Kim Buchanan's article, When Is HIV a Crime? Sexuality, Gender and Consent, was written for an upcoming edition of the Minnesota Law Review. The file linked here is a draft. Please do not quote or cite from this article without the author's permission.
HIV criminalization is difficult to justify on the grounds advanced for it: public health and moral retribution. This Article engages with a third, underexamined rationale for HIV criminalization: sexual autonomy. Nondisclosure prosecutions purport to ensure “informed consent” to sex. However, almost all other forms of sexual deception — including deceptions that may jeopardize the partner’s health — are lawful; rape law expressly accommodates an expectation that men may lie to get sex from women. Neither public health nor retributive considerations adequately justify singling out HIV from other, permitted forms of sexual deception.
Moreover, most HIV transmission and nondisclosure takes place between men, but a large majority of prosecutions involve men accused of nondisclosing to women. The inconsistency of HIV laws with their ostensible rationales, their arbitrary inclusions and exclusions, and the striking disparities in HIV prosecutions all tend to raise suspicion that discriminatory impulses may be at work.
Criminal laws and their implementation tend to frame HIV as a crime that matters most when it disrupts expectations that non-drug-injecting heterosexuals should be immune to anxiety about HIV. They situate HIV as fairly benign when contained within stigmatized populations such as gay men, intravenous drug users, Africans and sex workers.
When HIV-positive people transgress these boundaries and cause heterosexual men and women to worry about HIV, though, this transgression is often punished as a crime, even when the behavior poses no transmission risk. HIV laws and their implementation raise concern that discriminatory fallacies about race, gender and sexuality may shape perceptions of whether, when and why HIV is a crime.
Kim Shayo Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Law and Gender Studies at USC Gould Law School. She specializes in constitutional law, international and comparative human rights law, prisoners’ rights, reproductive rights, race, gender and sexuality. Her current research addresses race, gender and prisoners’ rights against sexual abuse, and the sexual dimensions of gender equality. She teaches constitutional law, reproductive rights, and international human rights law.