What Do People Living With HIV 'Deserve'?

Published: April 9, 2013

Does contracting HIV demonstrate a moral inferiority or irresponsibility? Are you somehow deserving of the consequences of your choices, and does that mean less deserving of compassion?

A belief exists that becoming HIV-positive today is a befitting outcome for certain "high risk" behaviors because "we know better." It is similar to developing lung cancer after years of smoking or developing diabetes because of poor diet and exercise. Compassion is withheld if poor choices are what’s to blame for our compromised health, and then it is saved for the true and blameless victims.

Our hearts are immediately open to those who played no part in their unfortunate circumstances. You are a "true" victim of HIV if you became infected through transfusion or were born with it. Also, those who contracted the virus in the ’80s are often considered worthy of more compassion because during that time, they didn’t know any better. Those of us who seroconverted much later are in a very different category because we did "know better" and yet HIV transmission still occurred.

Are all new infections then caused by irresponsible risk takers with total disregard for the impact of their decisions? It is too simple to place everyone who has become positive since the ’90s in this category. It is far from accurate, and it ignores the many influential components that sustains transmission rates.

It also creates a false sense of protection by distancing those who aren’t HIV-positive from recognizing their similarities to someone who is.

If I am scared to become you, then I make myself not like you. Then I can justify why bad things happen to others and not me based on how very different we are. The differences relating to the "wrong" in them that is "right" within me.

Deciding people are "bad" or "wrong" can have us feeling "good" and "right." Creating this separation may create the illusion of moral superiority and invincibility, but it also perpetuates denial and shame. Stigmatizing a behavior one may associate with a lower moral standing does not stop it—at least not effectively. Instead, it can exacerbate self-destructive behaviors by drawing an unhealthy connection between unworthiness and self-preservation.

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