Although people working in HIV prevention have always believed that the spread of the virus is largely due to stigma around sex and sexuality, it wasn’t until 2009 that a report on the correlation between the spread of HIV and stigma the Dominican Republic scientifically proved this.
The implications of this report illustrated how social attitudes can contribute to creating an environment which propels the spread of HIV: stigma not only affected the willingness of at-risk individuals to seek HIV-related services, including testing, it also deterred people living with HIV from seeking treatment. Moreover, stigma had an impact on the way sexual health services were provided, making access to such services more difficult if not impossible. Stigma, therefore, drove the spread of this virus.
This is also evident when observing the prevalence of HIV among African-Americans in the United States (US). African-Americans are the ethnic group most affected by the virus in the US. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), African-Americans, who comprise 12% of the total US population, account for 44% of new HIV infections.
And of all new HIV infections among African-Americans, a majority (57%) happened among men who have sex with men (MSM).
CDC attributes this trend to the fact that the HIV prevalence rate is high to begin with among the African-American community, and that more than other ethnic groups, African-Americans tend to have sex with partners from their own community. In addition, discrimination and higher poverty levels make it more difficult for African-Americans to access HIV prevention education as well as health services, including HIV testing and treatment.
But another hugely important factor in explaining these figures is stigma. Stigma around HIV discourages many African-Americans from getting tested regularly, which often results in the late diagnosis of HIV, in turn giving the virus more opportunities to spread.
This is especially true for the black LGBTQ community. While massive legal strides have been made in the US in recent years, religious condemnation of same-sex relationships remains rife. Religion continues to be a cornerstone in African-American communities as it played a significant role in the liberation of black people. Faith-based leaders often cite the spread of HIV among the LGBTQ community to support anti-gay rhetoric. This misinformation breeds stigma, creating an environment in which people are scared to discuss their sexuality and sexual health.
And it’s not just black LGBTQs that are affected by anti-gay rhetoric, but also the wider African-American community. As a consequence of the enduring LGBTQ- and HIV-related stigma in their community, many black gay men are afraid to come out. Instead, they often have female partners whilst secretly engaging in sexual relationships with other men. By doing so, they not just put themselves and other men at risk of HIV, but also their female sexual partners.
The facts show us that stigma perpetuates the spread of HIV. If we really are to stop it, it is vital that communities – especially those most at risk, such as the African-American community – talk openly and honestly about sexuality and sexual health.