Nick Rhoades, an HIV-positive Iowa man, did exactly what anyone who is privy to a quality sex education program is told to do—he used a condom to protect himself and his partner during a sexual encounter. However, because Rhoades did not disclose his status to this partner, under his state’s law he was arrested, tried, branded a felon, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He was also required to register as a sex offender, which will follow him for the rest of his life.
One crucial piece of information was buried throughout the process: Rhoades’ partner did not contract HIV through their protected, consensual encounter.
The United States has more criminal laws regarding exposure and transmission of HIV than any other country in the world. Over 125 cases were filed between 2008-2011 alone. By the year 2000, two-thirds of states had HIV-specific laws or had added provisions about HIV to existing laws.
As convictions under these laws mount, health professionals are raising concerns that they could have the perverse effect of setting back efforts to prevent HIV in a way that is reminiscent of the early 1980s.
HIV criminalization laws date back to 1990, when federal legislation aimed to fight the spread of HIV, such as the Ryan White Care Act, required states to punish those who infect others as a requirement for benefiting from government funds.
The laws differ greatly from state to state, so much so that someone committing the same act in two different states could face a felony charge in one, and no repercussions in the other.
For example, in California, to be charged with a felony a person must know his or her HIV status but have not disclosed it, and expose someone to the virus via unprotected sex with the specific intent of infecting the other person. (That last part is tricky, since California also explicitly states that knowing one’s status does not in itself mean one is intending to infect another.)
The law in Michigan is much harsher. There, failing to disclose HIV-status before having sex with a partner is a felony, regardless of whether or not a condom is used or exposure to the virus or transmission occurs.
Like Michigan, many states’ laws “don’t always account for consent, and very few talk about condom use,” says Professor Leslie Wolf of Georgia State University, who has done extensive research on various HIV laws and policy.
On appeal, Nick Rhoades was given a suspended sentence after serving a year in prison. His sex offender status remains, despite the absence of intent to transmit the virus, as Rhoades’ new representation, Lambda Legal, said was evident by his use of protection.
At least 25 percent of prosecutions in the U.S. even target behavior that has been proven not to lead to the transmission of the virus, actions like spitting and biting, according to the education and advocacy site AIDSMeds.
For instance, Michigan pursued criminal charges, including terrorism charges, against an HIV-positive man who bit a neighbor during a fight. The state drew on precedent from an earlier Michigan lawsuit that deems HIV-infected blood a harmful biological substance.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention specifically notes that HIV cannot be transmitted via saliva, and in regards to biting, specifies, “each of the very small number of cases has included severe trauma with extensive tissue damage and the presence of blood.”
In 2009, a District Court judge in Maine extended the sentence of a woman who was arrested for faking immigration documents simply because she was HIV-positive and pregnant. The judge personally decided to double the federally recommended jail time for her offense because it would keep her in prison until she gave birth—despite before her arrest having arranged healthcare to ensure she would not transmit the virus to her baby.
“On a larger level, HIV criminalization reinforces this idea that someone who is HIV-positive, they’re dirty, they’re bad…all these stereotypes get reinforced,” said Dr. Marguerita Lightfoot, associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco and Co-Director of the University’s Center for AIDS Prevention Studies, who has worked extensively on HIV-prevention programs, and directly with a diverse range of people infected with or affected by HIV.
Criminalization also revitalizes not just fear and discrimination, but misinformation, contributing to the thinking that HIV remains a death sentence.
Today, HIV is still a serious diagnosis, but antiretroviral drugs have added decades to the lives of HIV-positive individuals, turning it into a manageable, chronic disease.
Penalizing actions like biting and spitting is reminiscent of the 1980s, when little was known about HIV, and epidemiological studies recommended no sexual contact at all with an infected individual.
What’s more, HIV transmission is more complex than is often realized. Epidemiological and biological research has illuminated the disparate difficulty in transmitting HIV, which is highly dependent on the specific behavior and the viral load of the individuals.
For example, if one is on the receiving end of unprotected anal sex from an HIV-positive individual, the risk is significantly higher than if one is an HIV-negative male having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive female. Risk varies if other sexually transmitted infections are present, if the HIV-positive individual was recently infected, if the male partner is circumcised, and a multitude of other factors. These factors are not incorporated into the laws.
As Professor Wolf puts it, the laws “don’t reflect [what we know]. If we’re going to keep them, they have to keep up with what is true.”
The laws also undermine prevention education that emphasizes safe sex by criminalizing individuals after they’ve employed the exact strategies that educators and researchers recommend to prevent HIV transmission, according to Dr. Lightfoot.
Doubts about the efficacy of the laws is born out in a recent study in the American Journal of Public Health, which finds that HIV exposure laws do not significantly influence peoples’ decision to disclose an HIV-positive status or change their behavior. The laws may actually deter people from ever even getting tested and knowing their status, contributing to HIV’s spread.
“What’s the benefit of knowing your status if you are going to be prosecuted for engaging in sexual behavior?” said Dr. Lightfoot. “Our current arguments around HIV-testing are that you can get treatment and live a long life. Criminalization overpowers these ideas,” she adds.
Of course, knowing one’s status can decrease the risk of HIV transmission. HIV-positive people can access treatment that lowers viral loads, decreasing the risk of passing the virus on, and they can also take precautions to protect their partners and stem the spread of the disease.
Furthermore, while most agree that someone intentionally transmitting HIV to another should be punished, situations in which someone intentionally exposes and infects another are very rare.
“There’s an assumption that any time a person who is HIV-positive has sex, it’s risky sex,” said Dr. Lightfoot. “When we demonize folks, we lose track that most HIV-positive folks are doing what they can to prevent transmission.”
There are ways the laws could be modified, says Professor Wolf. “What we could do is improve [the laws] so you account for public health messages and do not punish somebody for engaging in safer sex.”
But as they stand now, the laws serve to mainly add fuel to the firestorm of fear around HIV and the spread of the virus itself. “It’s amazing how much bias, misinformation and stigma is still out there,” says Professor Wolf. “It’s amazingly frightening.”
Edited by Elaine Meyer. Additional research by Lauren Weisenfluh.