Women represent an increasing proportion of AIDS cases and anecdotal reports suggest some face substantial risks when others learn they are HIV-positive. The purpose of this paper is to describe women's fears and experiences regarding disclosure of their HIV status. Fifty HIV-positive women, ages 16-45 from urban teaching hospital outpatient clinics, were interviewed using an in-depth, qualitative interview. Eighty-six percent of the women were African American and 56% were current or former IVDU. At the time of the interview, 88% of the women had known their HIV status for a year or more. All but one woman had disclosed her HIV status to at least one person and 82% had disclosed to multiple people. Although two-thirds of the women had been afraid to disclose to others because of concerns about rejection, discrimination or violence, three-quarters of the sample reported only supportive and understanding responses to their disclosure. One-quarter of the sample reported negative consequences of disclosure, including rejection, abandonment, verbal abuse and physical assault. Disclosure-related violence was discussed by nine women (18%): two who feared violence were relieved to find a supportive response; four chose not to disclose their status because they feared violence; and three women were verbally or physically assaulted. Fear of mistreatment figured prominently in decisions about disclosure among this sample. That many women found supportive and understanding responses is encouraging. However, there were sufficient examples of negative consequences, including violence, to suggest individualized approaches to post-test counseling, enhanced support services for HIV-positive women, and public education to destigmatize HIV-disease.
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