Opinion : Why Tyler Perry's Temptation Kills Women With HIV - by Naina Khanna

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April 19, 2013

Why Tyler Perry's Temptation Kills Women With HIV

by Naina Khanna

An HIV-positive woman argues the film preys on the worst fears of people with HIV.

Naina Khanna
Naina Khanna
I have been sitting with and following the reactions to Tyler Perry's Temptation over the last couple weeks. Within the HIV community, and outside of it. Within the feminist community, and in other communities of women. In communities of color, among reproductive justice folks, and outside of those spaces.

What has been most distressing to me is the way that Tyler Perry played on and abused the high levels of internalized stigma and oppression, evident in responses from women of color and women living with HIV with respect to the film. [In the movie, the character of Judith cheats on her husband and she contracts HIV from the other man.]

"She chose to leave Bryce." "She made a choice to put herself at risk." "She wasn't grateful enough for what she had, so she deserved it." "Harley is a monster, like the monster who infected me." These are only a smattering of the comments I've seen, read, and heard over the last weeks.

My reaction to witnessing the dialogue among HIV-positive women is the same motivation that originally drove a group of 28 women to co-found Positive Women's Network-USA in 2008, rejecting the seemingly widespread notion that women living with HIV were forever destined to be held up as examples and nothing more.

That our place in the HIV workforce, public health community and education efforts was relegated to storytellers regaling classrooms, legislative chambers, and church congregations with tales of our supposed guilt, sins, and transgressions, and, sometimes worse, of our supposed innocence.

Worse, women living with HIV seemed to largely accept our place in that structure. We are incentivized to be complicit in it for a $25 or $50 stipend every World AIDS Day and the occasional Sunday. How do you resist a paradigm when living on a fixed income and feeding your family—and even making sense of your own reality—may depend on your willingness to participate in it?

Watching Temptation was triggering to me, as a woman of color living with HIV, because it preys on the worst fears and internalized self-loathing of people who are most likely to be living with HIV. Tyler Perry's Temptation teaches that:
1. I'm a woman, so I don't know if or when I want sex. If I say no, I don't mean it, and when I say no, it's because I am trying to live up to a societal expectation that women should say no, even if we don't mean it. Therefore a man has the right to interpret my "no" and to rape me based on his decision that I did not really mean "NO!"

2. Men with HIV are sexually irresponsible, predatory and violent, and fail to disclose.

3. As a woman, I should be so afraid of the big bad world that I should not dare consider leaving my relationship. (Also, it's a slippery slope from teetotaler to using cocaine regularly.)

4. People living with HIV cannot even hope for loving relationships, let alone have them, no matter how long they live with HIV. Romance, sex, love, and children? Off the table entirely.
This final (and archaic) portrayal might be the one that most directly and thoroughly assaults the self-worth of women living with HIV. Patriarchy, family structures, and cultural codes teach us from an early age that women without partners and without children hold little stature in family and society, especially in communities of color.

Most women living with HIV in the United States are women of color and poor women, who already live at the intersection of multiple oppressions before their HIV diagnosis.

Thus, for a woman testing positive for HIV, or who suspects she may be HIV positive, motherhood and/or becoming a spouse or partner may be the only socially valued identity available to her.

If Tyler Perry's portrayal is real, and we are sinful, secretive monsters, unworthy of love and incapable of reproduction, what is the incentive for any woman to learn that she is HIV-positive and for any person living with HIV to disclose her/his status?

Research and data discredit every one of Perry's points about people living with HIV, not to mention the assumptions about who may be at risk for HIV. Studies show that the overwhelming majority of people living with HIV practice safer sex once they know their HIV status. HIV-positive people date, and more often than not, seem to disclose, and many are in long-term relationships with HIV-negative or positive partners and spouses. Oh, and by the way—yes, we can have children! (Hello, 1990s.)

However, the majority of folks who encounter people living with HIV may not know this information, and certainly the majority of folks testing positive for HIV do not initially have complete information, and thus Perry's portrayal is dangerous, deceptive and misleading. Perpetuating HIV stigma creates obvious problems in expanding HIV testing and ensuring that people living with HIV are in medical care and are safe disclosing to their partners.

But most of Perry's messages have already been largely internalized by women living with HIV, as evidenced in the troubling response among many HIV-positive women to Temptation.

It's just not that simple. Let me say it: It sucks to be cheated on or lied to. And sometimes people do irresponsible things, stupid things, hurtful things. Sometimes they thought about it beforehand and sometimes they didn't. It is irrelevant. HIV is not punishment for sins, bad behavior, insensitivity, irresponsibility, or naiveté. Lots of people do shitty things and do not get HIV. That is also irrelevant.

