amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Women and HIV: Still Burdened by Stigma

Survey Shows One-Quarter “Uneasy” Being Friends with Positive Women


March 31, 2008–For AIDS activist Marvelyn Brown, the most difficult part of receiving an HIV diagnosis has been the stigma. Brown was infected as a college student. Before long, news of her positive status had spread across campus, branding her an outcast. Facing similar rejection in her own family, Brown moved an hour away from her home in Tennessee, took a waitressing job, and changed her name.

Regan Hofmann
Regan Hofmann at amfAR briefing.

Brown’s experience of stigma and isolation corroborates the results of an amfAR-sponsored survey exploring attitudes toward HIV-positive women in America. The survey reveals pervasive negative attitudes toward women living with HIV and a high level of discomfort interacting with them. Many of the responses display a striking ignorance of how HIV is transmitted and a misplaced fear of contracting the virus.

More than half of the 5,000 respondents (aged 18-44) reported they would be somewhat or not at all comfortable with the prospect of having an HIV-positive woman as a dentist, childcare provider, or doctor. And a quarter admitted that they would be uneasy being close friends with one. Only 14 percent felt that HIV-positive women should have children, despite the fact that medication exists to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

Since the beginning of the epidemic, the number of women living with HIV/AIDS and the rate of new infections among women has risen steadily, in the U.S. and worldwide. In 1985, women and girls represented eight percent of AIDS diagnoses in the U.S., compared with 27 percent in 2005. Around the globe, women continue to face widespread social and gender inequalities that can make it difficult for them to reduce their risk of HIV infection.

At the press briefing, Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal, M.D., M.P.A., amfAR’s senior policy and medical advisor, announced the results of the online survey, conducted for amfAR by Harris Interactive. A group of panelists including Marvelyn Brown discussed the implications of the survey and agreed that education and open discussion are the best tools to combat hostility toward HIV-positive women. Regan Hofmann, editor of POZ magazine, said that going public about her HIV status on the cover of a national magazine allowed her to discuss the disease openly with those around her. “I used to say, ‘I’m a woman living with HIV,’” Hofmann said. “Now I say it’s living with me.”

The survey and briefing–the latter of which was the first of amfAR’s AIDS 20/20 Emerging Issues Briefing Series–were made possible by generous grants from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and the M•A•C AIDS Fund.