Nadja Benaissa is currently on trial for infecting one man with HIV and putting two others at risk. She faces charges of causing grievous bodily harm and attempting to cause bodily harm. If convicted, she could face up to 10 years in prison.
Benaissa's story starts back in 1999, when she found out that she was HIV-positive. At the time, Benaissa was just 16, and she told the court that she had already been addicted to crack for several years. "For two years I lived on the street until I was pregnant at 16," she explained. Despite her troubles, Benaissa soon shot to fame as a member of the girl group No Angels. In 2000, she appeared with the group on a television talent show, and for the next few years, life seemed to be looking up for Benaissa. No Angels had a string of hits in Europe, and the mother of one was no longer forced to live on the streets.
However, between 2000 and 2004, Benaissa allegedly had unprotected sex with at least three men, infecting one of them with the virus. The man she may have infected said they had a three-month relationship at the beginning of 2004. He claims he only found out about Benaissa's condition when her aunt asked him in 2007 whether he was aware that her niece was HIV-positive. Benaissa admits that she was "careless during those days" and told the court that she did not reveal her HIV-status to her partners. "When I was arrested I realized that the way I had dealt with the illness had been wrong... I made a big mistake," she said in a statement.
Mistake or no, some want to see Benaissa pay for her "careless" ways, while others argue that she should not be forced to take sole responsibility. A representative from Deutsche AIDS-Hilfe, a German AIDS service organization, told Time Magazine back in April that Benaissa should be released. "When it comes to consensual sex, whether protected or unprotected, we talk about shared responsibility," said Carolin Vierneisel. "The criminalization of HIV transmission, as shown in this case, doesn't support HIV prevention efforts. On the contrary, it fosters the stigmatization of HIV positive people." They elaborate on their website:
Intentional or negligent transmission of HIV is classified as bodily injury according to German law and is therefore punishable. Whether a punishment is actually imposed, however, depends upon whether or not the H.I.V.-negative person knew about their partner's H.I.V. infection and consented to unprotected sex.... You are not obligated to inform sexual partners of your H.I.V. infection in Germany.
And therein lies the problem. Should Benaissa really be responsible when her partner consented to having unprotected sex? Should she be forced to reveal her condition to every potential partner? Or is this asking too much of a formerly homeless, drug addicted teen?
German journalist Gisela Freidrichsen told the Associated Press that Benaissa did not reveal her condition out of fear—fear that she would hurt the band, and fear that she would become a liability for her bandmates and friends. Freidrichsen goes on to question whether Benaissa should be considered responsible for his actions: "I always wonder why there are allegations against a woman when a man doesn't use a condom," she remarked. Benaissa's former lovers all freely admit that they did not use condoms, so it is really just Benaissa's fault? When engaging in sexual activity—especially, one could argue, sex with a 17-year-old—it is up to the individual to make sure that they're protected. Considering the fact that the current standard of STD protection puts the majority of control into the man's hands, should a woman be charged for his failure to wrap it up?
On the other hand, the issue of consent becomes slightly murkier in this situation. While no one is denying that the sex was 100% consensual, I wonder whether it actually was. Not because Benaissa was so young, or because her partners were coerced, but rather because they consented without knowing all of the relevant details. If a Palestinian man can be tried for rape on the grounds that he lied about his religion, could a German pop star be considered a rapist because she failed to disclose her status?