Darryl Rowe, a 27-year-old hairdresser living in the UK, must serve at least 12 years in prison in the United Kingdom’s first case of deliberate HIV transmission. According to the Guardian, after being diagnosed with HIV in April 2015, Rowe refused treatment and ignored doctors’ advice and went on to have unprotected sex with ten men after lying about his HIV status. Five of the ten men later tested positive for HIV. Rowe also tampered with condoms.
According to the Guardian, judge Christine Henson told Rowe that he acted “with the full knowledge of the risk you posted to others” in a “deliberate campaign” to infect men with HIV.
“Unfortunately for five of the men you met, your campaign was successful,” the judge said.
The judge added, “Many of those men were young men in their 20s at the time they had the misfortune to meet you. Given the facts of this case and your permissive, predatory behaviour, I cannot see when you would no longer be a danger to gay men. In my judgment, the offences, taken together, are so serious that a life sentence is justified.”
While the judge saw the case as rather black and white, some UK advocates feel the case has nuanced implications. In a phone interview with INTO, Matthew Hodson, executive director of the UK AIDS advocacy group NAM, said that he fears few people understand how exceptional the case’s circumstances are.
“I already had a conversation with someone saying, ‘This isn’t the first case of intentional transmission’ and I had to say ‘Yes, this was the first case!’” Hodson told INTO. “That nuance, that distinction, I don’t think is well understood.”
During the case, several of the men Rowe had sex with confronted him about his actions.
“I would rather he had murdered me than left me to live my life like this,” one man said. Another said, “As long as he has strength in his body, he will be a risk.”
Hodson emphasized the complicated nature of the case. Not only is it the first of its kind, Rowe’s behavior “demonstrates that he has some major issues,” according to Hodson. During the trial, Rowe said that he believed that he no longer had teh virus because he began drinking his own urine.
Though Hodson expressed deep sympathy for those who had been diagnosed as positive, he felt that the sentence could also reinforce incorrect perceptions about the virus.
“The sentence, while not unexpected, is particularly sever considering that when treated that HIV is no longer a life threatening condition,” Hodson said.
Hodson also added that this case has the potential to reinforce negative perceptions of people living with HIV as “predatory or sexually voracious.”
“I see a lot of corrosive language used about people living with HIV, which is akin to the way that gay men were described in the 50s 60 and even 70s,” Hodson said. “It’s unhelpful, hurtful and damaging.”
Overall, Hodson noted that this was also a mental health issue and that Rowe did not represent most of the people living with HIV in the UK. Currently, according to AVERT, 96% of people living with HIV in the UK are on treatment while 94% are virally suppressed and undetectable, meaning they cannot pass on the virus. (For comparison, approximately 49% of people living with HIV in the United States are currently virally suppressed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
Throughout the United States, United Kingdom and other countries, efforts to decriminalize HIV transmission have attempted to stop their countries’ respective criminal justice systems from dealing with HIV exposure or infection. In the United States, a total of 67 laws in 33 states criminalize people living with HIV, often for activities that pose low or negligible risk of transmitting the virus.
The problem with laws like these, Hodson contends, is that they can lead some HIV-negative people to believe that “all of the responsibility of HIV transmission rests with the positive partner,” which he says “may lead to some complacency.”
“My belief is that criminalization is never helpful if the goal is HIV prevention,” Hodson said. “Within that, we recognize the particular trauma that the victims in this case have had to face and I wish them all the strength and support that they need.”