Love gone wrong shouldn't mean jail, says HIV-positive woman

The injustice of Jessica Whitbread’s situation hit her during a recent evening at a bar when there was dancing, drinks and a really hot guy who was obviously interested in her.

“It was steamy, steamy … and I was looking particularly cute,” Whitbread said with a laugh.

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But Whitbread knew she could not let things go any further without an evening of explanation — and possibly rejection — so she slid out of the situation and the hot guy went home with one of her friends.

“If I had done something, I could have woken up the next day and been charged with aggravated sexual assault,” said Whitbread, an HIV-positive Toronto woman who is featured in the film Positive Women: Exposing Injustice. The film is being shown today at 6:30 p.m. at the Vic Theatre (808 Douglas St.), and Whitbread will take part in a question-and-answer session afterward.

Whitbread, who contracted HIV from a boyfriend more than a decade ago, is one of four HIV-positive female activists whose stories unfold in the film.

The man who infected Whitbread was a long-term boyfriend who told her he had been tested and was clean. But when he was charged after having unprotected sex with two other women, she refused to join the lawsuit.

As she watched the trial, she came to believe that everyone in relationships should be personally responsible for ensuring their safety, and she started to question the charge of aggravated sexual assault, for which her former boyfriend was convicted.

“That’s a harsh charge,” she said. “It’s just below manslaughter. It’s the same as raping someone with a weapon.”

That’s when Whitbread started campaigning for decriminalization of consensual sex without disclosing the disease.

“This is arguably the most stigmatized and criminalized disease of our time,” she said.

Because of those attitudes, people are less likely to disclose whether they are HIV positive or go for treatment, said Katrina Jensen, executive director of AIDS Vancouver Island.

“It becomes a vicious circle because criminalization increases stigma,” she said.

Criminalization can also become a weapon, with partners threatening to say they were not informed about the infection, Whitbread said.

“Every HIV-positive person is one vindictive lover away from being put in prison,” she said.

Two cases are currently before the Supreme Court of Canada and AIDS activists are looking for clarification on issues such as viral load — which can drop to almost undetectable levels if someone is in treatment — and condom use, both of which reduce risks.

Currently, charges can be laid whether or not the partner becomes infected.

Whitbread believes anyone who is HIV positive should inform partners and take every step to minimize risks, but said a relationship should not lead to criminal charges.

Whitbread agrees that partners should be informed because it’s a nice thing to do.

“It’s also nice to tell someone if you have herpes, or if you are married with five kids you don’t pay child support for, or if you become a weird stalker after the third date,” she said.

“Not disclosing is a breach of trust and it sucks, but it doesn’t mean they should be able to throw you in jail.”

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