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Depicting HIV/AIDS in young people

Suggestions for Depicting HIV/AIDS in Young People

  • Safer sex is often a dreaded topic of conversation among teenagers and their parents. Consider ways that your parental characters can successfully engage in those uncomfortable conversations.
  • In this week's Profile On, we learn that the HIV-positive status of Marvelyn, an attractive, athletic, young woman, often comes as a surprise to those around her,  and some people have even thought that she was lying about being HIV-positive. Consider ways to showcase a character who might surprise your audience with their HIV-positive status. They could be the popular girl at school who gets good grades and is in a steady relationship, or the starting quarterback.
  • Statistics show that most youth are not getting tested for HIV and a high percentage of young people have HIV and do not even know it. Think of ways to showcase your characters talking about getting tested and following through with it at a local clinic or doctor’s office. Try to mention that free and confidential testing is available.
  • The risk for contracting HIV starts when young people start having sex and/or if they start using injection drugs (virgins can be HIV-positive). Even non-injection drug use or alcohol use can put a young person at risk for contracting HIV, because these substances lower inhibitions and make people more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex. If your storyline includes a female character considering having sex for the first time, try where possible to include their efforts to do so safely whether it be purchasing condoms, getting their partner tested, or asking their partner about their sexual history.
Risks for HIV…

• Not knowing the facts or personal risk.
• Having sex.
• Alcohol or drug use with sex.
• Injecting drugs.
• Not using condoms.
• Not getting tested.

Certain factors may put young women at higher risk for HIV:

• Not being aware of their partners’ risk factors.
• Lack of power in relationships.
• Having sex with those who have had multiple partners.
In this issue...
HIV/AIDS in Young People

  • Suggestions for Depicting HIV/AIDS
  • A Message from Brian Dyak
  • Did you know?
  • Risk Factors for HIV/AIDS
  • Profile On: Marvelyn Brown [Real Story]
Brian NEW Headshot
A Message from EIC President, CEO & Co-Founder Brian Dyak

HIV/AIDS among young people is a heart-wrenching reality. This epidemic is still affecting young women and men, and startlingly 60% of all youth that are infected with the virus do not even know they have it, and run the risk of infecting others [Source]. Telling stories about young people with HIV/AIDS reminds your audience about the risk factors and that, contrary to popular belief, teens are not invincible or immortal.

As writers, producers, directors, and entertainment industry professionals, the stories that you tell can shape how people understand the world around them. By including a character like Marvelyn Brown, this week’s Profile On subject, you could not only engage viewers in an emotional story but perhaps also inspire them to take a look at their own behaviors and how they might be contributing to their risk of being diagnosed with HIV. You may also inspire someone to get tested, encourage a friend or partner to get tested, or start a conversation between a parent and a young person about the realities of this disease.

Did you know?

About 50,000 people are infected with HIV each year, and 1 in 4 is 13 to 24 years old. [Source]

HIV is transmitted from men to women much more easily than from women to men.

Younger women have a less mature genital tract that may be more likely to get tears or abrasions during vaginal intercourse making them more susceptible to contracting HIV.

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Women's Health


Profile On: Marvelyn Brown [Real Story]

An intensive care unit in Nashville, TN—2003marvelyn
A priest administers last rights to an unconscious 19 year-old girl with pneumonia and a fever of 106. The family is told she may not make it through the night. Just three weeks before, this otherwise healthy, vibrant young woman was playing sports, hanging out with her very own “prince charming,” and enjoying the joie de vivre that comes with being young, attractive and popular. The world was ripe with possibilities. 

After a few days, she regained consciousness, but the words that left her doctor’s mouth would bring her fairytale to a screeching halt: “You have HIV.” 

That was ten years ago, and the doctor who gave her the diagnosis couldn’t even answer the questions she immediately started asking. He said he needed to bring in the infectious disease specialist. 

The young girl, Marvelyn Brown, was terribly scared and panic-stricken. This former high school track and basketball star was always healthy, and never promiscuous. In fact, she was in a monogamous relationship with a man she loved and trusted.

Prince Charming
“He was older—23—looked good, smelled good. I was completely infatuated. I had grown up on Disney princess movies, and knew in my mind what it would feel like [to fall in love with the man of your dreams], and you feel it, or you think you do. No other guy had made me feel like that. In my eyes, he could do no wrong,” she said.

Marvelyn and her boyfriend usually used condoms. Except for the two times they didn’t. “One night, he came over and told me he didn’t have a condom. And from that moment, you know, I’m thinking, this is not such a bad thing,” she said. “This is my prince charming, the guy I want to be with forever. I thought the worst thing that can happen is pregnancy, and that’s not a bad thing. I wouldn’t mind having his child.”

