Last summer, in a Missouri courtroom, a college wrestler named Michael Johnson was sentenced to 30 years in prison for “recklessly infecting a partner with HIV.”
Johnson, who also goes by “Tiger Mandingo”, was accused of knowingly infecting his partners with HIV, although at least one of them said Johnson called to tell him the diagnosis when Johnson tested positive for the virus.
The case shed light on the stigmas surrounding sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, and especially HIV/AIDS. In more than 30 states there is a legal requirement for HIV positive individuals to disclose their status to whomever they’re having sex with. And while most people agree that honest conversation is a good practice, the laws allow people with HIV to be imprisoned for even spitting, biting or oral sex.
“Every person with HIV in the country who knows they have HIV is one accusation away from finding themselves in a courtroom,” said Sean Strub, director of The Sero Project.
Strub was diagnosed with HIV in the 1980s. Since then, treatments for STIs like HIV/AIDS has made significant progress across the globe. But Strub argues that an HIV diagnosis has continued to carry a stigma, perhaps even worse than before. And Strub said forcing people to disclose their status can backfire, and alienate a population that needs support.
While Strub is working to change the policy, New York University sex researcher and educator, Zhana Vrangalova, is focused on challenging society’s perception of risky sex.
“People really fear that STIs are more prevalent than they are…and that once you catch it you may always keep it,” she said.
Vrangalova is on a mission to de-stigmatize safe sexual behavior. Her website, for example, is about casual sex and provides a forum for people to talk about the flings and one-night stands that are usually dismissed in traditional sex education. Students in her class learn how to balance health and protection with redefining normal sexual behavior.
Jake Hernandez, a 23-year-old nursing student taking her class, has had personal experience with the same situation that got Michael Johnson behind bars. His ex-boyfriend called him to tell him he was HIV positive after they had oral sex, and luckily, Hernandez tested negative.
While he felt betrayed by his boyfriend, Hernandez still believes society needs to challenge the stereotypes surrounded STIs and the people who have them, especially gay men. While visiting a sex shop for his class with Vrangalova, he said the assumption is, “that we just walk around having sex all the time.”
“I mean I would probably say I’ve had casual sex once in my life. If I was dating a girl would you be saying all these things?”
Mary Harris: Hey everyone,
Quick note: we are doing another episode that talks pretty frankly about sex. So, it may not be appropriate for everyone.
Paige Cowett: So, is this out of your comfort zone?
Jake Hernandez: Definitely, it definitely is. I’ve walked into certain sex shops and walked right out kind of embarrassed. [fade]
PG: Shall we do it?
JH: Yes, let’s go.
MH: Okay, Paige. This is you… about to go inside a sex shop?
MH: Who are you with?
PC: Jake Hernandez. He’s 23, a nursing student at NYU.. and we’re standing outside the “Pleasure Chest.” We’re actually there on a class assignment. I swear.
MH: OK, now I’m really interested.
JH: Some handcuffs over here.
PC: bedazzled handcuffs. [fade]
JH: yes, bedazzled handcuffs.
PC: Jake is taking this class on human sexuality. And one of his assignments is to do something new related to sex - Not to have sex, but something to get the students to rethink what’s “normal” when it comes to sex.
MH: You know- when I think of things a 23-year-old NYU I think: OF COURSE they’ve been to a sex shop. Because they’re in downtown Manhattan and I just assume kids today are way more open about sex than I am.
PC: Yeah, but actually Jake was pretty nervous. So we go in. We’re looking around. And this is a classy sex shop with helpful staff - and it’s very well stocked.
JH: Okay that looks kind of scary to put anywhere, even a vagina. It has multiple vibration patterns. Wow. This is pretty intense [buzzing of vibrator noise]. [fade] Oh my gosh,wow.
PC: That thing that Jake says looks scary was a huge and sort of confusing vibrator. He actually turned it on while holding it at the wrong end. After we left the Pleasure Chest, he and I got to talking about him being young and gay and living in New York. And he knows people have assumptions like you do. I asked what he thought people most misunderstood.
JH: Well I guess, that we just walk around having sex all the time, that really bothers me.
PC: You don’t have casual sex.
