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The Shit People Say About AIDS…


I confess. I am totally addicted to the "Shit People Say" YouTube phenomenon. It started with "Shit Girls Say" and went wildly viral from there.

In the video above, "AIDS" is part of the "Shit Nobody Says." (Read to the bottom and see POZ's own video..."Shit People Say About AIDS.")

That AIDS is something nobody talks about is a large reason why we can't stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. It's not on the tips of our tongues nearly as much as it should be. Poking fun of it is one way to get the conversation started.

It happened the other night when, at a dinner party, my newly-divorced friend said she'd recently started dating. As she described her encounters with several different men another friend joked to her, "You better be careful or you'll end up on Regan's medications."

At first, I was stunned. Did someone just crack an AIDS joke? At my expense?

The whole table of 10 went silent. Everyone stared at me.
"Are you implying," I said slowly, "that because I have HIV it means I was promiscuous?"

"No! No!!!," my friend stammered, "I'm not saying that. I know you weren't promiscuous." She paused for an awkward breath then looked at our newly-back-on-the-market friend and said, "And I'm not saying you're promiscuous either. I was just making a joke! I guess it wasn't funny."

Eager to break the uncomfortable silence and rescue her, I smiled and said, "I love that you just poked fun of HIV in front of me. Do you know how much it means that you are comfortable enough with me and the subject to do that?"

Everyone at the table sighed collectively.

I was grateful she'd done it. After all, we make fun of the Pope and Jews and virgins and blondes and people with breast cancer, Alzheimer's disease and dwarfism so why not people with HIV/AIDS? Part of how we de-stigmatize HIV is to stop exceptionalizing it. If we want people to treat those of us living with HIV just like everyone else, we have to stop demanding special treatment (that said, we can only do that if we offer the same rights and protections to people living with HIV/AIDS offered to people not living with HIV/AIDS). One way to make HIV/AIDS a disease just like any other? Add it to the roster of things we allow ourselves to mock.

Humor has long served as a powerful way to help us face the most difficult things in life. My friend's willingness to crack an AIDS joke suggested that AIDS can be normalized and it was a great ice breaker to a conversation that allowed me to clear up myths and inform others at the table about how you get--and don't get--HIV.

But the fact that her joke focused on promiscuity bothered me.  

My friend knows a helluva lot about HIV/AIDS. She's staunchly supported me and the work POZ does to help people with HIV for years. And yet...there it was, buried deep in the subconscious mind of someone smart about HIV and not bigoted against those of us with the virus: the thought that only promiscuous people contract the virus.

I understand the instinct to connect HIV and promiscuity. It's rooted in our desire to distance ourselves from things that make us uncomfortable. The more we make that which we don't like "other" the less we have to associate that thing with ourselves. By rendering HIV a disease that only "other" kinds of people get (in this case, promiscuous), people can tell themselves that they don't have to worry about it. That it can't and therefore won't happen to them. Lots of straight people allow themselves to think HIV is a gay disease. Many white people say it's mostly a black disease. Some African Americans say it's an African disease. Older people say young people get it. Young people say it's a disease of other generations. Women say it's a man's disease. Married people say single people are at risk. And many people tell themselves that no matter what gender, sexual orientation, age or skin color makes someone more likely to contract HIV, it's ultimately the promiscuous, deviant, derelict people who get it.

Of course, none of that is true. Married, single, divorced, widowed, straight, gay, bisexual and transgender, old, young, frisky and frigid men and women of all races and ethnicity get HIV. Children and babies get HIV. I know evangelical Christians with HIV, a Texas Ranger, several Catholic priests, heroin addicts, the president of a sorority, socialites and sex workers with HIV. You get the point. Every kind of person can contract HIV.

Associating HIV only with high risk behavior gives people the excuse to say, "Well, since I don't do that I can't have HIV." Hence why people still contract HIV and partly why 1 in 5 Americans living with the virus doesn't know it.

It's true that certain acts are more risky than others when it comes to HIV transmission. And the more risks you take and the more often you take them the higher your overall risk. But even doing certain things once (a situation that would lead very few people to label such behavior as "risky" or to consider the person doing it "promiscuous") can put you at risk for HIV. Most people understand that a woman can get pregnant from one act of unprotected sex. But too few people understand that HIV can spread in a single sexual encounter.

Of the many dangerous myths surrounding HIV, the misperception that you have to be promiscuous to get it is among the worst. Not only because it's not true but because one person's "promiscuous" is someone else's "prudish" and therefore the label is misleading when trying to serve as an absolute predictor of HIV risk.

It is myths, misperceptions and misinformation like the association people wrongly make between HIV and promiscuity that inspired POZ to create our "Shit People Say About AIDS" video.

