Commentary: Whose Job Is It to Keep You HIV Negative?

Recent Missouri HIV exposure case sparks dialogue on personal responsibility. 

Posted: 01/23/2014 11:14 AM EST

Recently, news broke that an HIV-positive 22-year-old former college student in Missouri was accused of exposing others to HIV and allegedly taping his sexual encounters without their knowledge.

The police found more than 30 tapes in Michael Johnson’s home of partners he met mostly online and at his school, Lindenwood University, CBS.com reported. Since his October arrest, five people have come forward claiming they had unprotected sex with Johnson and were unaware of his status. One man claims that he tested positive and Johnson was the source of his infection. 

It’s unknown how many people he had sex with asked him if he was HIV-positive, but according to Buzzfeed, two of his partners did, and Johnson said he was not. If found guilty, Johnson could be sentenced to life in prison.

Clearly this has sparked some heated online debates — just read the online comments to any story written about this case.

Now, I have always believed that anyone with an STD has a moral and ethical obligation to disclose his or her status to his or her partner(s). I do not condone what Johnson is being accused of, but should the act of not disclosing be a crime?

No.

But in many states it is. And what’s worrisome is that these laws don’t really protect HIV-negative folks. Instead they continue to stigmatize the HIV community, deter people from getting tested and unfairly prosecute innocent people living with HIV/AIDS. Remember, cases like Johnson’s may get the most media coverage, but they are the exception, not the rule. There are people being thrown in jail for biting or spitting at someone, when saliva isn’t how HIV is transmitted. Or being arrested because a scorned ex is trying to seek revenge by claiming they were unaware of their HIV status.

Not to mention, how if at all do these laws address the reality that for some living with HIV/AIDS, disclosing their status could mean they are attacked and even murdered?

But what’s really worrisome are the messages these laws send to HIV-negative folks like myself. They tell us that we are not responsible for our own health, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

If you want to remain HIV-negative, you have to make a conscious effort to do so.

Yes, some can control their situation better than others. For those in violent relationships, demanding condoms is not going to happen given that comes with dire consequences. Or I think about folks in marriages or long-term relationships who test positive not even thinking they were at risk because their relationship wasn’t as monogamous as they thought. Or people who have to use sex as a means to survive.

But let’s be clear, that was not the case with Johnson’s “victims.”

These people willingly had unprotected sex with Johnson. And this isn’t a judgment about having casual sex, because knowing someone doesn’t protect you from HIV/AIDS either. Only condoms do. And given the higher rates of HIV in the Black community, we really cannot afford to slip up given that we are more likely to encounter HIV when dating within our community.

Real talk: This isn't new information. 

And it’s frustrating because we are a generation of not knowing a world without AIDS and yet our cluelessness and the lack of responsibility blows my mind. Basic HIV 101: You cannot tell if someone has HIV, attractive people can have HIV and tops can be positive, too. And while talking about our statuses is important when entering sexual relationships, that doesn’t mean you take someone’s word as fact. People are not always truthful and in many cases people are not even aware that they are positive.

In the end, if anything tangible can be taken away from Johnson’s HIV exposure case, it is that you have be the one in charge of your health if you plan on remaining HIV-negative. The “burden” is on you, as it should be given that it’s your life and not anyone else’s.

Follow Kellee Terrell on Twitter @kelleent.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

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