pre meds i blame know one but myself for being poz ,
for all those that want to point a finger at others where's your compassion and humanity .
Just remember Karma one day it may be you being thrown in Jail .
Namaste

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This page contains a single entry by Edwin Bernard published on August 4, 2011 1:56 PM.

Don't bother locking up your daughters, just lock up black men with HIV was the previous entry in this blog.

In Sweden, you're damned if you do (disclose) and damned if you don't is the next entry in this blog.

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