We offer it up as license to laugh at the disease in the hopes of normalizing it. We hope it serves as a conduit to the life-saving truths on and hope it will lead to many a fact-filled conversation about the virus. Most of all, we hope it helps HIV/AIDS bust out of its silo of silence. Because too much death and sufferinghave resulted from too much silence for too long around HIV/AIDS. Check it out and add a comment:


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Comments on Regan Hofmann's blog entry "The Shit People Say About AIDS…"

this is a trip

I love Regan, but to say we make fun of Jews and women with breast cancer.... come on, there is a limit. A TASTE limit.... breast cancer is not funny. I for one have never heard a joke about it. Sorry.
Simon C.

You said:
"After all, we make fun of the Pope and Jews and virgins and blondes and people with breast cancer, Alzheimer's disease and dwarfism so why not people with HIV/AIS(sic)?"
Sorry, only the lowest of the low make fun of people's conditions that they were born with. When you do that, you act as an oppressor and amplify the oppression by your mocking humor.
You mix up people with power, the Pope, with people who are often powerless. Your making fun of categories of people serves to marginalize them further. I find what you said in that paragraph disgusting. What people like me, a Jew and a gay activist community organizer, are trying to do is find the humanity that links us. We need to break down what divides us so as to unite us in our common struggle to be fulfilling and contributing human beings, not trying to divide us further which your nonchalant hate so amply illustrates.

Gerald A. Gerash

This is a great post Reagan. As usual you provide an enlightened and wise perspective on what ways we can best reduce the stigma of this virus, which is key a key part in defeating its continued spread and the stigma-related difficulties those of us who are poz face day to day. Thank you always.

Ragan, love this blog. You seem to be showing how shallow our thoughts can be sometimes if not all the time in regard to taking risks or things that we are not able to understand or how we can easily live in denial because we want to feel confortable doing things we know that are not good for us. Nevertheless, promiscuity has nothing to do with hiv and promiscuity is not bad just like society sees it. I believe that promiscuity is the best thing that can happen to anyone though I am not so far. HIV is caused for not paying attention just like anything bad can happen to you for not paying attention for that one second. As you pointed out, HIV can come from that virgin, priest, that best friend forever, that husband or wife, that thoughtful and intelligent co-worker, etc. I mean we just have to pay attention all the time and have that great self-love to guide us all. No matter the temptation, know that good looking people will never cease to exist so wear your condoms. Good looking people have been there before your great-grandparents and will always be here. I do not have hiv and never wish this virus on anybody but it is time that those with the virus should stand up and live their lives in the open and not in the shadows. I mean who gives a shit. No matter how you are, there will always be people who like and dislike you so what? For people with HIV seeing stigma all over the place is just plain distorted thinking. Yes some people would definitely treat you bad because they do not understand a shit but some people would as well treat you good because they understand a shit. Come out from your shadows and live your life. Do you really know what is like to be alive?

@Gerald - Why did you distinguish things that 'people are born with'? Hope that you're not making any point that because someone is born with an ailment they're more innocent than someone who contracts the most deadly infectious disease in human history - we are no less innocent than people with congenital conditions - how someone gets a chronic disease whether through their genes or through a virus still un-cured is not the point. the point that I think is most important is that HIV is singled out as being had by people who are somehow less 'good' or 'innocent' than people with other conditions which is just BS. It's offensive. I sure as heck wasn't promiscuous when i was infected and didn't have 1/10 the sex of average men at my age when i was infected.

back in the early 90's I had taken a trip to LA it happened to be around World AIDS Day. There was a comedian on the tv making jokes about living with AIDS. So people making jokes about living with AIDS have been around as long as I have lived with AIDS and then some!

To Simon C., Here's a breast cancer joke for you. Ironically to this article, it was told by one of the first out HIV+ comedians on an episode of "Out There" from Comedy Central back in the 90s.

The comedian, whose name I don't remember, told a story about belonging to a support group for people with serious to terminal diseases. He explained that one of the members, Jan, needed to have a breast removed, and how everyone in the group went right down to the victim role, in those sad low tones when Jan returned to group.

He, on the other hand waved wildly, and yelled across the room, "Hey Jan!" "Nice tit!" Jan laughed, his t-cells went up, and he decided it was a fabulous day.