JH: I mean I would probably say I’ve had casual sex once in my life. I guess because i was afraid of being, you know, stereotyped...and like my mom you know she still has these ideas in her head, if you’re gay, you’re more at risk for HIV it’s just a stereotype. Like my mom is always like use a condom, make sure don’t do this don’t do that. And I’m like, if i was dating a girl would you be saying all of these things you know?
PC: Rethinking stereotypes about how risky we think people are - is the point of Jake’s assignment. His professor, sex researcher Zhana Vrangalova, is trying to educate her students about the difference between risky sexual behavior - and healthy but maybe unfamiliar sexual behavior. She started out the semester with a survey.
Zhana Vrangalova’s Class: Alright so, do you think having many sexual partners is emotionally risky?
PC: There are about 30 undergrads in the class, who were asked about their attitudes around sex and risk- the anonymous results are being projected onto the screen in front of the classroom.
ZV Class: Okay, how about physical risk?
Do you think having many sexual partners is physically risky in terms of STIs and unwanted pregnancies even if you wear a condom every time?
PC: Ninety percent of her students think that having a lot of sexual partners carries both emotional and physical risk - regardless of the circumstances or whether you’re wearing a condom.
ZV: People really fear that STIs are more prevalent than they are and that they’re more easy to catch - and that once you catch it you maybe always keep it.
PC: Even as rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea and HIV are going up in pockets around the country - It’s far less likely that you’ll get any sexually transmitted infection than most people think. Take HIV. Most people think that if you have unprotected vaginal sex with someone who has HIV, you’re likely to get it. But the reality is more like one in a thousand.
MH: I feel like that’s the opposite of what’s taught in every sex ed class in the country.
PC: And Vrangalova says that exaggerated perception of risk leads to stigma.
MH: So if we overestimate how risky sex is, we might also overestimate how dangerous the people having that sex are. Maybe even judge them as a threat?
PC: Yeh, so that’s why Jake’s trip to the sex shop counts for class credit. Vrangalova is trying to expand ideas about what’s normal - to de-stigmatize sexual behavior that is perfectly healthy and safe. Because she thinks, the consequences of stigma can be powerful.
MH: I’m Mary Harris, and today on Only Human: the assumptions we make about sex - and what’s safe. Stigma around sex and disease can have very real consequences. We’re going to focus specifically on how that impacts people with HIV.
PC: I started thinking about all of this when I came across research by Dr. David Malebranche.
Dr. David Malebranche: It’s a Haitian name so you could give it a French flare Malebranche. PC: Malebranche or you could say Malebranche.
PC: Dr. Malebranche’s research focuses on the myths and stigma around men who have sex with men - and men of color in particular. A practicing physician, he’s worked in HIV prevention his whole career. It started for personal reasons: in the 1980’s in college he heard what the CDC considered the four risk groups for HIV - hemophiliacs, heroin users, Haitians and homosexuals.
DM: So I was like, Oh I’m homosexual and I’m Haitian, oh my god I’ve got two out of the four, like, so there was never a time in my sexual history where I wasn’t concerned about HIV.
PC: Malebranche has watched the epidemic shift over the past 35 years - the CDC no longer uses those four risk groups, for one. But he still sees the serious consequences of HIV stigma. And one of the examples he gives is the case of Michael Johnson.
DM: Michael Johnson is a young black man, he must be about 24 maybe 25 now, born in Indianapolis in 1991, went to Lindenwood University in Missouri and was a wrestler over there.
PC: A star wrestler recruited by Lindenwood, a Christian college in a suburb of St. Louis. Johnson is also openly gay.
DM: He was a guy who had went to community college before hand, was seen as someone who was prominent, comfortable with himself.
PC: But then in October of 2013, his life fell apart. Johnson was arrested after being accused of infecting one of his sex partners with HIV. Which is not just a crime in Missouri, it’s a felony. And after that first man came forward, several more accused Johnson of exposing them to the virus too.
[News clip] New and disturbing details in an already twisted case. Prosecutors tonight tell me more than 30 people could have gotten a deadly disease...
PC: In all, six men formally charged Johnson with exposing them to the virus - not necessarily infecting them, just exposing them without their knowledge. He was kicked off the wrestling team and expelled from school. But the case got really juicy when people started mining Johnson’s social media.
