Whose HIV Is It, Anyway?: Tiger Mandingo and Viral Responsibility

Today, Buzzfeed published a long read on Michael Johnson—a.k.a. Tiger Mandingo—whose story went super-viral earlier this year after news broke that he videotaped himself having sex with 31 people. It is alleged that he knowingly exposed them to HIV*.

There are five charges against Johnson, according to Buzzfeed's Steven Thrasher: "one count of 'recklessly infecting another with HIV' and four counts of 'attempting to recklessly infect another with HIV,' felonies in the state of Missouri." If convicted, Johnson could face life in prison. He's in his early 20s.

Thrasher's piece helps humanize a man who has been made out to be a monster—even an anonymous source whom Johnson put at risk via unprotected sex calls Johnson "a nice guy." Johnson, who has a learning disability, stepped up to claim paternity of a son that he knew wasn't his because "I didn't want to be the kind of guy to say, 'Just because the baby is white, I'm not going to say that this isn't my son.' I grew up without a father, I don't want him to not have a father." (The mother of the child was his high school sweetheart. Johnson once dated women but in the story he says he always identified as gay.)

The piece also contextualizes the less-than-tolerant atmosphere at Lindenwood University, where Johnson attended. "As recently as 2010, Lindenwood refused to allow a gay-straight alliance to use the word 'gay' in its name; it went by the Spectrum Alliance instead for years," writes Thrasher, who also describes the racism that pervades criminal HIV prosecution:

A study published in the journal AIDS and Behavior, looked at 10 years of HIV prosecutions in Nashville. It found that "Persons who were black were more likely to be convicted of criminal HIV exposure related to a sexual interaction than persons who were white," and that "individuals who were black received significantly longer sentences than those who were white."

What's frustrating about the piece, though, is that though Johnson was interviewed for it, he's mum on pertinent details, namely who knew what in terms of his HIV status. Thrasher writes that Johnson signed a form acknowledging HIV diagnosis on January 7, 2013. He wasn't arrested until the following October. In the meantime, his mother says he told her, "'Mama, I told people I was HIV [positive] … and they wanted me anyway, because of who I am.'" Then she adds, "So in a way he feels kind of used." Johnson has pled not guilty to all of the charges against him.

The aforementioned anonymous source claims he had no knowledge of Johnson's status when he had receptive, condom-less anal sex with Johnson. The account of his fuck-buddy association with Johnson is among the most maddening aspects of an article brimming with maddening details:

They hooked up later that month in Johnson's dorm room, where, the student said, Johnson told him he was "clean." He gave Johnson a blow job.

Johnson invited him to go out sometime, but the student got busy and "didn't have time for that." They didn't hook up again until early October.

This time, they had anal sex without a condom. "I let him come in me," the student said. He wanted bareback sex, he said, because Johnson was "huge," "only my third black guy," and — as he said Johnson told him yet again — "clean."

The student said he has barebacked with multiple "friends and ex-boyfriends," situations in which "we trusted each other. I mean, I don't just let anybody do it." Yet he also said he had bareback sex "with people I barely knew." In those cases, he said, "I knew they were clean," sometimes just "by looking at them."

And then, when Johnson did fess up about his status, this source says he "got pissed." "I had asked him several times, and he'd said he was clean, and I trusted him!" What an idiot.

This is not to excuse the alleged lies Johnson told, but if you engage in risky sex, the onus is on you. You may hope for transparency, you may be optimistic about the general goodness of the human heart, you may think, "Hey, this intimacy I'm experiencing must extend to matters of truth and fairness," but all that wishing and hoping will amount to is a pop song that's already been written if you're lucky (and musically inclined). It's best to err on the side of solitude and believe that no one owes you anything. That way you're not surprised when that person that you don't even know tells you that your fuck session may have changed your life irreversibly.

If you like taking loads so much and are legitimately concerned about contracting HIV, so concerned that you would put the blame on someone else for your own behavior, go on PrEP. It's not perfect, but Jesus Christ, it's better than demonizing others for your preferences. Your body is your responsibility.

Speaking of medication, there's only a passing mention of Johnson's regimen by that same anonymous source, who doesn't exactly seem so with-it. "He infected someone with HIV. Without medication, that person could get AIDS, so he's slowly killing someone. It's a form of murder, in a sense," he says. It is unclear as to whether Johnson declined to answer questions about meds, or if Thrasher didn't ask (an email request to Thrasher to clarify this point has not yet been returned). Legally, this point would likely make little difference, although it should, since a recent study showed no instances of HIV transmission between partners in serodiscordant couples where the HIV positive person had an undetectable viral load due to antiretroviral medication. Zero.

The implications are that, in fact, having sex with an HIV positive and undetectable person is not a form of murder, in a sense, but in fact safer sex. (Also, the idea that HIV is a death sentence is an antiquated notion for those who have access to antiretrovirals. It's no walk in the park, but it's not 1985 anymore, either.) It's far riskier to have sex with someone who thinks he or she is negative but is in fact positive and untreated—the higher the viral load the more contagious a person is.

Again and again, it's ignorance that's the monster, and some activists argue that criminalizing HIV fosters the worst kind of ignorance: willful ignorance. This is from a 2012 AP report:

While prosecutors defend the HIV laws as appropriate for certain cases, some activists argue that criminalization of exposure to HIV can backfire and actually fuel the spread of the disease.

They note that under most of the state laws, people who don't know they have HIV are less culpable than those who do know. This fact could deter some people from learning their HIV status, and thus preclude some HIV-positive people from getting treatment.

A better approach, the advocates say, is to encourage responsibility and disclosure without the underlying threat of arrest and prosecution.

But if you must make assumptions, just assume that everybody has HIV or is lying, and act accordingly.

[ Image via Instagram]

*Note this paragraph originally did not have "alleged" in it, but as a very sharp reader and accomplished writer/editor Sean Strub pointed out to me in an email: "Just because the state of Missouri equates someone who knows they have HIV having sex with another person as 'knowingly exposing them to HIV' it doesn't mean that characterization should be accepted as face value." The rest of this piece reflects the ambiguity of the situation, but the lede may have been misleading.