Sometimes I think it's okay to rent space in the victim role, the self-pity role, the depressed space, the angry, and all the other places, as long as we don't take up residency in these places. Sometimes laughter really IS the best medicine.

what an interesting set of contradictions. as someone who is open about my status and my wild sex life in all settings, i have spent time in online forums where the depth and venom of attack is vastly beyond the extremely mild joke Regan's friend made to the other friend. it has never failed to amaze me as to how friendly most of these attackers were whenever i'd meet any face-to-face. most felt very sheepish in my presence, a few simply avoided me carefully, and one i almost got in a fistfight with...a fight i would subsequently regret NOT having.

regarding most of them, however, i feel i did the right thing by accepting their apologies...i often found the insults unimaginative and the venom half-hearted anyway. quite often i would openly tell them this, and give them the opportunity to try harder then n there, or online later. never happened, excepting the one guy i should have beat down.

bigoted humor is eternal, and often vitally funny. it's certainly a classic tool for oppression, but reflexively reducing it to that alone is a tactic best left to shrill activists. the Industry Of Political Correctness has indeed grown large, but the opposition to it is growing faster and wider...the tools used by activists to propagate PC attitudes (such as broadcast and print media, and Government regulation) are themselves diminishing in wider credibility year after year.

the reason for this is that human beings manifest traits that often conflict: like most primates, we have a basic disposition toward fairness in all transactions and interactions...but like most primates, we also have an instinctive disposition to determine who's "in" and who's "out" of Our Group, and WHY. offensive humor will always bubble up from our collective psyches as a result.

i've met many shrill, tendentious and overbearing activists over the course of my 40 years...especially in college. i've found that such activists rarely carry any weight at all outside their particular interest-group (often not even within that group)...and conversely, that the most effective activists carried weight both within their own interest group AND in the wider Society. most of the campus-activists i've known smash into a brick wall of failure when they try to be as strident in the wider political arena.

the 8 responses i see preceding my own here illustrate why shrill tendentiousness carries co little weight...inadvertent hypocrisy and exasperating oversensitivity inevitably emerge in such exchanges. the more forceful anyone tries to be, the more they inevitably contradict their own supposed enlightenment as their own base human nature bubbles up into their expressions.

Regan Hoffman's evolution here is very interesting...and continuing in real time, i'd wager. i recall (and have called out) a column of hers awhile back wherein she decried the stigma that everyone who has HIV is "one of them", aka the promiscuous, the drug-addicted, the suicidal, the morally dissolute, or the Eternally Disadvantaged. "That's not ME! that's not alot of us!" seemed to be her point.

during the recent PrEP controversy i noticed that some of Regan's attacks on PrEP used similar language, implying that PrEP could only ever benefit people she takes pains to disassociate herself from..."a profit-driven sex toy for rich Westerners, disguised as a harm-reduction and prevention tool for disenfranchised people at risk for HIV".

to be fair, this was her "real world" analysis, whereas "in principle" she supports PrEP as an advance in prevention technology...however, her overall tone makes those rich Westerners sound a bit morally dissolute, apparently outside the in-group of people she is willing to help protect from HIV-infection. at the very least, she seems to feel that such people as PrEP would "really" be for r people who should wait in line...that PrEP should only be considered once there is universal access to treatment.

i note that to note again that there is no such thing as the Enlightened Person, at least not in the perfect sense propagated by Political Correctness...the conflict-prone part of our nature is intrinsic, too much so for mere rhetoric and politicking. as such, we can only improve our social inclusiveness incrementally, with a rhythm of give-and-take.

even in the course of her anecdote, i see Regan experiencing that realization. her initial shock-Shock-SHOCKED! reaction to the joke was a bit extreme, at least in that in shows that she is sheltered a bit from just how common such stereotypes are...and then her comment defusing the situation goes a bit overboard in the opposite direction, being just a bit too forgiving and too dismissive of their significance, almost cloyingly so.

i've enjoyed this column of yours, Regan, and appreciate the psychological gymnastics u perform in this blog to try and find the disposition that is ultimately most workable and most affirming for HIV+ people living in the societies we do.

this is a gymnastics routine all of us must learn and personalize...not just for HIV, but for whatever it is that makes us similar to and different from everyone else.

easy answers will usually prove wrong.

I think that was a hilarious joke and when people can joke about it, having HIV is not so ugly and ominous and you're not this "diseased" person people want to steer clear from.

So lighten up. You SHOULD have laughed - and laughed hard!

I am a middle age heterosexual male with HIV, my thoughts on AIDS prior to being infected were cold and callous, I made jokes and felt that this could never happen to me but drugs and alcohol can definitely impair ones common sense and here I am, I have never been sick and would probably still have no clue that I was positive if I hadn't been tested, It's been 2 years since I found out and only 2-3 people know about it, I would rather walk in the shadows, because People still do give a shit, especially when you have 300 co workers, I just put HIV out of mind and go about my business as I always did.

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This page contains a single entry by Regan Hofmann published on February 11, 2012 2:11 PM.

Why AIDS Can't Lose in the Super Bowl was the previous entry in this blog.

Will Borrowing From PEPFAR Kill Paul? is the next entry in this blog.

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