In the quiet week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the city of Gaylord, Michigan reached out to the local newspaper with a public health issue of concern. As a result of an early investigation into allegations of “multiple prostitution rings” operating in local hotels, police had determined one of the women supposedly involved in the operation was allegedly HIV-positive.
Sgt. Frank Claeys, of the Gaylord Police Department, told TheBody.com officials had determined the woman’s HIV status from sources with “credible information.”
Claeys declined to discuss details of the investigation into the alleged prostitution rings, and a month later, there have been no arrests reported in the local media.
After the small story appeared in the Petoskey Daily News, local television stations picked up on the story and it was a minor sensation in the area.
“It was not our intention for it to go to the local television networks,” he told TheBody.com. “It was not our intention to sensationalize it.”
While the Gaylord Police announcement to the local newspaper created some stir, it was when local health authorities stepped in that the “monstrous stigma” — as Naina Khanna of the Positive Women’s Network of the USA referred to the underlying HIV messaging — truly reared its head.
“Anyone having unprotected sex can spread HIV. That should be scary to people. It’s that easy to spread,” said Dan Reynolds, communications director for the rural Public Health Department of Northwest Michigan, to the local Fox News affiliate.
Reynolds defended his statement, despite a CDC estimate of the risk of sexual transmission from an HIV-positive woman to a man through vaginal penetration being 4 infections per 10,000 exposures.
“His reasoning was this: If people have condom-less sex, they might have that sex with a person living with HIV. If they have sex with a person living with HIV, there is a chance they might get infected. Therefore, Reynolds reasoned, HIV is as easy to spread as having condom-less sex,” the HIV focused news site reported. “That’s faulty logic. It’s like saying because you step out of your front door you might end up on a busy bus route. And because there are buses, you might get hit by a bus. So, getting hit by a bus is as easy as stepping out your front door.”
For Khanna, the messaging flew in the face of scientific evidence and the best practices for public health. That, she said, raised a real concern about safety for any of the women who might be involved in sex work or suspected of being involved in sex work in the small northern Michigan resort town.
“First of all, there’s no way of knowing from the information that’s been provided — this is all an alleged situation — and there are numerous cases of women experiencing violence and even death after disclosure, both voluntary and involuntary, of HIV status,” Khanna told TheBody.com, in explaining her concerns about the public release. “The suspicion of HIV status itself, in some instances, has been enough to trigger violence. So this kind of big accusation — that there’s this hyperbolic ring of escorts operating — really has a potential to put a whole group of women at risk for violence. And certainly for stigma as well.”
The website pointed to very specific instances where a woman’s HIV disclosure was allegedly the trigger for a murder. One happened in 2012 in Dallas, Texas when Larry Dunn says he had to stab Cicely Bolden to death because of her HIV-positive status. The other is a case currently in the courts in Wisconsin. There, Clayton Courtney is facing murder charges in the death of Brittany Cross. He claims he killed her because she disclosed that she was HIV-positive.
“Anyone with a title and a microphone can spread misinformation that inflicts harm upon and stigmatizes people with HIV and hurts public health,” Sean Strub, executive director of Sero Project, said in an email in reaction to Reynolds’ explanation. “That should be scary to people. It’s that easy to spread.”