Last week a 31-year-old woman, previously found guilty of attempted aggravated assault for having unprotected sex with her male partner without disclosing her HIV-positive status, was sentenced by the Falun District Court to 18 months in prison. The man has not tested HIV-positive.
An editorial by the ubiquitous Professor Matthew Weait in today’s Newsmill (‘Rädsla för det orena bakom Sveriges hårda hiv-lagar’ / ‘Fear of the unclean behind Sweden’s harsh HIV laws’) critiques such prosecutions as symptomatic of Sweden’s “nanny state” approach to the lives of its citizens.
So far, of the eleven comments, only one appears to agree with Matthew’s brilliant but challenging assessment. Fortunately, it is not necessarily the general public in Sweden that needs to be persuaded to change course, but Sweden’s politicians. In this regard, the editorial may be helpful to the two year campaign by RFSU (the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education), HIV-Sweden, and RFSL (the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights) to raise awareness and advocate against overly draconian HIV criminalisation in Sweden.
There is a horror film from 1992 called “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle”. The plot centres on the efforts of a vengeful nanny to destroy the life of a woman who the nanny blames for her own husband’s suicide and the miscarriage she subsequently suffers. The title is a good one for the film because it suggests security and safety when the opposite is in fact the case. There is nothing more disturbing than discovering that the person in whom you have put your trust is in fact the source of danger and harm to the thing you hold most dear.
Sweden has rocked its children in a cradle handed down through the generations for over a century, carved from the warm, soft wood of social democracy. And, for most of the children, the cradle is a very safe place. Indeed, many have fallen asleep as she rocks them and find the constant motion so comforting that there is little desire to wake up (which suits nanny just fine). For some other children though, the story is very different. Beware those who refuse to believe all of the stories nanny tells them, or the children behaving in such a way that she thinks will set a bad example. It’s not that she wants to be cruel, but she knows what’s in their best interests. She has little, if any, tolerance for those who jeopardise all the work she has done in raising the good, obedient, children, and she will take almost any action necessary to show the bad ones the error of their ways and bring them into line. Tough love: that’s nanny’s motto.
Some readers may find this extended metaphor shocking. It is meant to be. I, like many of my contemporaries in countries with less welfare-oriented, and stronger liberal-conservative, political traditions have always thought of Sweden and its neighbours as some kind of Nirvana – a promised land in which no-one will ever be too rich, and no-one too poor; where the contract between state and citizen assures security and support for all, irrespective of the personal misfortunes and disadvantages people may experience.
My recent research into Sweden’s response to people living with HIV has demonstrated how this image – accurate in many respects – is only part of the story. Not only has Sweden detained more than 100 people under its communicable disease legislation since the epidemic began (and been held, in one case, to have violated the European Convention on Human Rights as a result), it criminalises more people per 1000 living with HIV (PLHIV) than any other country in Europe. It criminalises them not only for deliberate transmission, but for non-deliberate transmission and for exposure (where HIV is not in fact transmitted). It criminalises only those who know their HIV status, despite the fact that the source of most new infections is people who are undiagnosed, and ignores the fact that PLHIV on effective treatment and with an undetectable viral load present practically no risk of onward transmission to a partner during sex. It criminalises these people despite the fact that HIV is a public health issue, despite the fact that there exists no evidence that criminalisation has any public health benefits, and despite the fact that the sensationalist headlines which accompany stories about HIV cases contribute to and reinforce the stigmatisation of all PLHIV.
It is my strong belief is that Sweden’s coercive and punitive response to HIV has its source precisely – and paradoxically – in values that have become so embedded in the psyche of the general population over the past century that anything, or anyone, that threatens them is treated as a dangerous contaminant to be dealt with accordingly. Just as with its approach to sex work (even this term is disliked), which treats all workers as victims and all men as deviant criminals, and drug use (where harm reduction – despite its efficacy – is distrusted because it suggests tolerance of something essentially dirty and dangerous), HIV is criminalised because it threatens, at a very fundamental level, what being Swedish means. HIV is not clean. HIV is not healthy. HIV is not normal. For as long as HIV can be contained among men who have sex with men, drug users and migrants – and (critically) be seen to be contained there by everyone who is not a member of these groups – the Swedish self-image of a country committed to enlightened, progressive values can be sustained. And because this is so important, any measures – however repressive, illogical or misguided – are acceptable.
Since March 2012, Sweden has a new Ambassador to the Kingdom of Swaziland, Ulla Andrén. On presenting her letters of credence to the King, Ambassador Andrén emphasised “the importance of a continued effort to work against the HIV/AIDS pandemic” in that country. Swaziland has the highest HIV prevalence in the world, with more than one in four people living with virus (some 200,000 people). Given the passionate commitment it has demonstrated to punishing PLHIV domestically, and its belief in the value of a punitive response, it would seem only sensible that Sweden should suggest that Swaziland adopts its. Except of course it shouldn’t do this, and nor would it. But it’s a serious point though. If it would be wrong to recommend the criminalisation of HIV in Swaziland, where HIV remains, for many, a dangerous and deadly disease, then why is it OK to criminalise it at home, where people who are diagnosed can lead long and otherwise healthy lives?
We all understand why the children like sleeping in nanny Sweden’s cradle. But it might be interesting, and liberating, for them to wake up and test her patience a little …