Sex, Lies and HIV: When what you don’t tell your partner is a crime
The second in a series of stories on HIV stigma and criminalization.
Being HIV-positive can still carry a powerful stigma. Since July 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice has opened at least 49 investigations into alleged HIV discrimination. The department has won settlements from state prisons, medical clinics, schools, funeral homes, insurance companies, day care centers and even alcohol rehab centers for discriminating against HIV-positive people. Individuals with HIV may also fear that news of their status will spread to third parties, leading to rejection, embarrassment or ostracism for themselves or even their loved ones.
In September, a disability rights group accused the Pea Ridge, Ark., school district of kicking out three siblings after officials learned that members of their family had HIV. The family’s lawyers declined to comment. The school district did not respond to requests for interviews but issued a statement acknowledging that it had “required some students to provide test results regarding their HIV status in order to formulate a safe and appropriate education plan for those children.”
In romantic or sexual settings, people with HIV often report fear of rejection, abandonment and stigmatization.
“My first girlfriend in middle school — her mom banned her from seeing me, and it took me five years before I felt comfortable to try again,” said Reed Vreeland, a 27-year-old New Yorker who was born with HIV. Vreeland works as the communications coordinator for the Sero Project, a nonprofit advocacy group that campaigns against HIV exposure laws, which it denounces as “HIV criminalization.”
In 2006, Vreeland started dating a classmate at Bard College in upstate New York. He disclosed his HIV status on their second date.
“What’s going through your head is being scared of being rejected,” he said. “It’s scary to give someone that power.”
Vreeland and his girlfriend continued to date. Last spring, they married at a ceremony in the Bronx. “It took me a long time to propose, because I thought I would die,” he re-called. “I was saying, ‘Well, OK, why should I propose if I’m scared of dying in 10 years? And if we do have a kid, then I might die and leave my kid without a father, like I grew up without a mother.’”
The fear is “choking” and “silencing,” he said. “You’re conscious that saying three letters will change the way people will see you.”
In some cases, people with HIV have been met with violence — and even death — after disclosing their status. Last month, in Dallas, 37-year-old Larry Dunn was sentenced to 40 years in prison for murdering his HIV-positive lover. Police said he used a kitchen knife to stab and kill Cicely Bolden, a 28-year-old mother of two, after she told him about her HIV status. “She killed me,” he told investigators, according to his arrest warrant, “so I killed her.”
Until recently, criminal punishment was virtually un-heard of for infectious diseases other than HIV. Federal and state officials have the authority to quarantine the sick to contain epidemics, but this power was typically granted to health authorities, who are versed in the latest science, not police and prosecutors. Very few criminal statutes take aim at diseases. At least two states have catchall laws against exposing others to “communicable diseases,” but only if exposure happens through routes most commonly associated with HIV, such as sex, sharing needles or donat-ing blood. And while some states have laws that specifically punish exposure to tuberculosis, syphilis or “venereal diseases,” HIV exposure is almost always punished more severely.
But since 2007, three states have added hepatitis B and C to laws criminalizing HIV exposure. Those diseases are most prevalent among the same groups of marginalized people most at risk for HIV: intravenous drug users; gay men, especially those who are Black or Latino; and Black women.
Yet the laws may be unnecessary. In rare cases when someone intentionally tries to spread a virus, prosecutors have been able to put them away using ordinary criminal laws, such as assault or reckless endangerment. In 1997, a New York man named Nushawn Williams was accused of deliberately infecting at least 13 people, including two underage girls, with HIV. Williams pleaded guilty to two counts of statutory rape and one count of reckless endangerment. When his 12-year sentence ended in 2010, state officials kept him confined under laws that allow dangerous psychiatric patients to be locked up. He remains be-hind bars.
In Iowa, Rhoades’ case has prompted some lawmakers to reconsider whether exposing someone to HIV should carry such a heavy punishment.
“Putting somebody in prison for 25 years when they didn’t even transmit HIV is the most absurd thing that the state could be doing,” said Matt Mc-Coy, an Iowa state senator who has introduced legislation to reduce the penalties. “It’s medieval.”
Even Plendl, the man Rhoades had sex with, thinks the law is too harsh. “Do I think he needs to be locked up forever?” Plendl asked. “No. Do I think these laws need to be revisited? Yes.”