AIDS Action Now’s new campaign needs a second thought

The other night I checked out AIDS Action Now’s launch event for their new campaign against HIV criminalization, Think Twice. The campaign is basically a web site with 40 one-minute videos in which some people quickly try to convince a viewer that if they have sex with someone who does not disclose that they have HIV, they should not press charges against that person. Unfortunately, the project comes across as another example of otherwise well-meaning progressive activists who refuse to engage with the issues that motivate people who disagree with them.

(There was a talk back at the launch, but I had to sneak out of the event early to make it to another event.)

I haven’t watched all of the videos – I don’t expect the casual viewer will, and there’s no narrative guide for how someone is supposed to choose one or an order of videos to watch. I’ve seen more than half of them and the messaging is largely similar. Many of the participants in the videos are activists of various sorts (legal, health care, political, HIV-specific, queer), or people who are living with HIV. Of the videos that I’ve seen, the overwhelming themes are:

  1. Going to the police won’t prevent you from getting HIV/cure your HIV, so it’s not worth it (you should probably go to a doctor instead).
  2. Going to the police won’t keep anyone safer, so don’t do it.
  3. You can’t trust the police/the police are not your friends/the legal and social consequences of going to the police will be worse for you than whatever you’re going through now.
  4. If you’re upset it’s probably because you chose to have unsafe sex, therefore your situation is your own fault.
  5. It is unreasonable to expect that an HIV-positive person would disclose their sero-status before sex because that puts them at (social) risk and kills the mood, and the right of HIV-positive people to have worry-free sex trumps your right to give informed consent (or, I guess, worry-free sex).

I am trying very hard right now to imagine a situation wherein any of these lines of thinking would be convincing to a person who has just found out that his partner has lied to him (by omission or otherwise) about his sero-status and wants to file a police complaint, and I’m sorry, I just can’t.

One of the reasons I was intrigued by this campaign is because for the past several years I’ve been working on a play that deals with exactly this issue. As I write it, I’ve tried very hard to understand both sides of the question. I’ve spoken to HIV-positive people and HIV-negative people about their perceptions of the disease and sexual ethics around it. I’ve been the guy who’s brought up the “what would you do?” question at parties (I’m really fun, honest). That, and I follow a lot of the court cases that end up in the media about this.

I’ve never once encountered someone who’s suggested that going to the police would retroactively stop them from getting HIV, or who thought going to the police precluded going to a doctor. Most gave me the impression they’d be freaking out and do both in quick succession.

Going to the police isn’t just about restitution, it also serves a few other roles for the complainant:

  • vengeance/justice for a harm done by this person
  • protecting others from the harm that the accused may do to them by removing him from society
  • deterring still others from engaging in the harmful behaviour of the accused.

If you want to convince people not to pursue a police complaint regarding nondisclosure, I think you have to engage these desires, rather than the straw man argument that doing so will just make a complainant feel better.

To their credit, Michael Erickson and Chy Ryan Spain have contributed videos that get slightly more nuanced on the messaging, but largely because their videos stick to the extremes of honest HIV-positive people and malicious HIV-negative people who are using the courts to pursue personal vendettas. Those who would go to the police believe doing so will improve public safety by thwarting a Typhoid Mary’s ability to willfully and capriciously expose others to a disease (by sending him to jail), and by discouraging others who know they are HIV-positive from exposing others without disclosure. They are typically conscious about not wanting to quarantine all HIV-positive people, only the ones who are refusing to play an active part in protecting others.

There is a good argument that engaging the criminal justice system doesn’t keep people safer, and it is that if people know that HIV-positive people can be sent to jail for nondisclosure, then it’s both a massive disincentive to ever get tested for HIV (because once you know, you must disclose to partners or face jail, whereas if you don’t know, you can plead ignorance), and a perverse incentive for those who believe themselves to be negative to engage in risky behaviour because they can supposedly assume that anyone who’s positive would proactively disclose their status (I have never met anyone who actually thinks this, by the way).

But even this is unlikely to convince someone who’s thinking about going to the police. A complainant, after all, has a personal stake in the wider social drama being discussed, and he’s unlikely to think that in this particular case the accused’s nondisclosure kept him any safer.

The idea that we can’t or shouldn’t trust the police is one of the more worrying lines of discussion in this campaign. To be clear, yes, I am aware of the LGBTQ community’s long and difficult relationship with the police. But on the other hand, doesn’t this line of thinking run contrary to the last 25 years’ worth of outreach and bridge building? Haven’t we spent decades urging the community to report homophobic violence, period? To go to the police when involved in domestic violence? And hasn’t the sustained work generated some positive results? On what grounds do we believe that the police would treat a complainant poorly? That certainly doesn’t seem to be the case in the system today.

To this we add a somewhat shocking testimonial from my friend (and former boss) Marcus McCann, who points out that despite publication bans on your identity, the LGBT community is small enough that you will likely be “outed” as the complainant if you go to the police. The implication appears to be that the personal consequences of disclosure will include a backlash against your complaint, or your outing as someone who participates in unsafe sex, or outing any other details of your sex life during the course of a trial. And, the implication seems to go, you’ll have brought this further harm upon yourself.

