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Home / Articles / Health / Do You Feel Trapped Because of Your HIV Status?

Do You Feel Trapped Because of Your HIV Status?

Survivors who are HIV positive face unique barriers to leaving an abuser

Do You Feel Trapped Because of Your HIV Status?

Enduring abuse is difficult for anyone. But add in living with HIV and a survivor faces a multitude of additional challenges. And unfortunately, it’s not talked about enough. 

“HIV is still so stigmatized, and a lot of individuals are ostracized because of their status,” says Jaasiel Chapman, infectious disease researcher and community educator at the University of Cincinnati. “That stigma is really what’s fueling the epidemic of intimate partner violence among people living with HIV.”

The first step is recognizing abuse. 

Signs You’re Being Abused

In addition to the traditional warning signs of abuse, individuals with HIV face unique forms of abuse, including:

  • Telling you you’re “dirty” or unlovable because of your HIV status.
  • Calling you promiscuous or “slutty” because of your HIV status.
  • Hiding or stealing your HIV medication or keeping you from getting medical attention. 
  • Threatening to out your HIV status to friends, family or your employer in order to control you or get you to stay in the relationship.

“One of the scariest things for individuals is the thought that their partner will share their status with social media, their families, friends and individuals that do not know their status,” Chapman says. “Struggling with domestic violence is hard enough, but then when you double it with living with HIV, it makes everything a little harder.”

The Threat of Jail Time

Another tactic abusers use is to threaten criminal charges. About half of U.S. states still have laws making it a crime to knowingly expose someone to HIV, and in 19 states, anyone living with HIV is required by law to disclose their HIV status to their sexual partner. Abusers have been known to take advantage of these laws and threaten to tell the police that you intentionally exposed them by not practicing safe sex or lying about your HIV status. 

“So, it comes down to one person’s word against the other person’s,” Chapman says. “And in Ohio, you can be penalized and imprisoned for up to eight years for not informing your partner of your status. Getting these antiquated laws changed that were put in place during the 80s when HIV was still a death sentence would help a lot of people that are dealing with intimate partner violence be able to get out and not fear that someone’s going to go to the police and file a false claim.”

Barriers to Leaving

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Women are more likely to be abused than men, but when it comes to survivors living with HIV, the highest percentage are gay and bisexual men. Male survivors can find it particularly difficult to escape. That’s because most domestic violence programs and shelters are geared toward women. Many don’t accept male residents, leaving men with limited options when fleeing. 

“There are not enough resources for men in domestic violence relationships, which makes it so much harder for them to get out of those situations,” Chapman says. “We come across that a lot, more than I would like to say, and I wish there were more resources out there.”

Chapman recommends contacting a domestic violence advocate to help you put together a safety plan and find a place to stay. Start by asking family and friends. If that’s not an option, use our search tool to find an organization near you that serves men. (Click “filters” and then select “Men”)

For a list of LGBTQ health-related nonprofits, many of which have helplines that you can reach out to for issues related to HIV-status, or dating or domestic abuse, see this page on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. 

When You’re Ready to Leave

There are plenty of items to take with you when leaving an abuser, but none is more important than your medication. Consider hiding a little at a time at work or a friend’s house. But don’t let your medication prevent you from leaving. It is replaceable. You are not. 

For more tips on preparing to leave an abuser, read “Leaving Without Dying.”