10 August 2011

The Language of Fear

Last weekend, I was shocked to see and hear a report on the CBC News Network about the police looking for a teenaged girl with HIV in Edmonton. The report was in high rotation, top of the news every half hour.

I have become unfortunately numbed to the horrific practice of reporting details about accused persons (i.e.: no verdict, just accusations), more outraged when the police allow themselves to seek other 'victims' of people with HIV who are accused of exposing partners to a risk of HIV transmission without disclosing their status. This report had all the elements of a complete outrage, however. A minor, whose identity is supposed to be protected from publication, photo, name and status announced every 30 minutes on the CBC and published in print media, too, and the cherry on top: an oversimplification of the applicable law on disclosure and HIV. (The CBC repeated each 30 minutes that having sex without disclosing your status if you are HIV positive is a criminal offence. In fact, there also has to be a significant risk of transmission, which is no small difference from what the newsreader was saying.)

I am left wondering just how much force a homeless teenaged girl wields over her sexual partners that she has to be publicly tracked down and denounced before any proof has been made against her.

The next story that has outraged me and made me reflect on this issue comes from an interview published this week on PositiveLite.com (interview here) of a man who had actually been accused of attempted murder for not disclosing his status until a judge dismissed those charges on the basis that HIV is no longer a death sentence (interesting development). The part that caught my eye, however, was his recounting of his arrest in the interview. SWAT team? Really?! For not saying something?!

I don't claim to know anything more about either of these cases than what I have seen and heard in the media, so don't mistake my commentary for informed analysis of the facts of these cases. But here is the reflection that has been provoked for me: why is our society reacting so violently to the non-disclosure of HIV status? Is it all really about people's perceptions of HIV being stuck in a distant past of not understanding the modes of transmission or the effectiveness of treatment? I think it is at least partly about the language of the criminal law when it comes to HIV non-disclosure.

Assault. Aggravated assault. Sexual assault. Attempted murder. Murder. Bombarded by these words, it is all too easy to conjure up an image of a violent person inflicting his or her infection on a victim trying desperately to avoid it. But that isn't it at all. This is all about someone not saying something to someone else.

Would we be having public searches for someone or calling out the SWAT team if the offence were called aggravated silence? How about fraud, since that's the actual offence from which the courts have constructed the assault charges? (The construction process: fraud means that the consent the person gave when engaging in sexual relations is invalid. No consent means assault or sexual assault.) So is fraud SWAT-worthy? All fraud? I'm having trouble picturing the SWAT team being called out to arrest a white-collar criminal.

So, in case you are wondering why I'm getting worked up, let me summarize. The HIV-positive person is entirely responsible for the other person's decision not to put on a condom. And now, we also get to be treated to violent responses to acts of omission because the public and our journalists can't be bothered to understand the realities of HIV today or even the state of our inadequate, heavy-handed criminal law.

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