HIV is not something that "guilty" people get. It is not a punishment for cheating, lying, using drugs or alcohol, having more than one partner, not asking the right question, or not appreciating a partner enough.

HIV is also not something that people "innocently" get. HIV is a disease transmitted by four bodily fluids. Nobody "deserves" HIV or "doesn't deserve" HIV, just like nobody deserves or does not deserve cancer. And most of us didn't get HIV by having sex with the devil.

Also, love, eternal happiness, husbands and children are not shiny little prizes you win by being faithful or having sex only with the lights off.

Temptation is sleazy, trashy entertainment designed to profit by preying on our collective worst fears.

Innocence implies that guilt is possible, and guilt implies that innocence is possible. One is meaningless without the other. Allowing ourselves, as people living with HIV, to fall into any such dichotomy perpetuates the story that there are people who "deserve" a disease and its consequences—and worse, that it is permissible to hold any one of us up as an example to moralize. It's just not that simple. Let's not let Tyler Perry convince us it is.

But, there are conditions that put people at increased risk for poor health, and those are things we can and should work to change.

We ought to be angry with the laws, policies and norms that make it acceptable for companies to dump toxic waste in poor communities, increasing cancer rates.

We ought to be furious with the HIV criminalization laws, policies and social norms that make it challenging, even dangerous, to disclose one's HIV status. A bill passed in Kansas last month expanded authority of state and local health officials to quarantine people living with HIV. Larry Dunn's false beliefs about HIV led him to brutally murder his girlfriend after she disclosed her status. A man in Peru allegedly set fire to his HIV-positive gay son earlier this week. And over 32 states in the United States have laws criminalizing people with HIV at this time.

Countless people living with HIV and advocates throughout the nation are working to change these laws, bills, and stigmatizing beliefs. Among them, the Sero Project and the Positive Justice Project have advocated tirelessly to repeal laws and change policies that criminalize and stigmatize people living with HIV in the United States. The Positive Women's Network-USA has a treasure trove of resources produced by HIV-positive women framing a policy and communications dialogue that uplifts human rights and dignity.

Tyler Perry, on the other hand, exemplifies an irresponsible mouthpiece that preys on the fears, myths, misperceptions, and misguided policies we seek to reverse. Media has the power to change how we feel about ourselves and each other. Perry's messages keep people living with HIV closeted, fearful, and isolated. They kill us.

It is this fear of ourselves and what we represent that is depressing, that makes us slowly lose the will to live, to fight, to leave unhealthy or dangerous relationships, to take our medication, to get to the doctor one more time.

It is our own worst fear that Tyler Perry's portrayal of us—a story told over and over—is real, and that the best we have to hope for is a sexy, sweet, remarried ex who will ask us about our T-cell count.

And just maybe, the messages portrayed by Tyler Perry are the reason why many women living with HIV in the United States are not in regular medical care.

It takes a very, very long time to undo decades of media and public health officials and faith based institutions telling us that people living with HIV are getting what we deserve. It takes even longer to undo the internalized oppression that comes from colonization and slavery and displacement. And I cannot imagine how long it will take women to undo internalized sexism and its deadly consequences.

For the estimated 300,000 women living with HIV in the United States, Tyler Perry's Temptation preys on the worst of all that. For this, I charge him with at least 300,000 counts of self-doubt and recrimination, a million moments of fear and hopelessness, hundreds of failures to disclose, countless refused HIV tests, thousands of missed medical appointments, suicides, homicides, and setting us back in our HIV response for over than a decade.

Tyler Perry must commit to doing better. Call PWN-USA and the U.S. People Living with HIV Caucus before you make your next movie on HIV. Otherwise, someone, please take away that camera.



Naina Khanna is executive director of the Positive Women’s Network – United States of America (PWN-USA). This op-ed is her personal perspective and does not necessarily reflect the views of PWN-USA.

Search: Tyler Perry, Temptation, women, Naina Khanna


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  comments 15 - 29 (of 46 total)     << < previous next > >>

femaleassignedatbirth, , 2013-05-25 12:33:18
unfortunately, to many men on the planet, women are here to be baby carrying holes who kiss their ass and (if they're straight) deal with their inept and often painful "sexual desires". if they are gay, they simply find us repellent fish. meanwhile, women treat other women as competitors for the charms (ha!) of men as they skewer each others shoes and body fat (ooh, real important, huh?). women are getting hiv because they will do ANYTHING to please Mister Man--including condomless sex.

