People living with HIV in Canada can be charged with aggravated sexual assault and be registered as sexual offenders if they do not disclose their HIV status, but many HIV-positive women have little knowledge of this law, according to a recent qualitative study. The law contributes to increased HIV-related stigma, social injustices and vulnerability to violence for women living with HIV, argue Dr Saara Greene and colleagues.
Forty-eight women took part in seven arts-based workshops which each took place over a four-day period. Each workshop included an education session regarding the legal implications of non-disclosure, followed by a focus group discussion that allowed women to share thoughts, feelings and concerns regarding the law.
Canada is one of many countries that continues to criminalise non-disclosure of HIV-positive status in sexual acts between consenting individuals. Transmission of the virus does not need to occur: a person can be prosecuted for exposure to the virus in the absence of transmission.
In 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada clarified its position on HIV transmission, ruling that people living with HIV are legally required to disclose their status to sexual partners before engaging in sexual activities that pose a ‘realistic possibility of transmission’. According to the Court, two combined factors could be used as a defense against this realistic possibility of transmission: a low plasma viral load (under 1500 copies/ml) and the use of a condom.
Thus, the law does not acknowledge biomedical advances that conclusively show transmission is impossible if the infected individual is virally suppressed (see our factsheet on undetectable viral load and transmission). The ruling leaves room for those engaging in condomless sex with an undetectable viral load to be prosecuted. In Canada, a charge of aggravated sexual assault could carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and registration on the sex offender registry.
A more recent 2018 federal directive issued by the attorney general states that a person living with HIV who has maintained a suppressed viral load (under 200 copies/ml of blood) should not be prosecuted, because there is no realistic possibility of transmission. However, this directive only applies in Canada’s three territories and not in the provinces where the vast majority of the population live. Advocates are calling on the provinces to issue similar directives.
The workshops were carried out in 2016 and 2017, in three Canadian provinces (Ontario, Saskatchewan and British Columbia). The median age of participants was 47 (range: 30-59); the majority of women were Indigenous (60%), with only a small percentage of white women (8%). It was important for minority women to be oversampled as HIV prevalence is nearly three times higher in Indigenous peoples across Canada, with high rates of HIV diagnoses occurring in young Indigenous women. Additionally, 42% of women charged with HIV non-disclosure are Indigenous.
Most women were heterosexual (73%), cisgender (94%) and born in Canada (79%). One-third of women were single, with 29% reporting a common-law relationship.
Analysis of the focus group discussions revealed the following themes.