I'm honestly hoping this diary is unnecessary. I'm posting it to explain some things I don't think I should have to explain on a progressive blog. Unfortunately, after reading some comments in a recent diary cross-posted here from the blog Virally Suppressed, I'm afraid I may have to do a bit to educate some in this community about HIV and those of us who live with the disease.
So you can understand where I'm coming from, the diary that inspired this one is entitled Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged: A Review of Tyler's Perry's Temptation. VS's review of the film was unfavorable, and one of the reasons it criticized the film was this:
There is no mistaking Tyler Perry’s message here: HIV is God’s punishment for straying from His path and falling prey to the allure of infidelity and passions of the flesh.
To me, this criticism was both obvious and justified. I thought we were well past the days in which people (or at least progressives) thought of HIV as some kind of divine punishment. But that's not how a couple of commenters saw it. They didn't see anything wrong with portraying HIV as the negative consequence for what they viewed as immoral or irresponsible behavior. So here I am, doing something I almost never do -- writing a diary.
So for those of you who aren't familiar with it, in this diary I'd like to introduce you to the word "serophobia" and talk about some of the negative (pardon the pun) messages about HIV-positive people that appear in the film. There's more after the jump.
Since Tyler Perry's movie was the genesis of this whole thing, you should probably know the basic plot. I'll let TheGrio's Veronica Miller give you the CliffNotes version:
Tyler Perry’s Temptation is a so-called “erotic thriller,” which explores what happens when a married woman pursues an extramarital affair. The main character, Judith (played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell), is a small-town girl who moves to Washington, D.C., with her childhood-sweetheart-turned-husband, Brice (played by Lance Gross). Six years into their marriage, Judith grows restless and feels unappreciated, bored with Brice’s 10-year-plan and annoyed that he’s been too aloof to remember her birthday.
Enter Harley, a wealthy — like, really really really wealthy — social media entrepreneur, who’s looking to invest in the matchmaking service where Judith works. Glances are exchanged, banter is traded, pickup lines are dropped, and it’s not too long before Judith is resisting-but-not-really-resisting Harley’s advances.
Eventually, Judith leaves Brice at home to gallivant around town at black-light parties and snort coke with Harley. (Because that’s what women do when they have affairs with rich men. They go to black-light parties and snort coke.)
But let me fast-forward and tell you how this story ends. Brice, upset that his wife has left him, seeks solace in his friend Melinda (played by Brandy Norwood). Melinda’s been on the run from a stalking ex (who we easily figure out is Harley), and Brice asks her if she thinks she’ll ever find love again. There’s an awkward pause, and then Melinda reveals she’s HIV-positive. “So no,” she concludes. She will not find love again. Because in Tyler Perry’s world, people living with HIV are doomed to live a life of lovelessness and solitude.
When Melinda shares that Harley is the ex who gave her HIV, Brice panics. Suddenly, he must save Judith. Judith must be saved from the HIV! Brice races to Harley’s apartment, finds Judith beaten up and left in a bathtub, and carries her home (not without throwing Harley through a window and punching him a few times).
[. . .]
For a moment, there’s a glimmer of hope — maybe the broken couple will reunite through this trauma, maybe Brice’s undying love for Judith will heal her battered face and gloss over her bad decisions, and maybe the pair will settle into married bliss once again. Except…
Tyler Perry catapults us an indeterminate number of years into the future, showing a hobbled, bespectacled and homely Judith limping to Brice’s pharmacy to get her HIV medication. As she’s leaving, we meet Brice’s new (unsettlingly-younger) wife and young son, a picture-perfect snapshot of what Judith could have had, had she not messed around and gotten the HIV.
We’re left with a shot of Judith walking away, “to church” she says, hobbling down a nondescript sidewalk in D.C.
I admit I haven't actually seen the film, and I know that this will inevitably elicit the criticism that I shouldn't be judging what I haven't seen. The movie's plot has been extensively detailed in the reviews I've read, though, so I think I know enough to write about it, at least as far as this topic is concerned. If you think the sources I've used have gotten something factually wrong about the film's plot, please let me know.
Now that you've got the basic story line, let's move on to the topic of the diary.
What Is Serophobia?
Since it's a relatively new term, there's probably no one accepted definition of serophobia. But here's the gist of it: Serophobia is the manifestation of fear or aversion directed at people living with HIV. In my view, it also encompasses holding negative views of people based solely on their serostatus.
Serophobia was a big problem in the early days of the HIV epidemic, when people were so scared of those with HIV that they refused to touch a poz person or eat at the same table. Even some medical professionals refused to treat AIDS patients back then.
