Is HIV criminalization the No. 1 barrier to ending the epidemic?


For many people, being told that they are HIV positive is no longer a death sentence. But for Robert Suttle, a Black gay man and social justice educator, it is a life sentence.

Unexpectedly caught up in the HIV criminalization web at the age of 30, Mr. Suttle spent 6 months in a Louisiana state prison for a consensual sexual relationship with an adult partner. The crime? Not disclosing his HIV-positive status, a charge that Mr. Suttle says is untrue.

“I did disclose my status to my partner; however, I can’t really answer how they might have received it,” he said.

Today, at the age of 42, Mr. Suttle still carries the indelible stain of a conviction and of being a registered sex offender. “After their diagnosis, criminal charge, and/or conviction, many people think they’re done – either ‘I’ve gotten out of prison’ or ‘I’m still on probation’ – whatever the case may be,” he explained. “But we’re still living out these collateral consequences, be it with housing, moving to another state, or finding a job.”

The same is true for HIV-positive people who are charged and tried but manage to dodge prison for one reason or another. Monique Howell, a straight, 40-year-old former army soldier and single mother of five children, said that she was afraid to disclose her HIV status to a sexual partner but did advise him to wear a condom.* She points to her DD14 discharge papers (i.e., forms that verify that someone served in the military) that were issued when her military duty was rescinded following the dismissal of her court case.

“I was going to reenlist, but I got in trouble,” she said. She explained that although a DD14 separation helps to ensure that she can receive benefits and care, the papers were issued with a caveat stating “serious offense,” an indelible stain that, like Mr. Suttle’s, will follow her for the rest of her life.

Laws criminalize myths and misconceptions

HIV criminalization laws subject persons whose behaviors may expose others to HIV to felony or misdemeanor charges. Depending on the state, they can carry prison terms ranging from less than 10 years to life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Originally enacted at the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1986, when fear was rampant and hundreds were dying, the laws were intended to reduce HIV transmission. But they’ve had unintended consequences: Amplifying stigmatization and discrimination and perpetuating HIV myths and misconceptions, including how HIV is transmitted.

Decades of scientific advances challenge the most basic reasoning behind laws (for example, that transmission is possible via biting or spitting or through a single sexual act, which studies have shown poses a risk as low as 0%-1.4%). In addition, few laws reflect one of the most important HIV research findings of the past decade: undetectable equals untransmittable, meaning that the virus cannot be sexually transmitted by people who are taking antiretroviral therapy and whose viral loads are undetectable.

In most of these cases, individuals who are positive for HIV are charged and punished for unintentional exposure, not deliberate intent to harm. Moreover, for the charge to stick, sexual partners don’t need to have acquired the virus or prove the transmission source if they do become HIV positive.

Ms. Howell noted that it was the Army that brought the charges against her, not her sexual partner at that time (who, incidentally, tested negative). He even testified on her behalf at the trial. “I’ll never forget it,” she said. “He said, ‘I don’t want anything to happen to Monique; even if you put her behind bars, she’s still HIV-positive and she’s still got those children. She told me to get a condom, and I chose not to.’ ”


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