A night of condom-safe sex could end in a 25-year prison sentence in some states if you withhold one secret: You are HIV-positive. In 35 states, it is illegal to expose someone to HIV, and in 29, it’s a felony. In none of these circumstances do you actually need to transmit the disease in order be tried as a felon, you just have to have sex with someone that didn’t know your most vulnerable, and perhaps embarrassing, secret.
Nick Rhoades, HIV-positive, is one such victim of the strict laws that surround HIV disclosure in the United States. Rhoades was sentenced to 25 years -the maximum sentence – in prison for having sex with a 22-year-old who didn’t know he had HIV, even though he used a condom and was taking antivirals that greatly suppressed the virus. ProPublica reports that after public health officials petitioned the sentence, Rhoades was left with 5 years of probation and a lifetime on the sex offender registry. This isn’t one ridiculous stand-alone case, either. Rhoades is 1 of 514 cases in the last decade where HIV-positive men and women have been convicted for criminal transmission.
While the effort to criminalize HIV transmission is a public health issue and not a means to embarrass those diagnosed, it might not be the most effective way to curtail the spreading of the disease. According to the CDC, of the 1.1 million people living with HIV in the United States, almost one in five do not know they are infected. Of those infected, half of them obtain the disease from someone who doesn’t know they are infected.
Which means, the mixing of public health and law enforcement might do more to punish the sick, stigmatize the disease, and keep courtrooms full than it will to diminish the rate of infection. The main reason patients claim not disclosing the disease is because of the remaining AIDS taboo and the social ramifications it could have on their job, friends, and love life. Telling someone something personal is hard, and when you’re living with a potentially deadly disease, the weight of that reveal becomes heavier.
Though it is important to disclose all diseases to all new sex partners, the high penalties for HIV transmission and not say, tuberculosis, syphilis, or venereal diseases, says a lot about the American position on the HIV virus. Perhaps we’re leaving it to the courts to influence HIV transmission because we’ve stopped taking the real threat of HIV seriously. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, the number of Americans who view HIV as a major health problem is significantly lower than it was ten years ago. But Rhoades and the hundreds of people that will spend their lives as felons for keeping a sex secret can attest that, no matter who we lock up or under what circumstances, it is certain that we will not be able to prosecute HIV away.
Image via Veer.