Nowadays that kind of fear is less of a problem, as most people understand that HIV can't be spread by casual contact. I still experience serophobia regularly, though, as when guys who would otherwise be willing to date me suddenly refuse when they learn I'm positive. Or when I read the ads on gay dating sites in which HIV-negative guys say they're looking for guys who are "clean," a euphemism for "free of HIV."
We also see serophobia at work in the way many people (including, apparently, Tyler Perry) view HIV and those of us who have it. So let's take a look at a few of the negative messages about HIV and HIV+ people that Perry is sending with this film.
Message No. 1: HIV Is Punishment for Immorality.
As a person living with HIV, this is a message I know all too well. I heard it again and again back in the early days of the epidemic, when religious and political conservatives trumpeted the notion that AIDS was God's punishment for gay men's immorality. In their view, we had gotten what we deserved. So vicious was their homophobia that they delighted in the deaths of gay men, who, in their view, were only getting their just desserts.
Confronted with the (for them) unfortunate medical fact that AIDS was not, in fact, only a gay disease and that people like hemophiliacs and transfusion recipients had been infected with the virus through contaminated blood products, the conservatives modified their message a bit. They decreed that such people were the "innocent victims" of AIDS. Hemophiliacs and transfusion recipients deserved our understanding and sympathy, because unlike gay men, they hadn't acquired the disease through sexual practices conservatives viewed as dirty and depraved. It's not for nothing that the signature piece of legislation passed by Congress to deal with the HIV/AIDS epidemic is named after Ryan White, a young hemophiliac from Indiana who was infected with HIV through a transfusion. Ryan White, "innocent victim," was the acceptable face of AIDS.
To those of you who think HIV is some kind of punishment that you get for engaging in "immoral" behavior, let me clue you in on something. HIV is a virus. It has no brain and can't think. Given the right physical conditions, it will infect a new host, and once inside that host, in almost all cases it will replicate itself. It does not care whether its mode of entry was a blood transfusion, a shared needle, or, as in my case, an act of physical intimacy. Thus, HIV knows no "innocent" or "guilty" victims. The virus is amoral. It's a microscopic particle incapable of making any kind of judgment about the rightness or wrongness of the behavior of those it infects.
We humans, of course, are different. We're full of moral judgments. But for those of you who think it's okay to portray HIV as a consequence of what you view "immoral" or "irresponsible" behavior, consider this. People engage in risky behavior all the time, yet we don't dish out these heavy-duty moral judgments to them unless we harbor a dislike of the risk behavior in question. When you get into a car, you're voluntarily assuming a risk -- a risk of grievous injury or death. Those things may happen to you no matter how careful you are personally, because a drunk could run into you or a truck driver could nod off in the cab of his 18-wheeler and crush your car. So most of you knowingly do something very risky day after day. Yet no one would ever consider making a movie about the immorality of driving, or consider calling driving "doing something wrong," or wagging a finger at someone who was so "irresponsible" as to drive.
The difference, of course, is all about one's personal view of the behavior at issue. Frankly, most Americans have very punitive and Victorian ideas about sex. We're prone to judge harshly those who have sex in ways that don't fit our narrow definition of what's moral. In the case of Perry's film, Judith has sex outside of her marriage, so she has to be punished.
Now if Perry wants to peddle that old-fashioned church morality in his films, so be it. My problem is that he relies on serophobia to make his point. Like the televangelists of the 80s, Perry goes the disease-as-retribution route and uses HIV as a kind of divine punishment for Judith's sexual misdeeds. (I guess losing her husband or the approval of her friends wouldn't have been severe enough.) In Perry's world, unfaithful women have now joined the gays as deserving of lifelong suffering.
As Lindy West at Jezebel put it:
That Perry would have the gall to use HIV as a punitive measure against black women who don't fit his idea of "goodness"—black women, by the way, account for 2/3 of new HIV infections among women—betrays a frightening selfishness and lack of empathy. It echoes, very plainly, the old Fundamentalist rhetoric that AIDS is a punishment from god for the sins of the gays. Perry expands that rhetoric, sure—now dirty, filthy women can sin just like gays do!—but the message is the same. Casual sex is a sin and sinners deserve HIV. That. Is. Crazy.
Here's Veronica Miller again, explaining another aspect of what's wrong with this whole HIV-as-punishment idea:
Perry’s use of HIV as a moralistic plot device undercuts the decades-long effort remove the stigma of the virus. And seeing how African-Americans, by far, are disproportionately affected by HIV, it’s arguably irresponsible for Perry — a filmmaker known for his influence with African-Americans audiences — to continue to portray HIV as a life-ending “boogeyman disease” that only affects “bad” or deserving people. I can only imagine how insulting Perry’s treatment is to HIV awareness warriors like Marvelyn Brown, Rae Lewis-Thornton, and Hydeia Broadbent.
