By Marlo Cottrell
As someone who has been living with HIV for over 20 years, I still remember my early years of having to live with this virus. When treatment was often limited and a large number of people were still dying. Trying to navigate through the overwhelming realization that I had to live with this disease, I will tell you that disclosure took practice and I didn’t always get it right as much as I tried. That is a reality for many. Through the decades, we’ve come so far and conquered the enormous summit to accessible treatment here in Canada, easier to manage medication and a life where living with this disease is not a death sentence, but a life with tangible hopes and dreams that flourish.
HIV criminalization has yet to reflect the highly treatable infection we see today; where an undetectable viral load means the virus stops with us. The legal implications of living with this virus and not disclosing to a partner still garner someone the possibility of convictions of aggravated sexual assault, however. The harshest of sentences relegated to the worst of sexual assaults. Aggravated Sexual Assault: The Criminal Code also allows for increased penalties for sexual assault where the accused “wounds, maims, disfigures or endangers the life of the complainant.” Transmission does not necessarily have to take place. This carries the hefty sentence of the maximum of 10 years in prison and mandatory registration on the sex offender registry list. As a survivor of sexual assault, I find it the implications of this deeply disturbing, when we as human beings when engaged in consensual sex, have the option to protect ourselves. 1 in 5 people living with HIV do not know their status. As a former sex trade worker who advocated for safe sex on a daily basis, I used to tell my clients, “I don’t know where you’ve been and you don’t know where I’ve been. Out of respect for that fact, we need to protect ourselves and each other.” Today, as it stands, if we are undetectable and use a condom, we do not have to disclose. If we don’t use a condom, we must disclose but the risk is zero with an undetectable viral load. I think the crux of criminalization comes down to, who benefits from these laws? We know these laws are not a deterrent for the spread of HIV, which is what the intent was supposed to be. They only perpetuate and reinforce a false sense of security. The goal is to prevent new infections from occurring. I have sat with a former partner in the waiting room with his requisition form for an HIV test, both of us knowing that he should be tested. That crumpled requisition form landed in the bottom of a garbage can faster than you could imagine.
It is the promotion of zero stigma, zero discrimination and zero new infections that is at the heart of what gets people out and embracing an HIV test. The science has been in for a while now. It protects people from new infections when those of us living with this virus are able to know our status by wiping away the fear of shame and the heavy burden of stigma. HIV criminalization was set forth on a misguided course to protect us, but it does little more than further stigmatize a disease that we are conquering. The end of criminalization is just good science.