To Kiss and Tell
By Rukh-Shana Namuyimba:
Two years ago, 28 year German pop star Nadja Benaissa made internal headline news when she was tried for failing to disclose her HIV positive status to sexual partners. I had never heard of Nadja nor her German girl band No Angels but it did catch my attention for two reasons: one, she caused a huge media frenzy and two, I didn't understand what the big deal was about her not disclosing her sero status to her sex partners. Besides nowhere was it even mentioned that her boyfriend in question had actually asked her. So anyways a German court found Nadja guilty of causing bodily harm to her ex-boyfriend by having unprotected sex with him despite knowing she was infected with HIV. She was not sentenced to jail time. Nadja Benaissa, was given a two-year suspended prison sentence and 300 hours community service after she was convicted.
The man who claimed Nadja infected him said they had a three-month relationship at the beginning of 2004 and that he got tested after Nadja’s aunt asked him in 2007 whether he was aware that the singer was HIV-positive. Seriously???? Three months??? Duh!
Anyways Nadja said she didn’t tell anybody about her disease because she was afraid of the consequences – which she described during the trial as a “cowardly act.” I don't necessarily agree with her description of her action as cowardly. If Nadja were in Uganda for instance, no sooner would she have declared herself HIV positive, than it would have hit the tabloids and along with that declaration an un ending list of guys who had even so much as looked her way and we all know what furor that would cause, now don't we? But even more importantly, I don't believe that Nadja or anyone else living with HIV should have to carry the burden of HIV prevention solely on their shoulders. Now while I totally think it is prudent for one to disclose their sero status to a potential sexual partner, this should be done only if one is comfortable with what I will call Kissing and Telling. In Nadja's case, she told court during the trial that she had became addicted to crack cocaine at 14 and that during her pregnancy at 16, she found out that she was HIV positive. Can you imagine how many guys she would have had to tell between 16 and 28 that she was HIV positive? Jeez… My head spins at the thought.
Often time, I have heard people throw around the moral and ethical justification for disclosure but in my considered opinion, this is an over simplification of the responsibility for HIV prevention. Have we actually stopped to think that it may be appropriate to consider both parties’ responsibility to protect themselves during mutually consensual sex. And I'm not talking about sex within the confines of marriage or long term committed relationships (the assumption here is that people are actually aware of each other's sero status on an ongoing basis). I'm referring to liaisons that are wont to happen between two adults who very well know that there is a chance the other person could be HIV positive. Imagine being on a date with this guy you have sort of been seeing for the past 6 months or less (varies from person to person) and things get pretty steamy and just as you are about to unhook her brassiere she stops you in your tracks with the least expected declaration: I am HIV positive. The shock would blow off your socks and change the course of the night, and if it doesn't then I'm afraid you may be beyond help. But of course this is only wishful thinking on my part. At that point in time the two consenting adults know there is half a chance they could catch something or give something to this other person but it's easier to push these thoughts at the back of one's mind. So if the question of HIV status doesn't pop up at any one time possibly because both partners may make the identical mistake of assuming that a lack of disclosure means the other person has the same sero status, doesn't it follow that fairness has to be questioned if only the diagnosed HIV-positive partner is criminally liable.
In Nadja's case, the Deutsche AIDS-Hilfe group argued her partners also carried a share of the responsibility for becoming infected, and criticized the verdict. They argued that if the responsibility for prevention is put entirely HIV- positive people, then there is a disregard of the combined responsibility of two people. And I couldn't agree more. The way I see it, a good number of HIV infections occur between two consenting people who believe they are doing nothing more risky than making love—or, at least getting laid. So perhaps it's high time people took responsibility for their lives by getting tested and knowing their sero status and then actually making it their business to find out the status of the person they are having relations with without expecting that information to be volunteered. After all people who know their HIV status are actually more likely to use condoms than not.
For the longest time I believed that people stayed negative by disclosing their negative status. But that isn't entirely true. Having conversations about HIV is important —negotiating whether and how you want to use protection, talking about the last time you were tested and asking the same of your partner can not be taken granted. And for heaven's sake making it the HIV positive person's responsibility to declare is like expecting someone to naturally kiss and tell.