While we are on the topic of words mattering, the language we use when discussing sensitive, controversial, or stigmatized topics reflects and shapes our attitudes and beliefs about those topics. Such is the case with HIV and AIDS. Since being widely identified in the 1980s, HIV and AIDS have been perceived negatively by the general public, resulting in the pervasive use of language that characterizes those living with the virus or the disease as undesirable and even dangerous. Despite the hope that science has given us with respect to HIV prevention and treatment and the increased awareness of the need for mental health support for people living with HIV, the language frequently used to describe HIV and AIDS continues to bolster the stigma associated with the illness.
Whereas phrases such as “clean bill of health” are benign with respect to other illnesses, when used in connection with HIV and AIDS, they can have a much different connotation. For instance, use of the word “clean” to describe someone who does not have an HIV diagnosis can send the message that those who are HIV or STI positive are somehow unclean and dirty, or even impure and sinful. But HIV and STI are not about clean or unclean. Not having an HIV diagnosis is not a determinant of cleanliness or good moral character. Equally, having an HIV diagnosis has nothing to do with being dirty or having loose morals.
Similarly, referring to HIV “infections” rather than HIV diagnoses or transmissions conjures thoughts of contamination, impurity, and even death. Simply put, the dichotomy of “clean” versus “infected” breeds stigma, negativity, and hopelessness. These negative connotations make getting tested, disclosing one’s HIV status, discussing methods of protection, and accessing and staying in care more difficult.