When encouraging personal responsibility is NOT blaming the victim

Nadja Benaissa, a German pop star, is currently on trial for infecting one man with HIV and putting two others at risk. She found out she had HIV in 1999 when she was 16. According to the charges, she had unprotected sex on five occasions between 2000 and 2004 with three men and did not tell them she was infected. One of them now has HIV. Benaissa is a member of the pop group No Angels, and before her arrest the fact that Benaissa was HIV positive was not publicly known. Even though Benaissa admitted that she made a mistake by having unprotected sex without disclosing her HIV status, some folks don’t think she’s the only one at fault.

Carolin Vierneisel, a representative from Deutsche AIDS-Hilfe, a German AIDS service organization, told Time Magazine: “When it comes to consensual sex, whether protected or unprotected, we talk about shared responsibility,” she says. “The criminalisation of HIV transmission, as shown in this case, doesn’t support HIV prevention efforts. On the contrary, it fosters the stigmatisation of HIV positive people.”

Katy Kelleher touches on this in her piece at Jezebel, and asks “Should Benaissa really be responsible when her partner consented to having unprotected sex?” She quotes Gisela Freidrichsen, a German journalist, who wrote: “I always wonder why there are allegations against a woman when a man doesn’t use a condom.”

For those of us familiar with feminism, rape crisis counseling, and Law and Order SVU, “blaming the victim” is bad, bad, bad. We always talk about blaming the victim in the context of rape and sexual assault. With sexual assault, there are victims and attackers, and the blame should always lie with attackers. But with STD transmission, there usually aren’t “attackers.” Except maybe in a few, extremely rare cases, people do not intentionally spread HIV in order to harm others. The majority of people who spread STDs aren’t aware they have one. For those that are aware they have an STD, they may fail to disclose their status for a number of reasons, not the least of which is shame resulting from social stigmatization of STDs. In Benaissa’s case, public disclosure could have had repercussions for her career as a pop singer. But even people like Benaissa, who did not take adequate steps to protect her partners, are themselves victims. They too were infected with HIV, possibly by someone who was similarly withholding that vital information.

With rape and sexual assault, victims (or survivors) are not in control of the situation. But when you’re talking about consensual sex, the onus usually falls on the individual to protect him or herself. Safer sex products, like condoms, are not that hard to get a hold of. A lot of people work very hard to make sure that condoms are available and affordable. Many health providers will give them out for free. I recognize that there is a bit of a gender imbalance here, since most condoms are “male” condoms and hetero women have a bit less control over whether their partner will wear one. But women can still buy and carry male condoms, use the female condom, and choose not to have unprotected sex — a decision everyone SHOULD be able to make and that all partners SHOULD respect.

One cannot really take precautions to keep one’s self safe from rape and sexual assault because assault can happen anywhere, at anytime, with anyone no matter what you are or aren’t wearing, how much you were or weren’t drinking, or whether you were or weren’t in a “safe” neighborhood. But one CAN take precautions to keep one’s self safe from STDs and since we can, we each shoulder the responsibility to protect ourselves.

This is not to say that those who knowingly transmit STDs are off the hook. I think most of us would agree that they are under a moral obligation to inform their partners before having unprotected sex. But should a moral obligation necessarily become a legal obligation? As far as I know, there is no criminal law in the U.S. or Germany that obligates one to inform all sexual partners of his or her HIV status. (If I’m wrong, please correct me.) Would the moral obligation still apply if they are using protection? Would a criminal law?

HIV and STD transmission turns victimhood on its head. When perpetrators are victims and the victims are in control of their own choices, we cannot be afraid to emphasize personal responsibility for fear of blaming the victim. It’s a lot easier for you to commit to using protection than it is for someone else to disclose their HIV status. Prosecuting those who fail to disclose will not do anything to help fight the spread of STDs, but encouraging personal responsibility sure will.


  1. I liken this to getting in a car with a driver you don’t know is drunk and then also not putting on your seatbelt.

    The driver is certainly at fault for driving while drunk. At the same time, you should always be wearing your seatbelt, regardless of the sobriety level of the driver.

    I don’t know why, as a society, we’re always looking to blame only one person or to think blame is evenly divided when two are to blame.


  2. I think in the USA it is a crime if you have HIV/AIDS to not disclose your status. If you know you are HIV/AIDS positive I’m pretty sure you are legally obligated to tell previous partners and future partners.


  3. hahah I take that back- just checked it’s not, but I do still think it’s a good thing to do- I mean this is an epidemic people and we need to practice safe sex. HIV and AIDS kills. Like, you’re dead. We need to control the epidemic- thats the reason for telling- not to make people feel guilty or ashamed, it’s a matter of principle- of stopping a terrible disease.


  4. Chica – I see where you’re coming from and agree with you in theory. But unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world, and there is still so much shame and stigma attached to HIV and other STDs that it keeps people from disclosing their status, even if they know that morally, they should tell their partners.

    That’s why part of the battle is reducing that stigma – finding ways to teach sex ed that don’t make people feel like lepers or monsters – so that we don’t have to feel ashamed to admit we have a disease. Trying to reduce the stigma through awareness campaign has the potential to be more effective than punishing people through prosecution – I think that most people agree that making things “illegal” isn’t the best deterrent…

    The other part, of course, is encouraging personal responsibility because that part DOES work and works well!


  5. This is a very poor argument of personal responsibility. Using your definition:

    “when you’re talking about consensual sex, the onus usually falls on the individual to protect him or herself.”

    I can then easily argue that if a woman got pregnant the man is not legally responsible for the child because it was her personal responsibility to protect herself – which just to be clear I am not advocating.


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