I have myriad critical responses towards any stigmatization of people who are positive for an STI. Primarily because it is a form of blatant discrimination that has become institutionalized in North American law systems, but also because it makes me furiously rageface.
My instinctual response is an instant flashback to when I was 19. I was grossly misinformed, both about safer sex and about HPV–a common infection, as it’s spread through skin-to-skin contact even when condoms are used. Though its 80+ strains are passed most often in sexual encounters, it is not classified as a sexually transmitted infection. The four most dangerous strains are known to cause cervical cancer in women, among other serious and potentially devastating problems. It was first detected in my cervix when I was 18, which led to three separate examinations by a room-sized light microscope, in front of an audience of multiple residents of the local medical school. The nurses responsible for obtaining my informed consent, and for giving me aftercare instructions, did not disclose to me that the reason I was undergoing so many examinations was because I had HPV–I spotted it all in capitals typed in the middle of my chart files: “HPV EFFECT”.
As I was involved in a relationship at the time, I disclosed at my earliest possible opportunity. When the relationship ended, I spent eight months emotionally withdrawn from people until I met someone who unsettled me from that dark and lonely place. I tried to pace myself through the emotions that welled up inside of me so suddenly, and I knew where things were headed immediately. I sat him down in a restaurant and tried to have a responsible conversation. I asked him if he had ever gotten an STI test, and without so much as batting an eyelash, he said “I’ve never needed to,” with a smile on his face that made me too weak to press the matter further. A few weeks later, I told him he could stay overnight in my home so he could save cab fare after the concert he was taking me to–but I made it clear that it was just to sleep, not to fuck. When the lights went out, he came onto me, and kept advancing himself on me for 45 minutes until I couldn’t take it anymore, and gave in to my feelings for him. He didn’t use a condom.
We discussed the acutely sensitive subject when the lights were on the next day, and I was in tears. He continued to see me for eleven months until I ended it, because I had turned into a nihilistic emotional masochist, and couldn’t continue to live with myself in our shared environment–one which promoted my self-destruction. At the end of the conversation, after he wiped his tears away and turned off the lights, leaving me in the dark, he took one last stab at me. He said “and how long did it take you to tell me you had HPV?”
I cannot even begin to form an adequate gesture of the fear that reduced me to silence in the first place, but the anger was so much more. He chose not to press me at all during our extremely brief conversation about STIs in the restaurant, chose to engage in sexual intercourse with me, without a condom, before and after finding out about my HPV. It wasn’t because I was being selfish that I didn’t tell him before the first time we had sex, it was because I was absolutely paralyzed with fear of what I would lose and what I wouldn’t have the chance to give back if I ruined it all by saying anything. It’s also because I was terrified of what could happen to me if I tried to tell him while he advanced himself on me for nearly an hour without even momentarily letting up. Would I be stigmatized, like I always have been in group social settings? Spat on, like my father did to my oldest sister in front of my entire family when I was 11 years old? Beaten, like the many times it’s come to me or been levelled against me as a threat, at the hands of my parents, my siblings, or my peers?
Here’s where the critical part emerges from my personal experience. Someone who is HIV+ is still a human being–just like you. Still fallible. Still vulnerable to hurt feelings. It isn’t logically appropriate to hold them to a different standard of emotional integrity and transparency than we would hold everyone else to.
When the dominant culture tells you that you’re a terrible person because of your DNA; but you experience yourself as the same valuable person with the capacity to contribute to that society, and you hang onto the hope that people will see this in you, accept you as you are, and treat you as you deserve, you are experiencing double consciousness. See Iris M. Young’s “The Five Faces of Oppression” for further insight into this phenomenon.
My second critical response is to claims that, if you don’t disclose that you are positive for an STI to your partner, it is equivalent to sexual assault/battery, because your partner wouldn’t have consented to having sex with you if they knew beforehand–that you didn’t genuinely have consent because you didn’t disclose, and that non-disclosure is the equivalent of having a loaded gun held to one’s head. Claims like this are extraordinary, and when we start to unpack them, they pretty well instantly reveal multiple question-begging layers pleading for deeper analysis.
