Cross-posted with permission from Concurring Opinions.
On Wednesday evening, popular blog Gawker.com aired a post offering a cash reward for the identity of the individual who transmitted HIV to Magic Johnson. It was particularly interested in confirming decades-old rumors that Johnson contracted HIV from sex with a man or transgender woman. The post came on the heels of a Frontline report on HIV in the African American community. Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio faulted Frontline for allowing Johnson to reveal only that he contracted HIV from having sex with numerous women. “[I]t seems odd,” Daulerio wrote, “that there’s been no follow-up about which of these women was HIV positive.”
One can imagine a world in which Johnson’s potential sexual activities might be legitimately newsworthy — say he denied that HIV was sexually transmitted or he waged a public campaign against the LGTBQ community. But that’s not the case. What will generate page hits for Gawker in this case is the public naming and shaming of an individual who is HIV positive and the public humiliation of Johnson if he engaged in something other than straight sex. Daulerio’s post coyly capitalizes on the stigma of HIV and the stigma of non-straight sex. In doing so, it plays to the very prejudices that keep people in the closet about their sexual orientation and their HIV status.
The post reflects more serious problems with how we as a society approach HIV. Sexual transmission of HIV provokes a mix of fear, disgust, anger, and fascination. We want information, but mainly information that give us someone to point to and say, “I’m not like that. That couldn’t happen to me.” As a result, even today people living with HIV are subject to discrimination and abuse, ostracized from their communities and families, and — as the Gawker post aptly demonstrates — derided in the press.
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They are even subject to special criminal sanctions. It is currently a felony in several states to have sex with another person without revealing that you are HIV positive. This makes intuitive sense to a lot of people. But more often than not, these statutes reflect outdated information or even myths. For example, almost no statute provides a defense of having taken the precaution of using condoms. Several statutes criminalize sexual activities like receiving oral sex or using a sex toy, which pose risks of transmission so small they are only theoretical.
The punishments for these offenses are far more serious than for statutes that criminalize serious risk in other contexts. In some states, you may get a smaller sentence for playing Russian Roulette (a one in six chance of death) than having protected sex (less than one in 10,000 chance of transmission, depending on the sex act). This is because most states’ maximum sentence for recklessly placing another person at risk of death or serious injury is one year. In contrast, HIV-exposure statutes carry an average maximum sentence of eleven years.
Why is sexual HIV exposure targeted so fiercely compared to the many other ways we expose each other to risk of death and injury? It’s not that it helps deter risky behavior. Studies have demonstrated that these statutes have no deterrent effect. In fact, several public health advocates argue the statutes may increase HIV transmission by discouraging people from being tested (most statutes only apply to individuals who know their HIV-positive status). This is a big problem given that two-thirds of transmission occurs where the transmitting partner doesn’t know she is HIV-positive.
Perhaps we target HIV-positive individuals in the law, in our communities, and—as Gawker demonstrates — in our media — because we want to believe that they are not like us. Maybe states criminalize levels of risk that are perfectly legal in other contexts because it’s not really about the risk. It’s about the perception that individuals infected with HIV are tainted, and sex with a person living with HIV is in itself harmful regardless of the risk of transmission. This perception allows us to ignore the numerous social and economic problems that contribute to HIV transmission in favor of the myth that the real problem is the type of people who get HIV, and we are not those kinds of people.
Magic Johnson shattered that myth for a lot of people. When he came out as HIV-positive, Americans were forced to recognize that even our heroes can get HIV. Yes, someone out there (perhaps more than one person) transmitted HIV to Johnson, and it’s possible Johnson had non-straight sex. But Gawker isn’t looking to disprove the very real fact that you can get HIV from sex with a woman. The story Gawker is looking for is only a story because some people still believe that HIV and non-straight sex are freakish. They aren’t. Let’s move on.