This article originally appeared on xtra.ca.
It’s two-thirty in the morning and the bedroom door bursts
open. To a thumping disco beat, a man and a woman enter, clearly in the throes
of lust. Within seconds, they’ve torn one another’s clothes off. Seen through
peculiar clouds of mist, they begin to have passionate, rough sex to a strange
soundtrack of eerie noises.
Their faces are obscured but guttural gasps and moans fill the room. As the
rutting hits a fever pitch, the deep-thrusting Romeo’s face is suddenly
revealed. You’ll probably recognize this sex machine. Is it Fabio? George
Clooney? Brad Pitt? Guess again.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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It’s Adolf Hitler. Complete with trademark kooky mustache, gasping for breath
with a demented look of orgasmic lust on his face. I’m not joking.
Why has Der Führer risen from the grave to pick up a woman at a nightclub in
2009 and taking her home to “do the nasty”? Because, to the people who came up
with this ludicrous AIDS TV commercial, unprotected sex that could lead to HIV
transmission is just like getting screwed by Hitler. Still scratching your
head? It’s because "AIDS is a mass murderer." And so is Hitler. Get
Wait, there’s more. The lurid advertisement, soon to grace TV and movie screens
across Germany, is accompanied by an equally tacky poster campaign. It seems
Adolf is not the only one getting some — the imagery depicts innocent German
women being defiled by Saddam Hussein and Joseph Stalin.
And in case the history angle starts to feel tired, there is also a rap song,
in German, "Aids ist ein Massenmörder" by Big Danny. I have to admit
that it’s pretty catchy. The music video is shot — of course — in a cemetery.
There’s a banner ad for websites featuring a conveyor belt of body bags. The
"AIDS is a mass murderer" campaign is even on Twitter (@AIDSMASSMURDER).
"The campaign is designed to shake people up," according to its
creators, AIDS-awareness group Regenbogen e.V. and ad agency Das Comitee, who
prepared the materials for World AIDS Day (December 1) but have unleashed them
on the public a bit early. Das Comitee’s creative director Hans Weishäupl told
the (UK) Telegraph that the thinking was that the ad’s shock value could help
prevent new infections.
But scare tactics and misrepresentations of people with HIV
will not help anyone protect themselves, according to German journalist, Rainer
Hoermann. "Fear is never a good advisor," he says, noting that the
campaign suggests those with HIV/AIDS are "oversexed mass murderers."
Describing the Hitler debacle as "a step backward," he recommends
another German HIV campaign, "I Know What I Do." This site (http://www.iwwit.de/)
focuses on personal responsibility and normalizes HIV, allowing people to talk
realistically about their fears and their health, he says.
This campaign is a joke. There is nothing shocking or cutting edge about it.
Its horny Hitler is hilarious. The fact that he, Hussein and Stalin are all
deceased adds a certain necrophiliac irony to the whole cartoonish exercise.
For a campaign with a digital component, they seem to have forgotten the
lessons of Godwin’s Law, which points out the absurdity of making online
comparisons to Adolf Hitler. If anything is disturbing, it’s the fact that the
"logic" behind this campaign makes sense to anyone — especially an
AIDS-awareness group like Regenbogen, whose members include people with HIV.
"AIDS" is not a "mass murderer." It’s a health condition
caused by an untreated viral infection. HIV is the virus that can lead to AIDS,
usually after many years and in the absence of medication. HIV is a significant
medical condition, and there are countless reasons why anyone who doesn’t have
that virus should avoid getting it, and that anyone who does have it should
avoid passing it on to anyone else.
But it doesn’t help anyone to confuse HIV and AIDS with one another, or to
exaggerate the impact of HIV by inextricably linking it to death. Dr Joseph
McGowan of North Shore University Hospital recently counseled a parent about
her 10-year-old son’s HIV infection on the medical website TheBody.com:
"If he is monitored carefully there is no reason your son ever has to
progress to AIDS. He can expect to live a very long life." This is the
current reality of HIV for most people in developed countries. The constant,
hyper-emotional assertion that HIV equals guaranteed death ought to be calmly
challenged every time it rears its insistent head. Neither is it
And since "AIDS" is not a person, let alone a "murderer,"
who are we really talking about here? Of course, we are talking about people
who have HIV in their bodies. The Regenbogen campaign isn’t actually about AIDS
itself at all. It’s about the risks of (presumably unprotected) sex with regard
to HIV transmission, arguing that passing on HIV is akin to Nazism, and
suggesting that the other person engaging in sex has no role other than that of
victim. Notably, the mass murderers in the campaign are all men and their
victims are all women. Meanwhile, the most recent high-profile
HIV-criminalization case in Germany targeted a woman, Nadja Benaissa of the pop
group No Angels.
Indeed, the women depicted in the Regenbogen advertisements
are basically treated as objects, as vessels of infection. As sexual educator
Leanne Cusitar points out, “Women are not helpless. Women have agency over
their bodies. They may struggle with that like anyone does, especially given
power inequities with men—but that doesn’t mean that agency ceases to exist.”
Of course it was easy for this campaign’s creators to rely on standard Western
cultural tropes about female sexuality. I’d love to see a mainstream AIDS
campaign that could embody a vision of women’s sexuality that eschews
And did the campaigners not think twice about wrongly comparing human sexual
behaviour to the Holocaust, and inappropriately demonizing people with HIV in
the process? The insistence on seeing HIV transmission as villainy obscures the
most stubborn fact about the epidemic — far from being the realm of malevolent
or sociopathic people, HIV is transmitted through behaviors that are otherwise
completely natural and normal, such as penetrative intercourse — or behaviors
that may often be hard to control rather than "intentional," such as
needle sharing in the context of addiction. We already know that those most
infectious with HIV usually don’t know they have it, and that most women and
men with diagnosed HIV take great pains to prevent further transmission.
Of course, Regenbogen and Das Comitee don’t have a monopoly on hyperbolic
exaggeration about the impact of HIV, or on promoting the idea that HIV
transmission is the work of bad people. In Canada, the legal system adopted the
surreal notion that when HIV transmission occurs, this means one person is
attempting to murder another (Canada was the first legal jurisdiction to use
the charge of “murder” in relation to HIV transmission, in the case against
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU),
roughly half of U.S. states have HIV-specific laws criminalizing sexual contact
by people with HIV. Internationally, the Global Network of People Living with
HIV (GNP+) is tracking such laws around the world, and the picture is not
pretty. As GNP+ points out, these laws are based in an exaggerated sense of the
risk and harm of unprotected sex, and do little to prevent transmission.
The "AIDS is a mass murderer" Hitler campaign
isn’t the first time the phrase "mass murder" has been applied to the
AIDS pandemic. In 2003, Stephen Lewis, then the UN’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS
in Africa, described the crisis as "mass murder by complacency." He
wasn’t talking about people’s sex lives though. He was talking about treatment
access. Medical advances mean that HIV is no longer necessarily fatal — if you
have access to drugs. For so many people around the world, that still isn’t the
case, and that is something that’s truly shocking and worthy of our anger and
Let’s stop clouding the issues with scare tactics and Swastikas — and focus on
what we really need: realistic sex education targeting specific at-risk
communities, new prevention tools beyond condoms to help people play safe, and
access to medical treatment so all people with HIV can be as uninfectious as
possible and live long, healthy lives.