A workshop about the criminalisation of HIV transmission was never going to be a cheerful event, but it was surprising to me how enthused everyone was in discussing this issue. Even though the day was murky, a selection of our office sacrificed an hour spent in a warm cafe with a bowl of soup, to attend an optional lunchtime session called Behind the Bars that explored the reason behind the criminalisation of HIV in various countries.
Instead of delving through facts and statistics we were to be focussing on fictional but realistic situation. The story we were given went as follows: a young man named Bill goes to the pub one night, and after a few drinks he ends up going home with a woman and having sex. He wakes up with a shocking hangover and remembers that he hadn’t used a condom.
After a visit to his local clinic where a number of tests are carried out on him, he receives the news that he is HIV positive. During his post test session, the counsellor asks him if he is in contact with the person he slept with that night. Bill remembers her first name and the college she says she went to, but nothing else. Bill had never previously been tested for HIV, but has not previously had unprotected sex with many other people.
During the session, when discussing Bill’s options the counsellor mentions that if the woman was aware that she was HIV positive then she could be criminally liable under the ‘Offenses Against the Persons Act’ from 1861 since she didn’t disclose her status. Bill decides to phone the police. At this point, the story is over to us. The email I received over a week ago, inviting me to the session, read: ‘Can you handle the truth? Can the evidence of HIV transmission ever be crystal clear?’ I was about to find out.
Divided into 4 groups (one for each of the characters: Bill, the girl, the counsellor and the police officer) and armed with fat felt tip pens in garish colours, we began discussing our roles. What were each of these characters thinking? How would they feel about the situation and what would they want to do? How would our actions alter the course of this story?
It was agreed upon that Bill would feel frightened and angry about the situation and may want to place the blame on someone else. This is the basis for the law that exists regarding HIV transmission in many countries around the world. But what would Bill have to gain from placing the woman in prison? No one could say for sure what Bill would do. On one hand, he could feel sympathetic towards the woman because she may have the virus unknowingly. Or, he could feel guilt for giving the virus to her if he had it previously. Or he could just be plain angry.
The other group then spoke about the woman – who was she and did she know her HIV status at all? If she was to be prosecuted, how would evidence be found against her? Maybe if she was arrested she would be asked to do a HIV test, and if she was found to be positive would she immediately go to prison? ‘It’s just one person’s word against another,’ said one participant.
The counsellor had a lot of responsibility too, as it would be up to them to advise Bill and help the police find evidence if the woman was to be put on trial. A lot of other questions cropped up – if evidence was required for the case (such as the HIV status of Bill and the woman and their sexual history) could they be obtained without infringing the human rights of the people in question? Would any of us want our private records leaked during an investigation? Should the information be released if that could potentially secure someone’s freedom or should it remain sealed? With our power came a huge responsibility and it was up to us to decide.
Finally, the police would be responsible for carrying out the investigation. They would of course be obliged to search for evidence and find records that pointed to the ‘criminal’ who passed this virus on to Bill. ‘But isn’t this just another form of discrimination?’ said another participant. ‘Are all the people with HIV just going to end up in prison?’ Our final task was to discuss what measures should be taken to change this law – we had to think about how we could protect people from this virus in a way that doesn’t alienate and stigmatize a group in our society. But then we all realised that it was 1:30 and so packed up our pens and slowly filed out of the door, chatting noisily as we headed for lunch.
In truth, criminalising HIV is just another tool with which to frighten us and encourage safe practices. But does scaring us really work? I once received a card from the NHS on St. Valentine’s Day that said: ‘Roses are red, violets are blue, one in 10 have Chlamydia, don’t let it be you!’ in big horrific lettering. In all honesty, most of the people I knew just laughed at this when they got one themselves. You need to work with the people you want to help (whether it’s people with HIV or young people) not try to frighten them with the threat of STIs or HIV. In the future, we should all skip lunch and try to work out this issue, because until we campaign for a change in the law there won’t be one.