But don’t forget that even the initial “harm” is your fault, too! After all you chose to wear that short skirt not to wear a condom. Well, this actually is tactic I can see working on someone who’s just found out he’s been exposed to HIV. After all, it’s worked on female rape victims for centuries. But I don’t think it’s very savoury, and I think this line of reasoning is likely to turn off most people who aren’t yet in the position of finding themselves on the wrong end of a nondisclosure encounter.

In fact, all of the arguments discussed above read like “Mirror, Mirror” versions of the messaging that’s been put out to standard, heterosexual sexual assault victims for the last several decades. “No point going to the police; that won’t un-rape you, so just move on,” or “Details of your personal life will come out if you complain about your rapist/abusive boyfriend,” or “Putting rapists behind bars will only encourage women to engage in risky behaviours like getting drunk at parties or jogging alone at night.” I hate to be glib, but the comparison to sexual assault is already there – it’s the charge for nondisclosure. For someone who believes himself to be a victim of sexual assault, these are unlikely to be comforting lines of reasoning.

Kirk_and_Spock_(mirror)Not only that, but isn’t it fucking bizarre to see AIDS activists essentially tell people that if they get HIV, it’s their own damn fault? How bizarre is it that the logical corollary of this line of reasoning is that only HIV-negative people are responsible for having safe sex, and HIV-positive people have no responsibility to have safe sex? That HIV-negative people must be concerned about the welfare of their HIV-positive sex partners, but that no such reciprocal obligation exists?

The campaign even includes a completely bananas video where within thirty seconds Sky Gilbert goes from saying the problem with criminalization is that people won’t get tested, to actually telling people not to go to the doctor and get tested, which is so incredibly irresponsible I can only hope this is meant to be some kind of ironic performance piece:

One of the arguments I find hardest to accept – and I know that many who find themselves on the other side of the criminalization debate feel similarly – is the idea that it’s unreasonable to demand that HIV-positive people disclose their sero-status to a sex partner. True, the LGBTQ movement has to a large extent been focused on the right to engage in consensual sex however we want to have sex. But, much of the moral argument around decriminalization of gay sex was structured around the fact that it didn’t actually harm anyone. HIV non-disclosure is not a clear parallel, because one partner is exposed to harm. Moreover, there is the issue of informed consent – when the partners have asymmetrical knowledge of their sero-statuses, or where one partner actively lies about his sero-status, the HIV-negative partner can hardly be accused of having given informed consent to the sex act. (These days, we don’t even accept ‘no means no’ for straight women; the standard is generally active consent at every stage of a sexual encounter.)

But in his video, Tim McCaskell says lying about one’s sero-status is akin to lying about how much money you make or whether or not you love your partner. “I know it can feel shitty when somebody you really like doesn’t tell you something that you think is important,” he says. “But if they didn’t tell you they were married, or had a boyfriend, or lied about their age, or didn’t really love you, you might be pissed off, but you wouldn’t go to the police.”

Um, no. But when someone lies to you about being married, it’s not likely to be detrimental to your health. How on earth are these situations comparable? In these situations, it isn’t just the betrayal that makes you feel “shitty,” it’s the actual harm, or risk of harm, to which you were not able to give your informed consent. (McCaskell’s defence of liars goes a little further than most people I know who’d defend a non-discloser, but that seems to be the main view of the group.)

I won’t even get into how this argument likely wouldn’t fly in the straight world, where spur-of-the-moment sex with strangers is much, much less common, and where both partners have always had to deal with the lifelong consequences of their sexual actions (because babies).

I’ve written before about how it seems like the progressive movement is losing because it’s refusing to listen to those on the other side, and I think this is an example of this outside the world of electoral politics. These are a bunch of arguments that people who already believe in the cause would subscribe to and pat each other on the back for repeating, but anyone even a little skeptical will ignore or tear apart in a few minutes. To be clear, I don’t at all doubt the sincerity of the people behind the videos, and I believe there are some very valid arguments against using the weight of the criminal justice system to regulate these sexual encounters in every situation.

What I think is a missed opportunity is that the project doesn’t actually give its audience an alternative solution to the problem. Only a few mention the importance of having safe sex every time if they want to stay safe, and testing regularly so that you know your sero-status and can get on treatment early. I haven’t come across a video that suggests having an open discussion with your partner about HIV before sex – possibly because the group is also defending lying about one’s sero-status, which defeats this as a protection strategy. Few are talking about actually reducing the stigma around HIV so that people would feel more comfortable disclosing in the first place.

I’m sure AIDS Action Now is planning to push this campaign further. I hope in phase two, they think twice about the message they’re sending and the audience who’ll hear it.


CAFF Lottery Winners!


The Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals held its touring lottery this week and the results were posted on Friday:


1. The Night Kitchen, Toronto, ON
2. Small Matters Productions, Edmonton, AB
3. Random Samples Collective, Saanichton, BC
4. Andrew Bailey, Victoria, BC
5. Monster Theatre, Vancouver, BC


1. Rob Gee, Leicester, UK
2. Sourdough Productions, San Francisco, CA
3. Zeb L. West, Austin, TX
4. botwot productions, Aspen, CO
5. John Grady, New York, NY

There were just 70 Canadian applicants and 38 International Applicants.

