Doing battle with "the monster:" How high-risk heterosexuals experience and successfully manage HIV stigma as a barrier to HIV testing

Marya Gwadz, Noelle R. Leonard, Sylvie Honig, Robert Freeman, Alexandra Kutnick, Amanda S. Ritchie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Annual HIV testing is recommended for populations at-risk for HIV in the United States, including heterosexuals geographically connected to urban high-risk areas (HRA) with elevated rates of HIV prevalence and poverty, who are primarily African American/Black or Hispanic. Yet this subpopulation of "individuals residing in HRA" (IR-HRA) evidence low rates of regular HIV testing. HIV stigma is a recognized primary barrier to testing, in part due to its interaction with other stigmatized social identities. Guided by social-cognitive and intersectionality theories, this qualitative descriptive study explored stigma as a barrier to HIV testing and identified ways IR-HRA manage stigma. Methods: In 2012-2014, we conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with 31 adult IR-HRA (74% male, 84% African American/Black) with unknown or negative HIV status, purposively sampled from a larger study for maximum variation on HIV testing experiences. Interviews were audio-recorded and professionally transcribed verbatim. Data were analyzed using a systematic content analysis approach that was both theory-driven and inductive. Results: Stigma was a primary barrier to HIV testing among IR-HRA. In the context of an under-resourced community, HIV stigma was experienced as emerging from, and being perpetuated by, health care organizations and educational institutions, as well as community members. Participants noted it was "better not to know" one's HIV status, to avoid experiencing HIV-related stigma, which could interact with other stigmatized social identities and threaten vital social relationships, life chances, and resources. Yet most had tested for HIV previously. Factors facilitating testing included health education to boost knowledge of effective treatments for HIV; understanding HIV does not necessitate ending social relationships; and tapping into altruism. Conclusions: In the context of economic and social inequality, HIV stigma operates on multiple, intersecting layers. IR-HRA struggle with an aversion to HIV testing, because adopting another stigmatized status is dangerous. They also find ways to manage stigma to engage in testing, even if not at recommended levels. Findings highlight strategies to reduce HIV stigma at the levels of communities, institutions, and individuals to improve rates of annual HIV testing necessary to eliminate HIV transmission and reduce HIV-related racial and ethnic health disparities among IR-HRA.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number46
JournalInternational Journal for Equity in Health
Issue number1
StatePublished - Apr 20 2018


  • African American
  • Black
  • HIV testing
  • Health disparities
  • Heterosexual
  • Hispanic
  • Intersectionality
  • Qualitative
  • Stigma
  • Structural

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Policy
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


Dive into the research topics of 'Doing battle with "the monster:" How high-risk heterosexuals experience and successfully manage HIV stigma as a barrier to HIV testing'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this