Aids Related Stigma

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By: Richard Humphrey
E-mail: rhumph@po-box.mcgill.ca

Introduction Since the appearance of AIDS in the late seventies and early eighties, the disease has had attached to it a significant social stigma. This stigma has manifested itself in the form of discrimination, avoidance and fear of people living with AIDS (PLWAs). As a result, the social implications of the disease has been extended from those of other life threatening conditions to the point at which PLWAs are not only faced with a terminal illness but also social isolation and constant discrimination throughout society. Various explanations have been suggested as to the underlying causes of this stigmatization. Many studies point to the relationship the disease has with deviant behaviour. Others suggest that fear of contagion is the actual culprit. Examining the existing literature and putting it into societal context leads one to believe that there is no one cause. Instead, there would appear to be a collection of associated factors that influence society's attitudes towards AIDS and PLWAs. As the number of people infected with HIV increases, social workers are and will be increasingly called upon to deal with and serve PWAs. Although not all social workers chose to work with PLWAs, the escalating incidence of HIV infection is creating a situation in which seropositive people are and will be showing up more often in almost all areas of social work practice. This paper aims to examine AIDS related stigma and the stigmatization process, hopefully providing insights into countering the effects of stigma and perhaps the possibility of destigmatization. This is of particular pertinence to the field of social work due to our growing involvement with the HIV positive population. Association to Deviant/Marginal Behavior One of the most clearly and often identified causes of AIDS related stigma is its association to deviant behaviour. The disease has had and still does have a strong association for many to homosexuality, IV drug use, sexual promiscuity and other liberations of sexual practice (O'Hare, et al., 1996; Canadian Associacion of Social Workers, 1990; Quam, 1990 & Beauger, 1989). An especially strong association exists between homosexuality and AIDS. This is largely due to the fact that, in the early years of the disease, it was far more prevalent within the gay community and almost non-existent outside of it. In fact, until 1982 the disease was referred to as GRID or Gay Related Immune Deficiency. Even today, AIDS is often referred to as "the gay plague" (Giblin, 1995). Even though AIDS is now far less prevalent in the homosexual community and increasingly more outside of it, this link still remains strong for many. Along with the historical context of AIDS, the media is partly to blame for this not so accurate association. The Canadian Association of Social Workers (1990) reports that, "often the media has not distinguished between ‘gay' and ‘AIDS', so that public understanding of homosexuality and AIDS has become enmeshed" (p.10). In recent years, the media has started to make more accurate distinctions between homosexuality and AIDS, but messages are still mixed and often ambiguous. The situation is quite similar in regard to IV drug use, prostitution, and other activities commonly associated with AIDS. This focus that the media has put on marginalized groups incorrectly places emphasis on high risk groups rather than high risk activities. As a result, the word AIDS alone conjures, for many, images of those who deviate from what society deems to be normal behaviour. Already Stigmatized Groups Many of the groups to which AIDS is associated have long histories of stigmatization before the appearance of AIDS. Homosexuals, in western culture, have almost always suffered the effects of being a stigmatized population. The same is true of prostitutes, IV drug users, and people of color (O'Hare, et al., 1996; Giblin, 1995 & CASW, 1990). It is significant...
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