DM: He had active social media, with Grindr, the other mobile apps kind of hook-up sites. He had a very nice body, very masculine appearing. so he kind of fit a stereotype.
PC: Johnson was not shy about revealing his body, and in fact, played up the stereotype he knew he fit into. But it was the name he chose to go by, Tiger Mandingo, that really got people going.
DM: I think Tiger was because of the way he wrestled but then also the Mandingo referencing back to kind of the stereotypical myth of the Mandingo warrior, obviously to the movie Mandingo.
PC: The movie is about a slave master who buys Mandingo, a man who then is blackmailed into sleeping with the slave master’s wife. And then he’s killed for it. So Mandingo is like shorthand for the stereotype of the hyper masculine oversexed black man.That’s the name Johnson chose for Instagram, Facebook, the gay hookup sites Grindr, and Jack’d.
DM: There are a lot of people trying to hook up that immediately want that kind of experience. They want the masculine black man to kind of you know pin them down and screw them till Sunday. So, people when they hear Tiger Mandingo that was fulfilling some kind of fantasy. And I think he played into that.
PC: So, you think he knew the implications of that name?
DM: Oh yeh, he had to know. Yeh.
PC: And then on top of all that - there were sex tapes. Law enforcement found dozens of videos on Johnson’s computer showing him having sex with several different people - who probably didn’t know they were being taped. The prosecutor in the case Tim Lohmar took to the local news to ask other potential victims to come forward.
Tim Lohmar: It’s a matter of not only their individual safety but a matter of public safety as well.
PC: Students at Lindenwood weighed in.
VOX: I think it’s really scary, just thinking someone like that’s on campus not really thinking about others.
PC: Michael Johnson was in jail for over a year awaiting trial- He had declined a plea deal, maintaining that he had never lied to his sex partners about his status. He said that he did disclose and was not trying to infect anyone. So, in May of 2015, his trial started. It was a lot of he said he said. The trial lasted five days - and after just two hours of deliberation, the jury found Johnson guilty. And then came his sentencing.
News Reel: A former Lindenwood University wrestler is sentenced for knowingly exposing others to HIV. Michael Johnson will spend 30 years in prison.
MH: Whoa, thirty years in prison?
PC: Yeh, he was convicted on five felony counts - One count for infecting one of the accusers with HIV and the rest of the charges were about exposure. Dr. Malebranche, thinks this conviction was just wrong.
DM: The thing that gets missed in this that is not like assault where there’s a clearcut victim or there’s a murder where there’s a clear cut victim - sex is a consensual act. And so in a consensual state you can’t sit there and play victim. Especially if you’re a gay man. And sit there and say woah I didn’t know there was a risk to any of this. Yes you did. You knew there was, why are you playing like you’re a victim. But again in America,someone needs a victim and you need a perpetrator, you need someone to blame.
MH: So let me make sure I'm understanding this: He was convicted of infecting one person with HIV and exposing the others. But, none of them claimed that Johnson forced unprotected sex?
PC: Correct. And Malebranche’s point is: sex, when it’s between consenting adults, whether or not your have HIV, should not be treated as a crime.
DM: People who are you know convicted of assault, second degree murder, other kind of really heinous crimes will not get as much jail time as Michael Johnson did for this. Thirty years. That’s ridiculous.
PC: Malebranche thinks people should definitely be telling their partners their status. But he worries that laws like this one, are driven by fear - and end up perpetuating the idea that people living with HIV are inherently dangerous. Perpetrators wielding a deadly weapon. And it turns out these laws exist all over the country.
PC: Yeah - in more than 30 states. So I wanted to know - are there more Michael Johnsons out there? How does stigma around HIV actually play out?"
MH: That's when we come back. This is Only Human. Stay with us.
Last week, our show was also about sex - but we were talking about female desire, and why it’s still so hard for scientists to understand.
You guys had a lot to say about that, and the comments section on our website filled up with all kinds of tips and tricks.
73-year-old Jerry Segers was one of those commenters. He said: “I have long held that there are few if any dysfunctonal women, only clumsy inept males. When I first married many years ago my wife and I discovered that male and female desires and performance were different. She took up to 20 minutes to get ready, I took only two or three. One of our greatest discoveries was the simple act of verbalizing our feelings. It was not easy, but amazingly effective for both of us. Later we were amazed as her activities sped up and mine slowed down, so that in later years I took forever and she was the one that had to slow down to match.”
