For HIV+ People, Even Safe Sex Can Mean Jail

ProPublica investigation delves into controversial laws

By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff

Posted Dec 2, 2013 11:33 AM CST

(Newser) – In at least 35 states, exposing another person to HIV is a crime—even if the virus is not transmitted—and, in some cases, it's a crime even if the sex in question was safe, according to a ProPublica investigation. The article focuses on Nick Rhoades, an Iowa man sentenced to 25 years in prison for not disclosing his HIV status before having sex with another man, despite the fact that the antiviral drugs he was taking suppressed the virus and made transmission very unlikely (AIDS public health officials put them at "zero or near zero"), they used a condom, and the other man never got HIV. Rhoades' sentence was eventually reduced to five years' probation, but the 39-year-old remains an aggravated sex offender and can never be alone with anyone under the age of 14. Laws like these (some of which also criminalize spitting, scratching, or biting, despite how unlikely transmission is in those cases) may seem reasonable—and, indeed, a majority of people with HIV support them—but ProPublica points out many consequences that have resulted from them, some of them horrifying.

  • In one case, an HIV-positive New York woman did not report being raped, because her rapist said he would press charges because she didn't disclose her status. (New York actually has no such law, but the woman didn't know that.)
  • In another, a man who was awaiting trial on exposure charges was raped by another inmate and eventually committed suicide.
But the most far-reaching consequence could be a huge backlash: Some experts say that by criminalizing exposure, many could simply decide to remain ignorant of their status so as to avoid knowingly exposing anyone. The laws "lull people who are not HIV-positive—or at least think they are not HIV-positive—into believing that they don’t have to do anything," says a lawyer. "They can just wait for their partner to reveal their status and not, instead, take steps to protect themselves." ProPublica found at least 541 cases of people being convicted or pleading guilty under these laws since 2003, and very few examples of the virus actually being transmitted. In cases of intentional exposure, other laws can be used to punish people, meaning these laws may not even be needed. Click for the full investigation.

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