Thursday, August 26, 2010

Stigma and Moral Responsibility

Nadja Benaissa and her defense attorney Oliver Wallasch  in Darmstadt, Germany
(Image credit: CNN)

German singer Nadja Benaissa has been convicted of knowingly having sex, for more than a decade after finding out she was HIV positive, without informing her partners that she was HIV positive. One man testified he believes that he acquired HIV from her. She has been convicted of causing grievous bodily harm and attempted grievous bodily harm in a German court in Darmstadt and given a two year suspended sentence and ordered to complete 300 hours of community service in the HIV services sector.

This case has aroused much discussion in Germany because many thought that her arrest, trial and the subsequent media coverage were excessive, that her privacy had been violated and that prosecuting her was wrong.

About the only voice in the fray that I've heard that seems to look at the broad view is that of former tennis star Michael Stich, who is an HIV/AIDS activist:

"It makes me sad that the media are only now reporting on such an important, serious topic, only because now it's affecting a celebrity," Stich said.
He added that it is the general culture of silence about HIV/AIDS in Germany that has even made such a case possible. However, he said that if the allegations about the singer's conduct are correct, he would deem that "morally wrong."
"I can't put it any other way," he told the Berliner Morgenpost. "If someone knows that they are infected with HIV and accept the risk of infecting someone else, then that's just morally wrong."
However, he said he doesn't want to see Benaissa treated unfairly. "No matter how you look at it, Nadja is a victim," Stich said. "Whether she's also a perpetrator remains to be seen."

I had an interest in the story because a friend of mine, now deceased, was infected by a partner who knew he was HIV positive. I wonder about the state of denial that allows someone to risk infecting others. But as Stich points out, the person infected is also a victim. I just remember my friend, who came from a family with a Nobel Laureate and who had been shamed horribly by them for his homosexuality, worrying endlessly about who he might have infected before he himself was diagnosed. He contacted every single partner. In two cases he even paid for them to be tested. I'm sure he was the unusual HIV sufferer, and he had a lot more living under his belt, at 42, than Nadja Benaissa had.

Benaissa, a member of Germany's most popular girl band, No Angels, was 17 and three months pregnant when first diagnosed with HIV in 1999. Her band's success really took off in 2000 and she assiduously hid her HIV status over the decade that followed. The group disbanded in 2007 and she had embarked on a solo career.

I try to envision her life, and the lie she was living, or at least the illusion she was perpetuating. To live ten years (she was arrested and charged in 2009) in seeming success, all the while knowing that your life had taken a left turn before it was even really started. To think that she had a child to worry about, on top of it.

But still she did it. She did to others what had been done to her, and did it knowingly.

Her ultimate punishment will be that everyone knows her face not for her music but for her HIV status.

No matter what her punishment, there's no taking back her infecting the man she likely did. 

Still, I can't imagine the lies one has to tell oneself to get by after all the media coverage... 

I'm sad for her, for the infected man, and for a world in which a serious health condition is still the source of such shame and stigma that she reportedly felt she could never reveal her status to anyone.

Stich's appraisal seems spot on. An immoral victim.

It makes it no better to be able to label it, though, does it?

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010


  1. I admit that my initial reaction is this: In the age of condoms, there is no excuse. Anyone who came of age during or after the initial AIDS epidemic of the '80's has no excuse. I mean, many non-monogamous sexually active people don't use condoms 100% of the time for whatever reason, but to continue to do so after you find out you have any STD, let alone HIV... I just, wow.

    I can appreciate that the culture of silence adds an undeniable level of complexity, but... no. In the end, that is your decision not to use a condom during every, single sex act with every, single partner after your diagnosis.

  2. I agree with you about condom use but you have to wonder, since in ten years time it's reportedly three men that she exposed, whether those men thought they were safe in a monogamous relationship when the reality was that they were unsafe in a monogamous relationship.

    What she did, as Stich says, was just immoral. There's simply no way to sugar coat it, is there?

  3. Yeah, I didn't mean there was no excuse for the men. I mean, let's be honest. If you're with someone in a long-term, monogamous relationship and there's some other form of birth control, many couples don't use condoms. But they stop doing so because there is some form of believable assurance that both parties are not currently infected with a sexually communicable disease. So I would imagine those men did think they were safe in a monogamous relationship.

    It's just... I can't imagine doing what she did. Finding out you have HIV has got to be so shattering and shocking, and it must be so, so hard to deal with, but that doesn't even begin to even in the smallest way excuse her. As you say, the level of denial at work there has got to be just epic.