Russell T. Davies’ powerful TV drama, It’s A Sin has enthralled the British public with its brutally honest depiction of the AIDS epidemic. The show follows five friends living in London in the 1980s, whose lives become irrevocably entangled by HIV/AIDS. This has become Channel 4’s most-watched drama series ever.

No longer a death sentence

Dramatisations of the epidemic are so important for raising awareness of something which was, at first, largely ignored by the media, and then deeply stigmatised by it. Having said that, depictions of HIV/AIDS in film and TV are nearly always set when the epidemic was at its worst and the illness was a death sentence. 

Medical advancements have progressed greatly since the period in which It’s A Sin is set. Now, given effective treatment, people living with HIV today can live long and healthy lives. Antiretroviral drugs (which prevent HIV from replicating inside the body) are now used to treat the virus and are usually taken in the form of one to four pills a day. This treatment not only prevents those who take it from getting ill. It can also suppress the virus so much that it becomes undetectable — meaning that it cannot be transmitted to another person. Pregnant women on HIV treatment are now able to give birth to HIV-negative children and a drug called prEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), can also be taken to prevent yourself from contracting HIV from sex or through injection drug use.   

Damian, 21, was diagnosed with HIV in 2017. ‘At the time, I saw it as something that would negatively impact my life as I had no knowledge of the virus,’ he said, ‘however, by taking my medication daily I am able to live as if I was never diagnosed in the first place’.

Ongoing stigma

However, despite these medical advances, there is still a certain amount of stigma attached to the virus. This is partly because, as mentioned previously, dramatisations depicting HIV/AIDS largely focus on the bleak and harrowing truth at the height of the epidemic, when the illness was largely untreatable. According to a CDC study, almost eight in ten adults with HIV receiving HIV medical care in the United States reported feeling internalised HIV-related stigma. Internalised stigma can lead to depression and isolation, but it can also lead to people neglecting to get tested for the virus out of shame — as we see with the character of Ritchie Tozer in It’s A Sin, who still continues to have unprotected sex despite suspecting that he has the virus. Educating people on the realities of living with HIV/AIDS today is imperative for eradicating the epidemic, as well as removing some of the subsequent stigma. 

‘I’ve received some extremely negative reactions after disclosing my HIV status to some people’, Damian told me. ‘An ex-partner told everyone I tried to infect him with AIDS and my brother-in-law refused to let me stay over at my sister’s house as he thought I would give my nephews AIDS. The reason for this stigma is due to a lack of education. My experience of HIV cannot be compared to that of people diagnosed in the ’80s and ’90s, and I feel that that needs to be represented in the media’.

Since films and TV shows are consumed on such a mass scale, they are a great means of educating the masses on important societal issues. In order to help destigmatize HIV/AIDS, we need films and TV shows which portray the realities of people living with the condition today. It would be extremely refreshing to see a dramatisation of a character who has been living with HIV for years and leads a normal and healthy life. Or an HIV-positive character who is sexually active and does not pass the virus on to any of their sexual partners. It is evident that shows like It’s A Sin focus on the horrors of HIV/AIDS not only because they are crucial stories to tell but also because it makes for emotive and engrossing television. It would be ridiculous to suggest that we should create TV shows solely about people living with HIV today, where the characters just take their pills and go about their normal lives. However, it would be great to see HIV-positive characters whose storylines are not dominated by their condition, in order to show that they are multifaceted people whose illness no longer has to define them. 

Moreover, in the 1980s, HIV/AIDS was dubbed ‘The Gay Plague’, leading to the common misconception that it can only be contracted by homosexual men. In fact, anyone can get HIV, it is just more easily transmitted through anal sex, which is why it affects a disproportionate number of gay men. However, shows such as It’s A Sin and FX’s Pose only focus on members of the LGBTQ+ community, and although telling their story is incredibly important, it would be beneficial to see portrayals of a heterosexual female or male character living with the virus in order to help dispel the homophobic myth that HIV/AIDS is a ‘gay disease’.

The media has a very powerful way of influencing people. In the same way that it helped to perpetuate false and homophobic ideas about the virus in the 1980s, it could do a lot to end the stigma still attached to HIV/AIDS today by portraying positive stories of people living with the condition. The media owes it to all those who have been affected by its negative depictions of the LGBTQ+ community and those living with HIV/AIDS who were too ashamed to get tested because of the resulting stigma.   

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