In the last 2 weeks, major medical progress has been made in the United States (and the world for that matter): scientists have discovered a “functional” cure for HIV. How does it work exactly? Well essentially, scientists are able to isolate the HIV virus through a series of intensive retroviral therapy (multiple different ones at the same time, to be exact); the virus supposedly stops reproducing and becomes hard to even detect within the body (potentially preventing the spread of the virus to others). Additionally, scientists are predicting that up to 15% of people infected with HIV could potentially be “functionally cured” however they still recommend that individuals do not stop taking their retroviral treatments.
How this applies to Anthropology is in the discussion of the social perception of HIV, within the United States specifically. When HIV first emerged in major metropolitan areas, it was unknown as to the cause, so many people associated the emergence of a deadly sexually transmitted disease with the gay community, (when in reality it was more about situational perceptions rather than actual cause). While most of adults in the United States today understand that HIV is a virus spread through blood (and other bodily fluids), it still seems to be associated with gay men and dirty needles. The boom of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco in the late 70’s to early 80’s caused a major backlash against the gay community. By closing down bathhouses, many people believed they were “cleaning up the streets” when, ironically, the bathhouses served as one of the most effective ways to promote safe-sex. By essentially criminalizing gay behavior, it forced men to pursue sexual encounters elsewhere, which made it harder for information to reach them. According to Rubin in AIDS and the Leather Community, “overall the leather community has become more privatized. Many of the visible spaces have closed due to AIDS, redevelopment, or city regulation. The sex scene in particular is less conspicuous than it was before AIDS and the bathhouse closure debates… Although there are occasional flare-ups of police repression or city regulation, these tend to be less frequent when the sex is underground, out of sight, and out of the headlines” (Rubin, 335). This brings up the topic of public versus private space. While STD tests are usually highly private in the U.S., if you test positive for HIV the doctors will often times make you call every single one of your sexual partners and tell them your diagnosis. If you give somebody HIV without disclosing the information with them prior, you can be tried for a felony assault in numerous states. So while you may privately have to experience your illness, the physical bearing of having the disease is threatening to public health, and therefore is a governmental concern.
Now that we have discussed a brief history, my question that I pose is “if HIV can be functionally cured, how will this affect social stigmas associated with sexually transmitted diseases?” Will safe sex continue be taught? Or conversely, will it decline as the threat declines? Will this influence government legal regulations, or social perspective on the matter? We will have to wait and see. While curing HIV is definitely good for public health, it will be interested to see how it affects American culture in the next few years.