Let's put this poisonous idea to bed once and for all, shall we? HIV is a disease. That's all it is. It is not a punishment, whether for sexual immorality or anything else.
Message No. 2: People With HIV Are Sexual Predators.
Again, it's depressing that I have to say this at all, but having HIV does not make you an utterly immoral sexual predator. But if you look at Harley, the HIV+ villain of Perry's crude morality play, you might think otherwise. Here's how Lindy West describes a sex scene between Harley and Judith:
3. Harley Rapes Judith.
Here are all of things that Judith says immediately before Harley has sex with her in his private plane: "No." "Stop it." "I don't want to." "Get off of me." Judith does not want to have sex with Harley. (There's another layer of nuance here—one reason Judith doesn't want to have sex with Harley is that she's deeply invested in Perry's beloved gender roles. But the reason for her "no" is irrelevant. Her spiritual weakness betrays her, Harley can tell she wants it, and she's punished for that weakness.)
He does not stop. He just tries harder. He knows what she really wants, no matter what her mouth and body are saying. She never says yes. He says, smugly, "Now you can say you resisted." He has sex with her anyway. This is a rape scene.
Apparently, in Tyler Perry's world, if you're a person with HIV, you're out there forcing yourself on people who don't actually consent to having sex with you, and you don't care whether or not your sex partners contract HIV. I'm not sure whether Harley is supposed to be aware of his status, but it doesn't much matter. The destructive thing is Perry's portrayal of an HIV+ person as, quite literally, the devil himself, as someone completely unconcerned with the consequences of his actions. And of course, in the film, one of the consequences is the transmission of HIV.
Here again, Perry is trafficking in one of the oldest and most vicious stereotypes of us poz folks. You might call it the old AIDS Mary tale. Here's how it goes:
The Legend: A traveling business man meets a beautiful blond in a night club and invites her to his room for an evening of carnal delights. When the man awakes the next morning he discovers his overnight companion has vanished but left a message, “Welcome to the Wonderful World of Aids”, written in lipstick on the bathroom mirror. After contacting the police, the man learns he is the eighth victim of Aids Mary, a vengeful woman who intentionally spreads the disease to healthy men.
[. . .]
Eventually, Mary faded from public consciousness and was replaced by Aids Harry, a nefarious rogue who targets beautiful women on vacation in exotic locations. Instead of leaving a message on a mirror, Harry gives his victims a can of coffee with a note reading “Here’s something to help you on your sleepless nights. Welcome to the Aids club!”
It's infuriating to see a major filmmaker like Tyler Perry resurrecting this ridiculous urban myth. Again, if Perry wants to make the point that having sex outside of marriage is a big old sin, he can do that without spreading noxious lies about people with HIV.
Message No. 3: Having HIV Makes You Undeserving of Love.
Veronica Miller catches yet another manifestation of serophobia in the film -- the idea that those of us with HIV aren't deserving of love and are condemned to a life of loneliness:
Melinda’s been on the run from a stalking ex (who we easily figure out is Harley), and Brice asks her if she thinks she’ll ever find love again. There’s an awkward pause, and then Melinda reveals she’s HIV-positive. “So no,” she concludes. She will not find love again. Because in Tyler Perry’s world, people living with HIV are doomed to live a life of lovelessness and solitude.
I wish I could show Tyler Perry all of the HIV+ people I know who are in happy, successful relationships. But I guess admitting that HIV doesn't automatically sentence you to a lifetime of bachelorhood/spinsterhood would spoil the moral of his clumsy little story. After all, if Judith were to get on with her life post-seroconversion and find a man who loves her even though she has a disease, then she probably wouldn't have suffered enough to satisfy Perry's notions of morality.
To reiterate, if Perry wants to feed his audiences his old-fashioned, fire-and-brimstone morality, he's welcome to do it. I'm sure there's a market for that kind of thing, and if people are willing to pay to see it, I don't begrudge Perry making a buck (or millions of bucks) off of it. What I object to here is his use of serophobia to deliver his message. Those of us living with HIV face enough challenges without having to deal with the kinds of negative depictions we get in this film. It's not often that people with HIV make an appearance in a major motion picture, and it's disgusting that when we do, we get this.
If you've made it this far, thanks for reading. I'll see you in the comments.