Having regrets about your choice to engage in sexual intimacy with someone after it’s over is neither the equivalent of rape, nor the equivalent of having a loaded gun pressed against your temple. It may seem like I’m pulling some sort of a fallacious stunt of “spurious moon logic” when I say what comes next, but rape is rape–regret is not.
But first things first. The loaded gun is a completely unacceptable analogy for STI non-disclosure, even if the STI in question has the very real and serious potential to kill one or more persons, as any loaded gun does. As unpopular a perspective as it is to adopt, the reason behind it isn’t simple and isn’t easy to dismiss with the wave of a hand, either–it’s plural, and requires asking yourself some difficult questions.
You have to ask yourself: if someone held a gun to your head, and vocalized the threat to your life, would the blind terror you experienced in the moment be less real if you found out after the fact that it wasn’t loaded after all?
We all know it wouldn’t, because at the time, you would have been convinced that you were face to face with your own death. There are really very few ordeals as terrifying as those which are directly life-threatening, and they all most assuredly share the characteristic of a perceived immanent threat of death. If you were told to do something while a gun was pressed against your head, whether or not it was loaded, you would comply. Because you would be of the belief that if you didn’t, you will be killed. This is referred to as not having a live choice.
Now you need to ask yourself: with the marked majority of adult rape perpetrators being of the male sex, and the marked majority of adult rape survivors being of the female sex (these key points being well-known and generally agreed upon statistical fact–something I do not care to debate about here), is being raped by a loaded shotgun somehow the same, or logically equivalent, as being raped by a biological penis?
If your answer is no, I would like to congratulate you on finding this suspicious. It’s also understood as a logical fallacy called a category mistake.
If your answer is yes, I would like you to ask yourself under what circumstances a safe, sane, and consenting adult would ask of and follow through with another safe, sane, and consenting adult, to engage in penetrative sexual contact anywhere in his/her/hir body with a loaded shotgun? If you can think of any answer other than “that would never happen between safe, sane, consenting adults”, then you have clearly just demonstrated how criminally dangerous a person you really are. Nothing a sane, safe, consenting adult has to say to you is of interest–because your interest lies with the mentally unstable or unsound, the self-endangering or the vulnerable, or the non-consenting–the people you can turn into your victims.
Finally, and perhaps most absurdly, you should be asking yourself–if someone held an erect penis to your head, would you feel as threatened as you are by the prospect of a loaded gun in its place?
I really don’t think that requires unpacking.
So if being unknowingly exposed to the risk of transmitting an STI isn’t like having a gun held to your head, why isn’t it equivalent to sexual assault/battery? Why is it merely equivalent to post-coital regret, not rape? This is where my third critical response arises–the short version is it’s a category mistake.
Most importantly, rape (whether or not it involves the risk of transmission of one or more STIs–to either party, for that matter) is a context in which the perpetrator does not permit the perpetrated the capacity for a live choice.
See what I did just there?
I’ll tell you, once again from direct first-hand experience as a survivor, that the physical and emotional trauma of rape is both maddening and unquantifiable. There is no direct comparison between post-coital regret and sexual assault/battery, which appropriately speaks to the impact of rape. While in fairness, post-coital regret is a terrible experience that has the potential to devastate lives, it is not trauma. It does not creep into every aspect of your life, involuntarily contaminating your every decision with the memory of what you’ve been through (conscious or unconscious). While regret is something you have to live with, trauma is something you have to survive first.
Regret also means that you had a live choice, and you’re just not happy with the choice you made–be it in principle, or based on the outcome. But rape means that you didn’t have a live choice–that no matter whether or not you pleaded, or how you pleaded if you tried to (assuming you could at all), it wouldn’t make a difference because it was never your choice to be raped.
I flash back to when I was 17 years old, and the pain inside my body was unlike anything else I’ve ever had the misfortune of both enduring and remembering–it wasn’t just in my genitals, it was in my entire body, all at once. I couldn’t fight my perpetrator because I couldn’t move. I couldn’t say his name and tell him no because I couldn’t breathe. I felt what has been described by people who have woken up in the middle of bowel surgery, still paralyzed, but able to feel everything happening to them. But because I knew my perpetrator intimately before he assaulted me, it wasn’t just physically painful. Until I lost consciousness because the pain was so horrendous, I couldn’t possibly quantify the terror I felt, wondering how long I would have to endure, thinking about how I couldn’t make him stop. Nor could I possibly begin to suggest the magnitude of the complex emotions I felt–from knowing, as it was happening to me, that no one would believe that it happened at all; to knowing that I had trusted him exclusively as a safe person who presented no threat of harm to me. I found out the next morning, again the following week, and again ten years later, that he didn’t even believe it happened. I can’t adequately express what this does to undermine my ability to believe it myself–that if I could experience a delusion this powerful and this real, what else have I experienced that was merely a figment of my horrible imagination, and why would I do this to myself?
