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DV and HIV: Unique Challenges for HIV-Positive Survivors of Abuse

DV and HIV: Unique Challenges for HIV-Positive Survivors of Abuse

by Adam R., a Hotline advocate 

When we think about who domestic violence affects, it can be very easy to jump to specific ideas that society has taught us- ideas that say the only survivors of abuse are women who are assaulted by their boyfriends or husbands. 

At The Hotline, we know that abuse can affect everyone, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, class, race, ability, immigration status, etc. These different identities don’t shield people from abuse, but instead impact their ability to access needed support and resources. Barriers can exist in the form of stigma, a lack of resources, accessibility concerns, or other obstacles, and they ultimately contribute to the isolation and oppression of survivors everywhere.  

Far too often, due to prejudicial beliefs or misunderstandings, we see marginalized populations framed as perpetrators of violence, vilifying and “othering” them. These negative beliefs can affect immigrantsLGBTQ peoplepeople living with mental illness, sex workers, and many other identities. While anyone is capable of committing abuse, these populations are frequently targets of increased rates of violence–not perpetrators of it. One population that often faces these added challenges, and one that is often overlooked, is people living with HIV (PLHIV). 

Abuse comes in many different forms, and as such, it can affect people who are HIV-positive in many different ways. Through active discrimination, fear of discrimination, criminalization, societal stigma, and a lack of legal protections for people living with HIV, there can be a multitude of unique ways abusive partners can use their power and control to isolate and manipulate survivors who are HIV-positive. This could look like: 

  • Saying that a survivor is “unlovable” or “dirty” because of their status, or that they’ll never find another partner 
  • Saying that a survivor is promiscuous or “slutty” because of their HIV status 
  • Isolating a survivor on the basis that they are a threat of exposure to others 
  • Threatening to share/sharing a survivor’s HIV status with their family or community, putting them at risk of discrimination and isolation 
  • Threatening to share/sharing a survivor’s HIV status with their landlord, potentially putting them at risk of eviction, or from acquiring housing 
  • Threatening to use a survivor’s HIV-status against them in a custody dispute 
  • Not allowing a survivor to seek necessary medical care 
  • Stealing or destroying the medications a survivor needs to stay healthy 
  • Threatening to share/sharing a survivor’s HIV-status with a current or future employer, potentially getting them fired or preventing them from getting a job 
  • Forcing a survivor to pay for new medication or treatments by stealing or destroying their current supply 
  • Sabotaging or refusing to use safer sex methods a survivor wants to use 
  • Sharing a survivor’s HIV-status online 
  • Threatening to take wrongful legal action against a survivor who is HIV-positive, and more. 

These are just some examples of the many ways an abuser can use a survivor’s HIV status to control their emotional, physical, financial, sexual, or digital decisions.  
 
One distinct way people living with HIV are made especially vulnerable to abuse is through state and federal legislation criminalizing a variety of behaviors related to their HIV status. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 25 states have laws criminalizing one or more behaviors that pose a low or negligible risk for transmission. Many laws also don’t take into account whether or not a person living with HIV has an undetectable viral load, which means that there are so few copies of the virus in their body that transmission is effectively impossible. If an abusive partner were to wrongly exploit these laws, a survivor would be put in an incredibly vulnerable position, which is why resources can be pivotal in such situations.  
 
If you have been wrongly charged or convicted of a crime where a history of abuse is relevant to your case, the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women (which serves people of all genders) could help. 
 
If you are HIV-positive and would like to get care or treatment, there is help available for you. You can find providers near you using the Health Resources and Services Administration’s website, as well as a list of statewide HIV/AIDS hotlines to access further resources. If you think you’ve been discriminated against at work, while getting medical care, or while seeking housing because of your HIV status, it may be helpful to learn more about your legal rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 
 
If you are unsure of your HIV-status, one way to plan for your safety is to get tested at a location near you. If you are HIV-negative and worry that you are at risk of contracting HIV, one resource that could be worth exploring is pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a medication taken daily to dramatically reduce the risk of transmission. If you need assistance finding a provider, or paying for PrEP, there are a variety of resources to help you do so. If you live in a rural community, or are unable to access healthcare providers, in some states you can also get PrEP by mail. If you believe you’ve been exposed to HIV within the last 72 hours, one way to protect yourself from contracting the virus is by taking post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), a medication regimen designed to significantly decrease that risk. 

If you are a minor and have concerns about getting tested, whether that’s regarding confidentiality/parental notification, cost, or something else, Title X may offer free or low-cost services via clinics that don’t require parental consent. Title X clinics also offer birth control, and can be a good option for people who are undocumented. To get tested through Title X, you’ll need to find a Title X clinic near you, and ask for “confidential STI testing through Title X.” If you’re a minor and would like to explore PrEP, the Food and Drug Administration recently approved PrEP for use by adolescents

Here at The Hotline, our advocates are not medical professionals, so before starting any new medical treatments, or if you have specific questions related to your health, we recommend speaking to a healthcare professional. If you have immediate questions about your sexual or reproductive health, some of your options include: chatting or texting with a professional health educatorlearning more about the potential risk of contracting a sexually-transmitted infection (also known as an STD) or getting pregnant from specific sex acts, or finding an affordable health center near you that can answer your questions. 

If you are HIV or STI positive, know that this status doesn’t define you, and in no way takes away from your worth or value as a human being. It also doesn’t mean that you deserve to experience anything less than a respectful, healthy relationship. No one deserves to be abused, despite what society or anyone else may tell you. If you have concerns about the health of your relationship, our hotline advocates are available 24/7. Please don’t hesitate to contact us by chat, or by phone at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE). 

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