In her “realest interview” ever, Taylor Swift told GQ that her song “Bad Blood” is not about Katy Perry. It’s about an ex. But to me, her lyrics rang different bells than they would have to many of her young fans. In “Bad Blood,” I couldn’t help but hear “HIV criminalization.”
The ubiquitous song is from Swift’s latest album, 1989, which is also the year she was born. If she had released it in 1989, at a height of the ongoing AIDS crisis, many people’s first thoughts would have been like mine. “We use to have mad love / Now we have bad blood” could have stood in for the thinking many people had at the dawn of the virus in the U.S. HIV was understood to be God’s wrath on a country that lost its morals in the 1960s and 1970s with free love, growing acceptance of same-sex desire, and the evolving role of women.
During that time, in TV and movies, blood was used to express a fear of contagion; think of vials of blood on the nightly news, and Joseph Mazzello in the 1995 movie The Cure screaming “My blood is poison!” Universal precautions were introduced in medical and law enforcement situations to reduce contact with blood regardless of the actual risk of transmission, and the blood supply was more intensely screened; gay men and others were barred from donating.
The idea of bad blood was everywhere, and rather than focusing on what people living with HIV needed to be healthy and manage their virus, resources were spent on containing people living with HIV. Quarantine was up for debate. The idea of tattooing HIV-positive people was written about in The New York Times. And until the current administration repealed it, there was a ban on HIV-positive people traveling into the U.S.
Starting in the mid-1980s, the criminal justice system became heavily involved, enlisting citizens to round up people living with “bad blood.”
As it stands now, 34 states across the U.S. have specific laws criminalizing people with HIV, mostly focused on disclosure, making it so a person living with the virus is held solely responsible for not only disclosing the risks but also being able to prove the disclosure in a court of law. As writer Sarah Schulman stated, “HIV criminalization is denunciation-based: The state encourages people who are HIV negative to bring charges against HIV-positive sexual partners who they say have not disclosed their status.”
HIV criminalization laws and how they are applied do not consider barriers to disclosure like power imbalance within sexual relationships, or the difficulty of proving disclosure. Are you able to prove that what you said was understood by your partner? When was the last time you had to?
These laws also don’t reflect how HIV is transmitted, nor are they informed by medical advancements, such as PrEP and the fact that HIV-positive people with undetectable viral loads pose an immeasurably low risk for transmitting the virus. People living with HIV have been arrested, been convicted, and have served — or are serving — prison time for instances when no transmission occurred and no risk was posed.
It is important to note that criminalization hurts prevention efforts by increasing stigma around HIV, making it less appealing for people to know their HIV status. A popular refrain among communities deemed to be most at risk is “Take the test and risk arrest.” Folks who fear they may be living with HIV would rather suffer, managing the virus alone, rather than risk having the criminal justice system involved in their lives. In states without specific HIV criminalization laws, people living with the virus can be charged with existing laws such as assault with a deadly weapon, with their body considered the weapon.
The hurt, shame, fear, and confusion of the recently exposed and possibly infected is used by authorities to bring charges against others knowingly living with the virus. For me, “Bad Blood” mirrors the flawed logic at the heart of HIV criminalization: public revenge stemming from intimate pain. When it comes to fears of HIV transmission, we need to move away from blame and the law, and toward mutuality and community.
Canada-born Theodore Kerr is a Brooklyn-based writer and organizer whose work focuses on HIV/AIDS.