The October issue of POZ magazine is just out, and their cover story is about the criminalisation of HIV non-disclosure.
It's a timely reminder that the US prosecutes more HIV-positive individuals than any other country in the world. They go after us not only for allegedly not disclosing our HIV status before sex but also for just being HIV-positive and having sex or doing other things that are so low on the scale of HIV transmission risks that criminal law involvement becomes a stigmatising over-reaction.
In fact, over the summer months I've been so overwhelmed with news reports of prosecutions from the States, that I've had something of a backlog. So, here's a summary of what's been happening in August and September.
- August 14th: In Ocala, Florida, a 39 year-old woman was arrested for not disclosing her HIV status. The complainant was a 58 year-old man who had sex with her once, according to Ocala.com.
- August 21st: In Palm Beach, Florida a 32 year-old woman was arrested for "committing prostitution while HIV-positive, a third-degree felony which can result in up to five years in prison", according to The Palm Beach Post.
- August 27th: In Oklahoma City, a 40 year-old man was arrested following a complaint from another man for not disclosing his HIV status before oral sex. He was charged with "knowingly engaging in conduct reasonably likely to transfer HIV", according to newsOK.com.
- September 3rd: In Memphis, Tennessee, a burglary suspect was charged with criminal HIV exposure after he "he spit blood in the officer’s face and said that he was HIV-positive" during his arrest, according to myeyewitnessnews.com.
- September 11th: In Florence, South Carolina, a 35 year-old was arrested for HIV exposure after a complainant went to police (sex of both individuals unknown). "A person who violates this law is guilty of a felony, and upon conviction, can be fined up to $5,000 or serve up to 10 years in jail," according to WMBFnews.com.
- September 11th: In Dayton, Ohio a 25 year-old "male prostitute is facing felony soliciting and prostitution charges after he was picked up by an undercover cop working as part of a prostitution sting," reports the Dayton Daily News. His name, face and HIV status was also published.
- September 17th: In Fort Smith, Arkansas, a 33 year-old man "charged with knowingly exposing a person to HIV is also the lone suspect in a 2002 homicide in North Carolina", reports the Times Record. The 2002 murder allegedly took place after the female victim discovered the man's HIV status and threatened charges.
- September 21st: In Mattoon, Illinois a 42 year-old man faces HIV exposure charges after a 19 year-old woman complained to police that "he engaged in sex with her, knowing he was HIV positive", reports the Journal-Gazette Times-Courier.
Back to the POZ piece. Page 1 features an overview of US laws; why POZ believes they are wrong and out-of-date; and what HIV-positive individuals can do to protect themselves from prosecution.
If you can get a person to indicate that you have made it perfectly clear that you have HIV, and do so in front of a witness, such proof of disclosure may hold up in court. But unfortunately, many states do not define what constitutes “informed consent.”
Of course, it is also a good idea to use a condom. While not a legal defense in some states, condoms reduce the risk of spreading HIV. Historically, fewer people have been prosecuted for nondisclosure prior to sex when a condom was used.
Most important, the HIV community must lobby local, state and federal government officials and lawmakers to rewrite (or better yet, abolish) the laws that criminalize HIV transmission. Contact your mayor, your congress people, your state senators and their staff. Educate them about HIV risks and transmission, and hold their feet to the fire to ensure that all people living with HIV are not unfairly punished.
Page 2 features "comments posted on POZ.com by readers in response to various news stories and opinion pieces on the subject of criminalizing people living with HIV."
Page 3 has an excellent interview by Regan Hoffman with Catherine Hanssens, executive director of The Center for HIV Law and Policy. Highlights include:
"It’s hard to think of any disease or context in which someone would be put away for 20 years for what is basically an act of consensual sex where no one has been harmed. But the reporting in the mainstream press [about these cases] is informed by huge misunderstandings about how HIV is transmitted and a lot of ignorance about whom HIV affects and what drives the epidemic."Couldn't have said it better myself!
"The things that you would want to do to protect yourself and your partner are not necessarily the things that are going to be rewarded in the courtroom. There is a disincentive to disclose because proof is a difficult thing."
"Disclosure is not the equivalent of latex... The thing that stops transmission is latex, not words."
"The notion that we need a whole other set of standards and separate laws [to prosecute the nondisclosure of HIV] reveals that it’s not the intent to harm that results in a lot of prosecutions, but rather the ignorance about how transmissible HIV is and a revulsion for people who are affected by HIV."