The CDC has declared April STD Awareness Month, a time to encourage people to get tested, get treated, educate themselves on prevention, and get vaccinated for HPV, if eligible. All these efforts go back to the same starting point: destigmatization. If people feel that an STD diagnosis means that they’re tarnished, they will be more reluctant to get tested and treated, and they certainly will struggle to have the conversations or take the initiatives towards prevention. If people could think of STIs like they do the flu or the chicken pox—just a disease you get, not a measure of your value as a person—it would go a long way to slow transmission and get people into more effective treatment.
That’s why it’s such a disappointment to hear that Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, which was the #3 grossing movie last week, apparently presents HIV not only as if it’s some kind of karmic punishment for female sexual misbehavior, but also as if having the virus makes a woman permanently unlovable and asexual.
Short summary: The movie focuses on the struggles of a married couple, Judith and Brice. Judith cheats on Brice and, in the end, she is thoroughly punished by having to go to her ex-husband’s pharmacy—limping and uglified—to pick up her HIV medications to treat the infection she got from cheating. Of course, he has new, young wife and an adorable son, to drive home what HIV-infected women supposedly are barred for life from having. Another HIV-positive female character directly states that her infection means she’ll never be loved again.
But the “shocker” HIV storyline in “Temptation” was egregiously repulsive, implying that people who live with HIV (as over one million people in the U.S. do) are either a) being punished for some sort of iniquity, and/or b) will live a loveless, lonely life of despair and regret.
The worst part is that Temptation treats Judith’s HIV infection as a modern-day version of leprosy, and presents her hobbling with the disease as a reasonable resolution to the story, a justified sealing of her fate. Note that Brice remains uninfected, and that Harley simply vanishes, presumably flying away in his jet to infect another unsuspecting young woman.
Perry’s message is targeted specifically at black women — live the way a good little Christian girl should, or be eternally damned with disease.
Considering that black women are disproportionately affected by HIV, this message couldn’t be more vicious in it stigmatization. The odds are extremely high that there are HIV positive people who unwittingly went to see Temptation looking for a fun night at the movies and instead got told they’re dirty and not worthy of love. There may be HIV positive people in the audience who don’t know they’re infected who will now be a little more afraid to get tested and learn the truth.
Obviously, no one wants to get an STI, especially HIV. Even thought HIV is eminently treatable now, it’s still a major hassle to take care of it, and while the death rate is way, way down, the fear of dying of AIDS-related diseases still has to be stressful for HIV patients. Adding to their stress and woes with misogynist propaganda that frames HIV and AIDS as just desserts for women’s sexual misbehavior is pointless cruelty.
To make it worse, telling people that STIs are a sign of personal depravity helps spread STIs. If you doubt this, look no further than the growing number of parents who are outright refusing to vaccinate their daughters for HPV, even though it’s one of the two diseases that the CDC cites as the source of our nation’s STI epidemic. Forty-four percent of parents say they will not vaccinate their daughters, a number that is up from forty percent in 2008. There’s only one reason for this: Anti-choice activists have successfully convinced huge portion of the public that you’re only at risk of getting HPV if you’re a dirty girl, allowing parents to think their darling daughters would never be at risk for such a thing. This, even though HPV is so common that the CDC says “nearly all sexually active men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives.”
This is only one way that STI stigma increases the transmission rate. People often don’t wear condoms because they don’t want to admit that they’re at risk, because that would make them feel dirty. People ignore symptoms of STIs or refuse to get tested, increasing the window of opportunity to infect others. Anti-choicers often claim—and may even believe—that stigmatizing STIs will prevent transmission by scaring people out of having sex, but in a gross bit of irony, the opposite is true.
So what can be done? Clearly, the first step is to start talking about STIs in the same way we talk about other, non-stigmatized diseases, as a public health problem but certainly no comment on the state of a person’s soul. We also need to push back hard when we see popular media like Temptation that try to spread sex-negative messages. Luckily, that conversation is happening in response to Temptation. BET collected the responses, arguing that while Tyler Perry’s films have always gotten bad review, “none have been attacked quite as venomously as Tyler Perry’s Temptation.” Sadly, backlash against popular movies rarely has the impact that the movies themselves have, but hopefully this backlash can kickstart a larger conversation. And maybe that conversation will eventually lead to movies that portray people with STIs with sympathy and dignity—which happens to be a better reflection of reality than whatever Tyler Perry thinks about HIV.