Constructing an “HIV-Killer”: HIV Non-Disclosure and the Techniques of Vilification, Erica R. Speakman, Deviant Behavior (2017)

Research and Journal Articles

Policymakers, prosecutors, and the media frequently characterize people living with HIV (PLHIV) who do not disclose their status to a sexual partner as dangerous, morally reprehensible, and deserving of harsh criminal punishment. This article describes the particular techniques used to vilify PLHIV who not disclose.

The author analyzed government documents and publications, news items, and some court materials from a Canadian criminal case to identify patterns and common themes. The article outlines five of these vilification techniques used by authorities and reporters: 1) “constructing” (i.e., building a public image by labeling and associating behavior and actions with negative and morally offensive qualities) of PLHIV who do not disclose as perpetrators of serious harm, including physical aspects of an HIV diagnosis and psychological harms related to isolation, depression, uncertainty, etc.; 2) constructing PLHIV who do not disclose as “knowing” actors, meaning the person understands their positive status and fully comprehends the duty to disclose; 3) constructing PLHIV who do not disclose as having malicious motives or being indifferent to the wellbeing of others, similar to someone who drinks and drives; 4)  eliminating alternative explanations for a PLHIV’s non-disclosure that would reduce their blameworthiness, such as difficult social circumstances; and 5) attacking the argument that sexual partners have shared responsibility for their health.

The article’s findings may be helpful for advocates and lawyers who want to effectively oppose the demonization of PLHIV who do not disclose.  While the research is based on a Canadian case, the conclusions have clear applicability to the criminalization of non-disclosure in the United States.