Stigma, sex and AIDS by Barbara Centurier-Harris

Stigma, sex and AIDS by Barbara Centurier-Harris

Experts working on HIV and Aids agree that stigma is one of the main drivers of the pandemic. What does that mean?
Here are some facts:
• Many people who suspect that they might be HIV positive do not get tested for HIV (only 15% of those infected know that they are HIV positive – and those who don’t know cannot get help, and they can pass it on unknowingly – to partners, to babies);
• Many of those who do get tested never collect their results;
• People who have become ill with Aids and need treatment do not get it because they are scared that someone may realise that they are HIV positive (those who do get antiretroviral treatment have very low viral loads which means that they feel healthy, but are also less infectious. Hence the more people with Aids who get treated the fewer people become infected); or they only go for treatment once they are very sick and it is too late;
• Children orphaned through Aids do not claim support due to them because they don’t want to be known as Aids orphans.
The reason for all of this is that people are afraid that if they are labelled with HIV/Aids, they will be regarded as tainted in some way, as immoral, or irresponsible or anything that denotes that they don’t belong. Because that is what stigma is – a label that says ‘you are different, you’re not one of us.’
Aids stigma is very complex and many factors come into it. I want to highlight just one of the main factors: Aids is stigmatised because it is linked to sex. The HI Virus is sexually transmitted in most cases. And sex is a tricky thing. We don’t know how to talk about it, especially in the church. So a lot of the time we don’t. And when we do very often it is in a way that connects sex with sin. We give warnings, we teach what not to do or how not to be. But most of the time we just say nothing about sex, or about Aids. And this silence does say a lot.
So how can we find a more helpful way? Some time ago I came across a slogan. Life – it said – is sexually transmitted. Wow! I like that. Life is sexually transmitted. We know that of course, but saying it says something different from what we usually say. ‘Sexually transmitted’ is not a dirty word. It is what gives life. That is where we all come from. An incredible gift. Something to celebrate. Yes, in some cases sex may pass on a deadly virus and we need to speak about that too. But maybe this is a helpful way to start that conversation.