HIV and consensual sex an often complicated mix

HIV HandcuffsIt is morally and ethically wrong to have sexual intercourse with someone if you are aware you are HIV positive, especially if the person with whom you engage in sexual activity does not know your HIV status.

More importantly, in Florida, it is illegal to withhold the option of informed consent. A person can’t consent to put him or herself at risk for contracting the virus if they are not informed before engaging sexually with someone who has the virus that causes AIDS.

Last week, nearly a dozen women have come forward accusing a local Greenacres police officer of having unprotected sex with them even though he’s known he’s been HIV positive as far back as 2007. The 37 year-old officer faces two counts of criminal transmission of HIV, which is a felony. Authorities are searching for additional women with whom the officer had sexual relations since his diagnosis.

The Florida statute on this issue is clear and unambiguous. 384.24 states “it is unlawful for any person who has human immunodeficiency virus infection, when such person knows he or she is infected with this disease and when such person has been informed that he or she may communicate this disease to another person through sexual intercourse, to have sexual intercourse with any other person, unless such other person has been informed of the presence of the sexually transmissible disease and has consented to sexual intercourse.”

What this officer did was plain wrong, and his actions will impact his victims for a long time – most probably forever. But, as a society it’s important to look a little closer at why laws like these must be in place and why people risk breaking such laws. This is clearly not an isolated incident; it’s just a reality that has come to light because of the tenacity of a few brave women willing to step forward and find others like themselves to do the same.

There is no justification for putting someone at risk in this way, but we must collectively acknowledge that we haven’t had a stellar history of treating people with HIV well. A few decades ago we were throwing children out of school for testing positive for HIV, evicting persons living with the virus from their homes, terminating people from their jobs, burning down their houses and feeding stigmas about homosexuality, prostitution, promiscuity and IV drug use.

Although we’ve always been aware of the numerous ways one can contract HIV, we’ve allowed messages to reinforce “who” or “what kind of person” contracts the virus to dominate our dialogue instead of staying focused on what specific behaviors put individuals at risk. Knowingly putting someone at risk is wrong, but ignoring the barriers we’ve set firmly in place to deter people who are infected with HIV from being upfront and honest about their status isn’t right either.

No one can assure the people they confide in won’t retaliate, no matter how intimately connected they feel. In this specific case, it is easy to imagine the culture of a police force wouldn’t be all that open and welcome knowing one of their own carries the virus that causes AIDS.

The women in these cases were wronged. The gentleman who put them at risk should have had the fortitude to be honest and open, but we cannot ignore the history of retribution against those carrying HIV and accept – in a very real way – how we discourage people from making honesty a best policy, especially if that knowledge puts the infected person in physical danger.

Treatments for HIV have evolved in ways we could have never imagined. Some believe with early detection and strict compliance to life-saving drugs, people can live long, productive lives. But those lives will be marred with the burden of letting every future sex partner know very intimate details about their lives.

I’ve tested over 1,000 people in this community for HIV and told nearly 100 people they had the virus. No matter how they contacted the virus, the most devastating news to deliver to a newly diagnosed person is the obligation they have to inform past, present and future partners with whom they’ve had unprotected sex that they carry the HIV virus.

For many, that burden is the real life sentence, and that burden can come with unimaginable consequences.

2 thoughts on “HIV and consensual sex an often complicated mix

  1. Thomas

    There’s a bill in congress now that would direct the DOJ to work with states to undo destructive laws like you quote. What this officer did, if he put these women at risk in any way, is assault. But every day people not only come in contact with the virus, but are infected by people who simply decide not to get tested because if they don’t know there is no crime.

    As a public health matter it’s quite a destructive and unhelpful law that anyone interested in the public health and good understands needs to go. Hepatitis C is quite deadly as are other things and we have no law and no penalty for knowing your status and getting healthy. Let’s evolve on this issue.

  2. Thomas – thank you for your reply. I don’t think people think about law the way we do, or its impact on real people’s lives. We have to keep working. I believe in my heart that people want to think, they just don’t have a lot of people with whom to think. Stay in the game – challenge me. Form opinions and broadcast them. All of it is evolution, which you articulate well in your comment. Feel the power of our words – like power we’ve never had before. Take a deep breath and dive into the debate. We will all be the better for it. Thanks you for reading, and for writing – you are a star.

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