Guest Blogger

Locking Up HIV+ Black Men Doesn't Help HIV Prevention

Filed By Guest Blogger | August 03, 2011 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: black men HIV, Edwin J Bernard, HIV positive, Johnson Aziga, Karen Shea, sexual assault trial, trial

Editors' Note: Edwin J Bernard is a writer and advocate on HIV-related issues, currently working as a consultant for national and international NGOs on the intersection of public health and human rights. He has been blogging about HIV and the criminal law for more than four years. Visit his blog at http://criminalhivtransmission.blogspot.com

PrisonHIV.jpgJohnson Aziga, 55, an African migrant living with HIV, is now officially a "dangerous offender," according to Canadian criminal law.

Aziga is already considered a "murderer" two times over. He was convicted in 2009 of two counts of first-degree murder, ten counts of aggravated sexual assault, and one count of attempted aggravated sexual assault because he had unprotected sex with 11 women without telling them he had HIV. Seven of the women subsequently tested HIV-positive, and two died of AIDS-related cancers within a couple of years of having had sex with Aziga.

[A number of articles and blog posts on Aziga's trial - and the media's reaction to it - can be found on my blog.]

Being a "dangerous offender" means he will likely remain in prison for the rest of his life - even in the unlikely event that his life sentence without the possibility of parole for 25 years for the murder convictions is overturned on appeal.

Johnson Aziga would have been at least 78 years old if he had been able to be considered for release after 25 years. And yet, somehow, the Canadian legal system considers that at this age, Aziga's libido would be so voracious, his appeal so alluring to Canada's heterosexual female population, that he must be locked up for life. The Crown attorney, Karen Shea, argued that Aziga's sex drive "is head and shoulders above" the average man's and "knowing his need for sex is not going to be satisfied" could deter him from disclosing his HIV status to potential partners.

She told the court:

He didn't abstain from sex knowing what he knew (about having HIV), he didn't discuss his HIV status knowing what he knew, and he didn't wear a condom knowing what he knew.

Am I the only person who sees this as absurd - as both racist and HIV-phobic?

The legal characterization of men of African origin with HIV as 'monstrously' hypersexual is not new. Back in 1993, Canada tried to convict Charles Ssenyonga of similar "crimes". (His "victims," like Aziga's, were all white women; his virus, like Aziga's, a "rare African strain".) Ssenyonga died before the trial concluded. The prosecution (and media's) focus on his hypersexual Africanness was explored in a fabulous 2005 article by James Miller, "African Immigrant Damnation Syndrome: The Case of Charles Ssenyonga" published as part of a special issue of the social science journal, Sexuality Research & Social Policy called "Reckless Vectors: The Infecting 'Other' in HIV/AIDS Law."

In the introduction by the journal's editors, Heather Worth, Cindy Patton, and Diane Goldstein, they highlight the issue of racism in HIV criminal cases.

...The fact that the accused is African is used to indicate a priori an excessive and lethal sexuality and to position Africa itself as a deviant and viral continent and as the source and cause of AIDS. This prejudice extends to successive generations of African immigrants, as can be seen in the case of Nushawn Williams, an African American man from upstate New York. The same focus on Williams' Black, eroticized body is evident in the numerous media accounts of the case.

Interestingly, Nushawn Williams is currently going through exactly the same process as Aziga, having already served the maximum sentence of 12 years for the "crimes" he pleaded guilty to back in 1998. Back in May 2010, a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled that Williams "poses a danger to society and as a result, must remain behind bars even though his sentence is complete." He is now awaiting the outcome of his civil confinement hearing that has been delayed for almost a year.

Aziga and Williams are being punished twice over. The idea that society is protected from HIV by keeping them in prison indefinitely is erroneous and outrageous. In the past men used to "lock up" their daughters when a man of purported huge sexual prowess came sniffing around, as if their female offspring did not have a sexuality or a choice in whether or not to have sex with their suitor.

Now, society locks up "HIV monsters" because it thinks female members of society need protecting from them, as if they did not have a sexuality or a choice in whether or not to have sex with their suitor.