We love hearing from you. So, if you have more to say - you know how to reach us. We’re at onlyhuman.org and Only Human Podcast on Facebook.
Michael Johnson News Reel: Conviction newsreel tape: A former Lindenwood University wrestler is sentenced for knowingly exposing others to HIV. Michael Johnson will spend 30 years in prison.
MH: This is Only Human, I’m Mary Harris. Paige Cowett and I are talking about how our ideas about sex and the stigma we have around HIV specifically have serious consequences. We left off talking about Michael Johnson. Last year, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison under Missouri’s “HIV disclosure” law. Turns out it’s a felony there for an HIV positive person to have sex without first disclosing their status.
PC: Right, you have to say out loud before sex that you’re HIV positive - or else it’s jail time - And it’s not just in Missouri. Over 30 states have laws like this - most of them enacted in the 1980s and 90s.
MH: And what counts as exposure?
PC: Exposure means unprotected sex, but under these laws, it can also mean sex with a condom, oral sex, and in some states, even spitting or biting counts.
MH: So I kind of get it, the point of the laws are to prevent the spread of HIV.
PC: And to punish anyone who is actively trying to infect people.
MH: That could be a good thing.
PC: Yeah. Pretty much everyone agrees with that in concept. But you don’t have to be trying to infect people in order for it to be a crime - think about the Michael Johnson case. Prosecutors didn’t have to prove intent. Also, the accuser don’t have to have contracted HIV - just the potential to infect regardless of the outcome - is a crime.
MH: So if it’s not intentional, and no virus is transmitted - isn’t this basically just criminalizing sex for HIV positive people?
PC: Well, it seems like it doesn’t it? - So what I wanted to know was, how are these disclosure laws actually being used? Was Michael Johnson’s prosecution unusual?
Sean Strub: Well it’s an outlier because it got so much attention - that’s why it’s an outlier.
PC: That’s Sean Strub, the director of the SERO project, which is a national network of people living with HIV. He’s a long time HIV activist- a former ACT UP member. He’s HIV positive himself.
SS: Every person with HIV in the country who knows they have HIV is one accusation away from finding themselves in a courtroom.
PC: That might be overstating it a little bit - because there aren’t HIV disclosure laws in every single state. But bottom line, Strub thinks these prosecutions have dramatically increased over the last 10-15 years.
MH: That’s so surprising to me. Because it’s 2016. HIV is a treatable disease. Why would prosecutions be going up?
PC: I asked him about that. And he said that it’s because the stigma is actually worse now and he thinks that drives these prosecutions.
PC: And when it comes to stigma, he should know. By the mid-1990’s he was very sick. He was 40 pounds underweight, his viral load was super high and his white blood cell count was dangerously low-he had Kaposi Sarcoma, which caused purple lesions to form all over his body, the tell tale sign of AIDS.
SS: At the time, I understood the stigma, you know I’d walk in the streets in the village and little children would point and dogs would bark and mothers would grab their kids hands, as they’d see me walk by because it was to them a frightful sight.
PC: People aren’t afraid anymore to shake his hand, and kids don’t stare. But now, he says it’s worse in a different way.
SS: A diagnosis today is a much more lonely experience than it was years ago, even as it is not as serious a diagnosis biomedically. Years ago when someone was diagnosed there was a loving and embracing community of people who were very focused and dedicated to addressing the epidemic, especially the LGBTQ community. But today, HIV is not a fashionable cause.
MH: God, I just never thought about it that way.
PC: Keep in mind this is his read on it - I imagine others have a different take on whether things are worse now - but the way he sees it, this shifting stigma follows the history of how disclosure laws have been used. He remembers when the laws were enacted and at first, they weren’t used very much - it wasn’t until the arrival of combination therapy, which allows people to live longer with HIV, that things changed.
SS: It started to be understood that those of us with HIV with treatment were going to be living much longer, we started to be seen differently, not through the prism of that potential death, but instead through the prism of our survival. And being around longer surviving longer meant that we also were around longer to potentially infect others.
MH: So, he’s saying that living longer with what’s still an incurable disease means that you were more of a threat? It sounds like he’s almost saying that these laws are a way of discriminating against gay people?
