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Criminal laws on HIV transmission make little difference to sexual behaviour – or may make condomless sex more likely
Roger Pebody, 2016-02-01 10:00:00
A study comparing the sexual behaviour of American gay men
living in states with or without laws that criminalise HIV transmission has
found very little variation by state, suggesting that legislation has minimal
impact on public health. Or the law may be counter-productive – men who believed
they lived in a state which criminalised HIV transmission were slightly more
likely to have sex without a condom, the researchers report in AIDS & Behavior.
A handful of previous studies have shown that laws make
little impact on the frequency with which people with diagnosed HIV disclose
“Laws which promote public health through the curtailment of
freedom can be justified only if they effectively achieve the desired goal,” the
researchers say. More efforts are needed to inform policy makers and the public
about the ineffectiveness of these laws to deter behaviour that places people
at risk for HIV, they say.
The United States of America is the country which
criminalises and jails people living with HIV the most for transmitting the
virus and/or exposing others to the ‘risk’ of transmission (without
transmission necessarily occurring). Many ‘exposure’ laws criminalise behaviours
such as spitting which pose no real risk of HIV transmission.
Because different states of the union have different laws,
it’s possible to use national surveys to see whether behaviour changes by
Data come from a total of 2013 men who have sex with men who
were recruited through online advertising to complete an internet survey in
2010. Average age was 36, three-quarters were white, half had completed college
and two-thirds were single. One-fifth had been diagnosed with HIV but results
were not presented separately according to respondents’ HIV status.
Most participants (68%) reported having sex without a condom
in the past three months. Whether men lived in a state with an HIV criminal law
or in which arrests and prosecutions had actually taken place made no
difference to this figure.
While over half lived in states with HIV criminal laws, the
respondents were not well-informed about this – three-quarters had no
idea whether their state had an HIV criminal law or not. Men who had correct or
incorrect information about their state’s law were just as likely to have sex
without a condom.
But the 17% of men who believed there was such a law were more
likely to report sex without a condom (75%) than men who were unsure about the
The authors offer a possible explanation for this finding:
“Men who believe that there is any or a sex specific HIV law in their state may
believe that such laws are effective in discouraging HIV-infected persons from engaging
in condomless anal sex. As a result, these men may engage in higher risk
behavior because they perceive that they are at low risk for HIV infection,
protected in part by state law.”