Rape is a horrendous thing to be subjected to, and the number of analogies that appropriately employ rape as a relevant metaphor are few and far between. Every analogy that inappropriately or illegitimately uses rape as a metaphor minimizes the actual social impact of rape–the barrier of silence and fear shared by all rape victims and survivors, the victim-blaming that is written into the social script (such as in mass media representations and the words of our government representatives, judges, and police officers), and the perpetual cycle of sexual violence against sex trauma survivors. Part of the cycle is because of their silence, partly it is because they are blamed for their trauma if it is acknowledged as real at all, partly it is because of how their fear of future trauma marginalizes them from average people who they could form healthy relationships with, and partly it is because they rarely receive justice for themselves or see it taken by other survivors who come forward.
It is a significant category mistake to place rape in the same logical category as post-coital regret of any kind–maybe you regret it because you didn’t use protection, or because your partner didn’t disclose their STI status to you and you didn’t take it upon yourself to have that conversation first; or maybe you regret it because neither of you had an orgasm and it fucked up your friendship irreversibly. None of these things are the same as being raped.
Finally, a fourth critical response:
Perhaps the most painful part of the entire argument, that not disclosing about an STI to a new sex partner is the equivalent of raping them or holding a gun to their head, is that part about how you wouldn’t have consented if you knew their status beforehand.
I mean, for a moment, let’s revisit this penetrative sex with guns thing. Would you consent to it if you knew beforehand that it wasn’t loaded, even though you wouldn’t consent to it if you knew beforehand that it was?
Do you have a suicidal tendency you need to disclose, so that the rest of the class is properly informed about how much control you want over the circumstances of your own death?
Don’t you think that a failure on your part, as a person who is negative for any detectable STI, to open up that conversation by yourself (in the event your partner hasn’t), for yourself, is a death bid?
I think what’s really at the bottom of this contentious issue is deep-seated, powerfully repressed, self-hatred. If you buy into the anti-poz argument, it’s because you couldn’t possibly bear to be confronted with how little you regard and respect yourself, that you couldn’t be bothered to have that critical conversation on your own behalf, so you project all your hatred onto the person who failed to disclose. But I’ll bet that doesn’t make you feel better, does it? It hides what you can’t bear witness to within yourself, but it’ll never go away until you face it and deal with it.
Like all forms of discrimination and bigotry, I’m surprised to discover who among my friends voluntarily and freely exhibits anti-poz sentiments–with zeal, for that matter. And like all forms of discrimination and bigotry, I have zero tolerance for it. That’s why I took the time to painstakingly express myself here. I hope some of you find this and think twice about what it means to make speeches about how HIV non-disclosure in particular (or Hep C non-disclosure) means that the poz party is fully responsible for committing a sexual assault and should be criminally charged and punished accordingly.
I hope this never actually happens to anyone, but in the event it does, I sure hope that’s not what it took for you to gain some perspective other than anti-poz on the matter. When you consent to sex as an adult, it means you were presented with a live choice, and whether or not you choose to pursue informed consent is beside the point–you are just as responsible for exposing yourself to the possibility of a threat as your partner is for exposing you to the possibility of a threat. In the event that you are still anti-poz, the fact that you think so little of your own safety, or that–like an infant–you perceive yourself as having no capacity to make a live choice, is just not a good enough reason to validate the totally disproportionate punishment of a person you perceive as being poz. If you are still anti-poz, you are an essentialist who sees a disease or infection before they see a whole person, and that means that you dictate your interactions on the same principle as a racist, homophobe, transphobe, or xenophobe makes their choices. If that’s the sort of thing you don’t tolerate, you’re overdue for a cold, long look at yourself.