Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The "Who Deserves AIDS" Epidemic

[TW for homophobia, AIDS-related death, slut-shaming, etc.]

In the last week or so, I have encountered a phenomenon that is not entirely new, but is still entirely reprehensible. I've named it the "Who Deserves AIDS" epidemic as a nod to the AIDS epidemic (although according to my research, it is now officially classed as a pandemic) that has swept the world. For those of you who are unaware of the story, AIDS was first officially reported in mid-1981, and it was given the name GRID (Gay-related immune deficiency) and 4H (standing for Haitian, homosexual, heroin and hemophiliacs, the four groups "most likely" to get the disease) before being properly named. Misinformation and stigmatization abounded; it was believed that you could get AIDS from holding hands, sharing a drink, kissing, even simply breathing around someone with the disease. For a very long time, research into the spread and prevention of the disease lagged, if it was even being done at all, because people believed that the disease only affected certain groups of people, people that they didn't care enough about to help. It was only when people realized that it wasn't a "gay disease" that they started paying more attention.

My first encounter with the "Who Deserves AIDS" epidemic occurred when I was still in middle school, long before I became a feminist and an LGBTQ activist. We were discussing the AIDS epidemic and one girl in my class proclaimed that (I'm paraphrasing due to the fact that I don't remember what she said word for word) AIDS was God's way of saying that homosexuality is wrong and that LGBTQ people deserved to get it. I was absolutely aghast. I don't remember what the reactions of the class and the teacher were towards this statement, but I remember them being mostly negative, thankfully.

Another experience I had with the "Who Deserves AIDS" epidemic involved Facebook (shock and awe!). I had watched a Biography special about Queen a few nights ago, and being the HUGE fan that I am, I was feeling a bit depressed about Freddie Mercury's untimely and incredibly unfortunate early death. I posted an innocuous status about the whole thing, ending with a melodramatic, half-joking "WHY FREDDIE WHY?!" The response came in the form of a Facebook friend's comment: "Because he liked to have sex?" And therein was my enlightenment! Mercury hadn't died because he had been exposed to a debilitating disease; it was because he just HAD to open his fucking legs! This poor person was not aware of the fact that having a lot of sex (even with multiple partners) does not mean you will automatically contract a deadly illness. It also does not mean that you deserve said illness. My friend and I attempted to educate this deluded soul, but alas, as with most instances of this type, it was to no avail.

The most recent experience I had with the "Who Deserves AIDS" epidemic was on Investigation Discovery, a cable channel that broadcasts crime shows. I was watching a show, "20/20 on ID," about a man named Philippe Padieu, a man who had seduced and knowingly infected his sexual partners with HIV. Padieu's defense attorney argued that Philippe was under "no obligation to disclose his HIV positive status" to his sexual partners, and to that I cry "BULLSHIT!" If you're intimate enough with someone to have consensual sex with them, especially unprotected, then you're intimate enough with them to disclose your status. The defense lawyer went on to blame the women he had had sex with (anyone surprised?), saying that it was their responsibility to protect themselves (it wasn't Philippe's responsibility to prevent himself from giving them HIV?!), and that it takes two to tango, resulting in the implication that these women got what they deserved by contracting the virus. I think that one of the women said it best when she said, "Yes, it takes two to tango, but it only takes one to pull the trigger, and that's exactly what Philippe did."

It is important for this part of the post to note that all of his sexual partners were white, middle to upper-middle class, presumably straight women, and at one point in the show, they were sitting in a group and talking to the host (also a white woman) in an interview. When asked why they allowed Philippe to have sex with them without a condom, the women replied that they had not received the education that is available to people today and so they were unaware that they were at risk. This is the same logic that I had used when arguing Freddie Mercury's case. However, they then went on to say that the reason that they didn't feel they were at risk was because they weren't intravenous drug users or prostitutes and those things just didn't happen to women like them. The host said, and I quote, "You weren't women about town!" And the women replied, "No, we were not," the implication of course being that if they were prostitutes, they should have expected to contract HIV and would have somehow deserved the diagnosis that they received. It really saddened me to see these women so readily putting down other victims of the disease, arguing their case under the presumption that there are actually people out there who deserve to get AIDS, while suffering from the disease themselves.

The argument that someone's sexual appetite and/or behaviors, sexual orientation, occupation, etc. is to blame for their deaths is asinine at best and incredibly hateful at worst. My friend said it best when she said that "Blaming someone's sexual appetite for their [AIDS-related] death is like blaming someone who enjoys long walks for getting hit by a car." It isn't someone's sexual appetite and/or behaviors that kills them; it's the AIDS virus that does that. The only thing that kills people with AIDS is AIDS and the related diseases that come along with it. Attributing one's death to their sexual behavior is tantamount to slut-shaming and arguing that they deserved to die because of it. The bottom line is this: nobody deserves to get AIDS. You don't deserve to get AIDS if you have a voracious sexual appetite. You don't deserve to get AIDS if you've had one partner. You don't deserve to get AIDS if you've had more than one partner. You don't deserve to get AIDS if you've had a THOUSAND partners. You don't deserve to get AIDS if you're a prostitute. You don't deserve to get AIDS if you use intravenous drugs. You don't deserve to get AIDS for ANY REASON.

