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The Impact of HIV Criminalization on Domestic Violence Survivors

March 9, 2023

This past week was the second annual HIV is Not a Crime Awareness Day, which gave organizations like the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) an opportunity to amplify the voices of people who have been criminalized based on their HIV status. As co-creators The Sero Project and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation note, this date is also significant because it “ties a symbolic bow” to the closing of Black History Month and the beginning of Women’s History Month—two demographics that are disproportionately impacted by both the HIV epidemic and HIV criminalization.

While living with HIV is not a crime, as of 2022, 35 states had laws criminalizing HIV exposure, outlawing actions that can potentially expose other people to HIV. These laws are harmful and may increase the risk of violence for people living with HIV, and subsequently reinforce stigma against HIV. Entrenched in these laws and codified into our legal system is the marginalization of people living with HIV. (Learn more in this webinar from ChangeLab Solutions). HIV criminalization is a racial justice, gender justice, and economic justice issue, and it directly impacts our work to end domestic violence.

HIV criminalization is a racial justice issue. HIV disproportionately impacts Communities of Color. For example, as of 2019, Black and African American people represented 13.4% of the United States population, but make up 40.3% of people living with HIV. Many people living with HIV also already face different, often greater harm from the criminal justice system, including Black people, People of Color, transgender people, people who use drugs, and sex workers. Criminalizing these groups of people based on HIV status only serves to disempower them and disconnect them from the treatment and support they need to stay safe.

HIV criminalization is a gender justice issue. Women (especially Women of Color) living with HIV are disproportionately impacted by the criminal legal system. As of 2020, Black women were imprisoned at a rate of 65 per 100,000, and Latina women were imprisoned at a rate of 48 per 100,000. Additionally, LGBTQ+ adults are incarcerated at three times the rate of the total adult population, and they also experience higher rates of homelessness, poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and violence—all factors that not only make it difficult to access medical care for HIV, but also endanger their safety in all aspects of their lives.

HIV criminalization is an economic justice issue. When someone is criminalized or incarcerated, it can derail their entire life and make it almost impossible to maintain employment, housing, healthcare, and other basic needs. For people living with HIV, having a job that provides health insurance can mean the difference between having access to care and being forced to go without. Additionally, from a public health perspective, once a person is incarcerated, their HIV care can be difficult to maintain, thereby setting them up for worse health outcomes upon release. Providing for themselves and their families is harder for many people when their health outcomes are impacted.

HIV criminalization directly impacts NNEDV’s work to end domestic violence. Fifty-five percent of women and 20% of men living with HIV have experienced domestic violence, and domestic violence victims are 48% more likely to be exposed to HIV transmission. Additionally, women who have been recently abused have more than four times the rate of antiretroviral therapy (HIV treatment) failure. Women of Color—who are already disproportionately impacted by domestic violence—are placed at significantly more risk from a partner’s violence when they are also living with HIV.

Domestic violence is about power and control, and some abusers choose to weaponize HIV status as a tool to cause harm. This can include: intentionally transmitting HIV to a partner; preventing a partner from accessing medical care; withholding, disposing of, or tampering with medications; threatening to expose a partner’s HIV status; and other abusive tactics. Discrimination and violence based on all of the above intersections—race, gender, economic status, and more—disproportionately impact people living with HIV, and criminalizing these individuals only harms them and narrows their options for treatment, support, and safety.

Additionally, laws criminalizing HIV are often not rooted in science and do not account for the ways in which HIV is actually transmitted, or if a person has an undetectable viral load. These antiquated laws remain on the books; because of that, a person who is virally suppressed, discloses their HIV status to a partner, or does not transmit HIV to a partner can still be criminalized. This is unacceptable.

NNEDV’s Positively Safe team is proud to support advocates helping domestic violence survivors living with HIV. The team works to address the intersection of domestic violence and HIV by partnering with other organizations, providing technical assistance and training opportunities, and developing and disseminating critical resources. Our Positively Safe Toolkit includes information and resources for advocates and the general public, and we encourage everyone to educate themselves and consider how they can support loved ones, friends, and community members living with HIV. You can also sign up for NNEDV emails and be the first to know about upcoming HIV awareness days, Positively Safe events, and more.