But the real problem is that focusing on Black or African HIV (in the guise of Aziga or Williams) creates a false sense of security, because all sex comes with risks of HIV-infection (and these risks are usually much higher from someone with HIV who is undiagnosed and therefore unable to disclose).

Wouldn't it be better - and more cost-effective - to spend some money on HIV prevention education for the general public so that white, heterosexual women, and others who think that they are not at risk for HIV because they haven't been targeted with HIV prevention information (usually aimed at "key populations" like gay men and Black or African communities) can learn how to protect themselves from HIV rather than foolishly relying on the criminal law to protect them after the fact?

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The thinking of African-Am./Black men are hyper-sexed is so archaic! I know quite a few who are almost asexual having such low libidos. And to continue such stereotypical ignorance in a position of authority is unforgivable.
However, I have another point to make. Why is Johnson Aziga the main and only culprit? I assume the women were in the room and having sexual congress with him at the same time. He didn't disclose. Not many do. So, a woman having sex with a strange man hasn't the ability to ask him to wear a condom?!?!
It isn't like there are only a few men who would have sex!
It is prudent to disclose your status for any disease one can transmit during sex; HIV, herpes, any STI. But it is also prudent that the other partner assume each has every conceivable STI, deadly or not, and act appropriately.
I live in Florida. Right after HIV/AIDS became better known, a law was passed making it a 3rd degree felony not to disclose HIV to sexual partners. A knee-jerk reaction to a man with HIV who had gotten it from a sex worker and now wanted to infect as many women as possible. However, I can have herpes, Hepatitis C, Godzilla Gonorrhea, etc. and it is okay if I do not disclose those. When laws are stupid is there any wonder blatant idiotic stereotypes are prevalent in those who administer the laws?

Om Kalthoum | August 4, 2011 4:52 PM

Boo Hoo.

In the past men used to "lock up" their daughters when a man of purported huge sexual prowess came sniffing around, as if their female offspring did not have a sexuality or a choice in whether or not to have sex with their suitor.

I trust everyone understands the fallacy of claiming that locking up a potential victim (in the historical past and in the historical sense) is not equivalent to locking up a convicted killer.

She told the court:


He didn't abstain from sex knowing what he knew (about having HIV), he didn't discuss his HIV status knowing what he knew, and he didn't wear a condom knowing what he knew.

Am I the only person who sees this as absurd - as both racist and HIV-phobic?

I don't know, but I don't see the racism in the remark you quoted, and the use of the made-up term, "HIV-phobic" as an attempted pejorative is laughable. A person might be phobic about a particular disease process - AIDS, herpes, or tooth decay - and I wouldn't care. Said phobia might work to help prevent catching the disease if one weren't paralyzed by the "phobia."

If you want to make a case about the ethics of Persistent Offender acts or other laws which allow incarceration beyond the end of the original court sentence for people deemed likely to re-offend (often of egregious sexual offenses), then make that case. It's a troublesome issue. But you really haven't explored that here.

As far as teeing up this guy's behavior, which he still has not accepted responsibility for, as "Locking Up HIV+ Black Men Doesn't Help HIV Prevention," - all I can ask is 1.)what would you do with a person accused of his behavior? 2.)if he were White, should society treat him differently? 3.)I can't recall off the top of my head the name of the particular logical fallacy that your entire last paragraph represents, but no, we don't really have to choose between punishing offenders and offering public health education.

So, regarding Mr. Johnson Aziga: Boo Hoo

Om Kalthoum | August 4, 2011 4:59 PM

Late edit, sorry. Second paragraph should read:

I trust everyone understands the fallacy of claiming that locking up a potential victim (in the historical past and in the historical sense) is equivalent to locking up a convicted killer.

Has this ever happened to someone who was knowingly infecting gay men? I mean I seem to hear about them all the time with heterosexual women, but little with gay men. But we know society values women more than gay men, which is sad on so many levels.

Om Kalthoum | August 4, 2011 5:36 PM
But we know society values women more than gay men, which is sad on so many levels.

Please. The violence visited on females worldwide on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis because they are females puts the lie to this assertion. If it were perpetrated on a legislatively-recognized minority, it would be considered hate crimes of unimaginable magnitude.