HIV Is Not a Crime

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Sean Strub

HIV Is Not a Crime is a documentary about HIV criminalization, told through the voices and stories of people who have been subject to discriminatory prosecutions or heightened punishments because of their HIV+ status.

Filmmaker Sean Strub, a longtime social justice activist and writer who has had HIV for more than 30 years, is the driving force behind HIV is Not a Crime. Sean is the founder of POZ Magazine, serves as senior advisor to the Positive Justice Project (which combats HIV criminalization) and sits on the board of the Global Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS. He was the first openly HIV+ person to run for a seat in the U.S. Congress and is well-known for his work combating HIV-related stigma and promoting the empowerment of people with HIV.

Most HIV criminalization prosecutions are for not disclosing one’s HIV+ status, or for not being able to prove disclosure, prior to engaging in an intimate sexual act. Actual HIV transmission is rarely a factor in these prosecutions and even the degree of potential risk is not typically relevant.

Many people are prosecuted even though they used a condom and/or had an undetectable viral load at the time of the sexual contact. Nick Rhoades, featured in the film, was sentenced to 25 years in an Iowa prison and lifetime sex offender registration, even though he used a condom and had an undetectable viral load.

Other cases involve a criminal offense, such as assault or prostitution, but the charge or punishment is made more serious because the accused has HIV. A simple assault charge becomes “assault with an intent to kill” or “attempted murder,” sometimes resulting in absurdly punitive sentencing for situations where there was no risk of harm. Willie Campbell is presently serving a 35 year sentence in Texas for spitting at a police officer.

HIV Is Not a Crime will address the human rights abuses inherent in creating a “viral underclass” in the law as well as how these statutes constitute a serious threat to public health.

When the government enshrines discrimination in the law – as it does with creation of different laws for people who have HIV than for those who do not – it is a most extreme manifestation of stigma.

Stigma discourages people from getting tested, accessing treatment or disclosing their HIV status to partners. But because one cannot be prosecuted for failing to disclose one’s HIV status if one has not been tested, HIV criminalization has become a significant disincentive for those at risk to get tested for HIV. The word on the street is “Take the Test and Risk Arrest!” – a dangerous method when more than 20% of those with HIV in the U.S. have not been tested.

People with HIV who have been subjected to criminalization prosecutions have only rarely been heard from and are typically portrayed in the media as, at best, reckless and, at worst, monstrous.

Most hold jobs, raise children, go to church, and are otherwise unremarkably different from others in society, except that they have HIV and were caught up in a profound injustice that often ruins their lives.

HIV Is Not a Crime will bring their stories to light, raise awareness of the public health threats and human rights abuses created by HIV criminalization and help mobilize the advocacy necessary for reform.

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