The last thing that people with AIDS need is other people living outside of the reality of the disease judging and condemning them for the horrible prognosis that's facing them.


  1. I wholeheartedly agree with you that no one deserves AIDS and the "he liked sex" comment about Freddie Mercury was out of line. However, I do think there's a difference between expressing surprise at a statistical anomaly and thinking that someone deserves a disease. For example, if I suddenly came down with lung cancer, I'd definitely think "WTF, I'm a squeaky clean Mormon who doesn't smoke!" But that doesn't mean I think people who smoke deserve lung cancer - I sure as heck wouldn't wish that on my siblings or friends who do! It'd just be surprising because I know that like 90% of lung cancer cases are related to tobacco, and I would be outside of the norm. I suspect the women on the talk show were thinking more along the lines of this kind of statistical surprise (however misinformed they might be), rather than bearing actual malice from these people.

  2. I agree that they were expressing surprise at a statistical anomaly, but I'm not 100% sure that the intent was all that innocuous, not necessarily in the sense that they were being actively hostile to other victims, but in the sense that they were passively agreeing with the general societal idea that there are people who "deserve" the disease. The reason I say this is that, throughout the program, the women kept repeating that they didn't deserve the disease, and I agree, they absolutely didn't. But once they made the vehement contrast of themselves against prostitutes while stating that they didn't deserve the disease, that created the implication that the prostitutes DID, whether or not they meant to create that implication.

  3. Hello from Susan Brown. I am one of the women from the 20/20 show. I apologize for any offense our remarks may have caused, but want you to know that any implication that prostitutes or others deserve this was absolutely unintentional. One of our main goals for going on 20/20 and Oprah was to reach out to people who thought they were not at risk and scare the hell out of them. The point is that ANYONE can get HIV, and that it crosses all ages, all cultures, all socio-economic classes. The very stereotype of being White, a grandma, or a business woman are the things that worked against us. Despite all the symptoms Doctors and emergency rooms didn't see the possibility. Anyone who has ever had unprotected sex needs to get tested. I wrote articles for 20/20 and Oprah and these are still online to reinforce these points. Right after our story broke, I saw a headline on Sean Hannity's web site titled "Are these Women Victims or Deserving Whores?" We don't want to be either -- we just want to educate people and put the jerk in a place where he will never lie and hurt again. Thanks for your article. I completely agree with you. The controversy and dialogue is a good thing if people are educated and we can end stigma!

  4. Hello Susan! Thank you so much for taking the time to read this blog and comment on it! I'm very glad to know that we're on the same page when it comes to this issue. When I was watching the show, I honestly didn't even think about how certain characteristics could delay diagnosis and treatment, and for that I apologize. It seems I still have quite a bit of self-educating to do!

    There's a special place in Hell for people like Hannity who participate in such horrific and blatant victim-blaming. The media plays such a large role in society's general understandings of and responses to issues like this, and for him to have said something so atrocious is beyond appalling. I feel that aside from the education that needs to be given to everyone, the media has a responsibility to display the appropriate messages to its audience simply because of the huge role it plays in how people perceive things. I'm so sorry that you had to deal with that. Please know that for every jackass who comments (verbally or otherwise) with something like that, you have a hundred supporters. Thank you for doing the work that you've been doing to bring awareness to the cause!

  5. Hi Ilyssa. I am Diane Reeve another of the womenon 20/20 and Oprah. I would also like to apologize for any implication that if someone is in a high risk group they deserve HIV. I agree with you all that No ONE deserves this awful virus and that the only way we can stop it is educate everone about the risks of unprotected sex. My own diagnosis was seriously delayed because I didn't "fit the profile". What we want all to know is that anyone who is a parent-- anyone who has had unprotected sex one time-- even if you trust the person-- has been at risk of contracting the disease.

    And thanks for the compliment on the analogy of pulling the trigger( me). I would also like to add that those who DON'T believe it is a positive persons responsibility to protect their partner that I believe this actually ADDS to the stigma. The negative folks could certainly believe that rose who are poz just get a free pass to so as they please and I am in disagrement with that point of view.

    Again, if you are carrying a loaded gun, it is not everyone elses responsibility to wear a bulletproof vest.

    Thanks for your efforts to educate and for all your kind words-- it's folks like you who give folks like me hope ...;)

  6. Hello Diane! I agree 100%; it is absolutely the responsibility of the person who is positive to disclose their status to anyone with whom they wish to have sex.

    [TW for misogyny and victim-blaming]

    As for the defense attorney who tried to argue differently, I get the feeling that that particular diatribe was inspired by some wonderfully deeply ingrained misogyny. Society has taught us for years and years that the woman is always to blame, and it's that culture of misogyny that's created many of the problems that we women face today. I can't say for sure if he would have defended the case differently, i.e. without victim-blaming, if the people affected by Philippe's actions were men instead of women, but I can say that I wouldn't be surprised if that were the case.


    We're all in this fight together, Diane, and I'm glad that we can rely on each other to defend one another in the world that we live in today.