Since the opening of Tyler Perry’s new film, Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, my in-box has been flooded with concerns about the film’s message linking adultery and HIV. After seeing the film, I completely understand those concerns, so let me join in the outcry. However, the symbolic use of HIV as a punishment for immoral behavior is not a new phenomenon. It’s only now that we are beginning to realize the backward effects it has on society by doing nothing more than perpetuate harmful stigmas and discrimination.
The idea that an HIV-positive person deserves their diagnosis has been used in television and film countless times. Films such as For Colored Girls and Kids and television shows such as Law & Order: SVU all have used HIV as a punishment mechanism or as a consequence of bad behavior.
This “scaring” people into staying negative is not a concept limited to the entertainment industry. Growing up, I remember being taught in church and school that only deviants got HIV and, in turn, AIDS was a moral consequence of sin. The only way to remain “pure” and stay negative was to abstain from sex altogether. This ignorant gospel, added to the fact that I was gay, only intensified my fear of HIV and getting tested. Just like it was yesterday, I can remember my youth minister saying, “Homosexual sex leads to AIDS.”
So is it really that difficult to understand why people with HIV isolate themselves and people who don’t know their status fear taking an HIV test?
Once I found out I was positive, my eyes were opened to the number of HIV organizations using scare tactics as a method of prevention, just like my childhood church in Texas. Public health campaigns like “HIV — Not Fabulous” (from AIDS Healthcare Foundation) or “It’s Never Just HIV” (by New York City’s Department of Health) only help continue the harmful strategy of using HIV-positive individuals as nothing more than examples of why one should wear a condom. Frankly, this kind of messaging disgusts me. This is where perceptions come from. This is where stigma starts.
Until we can turn focus on empowering people with HIV, the stigma will continue to isolate populations. Until there is a spotlight shown on important social and economic issues, like housing and employment, relating to people with HIV, medical advances, such as the current treatment-as-prevention model, will only benefit few. HIV stigma must be tackled strategically and creatively, and to do this we have got to start shifting the way we think about this virus.
Continuing to use shame and fear-based approaches will only hinder our hopes for achieving an AIDS-free generation. No matter what higher power you believe in, HIV is not a punishment. No one deserves to become infected. And it has absolutely nothing to do with one’s morals or lack thereof. HIV is a human disease now classified as a chronic, manageable condition, and it’s time to treat it as such.
Chris Richey is the founder and president of the Stigma Project (TheStigmaProject.org).