J. Benfado, , 2013-05-24 19:05:28
I have not seem Tyler Perry's movie and I'm allmost afraid to, but the backlash it seems mot have started against the negative connotations towards women infected with the virus seem positive if women are starting a dialogue about it rather than sitting on the issue. Tyler Perry should know better than to send this message out and I always thought he was "pro-woman," however, I do believe he has a few skeletons in his closets as it relates to homosexuality that have not been addressed.

Yolanda, Chicago, 2013-05-22 08:46:33
Temptations just showed one story among the thousands of situations that places HIV into the life of a person living with it. He just showed a stereotypical example. And there have been cases of men/women infecting people knowingly, so the story line was believable, but I just hated the ending. It made it seem like she was not in love, didn't have children, and lived a miserable life full of regrets. That is not how the cookie crumble in all cases.

Tari, San Diego, 2013-05-21 13:33:13
Excellent piece--thank you for sharing this!

Robin Webb, Cleveland, Mississippi, 2013-05-20 19:45:26
Naina, thanks for this this well-thought out, extremely well written piece. Perhaps your article will land in Tyler's hands. Believe it or don't, your points are compelling enough that Mr. Perry will appreciate them, ponder them, perhaps even be changed by them.

donnie, florida, 2013-05-15 19:49:44
omg. God bless you fro this write up. its amazing. tyler perry just takes advantage of other people's situation for fill his pockets with blood stained dollars.. why would he even write, produce and direct this temptation movie without thinking for a split second about the negative impact it will have on over 1million Americans? then he claims God in every of his speeches?

Vanessa, Phila, 2013-05-02 17:00:18
The movie was despicable.It was a marvel comic novel the characters had letters on thier chests and capes on thier back. The movie is clearly from the perspective of a person with no knowledge of the medical advances in hiv and much less aware of the harmfull stigma that is being bread into society. Hiv is certainly not something you want however it is here and it is a part of the lives of 30 million people.. Just because you want me to hide that I have it doesnt mean its not there.

John, Indianapolis, 2013-05-02 12:57:02
So, what does Tyler Perry say about what this is doing to our community, women, and all that deal with this virus daily? Thanks, John

RLM, Charlotte NC, 2013-04-29 23:32:35
I have not seen the movie, but from Ms.Khanna view of the movie. It sound just like a Tyler Perry Movie. After seeing 4 Color Girls I mad up my mine that I will never purchase and go to the Movies to see anything he makes. I am an African American single father of a 8 years old girl. I was married and had my daughter from a negative African American Female. I did disclose to my wife about me having the virus and i was accepted by her and her family, I been poz over 20 years N my daughter is 8

Scott G. Brown, Richmond, 2013-04-28 23:37:28
I was glad to see that Mr. Perry had moved beyond his "Madea Dramas" to a level seriousness as apposed to comedy. In "Temptation," he chose to touch on the HIV-AIDS epidemic among Blacks across the board. The Church do no want to talk about it, yet it affects thousands each year. My only regret is, it did not go far enough, but it did alert awareness about HIV in the last half-hour of the movie. It, definitely, will be a sequel because much was left undone. At 72 years of age, I am blessed.

Bart, Dallas, TX, 2013-04-27 09:15:20
So, did you like the movie?

robin chatmon, gainesville, 2013-04-27 07:57:57
you are Right it is not esay Living People Look down on you They Judge you And Think You Deserve this Illness It is A Hard Life if you don't Have Family in Your Life. I thankful I Do .With The Grace of God I Will survive

Velma, san diego, 2013-04-26 07:06:12
I was completely horrified while watching how this "tasteless, tacky" movie played out. For Tyler to have access to so many resources about HIV, how dare he portray HIV+ positive women in this light.

lori, dickinson, 2013-04-25 21:48:36
just read your article and you are awesome and seem to understand..i was almost 50 when i met my mate and day dated him on weekends for two months. we had the talk on hiv and other topics more than once. we moved in together months later and two yrs later he's sick and now i find out i am hiv positive to. he knew all along and last yr he died of aides and im now hiv positive and alone. the ultimate betrayal of my lover and best friend. i took care of him 'til his last breath.

Frederick Wright, Coachella Valley, 2013-04-25 21:37:25
Political, hum it is life about people and human beings or Drama, I am not necessary attacking Mr. Perry for it is his policies of his art I am debating and looking for this man to come up with part two to show leadership to change the past like Opry in her works and other great Hollywood Leadership. Yes and what is the community going to do about it, just laugh it off and be a door matt for generation to generation. Come on Sister stand up and speak truth to power don't lie down and take it.

comments 15 - 29 (of 46 total)     << < previous next > >>


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