Of the winners, I’m familiar with seven: Andrew Bailey has been a whiz on the Victoria scene for a long time, and his shows have been big draws on the Fringe circuit out west. He’s best known for Limbo, but his solo show this year, The Adversary – about his work as a groundskeeper at a church that’s frequently used as a hang-out spot for injection drug users – was one of my favourites on the circuit.

Monster Theatre has been around for years, touring Ryan Gladstone’s hilarious and insightful historical plays along with performer and puppeteer Tara Travis. Best remembered in Toronto for The Shakespeare Show: Or, How The Illiterate Son of a Glover Became History’s Most Famous Author (I may have botched that title), but also known for Houdini’s Last Escape, Jesus Christ: The Lost Years, and The Seven Lives of Louis Riel. I’ll definitely be looking forward to what they’ve got in Toronto this year.

Small Matters is the company behind the hit clown duo Rocket and Seashells. They’ve been at it for five years and their show Fools For Love was a big hit in Edmonton this year.

Random Samples Collective doesn’t turn up anything online, but that’s not terribly surprising. Apparently, it’s producing a new show by Jeff Leard, who had a hit for the last two years with Gametes and Gonads.

Rob Gee is a British performance poet probably best remembered for Fruitcake, a collection of stories about his time working in an mental institute.

John Grady is a New York actor who’s also trained at the National Ballet School here in Toronto. He had a huge hit out west this summer with Fear Factor: Canine Edition, which I didn’t get a chance to see.

Botwot Productions is Alexa Fitzpatrick’s outfit. She toured Tangled Ribbons to the Edmonton Fringe this year, and while she was lovely, I also missed out on seeing her show then.

Now the ones I don’t know. Night Kitchen appears to be a Dora and Chalmers Award winning company that’s been inactive for the last several years. According to their Blogger page, their last show was 2006’s Democrats Abroad at the New York Fringe Festival.

Zeb L. West appears to be a busker and puppeteer. Here’s a video from the Vancouver Fringe.

Sourdough Productions means nothing to me and doesn’t appear to have a web presence.

Good luck to everyone with the individual lotteries!

Meanwhile, if you’re considering touring to some of the US Fringes, you may want to think twice. Grant Evan Knutson of Seattle Fringe has shared a Google Doc comparing all of the US Fringes by application process, fees, and average artist payout. Worth noting: Orlando is the only festival that has an average artist payout that covers the fee and leaves enough to cover travel.

Thoughts on Sustainable Growth in Theatre Festivals

Last month, I posted an open letter on Facebook about some concerns I and a number of other artists had felt about actions taken by the Winnipeg and Edmonton Fringe Theatre Festivals that we believe may contribute — inadvertantly — to worsening the festival experience for the participating artists and making the entire touring circuit unmanageable for all but a few wealthy and already established artists.

Essentially, our concern is that the festivals are expanding their offerings faster than the audience is willing to grow, leading to declining revenues for the artists involved. It’s an ongoing trend, and to be honest, the letter could have been sent to a number of other festivals participating in the circuit. I focussed on Winnipeg and Edmonton because they’re the lynchpins to the whole tour, and because generally their organizations have proven responsive to artist concerns in the past (in a way that, for example, the Montreal Fringe, does not — but that’s a topic for a separate post).

Unfortunately, now a month since I sent the original letter, no one from Winnipeg or Edmonton Fringe has responded. No one from any other Fringe Festival that was cc’d on the letter has responded either. I will be sending a follow-up tonight, but I just wanted to remind people that the problem is still open before I repost them.

I won’t rehash the points and arguments here. You can read the original letter on Facebook, where you’ll get the advantage of the 50+ comments from other artists that the post generated. As expected, there were many diverging viewpoints on the letter, ranging from some artists who agreed wholeheartedly, to some who believe there’s no problem at all, to some who agreed there’s a problem but refuse to propose or accept others’ solutions, to some spirited contributions from one of the Fringe circuit’s biggest fans, who blames declining artist revenues on his anecdotal evidence of declining art quality in the face of statistical (and anecdotal) evidence to the contrary.

I will say that my original letter was heavily redacted in response to suggestions from several artists who wanted to be involved in the discussion from the get-go. The biggest thing I removed was a suggestion that all of the festivals take a cue from the Toronto and Victoria Fringes, which, after years of rapid expansion caused many of the same problems, decided that the best way to serve the artists was to return to the roots of the Fringe and eliminate the “Bring Your Own Venue” option, meaning that every artist involved was chosen from the 100% random lottery.

For predictable reasons, several artists opposed this, as it can reduce an artist’s ability to cobble together a successful tour in years when that artist doesn’t get lucky in the lotteries. My general feeling is, well, tough. The Fringe isn’t meant to be a long-term career support for established artists, even if they’re only established on the Fringe. But bowing to the reality of the situation, I instead proposed that the Fringes find a middle ground, which would be placing a hard cap on the numbeer of BYOVs in each festival.

I’ll post the follow-up letter here as well as any response.