HIV/AIDS And Stigma: What You Can Do

When my introductory MSP post went live, I unsurprisingly shared it on my Facebook and Twitter accounts, wanting my friends to see the great work I was helping to produce.  And many of my online friends contacted me to let me know how much they liked that I was contributing to such a fun, sex-positive website.  However, one good friend and colleague was disappointed:  “Craig,” he said, “there’s one very important thing that is missing when you talk about your experience with sex, and I think the fact that you left it off shows how important it is to talk about.”

As I scanned back through my introduction, I realized what I had done.  Despite having spent the entirety of 2009 providing services to people living with HIV, I had neglected to mention this in my intro.  I could give all sorts of reasons –  I didn’t feel like it was sex-positive enough,  I didn’t think it went with the feeling of the site, etc. But the bottom line is that this site exists to talk about sex, relationships, and pleasure for EVERYONE, and that includes people who are living with HIV.

The fact that I missed an opportunity to talk about a group that is very important to me demonstrates how often stigma, fear, and misunderstanding can lead to discrimination and invisibility, whether it is from something as simple as a blog post or as complex as the institution of marriage.  This can happen either unintentionally, as I hope was my case, or simply because this group is feared and stigmatized, and is therefore left out of the conversation.  I think stigma regarding people living with HIV can be reduced in two ways:  knowledge about the disease and familiarizing yourself with those living with HIV in your community.

In terms of knowledge, a wonderful online resource for all things HIV-related is  This is where AIDS Partnership Michigan, my employer, told me to look on my first day on the job, and I was able to find information on everything from prevention to medications on this website.

The reason I say familiarizing yourself is important is because once people know someone of a stigmatized identity personally, they usually have an easier time supporting that identity in the realm of policy and advocacy.  For example, those people who know someone who identifies as LGBT are more likely to support same-sex marriage than those who don’t.  Getting to know those with HIV is somewhat more difficult due to confidentiality issues, but I will share a few ways to do this.

Try volunteering at an AIDS service organization in your area – they’d love your help and you would be able to meet some of the people who work with this disadvantaged group.  You could even participate in one of the annual AIDS walks, which take place all over the country.  You can find one near you on the web site.

There’s also a few books and movies I’d recommend: “And the Band Played On” tells an exhaustively researched and compelling tale about the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis.  It’s available on Amazon (a movie version is also available on Amazon).  However, if you really want an in-depth look at how HIV affects relationships and families, look no further than Angels in America, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning play turned into a Golden-Globe-winning mini-series.  This “gay fantasia” uses a colorful cast of characters and amazing actors such as Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson to tell a story about those infected with and affected by the disease.   Both the play and movie version (on DVD) are available on Amazon.

Hopefully the rest of the MSP team and I can delve more into this important issue when we do our theme week on HIV/AIDS, coming up before the end of this year!

Learn about MSP posts as they happen by following us on Twitter @mysexprofessor. You can also follow Craig VanKempen, the author of this post, @craigvk.

Image thanks to Wikimedia.

About Craig VanKempen

Craig VanKempen

Craig VanKempen, LLMSW/MPH, is a sex educator and therapist practicing in the Detroit/Ann Arbor area. His professional interests include HIV, polyamory, compulsive sexual behavior, religion and sexuality, and GLBT issues.

  • Kate McCombs

    Thanks for writing this post, Craig. I appreciate your openness about this topic. It seems like HIV/STIs and sex positivity are often talked about in such discrete ways. I’ve often found that many people who work in HIV/STI prevention activities often shy away from talking about sexual pleasure and I think it is interesting to see the converse happening.

  • Debby Herbenick

    I’m also happy that Craig covered this topic. Some research that my friends & colleagues have conducted suggest that some people who work with HIV/AIDS organizations don’t talk openly about their work due to concerns about stigma (e.g., will people think they, too, have HIV/AIDS? Or even just that others may feel uncomfortable). It’s enormously important work and I’m thankful, Craig, that you brought these resources to readers’ attention.