PC: He doesn’t go that far - but he says this is when prosecutions started to rise against gay people specifically. And they were prosecutions not for intentionally infecting others, but just for sex, for exposure.
MH: Well at least did it help to prevent the spread of HIV?
PC: There isn’t any evidence that it has. In Florida, for example, where there is a strict HIV disclosure law, there is a spike in infections. Strub thinks they do the opposite. He points to surveys that show that people actually decide not to get tested when they hear about these laws. Because if they don’t know their status, they can’t be prosecuted for not disclosing.
MH: So it could be totally counterproductive.
PC: That’s the argument he takes to legislators around the country to try to convince them to reform their laws. He told me about a recent effort in Iowa to make their disclosure law less strict, less punitive.
SS: What we were proposing would make their children safer - it would make it less likely that their children could potentially acquire HIV - and that surprised them and they started looking at it and looking at how it discourages testing, how it discourages disclosure.
PC: It worked. The Iowa legislature unanimously passed reforms. So, now the punishment there is far less severe and prosecutors have to prove an intent to infect.
MH: Passed unanimously? There were no defenders of these laws?
PC: Well, Strub said that there are plenty of people who will defend a law punishing people who are intentionally infecting others. But when lawmakers started realizing that that’s not how these laws are typically used, they were very open to reform. He did say that the prosecutors in Iowa, and prosecutors in general, aren’t in favor of changes. I’ve heard this argument. Basically prosecutors say that Strub and the reformers are trying to shift blame to the victim.
MH: Sort of like blaming a rape victim for not being careful enough.
PC: Exactly. But Strub and Malebranche see it more like changing the dynamic - changing the understanding of the sexual interaction. Instead of it being a perpetrator and a victim, it’s two adults engaged in a consensual act.
Because the reality is it’s not clear cut. I talked to Malebranche about this - and he started telling me about friends of his - who got themselves into situations where they’d had sex with someone and found out only later that the person was HIV positive. And they were pissed off. But.
DM: But then they test positive years later, and then they’re like oh I get it. Because they start telling people up front, and say hey I just wanted to let you know, I’m living with HIV I’m undetectable I’m on meds, I’m healthy. And the person says, no I’m good.
PC: I’m out.
DM: Yeh, I’m out, we don’t need to date any more.
DM: So, I think until people actually live that experience, for a lot of people it’s difficult to grasp the stigma and the fear and the courage it takes for someone who’s living with HIV to actually say to somebody, hey look and kind of face that rejection over and over again.
PC: That story made me think about something Jake told me. Remember Jake from the beginning - the NYU student? He told me a story after we left the sex shop. He had recently started things up again with an ex-boyfriend.
JAKE: We didn’t have anal sex, but we did have oral sex and afterwards he told me he was HIV positive. And I was like wow, like how are you going to do that and not tell me before hand you know. Like, i don’t know, but then at the same time, I should have i don’t know i don’t know. it’s just very tricky.
MH: You can tell Jake is conflicted.
PC: Yeh, he knows he bears some of the responsibility here, but he also feels like the other guy should have said something. Jake learned later how unlikely it is to get HIV from oral sex - so he wasn’t too worried in the end--and he’s been tested since. And he tested negative, but still.
JAKE: I just felt really really sad and i felt kind of betrayed by him. This was somebody who I was thinking about getting into a relationship again and trying to rebuild things. And knowing that really changed things for me.
PC: Like, knowing that he had HIV or knowing he had it and didn’t tell you?
JAKE: Both, definitely both.
MH: I get that.
PC: I do too. But then put yourself in the other guy’s shoes. Disclosing your status is probably not the easiest thing to do. Especially if you think about what Sean Strub was saying - that a diagnosis no longer gets you a warm embrace, you are more likely to be judged, even within the gay community.
MH: And if they lived in Missouri or in one of the other states with those HIV laws, he could have charged the other guy with a felony.
PC: And put him away for thirty years - like Michael Johnson.
MH: That was our reporter Paige Cowett. I’m Mary Harris.
We want to hear from you. Have you ever felt a diagnosis made people see you differently? What happened? Leave a comment on this episode at OnlyHuman.org or post to our Facebook page