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AIDS, sex, and crime: Why is Darren Chiacchia facing jail time?

Barbaric laws about AIDS mean Darren Chiacchia could spend up to 30 years in jail for exposing his partner to HIV without revealing his condition.

By / April 20, 2010

New York

In 1943, the National Advisory Police Committee on Social Protection released a report on its wartime efforts to combat venereal disease. Whenever a soldier or sailor was found to have venereal disease, the report explained, he was required to notify officials about “the source of his infection.” The agency would then track down and arrest the person – inevitably a woman – who had infected him.

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In rare instances, the same woman would be accused by several different men. Any such female “must be stopped,” the report warned, “for she is more dangerous to the community than a mad dog.”

I recalled this history as I read about the recent arrest of Olympian equestrian Darren Chiacchia, who faces up to 30 years in prison. His crime? Having sex without informing his partner that he was HIV-positive, which is a felony in Mr. Chiacchia’s native Florida.

Florida’s not alone here. At least 32 states have HIV-related criminal statutes, most of which make it illegal to knowingly expose someone else to the virus without prior disclosure. And one day, I think, we’ll regard these laws as every bit as barbaric as the old measures to control venereal disease.

During World War I, for example, about 30,000 women were incarcerated in America on suspicion of spreading venereal disease. Some of these women were prostitutes, while others were so-called charity girls who allegedly traded sexual favors for a night on the town.

At least twice as many women were arrested during World War II, as historian Marilyn Hegarty has shown. “A much more difficult problem than the out and out professional prostitute is that of the promiscuous girl, the khaki-wacky and the girl who has become unbalanced by wartime wages and freedom,” one observer wrote. “Following them is a public-health function.” Indeed it was. Spearheaded by former FBI Prohibition agent Eliot Ness, who had helped convict the gangster Al Capone, federal and state officials launched an all-out war on suspected female carriers of the disease. Police questioned scores of young women, incarcerating anyone who seemed “loose” or promiscuous.

“Any girl seen out with a number of different soldiers in the same night is watched,” wrote an official in Boise, Idaho, “and if the appearance is in any way suspicious she is booked on a vagrancy charge and detained for a physical exam.” Women accused of vagrancy received 30-day jail sentences, whether they tested positive for VD or not.

Fast-forward to the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s, which unleashed a wave of state laws criminalizing the transmission of HIV. Nobody knows how many people have been prosecuted under such measures. But here’s what we do know: The laws reflect hysteria and prejudice, just like the anti-VD campaigns of earlier eras.