Choose Your Words Wisely: Appropriate Language For HIV

Choose Your Words Wisely: Appropriate Language For HIV

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Choose Your Words Wisely: Appropriate Language For HIV

HIV is now considered a manageable health condition, yet the stigma remains disappointingly prevalent, even within our community. From the moment we open our apps, we see this ignorance is in plain sight, with words like “clean” and “DDF” (which means drug and disease free) tarnishing countless profiles.

This is unacceptable behavior and far too common. People living with HIV deserve to be on these apps without prejudice and participate in casual hookups just as much as anyone else.


People First Language

A simple way to address this stigma is to proactively recognize “people-first language.” This approach was introduced in “The Denver Principles,” a self-empowerment manifesto created and presented by the advisory of the people with AIDS Coalition in 1983. It declares that people living with HIV be treated with decency, asking for support when unjustly evicted from our homes, to receive medical treatment without discrimination, and to allow us to lead sexually and emotionally fulfilling lives.

As its name implies, people-first language (PFL) puts a person before a diagnosis and describes what a person has rather than what a person is. For example: we don’t describe people with cancer as “cancerous people,” therefore we should give people living with HIV that same consideration.

Words matter, and the accuracy in our language when discussing conditions like HIV is critical. The wrong terminology can be triggering and emotionally damaging. Since people living with HIV are at higher risk for mental disorders, it’s especially important that we communicate with compassion, since much of the stress associated with HIV is not caused by the condition itself, but by issues related to discrimination.

Errors in our language can also communicate and perpetuate misinformation. Unfortunately, much of the general knowledge about HIV and AIDS is outdated and inaccurate, and much of the language currently being used is reflective of that. HIV and AIDS are still being used interchangeably, despite there being an important medical distinction between the two. AIDS, for those unfamiliar, is the late stage of HIV, occurring when the body’s immune system is badly damaged from the virus.  If untreated, HIV can become AIDS in about eight to 10 years.


Why Language Matters

To help identify outdated and stigmatizing language, see the guide below for more appropriate phrasing.

Stigmatizing Language Appropriate Language:
“Catch HIV/AIDs, get HIV, HIV infection” “To be diagnosed with HIV, to acquire HIV, to transmit HIV.” HIV can be transmitted, AIDS cannot.
“Victims, sufferers, sick, dirty” “People/person with HIV, people/person living with HIV.” Lessens stigma by acknowledging the possibility of living a perfectly normal and healthy life with HIV.
“Do you have HIV? Are you poz?” “Do you know your status? When was the last time you were treated for HIV/STIs?” A more considerate and less judgmental way of inquiring about someone’s HIV/STI status.
“Clean” Never appropriate. This suggests those living with HIV are dirty.
“HIV virus” “Virus” is redundant. Use the term “HIV”.
“Infected” “Person living with HIV” (PLHIV, PLWH). Never use “infected” when referring to a person.
“DDF (Drug and disease free)” Never appropriate. Can be stigmatizing (even traumatizing) for someone living with HIV or using drugs.
“Full-blown AIDS” This phrase creates fear, reinforces HIV stigma and conjures thoughts of death. Use “AIDS diagnosis.”
“Safe sex” This term implies complete safety. Instead, use “safer sex” as it more accurately reflects the idea that choices made can reduce risk of HIV/STI acquisition and transmission.
“Drug addicts, drug abusers” It is better to use “person/people who inject(s) drugs” as it is PFL.
“Dirty needles” Stigmatizing language that suggests drug use and people living with HIV are dirty. Instead, use “shared needles.”
“Unprotected sex” Instead, use “condomless sex.” With the emergence of new highly effective HIV prevention strategies, we now know that condoms are not the only way to protect against HIV transmission.
“Risk” of transmission Instead, use “chance” or “likelihood” as “risk” is a scarier and more negative term.


Learn More

Want to learn more about all things HIV Prevention and PrEP, which reduces the likelihood of contracting HIV by 99%? You can get on PrEP for free and from the comfort of your own home with Q Care Plus. Go to their website to learn more and to get a free STI test, too!

Megan Standhaft

Megan Standhaft

Megan Standhaft (she/they) is a public health communication professional with 7+ years of experience in a variety of public health sectors, including water insecurity, domestic violence prevention, sexual violence prevention, and HIV prevention. They believe that creating relatable, fun, people-centered content about pertinent issues is the only way to continue driving change. Megan is also a public speaker, having the opportunity to speak at The White House Gender and Policy Council, The Jana's Campaign National Conference, the National Domestic Violence Hotline webinar events, and more.