Criminalizing HIV-Positive Individuals Won't Help Black Women

by Altheria Gaston

The first time I heard of HIV/AIDS was in 1988 as an 8th grade student. All the 8th graders had been summoned to the auditorium for “the talk.” I remember leaving the auditorium with the impression that HIV/AIDS was a gay men’s disease. Never would I have imagined that in 25 years, Black women would lead HIV/AIDS statistics.

Consider these HIV/AIDS facts from the Center for Disease Control (CDC): (1) African Americans are the racial/ethnic group most affected by HIV; and (2) the estimated rate of new HIV infections for African American women was 20 times that of white women and almost 5 times that of Hispanic/Latino women. Most new HIV infections among African American women are attributed to heterosexual contact.

Needless to say, the rate of HIV infection in our communities is alarming. In addition to the health consequences and social stigma faced by those infected with HIV/AIDS, another challenge is becoming increasingly important: criminalization. Just last week in Missouri, Michael Johnson was convicted of infecting one gay sex partner with HIV while also exposing four others to the virus. He reportedly told two of his partners that he was disease-free when asked. Johnson could be sentenced to life in prison. According to the CDC, “In 24 states, laws require persons who are aware that they have HIV to disclose their status to sexual partners and 14 states require disclosure to needle-sharing partners.” (To find out if your state has HIV disclosure laws, check this map.)

If Blacks are disproportionately affected by HIV, it is likely that Blacks are also disproportionately punished by HIV criminalization laws. The most obvious consequence of breaking these laws is prison. But there is also a concern that the laws may dissuade individuals from getting tested, fearing that once they know their status, they could be punished for not revealing it. In fact, the Center for HIV Law and Policy argues that criminalization promotes fear and stigma. This is one of the ten reasons they oppose HIV criminalization. We know that this criminalization, in addition to certain drug and weapon laws, unfairly targets Blacks. In order to avoid being the objects of punitive HIV laws, we should become proactive in taking control of our own sexual health.

In order to that, we need to have several interrelated solution-focused conversations about HIV and Black women. The first conversation has to be about self-protection. We must value ourselves enough to demand protection each and every time we engage in sexual intercourse. I am reminded of a quote that is attributed to writer Kola Boof: "The Black woman is the most unprotected, unloved woman on earth… she is the only flower on earth… that grows unwatered."

If this appraisal is true, then, no matter how cliché the message, we must protect and love ourselves. In the case of HIV/AIDS, our very lives depend on it. A second necessary conversation is about practicing safer sex, which could lead to a reduction in HIV transmission. This conversation should be judgment-free and avoid policing our sexuality or our sexual behavior. Rather it should equip us with knowledge and empower us with the desire to protect ourselves. Black women, in fact all women, need to know that: (1) the risk of contracting HIV through vaginal sex is higher for women than for men; (2) having an existing sexually transmitted disease or infection (STD/STI) increases the likelihood of women contracting HIV; and (3) Black women’s risk for HIV infection is greater because we tend to have sex with people in our communities.

We also need to provide women with instructions on how to communicate with current and potential partners about protection, testing, and our sexual health. Despite the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS, we must have enough integrity to reveal our status to partners and perhaps the courage to demand that our partners show evidence of their status to us. At the very least, if we are unsure about their status or our own, we must insist on using protection.

And last, if we feel that HIV criminalization laws unjustly punish Black women and other women of color (see “Ten Reasons to Oppose the Criminalization of HIV Exposure or Transmission”), then we should work to change legislation in our states. As we promote #BlackLivesMatter, we mustn’t forget that central to our quality of life is our health and wellbeing. The threat of HIV/AIDS in our communities affects both. While systematic changes require time and tremendous efforts, there are some things that we can start doing today to reduce HIV infection in our communities: learn more about how HIV is spread, use a condom every time we have sex, get tested regularly, and avoid sharing drug needles. And if you are already HIV positive, taking prescribed medication is the best way to stay healthy.

We are not criminals because of our sexual choices, and we don’t have to accept anyone else’s morals. We can choose sexual liberty AND sexual responsibility.

Peace, love, and health to my sisters.

Photo: Shutterstock

Altheria Gaston is a regular contributor at For Harriet.

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