The pop star on trial for spreading HIV

Germany is prosecuting a singer for having unprotected sex. Is this justice -- or moralism gone too far?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 17, 2010 3:18PM (EDT)

Nadja Benaissa performs in a No Angels music video.
Nadja Benaissa performs in a No Angels music video.

It sounds like the stuff of urban legend. An HIV-positive woman knowingly has unsafe sex, putting her partners at risk for a potentially fatal disease. Yet German pop star Nadja Benaissa not only did just that, today she is facing up to ten years in prison for her cavalier sexual behavior.

In April, right before the No Angels singer was scheduled to perform at a concert, she was arrested and spent ten days in jail. She is now charged under German law for causing "grievous harm" to a partner who says he contracted HIV from her, and two other men she didn't notify of her condition. Sentiment over her case has, predictably, been as deeply divided as stories regarding sex and sickness can get. Writing in the Guardian, Edwin J Bernard called the trial "ineffectual, counterproductive and unjust," while commenters on the New York Times argued that "Any remotely decent person who is ill has a duty to take every imaginable precaution to refrain from contaminating others with ANY pathogen."

Accountability is a great thing. If you're going around doing things that could make people sick, why shouldn't you be held responsible? If Benaissa were a corporate giant poisoning the environment, wouldn't we fully expect there to be consequences for her actions? And if unsafe sex came with criminal consequences, might AIDS no longer be running riot in places with a shaky attitude toward condoms, like Uganda?

But the intersection between private practices and public safety is a strange place. Benaissa is not an Uzi-toting shopping mall shooter. She is a 28-year-old mother, a former drug user and a person living with HIV. In court yesterday, her lawyer read a statement that she was "deeply sorry" and "absolutely careless" in her actions.

Knowingly putting a lover at risk for HIV, and compromising the degree of trust that comes with sex, is an inarguably repellent thing to do. Last year, former Mets player Roberto Alomar settled a $15 million lawsuit from an ex-lover who claimed he has the AIDS virus and knowingly had unprotected sex with her.  But where do we stop in meting out punishment for the spread of infection? What if you have HIV and use a condom for intercourse but not oral sex? What if you don't immunize your kids? What if you go to work with your horrible flu?

Sickness is scary stuff. We look for reason and logic and somebody to blame when life goes off the rails, because maybe then our suffering won't be pointless. Maybe somehow, we hope, it can be tempered with justice. Hey, I'd to sue the sun for my cancer, but it's a bitch to serve a summons to. Yet there's something deeply unsettling about putting someone on criminal trial – especially a woman whose Moroccan and Roma heritage already distinguish her as an easy scapegoat in a country with a really bad track record on these things -- for her youthful sexual exploits. And we can't assume that responsibility for the health of the people we interact with is a simple matter of slipping on a condom for one or two specific acts.

Many of us who are sexually active assume that condoms are a part of life. But almost everyone who's ever left the house has engaged in some form of risky behavior. The fact that roughly half of all men and women will contract the HPV virus makes that pretty clear. The fact that it's entirely likely you've had a contagious illness, ever, does likewise. So before we go suggesting, as many online commenters have, that she's a "despicable human being" who should "be locked away in prison for the rest of her life," we should ponder if the world's jails are big enough to fit all of us, and who will take care of our children while we're paying off our moral debts.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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