Over the past few days, the story of an HIV positive man having condom-less sex with over 30 sexual partners has gone viral. What enveloped is a debate around HIV criminalization laws – essentially laws that prosecute HIV positive people who knowingly transmit HIV. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 33 states currently have one or more HIV-specific laws that criminalize the exposure of HIV.
We live in a nation that is arguably not sex-positive. What this case has shown is that a sizeable minority of black gay men subscribe to conservative pedagogies that promote an erasure of sexual positivity. Sex without condoms is pleasurable — so why are we so surprised that people forgo using condoms, because they trust someone they, presumably, just met? Why is it a surprise that Michael Johnson prefers having sex without condoms knowing that he has HIV? Why are we hell-bent on this man being prosecuted and found convicted of doing something, which for many of us, seems so natural?
Here’s what we know about Michael Johnson and his case:
- He’s 22 years old.
- He had sex with people while knowing his HIV status.
- Unbeknownst to them, he recorded the sexual acts.
- Authorities also believe he didn’t disclose his status, or all together lied about it.
- He had 31 sexual partners – all men.
- And, as far as one can discern from the reports, the sex was consensual.
If the facts are right, Michael Johnson is no guiltier of transmitting HIV than any of us are when we decide to engage in consensual sex with condoms. The way the media – and the generated conversation within – has disseminated the story only sensationalizes an already nuanced debate, and, subsequently, facilitates and aggravates stigma, homophobia, and discrimination against people living with HIV. What is this collective obsession to sexually terrorize racial and sexual minorities? One can understand the tragedy of the story – and can’t be insensitive to the HIV negative sexual partners who were lied to, but to refer to them as victims is essentially mocking their sexual health practices. To refer to them as sexual victims is at the very least a dramatization that doesn’t do anything to neutralize debate. They are not victims – and he isn’t a culprit. We can’t continue to persecute HIV positive people who engage in consensual condom-less sex, even after one lies about their status. We can’t continue to make HIV a sexual weapon.
But to some extent, this response goes beyond the victimization of Michael Johnson or his partners. What became palpable was this country’s fundamental thirst for punishment and retribution. And in this case, a thirst that is unjustified and disingenuous. This epidemic continues to disproportionately impact the lives of young black gay men. It is this fact that should have us outraged. We collectively should be angry at how the intersections between poverty and racism continue to amount to health disparities for communities of color. We should be angry at the lack of public will and consciousness about eradicating HIV/AIDS. We should be angry at a criminal justice system that prioritizes the erasure of black bodies rather than fair laws and restorative justice.
So, it must be asked if that is what people are really mad at? And what does the fact that this is a young gay man of a dark complexion have to do with our anger? Is it “justice” that we are fighting about? Because if we want “justice”, then there are a whole lot of other issues that need to be injected into this conversation. If our anger is not coming from our desire to see our communities healthier, than the question that we must ask ourselves is, what are we really angry about? So, put an asterisk on your critical judgment, and get on to the business of finding out what you’re really mad about.
What are you thoughts? What are you ‘really’ mad at?