Empowered: Women, HIV & Intimate Partner Violence About

Empowered: Women, HIV & Intimate Partner Violence

One in three women experiences intimate partner violence. For women with HIV, it is one in two.

Intimate partner violence, including physical violence, emotional abuse and/or controlling behavior, is a major issue for many women in the U.S. Less often discussed is the concerning connection with HIV.

tonya504sqEmpowered: Women, HIV & Intimate Partner Violence is a 20-minute video featuring lawyer, producer and women’s health advocate Tonya Lewis Lee in conversation with five inspiring women living with HIV who have experienced intimate partner violence. By sharing their own experiences, the women seek to take away the silent shame many dealing with these issues feel and show there is a way forward.

Watch. Discuss. Share.

The Connection

Women who experience intimate partner violence – the most common form of violence against women – are more likely to be at risk for HIV. They are more likely to have forced and/or risky sex and may be less able to negotiate use of protection which increases the risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.


“I didn’t feel like I had choices or could make decisions on my own. This put me at greater risk for HIV.” -Vickie

For women living with HIV, the depression that often accompanies abuse can make it harder to keep up with medications and/or stay connected to care. Maintaining ongoing treatment is critical to the health and well-being of people with HIV. In addition to improving health, antiretrovirals (ARVs) – the medications used to treat HIV – also prevent the spread of the disease. To get the full health and prevention benefits of ARVs, it is important that someone with HIV stay connected to care and continue to take their medications as prescribed even if they don’t feel sick.

For some, sharing one’s HIV status may increase abuse or bring on violence. It is not fair for anyone to shame or abuse you for your HIV status. To find out more about disclosing safely, read more below.

Recognizing the Signs

lynnea504sqIt’s not always easy to tell if a relationship is or will become abusive, and not all abusive relationships looks the same. When you love someone, it can be hard to recognize the signs. It may feel like you don’t deserve better or don’t have a choice to leave.

“I never looked at unhealthy relationships and saw myself. The first step is recognizing that the situation is not okay.” -Lynnea

Some behaviors The National Domestic Violence Hotline identifies as signs of possible abuse include:

  • Controlling who you see, where you go or what you do
  • Embarrassing or shaming you with put-downs
  • Looking at you or acting in ways that scare you
  • Monitoring cell phone, social media and other communications
  • Preventing you from making your own decisions or working or going to school
  • Refusing to provide funds for the household or other basic needs
  • Telling you that you are a bad parent and threatening to harm or take away your kids
  • Pressuring you to have sex when you don’t want to or doing things sexually you are not comfortable with
  • Pressuring you to use drugs or alcohol
  • Using your HIV status to control or shame you
  • Keeping you from getting the medical care and treatment you need

For more warning signs, visit thehotline.org.

The first step is recognizing that the situation is not okay. It doesn’t have to be this way. You can get the support and care you deserve.

Disclosing Safely


Many people living with HIV have healthy and loving relationships. But for some, sharing one’s status can put them at risk for violence.

“Disclosure is a scary thing. But it’s also scary to hold this in and carry it by yourself.” -Gina

There is no one best way to tell someone. Similarly, there is no sure way to know how those you tell will react. When sharing with a potential sex partner that you have HIV, be prepared for them to have questions. They may need some time to absorb what it means.

Some things you may want to consider before sharing your HIV status with someone:

  • What kind of relationship do you have? What are the possible consequences of telling them that you have HIV?
  • Is it safe to tell that person or do they have a history of acting violently towards you or others?
  • Are there particular issues a person might have that will affect how much he or she can support you?
  • What is that person’s attitude and knowledge about HIV?

In most cases, deciding to tell someone that you have HIV is a personal choice. However, in the case of sexual relationships, it is a legal requirement in many states. It is best that you tell a partner about your status prior to having sex. Click here for more information on disclosure.

The Well Project, a leading organization supporting women living with HIV, has some advice for disclosing safely:

  • Share your status with your partner before becoming intimate. If a person feels they were put at risk or lied to, the risk of violence may be greater.
  • Choose a public place with many people around. Find a spot that is private enough to have a conversation, but public enough to get help if you need it.
  • Consider having a friend with you.
  • Bring your partner to meet with your health care provider.

If you are in a relationship when you find out you have HIV, you might have your partner join you at your health care center. Many health centers and health departments have services to help you disclose, even anonymously.

If a partner shares with you that they are living with HIV, remember that it shows they trust you. One of the best things you can do is to listen without judgment.

When a potential partner tells you they have HIV, some things to keep in mind:

  • HIV is not a death sentence. With antiretroviral (ARV) treatment, people with HIV can live a normal, healthy lifespan.
  • HIV is not spread through casual contact like holding hands, hugging, and sharing drinks or utensils.
  • If you have questions or need time to consider what they have shared, let them know that.
  • There are more options than ever to prevent the spread of HIV and keep you both healthy. Click here for more information about PrEP and here for more on treatment as prevention.

Getting the Care You Deserve

If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse from a partner, seek help right away. No matter where you are in your relationship, planning for your emotional and physical safety is extremely important.


“I am a strong woman, but I need help sometimes too.” -Maria

Visit The National Domestic Violence Hotline to find information about domestic violence, safety planning, and local resources. Call The Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 to find highly-trained, experienced advocates to offer compassionate support, crisis intervention information and referral services in over 170 languages.

If it’s not safe for you to call, or if you don’t feel comfortable doing so, another option for getting direct help is to use the chat services on The Hotline’s website. You’ll receive the same one-on-one, real-time, confidential information from a trained advocate as you would on the phone. You can chat on the website every day from 7 a.m. – 2 a.m. CST.

If you have experienced abuse, ask about trauma-informed care. This approach is about recognizing trauma and promoting healing in health care and social service environments.

michelle504sqIn addition to taking care of your emotional and mental health, maintaining good physical health is also important. Talk with your health care provider about getting tested for HIV and other common sexually transmitted disease as part of your routine health care.

“I found that there is life outside of this diagnosis. Life was waiting on me to find it.”

If you find out you have HIV, getting into care and starting treatment early will help you stay healthy. With ongoing treatment, a person with HIV can live a normal lifespan and have children without HIV. In addition to improving health, antiretrovirals (ARVs) – the medications used to treat HIV – also prevent the spread of the disease.

There are also more options available today to help you – or your partners – protect against HIV. In addition to condoms, there is now a once daily pill – called pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP – that is very effective in helping people who do not have HIV stay that way. Click here to find a PrEP.

Click here for more about staying healthy regardless of HIV status.

Additional Resources

National Domestic Violence Hotline
1-800-799-SAFE (7233) l TTY 1-800-787-3224

1-866-331-9474 l Text “loveis” to 22522
Chat online at loveisrespect.org

Planned Parenthood
1-800-230-PLAN (7526)

The Well Project

Positive Women’s Network USA

The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation

Community Toolkit

Click here to download digital materials, including social media graphics, a customizable flyer and more.

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Empowered: Women, HIV & Intimate Partner Violence

Intimate partner violence, including physical and emotional abuse, is a major issue facing women in the U.S. There is a concerning connection to HIV. Half of women with HIV have experienced abuse. Let’s end the cycle.

For more about this issue and resources for yourself or a loved one, click here.