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An Infectious Silence: Stigma and the Persistence of HIV Among Young People

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December 2, 2013

Yesterday was World AIDS Day, and there were a great deal of new coverage documenting it—reports of how we’ve progressed since AIDS became a full-fledged epidemic in the 80s, how we’re still at risk, and how young people are still incredibly at risk.

Forty percent of all global HIV transmissions are spread by those between the ages of 15 to 24, according the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and while some parts of the world are seeing decreases in the number of HIV infections every year, others are actually seeing an increase.

Much of this lackluster decrease to the number of HIV infections and deaths can be attributed to lack of information, access to condoms, and life-saving medication. But, there is another element, which, despite there being an entire day dedicated to AIDS awareness, still isn’t being taken seriously enough in my opinion. Silence, and stigma, are causing young people to contract and spread HIV—even when they might “know better.”

I tend to run with a pretty feministy kinda crowd. They rock pro-choice bumper stickers, quote Bell Hooks and Buffy, and, in lieu of most of their schools severely lacking sex education programs (if their schools even had one) have now gotten their hands on comprehensive sex education. They use condoms, and birth control, and lube, and dildos; they (and I) are an informed, and therefore, in the global scheme of things, a privileged bunch of folks.

And yet, very few of them ever get tested for HIV.

The numbers rise slightly when it comes to my friends who are MSM, or men who have sex with men. But it’s an overwhelmingly dismal turnout among my community of people. These are the people who have more sexual health information than most of the planet—they’re the ones who pass out condoms to strangers, who fight for their right for contraception, who have lots of awesome consensual sex. Why, then, why do these people, who are more conscious of the importance of getting tested, still hesitant?

It’s because, in a generation where we’ve been taught to fear pretty much everything—the imminent destruction of the planet, the irreparably damaged economy, the ever-increasing amount of debt we face—HIV is another thing we’ve been taught to fear beyond belief.

Ever heard of the term “frozen with fear”? Yeah, well, we’re pretty frozen all right.

I didn’t really have any sex education growing up, unless you count my catholic school’s “Adam and Eve” program my mom let me stay home sick from in sixth grade (thanks mom). There was a whole lot of talk about chastity, and a weird gym assembly where we had to sign a card pledging to stay virgins until marriage, which everyone signed and then promptly threw on the ground once we were dismissed. But the only time I ever had HIV and AIDS, or any STIs at all talked about in a classroom setting was during my senior year college biology report, where we did a week concerning the topic. Or, as it might be alternatively titled, the week where my bio teacher flashed us a PowerPoint filled with pictures depicting the various, and graphic, outcomes of STIs, HIV, and AIDs on the human body. We got some information about how these infections occurred, and their prevalence, but there was absolutely no discussion on 1) how to prevent them besides being abstinent 2) information on what to do if you do contract one of these infections.

Basically it was “if you have sex, you get an STI/HIV/AIDS—and DIE.” Which is a surefire way to encourage folks to not feel any sense of shame if they get tested, right?


We need to educate young people—my people—about how to prevent and treat HIV and AIDS. But it’s not enough to just flash some PowerPoint or hand out pamphlets and call it a day. There needs to be information, and that information needs to be given frequently, by a variety of voices, from a multitude of perspectives, and, most importantly, without stigma. You can inform people all you want, but if they have grown up inculcated with the notion that even being associated with HIV/AIDS is something to keep in the dark, they’re not likely to be pounding on the door of their local clinic to get tested unless the conversation takes on a drastically different tone. Even if it could save their life.

We need to back off the scare tactics. We need to have open and honest conversations. We need to make clear that being HIV positive is not a death sentence. We need to make it clear that getting tested for HIV does not require you losing a piece of your humanity, or make you a cropped image on a PowerPoint to shame others into never having sex.

We need to start talking—now.

 If you want to do your part in starting the discussion about HIV and AIDS, participate in our World AIDS Day Call in. More information here

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