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The University of Southampton
Southampton Law School

Southampton academic addresses 'Criminalizing Contagion'

Published: 18 November 2013 Origin:  Health Ethics and Law (HEAL)

On 6 November 2013, as part of the Institute of Criminal Justice Research seminar series, Dr David Gurnham delivered a paper entitled ‘Criminalizing Contagion’. This paper is drawn from his forthcoming monograph: ‘Crime, Desire and Law’s Unconscious’ (Routledge: Glasshouse, 2014).

David is a Reader in Law, and his research and teaching has focused on Criminal Law, Healthcare Law and Ethics, Law and Literature.

Abstract: The criminalization of sexual HIV transmission tends to rely on and encourage three common misperceptions. The first of these is the perception of HIV that it is highly transmissible, such that any single instance of unprotected sex with an infected person is highly risky. The second is that HIV is likely finally to be fatal, with a high likelihood of death from an AIDS-related illness. The third is that like rape or violent assault, HIV transmission is necessarily something that an aggressor does to a victim. These assumptions about HIV/AIDS are so patently false (or rather: strategic fictive) that criminalization makes no sense viewed simply as a response to a genuine problem. Divorced as it clearly is, from any convincing empirical justification, the drive to criminalize HIV transmission instead expresses a universal unconscious wish to conquer death and bring it under human control, and the trial and conviction of the HIV positive 'transmitter' stages the fulfilment of that wish. This paper thus joins a growing chorus of anti-criminalization opinion in giving reasons to resist responding punitively to HIV/AIDS.

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