What are we afraid of?

On World Aids Day Karen Pollock looks at how attitudes to acceptable types of sex still lead to stigma and prejudice towards those with HIV


Today is World Aids Day, a day that many of us hoped would have had become unnecessary when we first stared wearing red ribbons to show our support for those with HIV. Those red ribbons were a challenge to the attitudes of the time, often a dangerous one to make. I still remember being warned at an early vigil that we might want to remove them before we travelled home, for our own safety. When the media whipped up hysteria, and hospital and funeral homes treated sufferers like the victims of some medieval plague whose very bodies carried evil spirits, it was not an over the top warning.

The first government campaign in the UK to raise awareness of AIDS drew directly on this hysteria. Floating icebergs ensured we did not think of the humanity, just the fear. Perhaps most importantly, any discussion of safer sex was missing from the advert which first aired in 1987. Even the Guardian, a far more left wing publication then than it is now reported that;

The television sound track specifically states that the virus can be passed during sexual intercourse but there are no gruesome details, nor any mention of condoms.

The very tagline, “Don’t Die of Ignorance”, is darkly ironic given that the campaign was determined to keep people ignorant, either about “gruesome details” or safer sex advice. Papers later released showed that there was a push from some to give clearer, factual advice, but it was resisted by the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  In a genuine case of “will no one think of the children” she believed even knowing about sex acts, and how to protect yourself would somehow corrupt young people. It’s a familiar cry, presumably the idea must be that queer people are just having such an incredible time in bed that even naming what they do turns otherwise straight young people queer.

The first government campaign in the UK to raise awareness of AIDS drew directly on this hysteria. Floating icebergs ensured we did not think of the humanity, just the fear. Perhaps most importantly, any discussion of safer sex was missing from the advert which first aired in 1987

So, we had whispered mentions that something gay men did caused them to catch AIDS. With no compulsory Sex and Relationship Education, and no mention of what the “riskier” sexual practices were, the general public was left with the belief of a deadly disease which a certain type of person was at risk from, and with very little information on how to protect themselves. It is worth mentioning that everything from poppers to the mold in bath houses was suggested as a cause. Underneath headlines screaming of the “Gay plague” the general public was not meant to worry about actually catching HIV. That was a worry for those others, drug users, Africans, sex workers, and men who had sex with men.

Sex is what this all boils down to. That might sound like a redundant statement when we are talking about a sexually transmitted disease, but let us for a moment compare with other pandemics or chronic illnesses which can also kill. Polio, for example, was a huge fear, right up until the 1970’s. In many ways it was comparable to AIDS. There was little understanding of why it suddenly “appeared”. Normal preventative measures seemed to be of no use, and it threatened entire communities. However, no one ever refused to bury a dead child with polio, its victims were not divided into innocent and guilty. The fact it targeted children fits very much with the idea some people are innocent, whilst others, they deserved to be sick.

If you look at the headlines of the 80’s it was a standard of both the Christian Church and the Right that AIDS was, in a very biblical sense, a punishment for certain sexual behaviours. Some came out and directly said it, believing God to be a personal agent of their dislike for homosexuals. Just as in the Middle Ages lepers were condemned as sinners, with their disease as a visible mark of their transgression, so those who had HIV were seen to have transgressed against acceptable sexual behaviour.

Underneath headlines screaming of the “Gay plague” the general public was not meant to worry about actually catching HIV. That was a worry for those others, drug users, Africans, sex workers, and men who had sex with men.

That was then, this now though surely?

Sadly, as the People living with HIV stigma survey (2015) found, the same fears and prejudices still exist. In 2016 we are still judging people as wrong because (some of us) believe that how they have sex, or who with, is morally wrong. To be blunt there should be no more stigma around catching a virus from being sneezed on, as being spunked in, so long as the sex is consensual. However, the fact is we do still judge them differently. I find it hard to believe that part of the opprobrium is not about who is having the wrong kind of sex. As Lee wrote here, people may be coming round to the idea of two men getting married, but still pull away, often with horror, at the thought that the marriage might be consummated. As it is for gay men, so it is for trans people, sex workers, queer people, those who do not meet monogamous norms. Straw men arguments are built up around condom use, most recently over PrEP from people who would never deny NHS services to rugby players, or pregnant people. I am not saying we should ignore safer sex messages, but it is my belief that the problem so often is that any sex is being had, not whether condoms are being used.

If as a society we are to move forward, we need to look at ourselves clearly and consider how much a personal objection to some forms of sex informs prejudice and bigotry towards entire groups of people. If we are not willing to do so, we will still be writing of stigma towards those with HIV in another 20 years time.

Follow Karen on Twitter (@CounsellingKaz)

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