Cold, Hard Reality 
Harsh stigmas surrounding HIV encircled Marvelyn within her first 10 minutes of being diagnosed
Marvelyn Speaking
Marvelyn engages in public speaking to promote understanding about HIV/AIDS
-- before she even fully understood what it meant to have HIV in her body. 

She was frightened about having an illness she didn’t understand, so naturally she turned to friends and family for comfort. “Right away, I called five people. One was a close, pregnant friend who was planning to make me the godmother to her future child. When I told her, she said I could no longer be the godparent, and she wanted nothing to do with me. My very own mother said, ‘You’d better tell people you have cancer.’” 

Not surprisingly, it took a while for her doctor to help Marvelyn make the connection between the diagnosis and the unprotected sex with prince charming. “I never for a minute thought I got it from him,” she said of her boyfriend. “He was never sickly.” 

Although she didn’t know much about HIV/AIDS, Marvelyn had indeed heard the term before. She associated it with white, gay men in America and with children in Africa -- the images in the HIV/AIDS chapter of her book from a Wellness class taught by a 10th grade coach. The words “sex” and “condom” were never even part of the unit. 

“I was an all-American teenager,” said Marvelyn, who was voted Most Athletic and was well-liked in high school. “I was normal. HIV and normal didn’t go together…or so I thought.”

Exit Prince Charming

With encouragement from her doctor, Marvelyn eventually turned to her prince charming to tell him the news. “He said ‘I’m sorry,’" and that he had found out about his own HIV status in 1996 but didn’t say anything about it because he still felt fine and never believed he was sick. 

Even more shocking, “Prince Charming” no longer wanted to even associate with Marvelyn because he didn’t want others to find out his status, and people were quickly learning about her status. “My disclosure made his diagnosis real,” she said, “And here I was, thinking we could still be in a relationship because we were both HIV-positive. Now I know that [the whole concept of] prince charming is make believe.” 

And then, both figuratively and literally for her present circle of close friends and contacts, Marvelyn adds, “Prince Charming doesn’t exist.”

The Accidental Advocate 
Immediately upon being diagnosed, everyone treated Marvelyn differently. “I had something no one knew about,” she said. “People were coming into my hospital room with masks on. When I registered for college classes, I had to register through the Disability Office. I probably wouldn’t have even shared my story with anyone if I knew about the stigma attached to HIV.”

She left home because her family didn’t understand HIV either, and things were extremely uncomfortable. In a strange way, it was the reaction of those closest to Marvelyn that helped move her toward educating others. 

 “HIV is not an adjective, so it does not define me. I think MARVELOUS would be more appropriate. I am not living with HIV. HIV is living with me."
-Marvelyn Brown
Local reporters who had covered her high-school sports career remembered her and her unique name. As word of her HIV status spread through the community, those reporters asked her to share her story. For a while she was reluctant, but, about a year and a half after she was diagnosed, she finally decided to tell people, "It’s not the way they think it is. I wanted to tell the story right.” 

Marvelyn was unknowingly becoming what she calls an “accidental advocate.” After the first story broke, media calls, emails, and others’ stories immediately started pouring in. “Things started happening so fast,” she said, “that I almost wondered if I was the only one infected [that] year.” 

Making a Differencemarvelyn cover
Marvelyn has become a motivational speaker, advocate, author, and founder/CEO of Marvelous Connections—an HIV consulting organization that works with the media to help to educate the public about HIV through PSAs, talk shows, and other programming. She has appeared on CNN’s Black in America, The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS’s The Early Show, and BET and MTV programming. Her story has appeared in Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, Fortune 500, Ebony, Black Beat and ESSENCE magazine.

Marvelyn also has taken her very moving, personal story to a worldwide audience by speaking at colleges, churches, conferences, and through her book, The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful and (HIV) Positive, published by Amistad/HarperCollins in 2008. Among her many awards is a 2007 Emmy Award for Outstanding National PSA. 

She continues to be shocked when, even now in 2013, high schools invite her to teach students about HIV/AIDS, but prohibit her from discussing sex or using the word "condoms." “They make the kids get parental permission forms to hear me speak, at the same time there are girls walking around pregnant in the hallways,” she said.

Marvelyn hopes that consulting with the media will provide an opportunity to show the reality of HIV, because she believes that the way HIV is portrayed on TV is more about entertainment than the truth. In fact, because of her vibrant energy and good looks, Marvelyn commonly experiences a reaction from others that she does not look like someone who has HIV/AIDS. “I’ll never forget this,” she says. ”Someone in Arkansas once asked me, ‘How much do they pay you to say you have it?’”

On many occasions, when she discloses her status early on in a relationship (before any feelings develop, in case he wants to walk away), many men in disbelief say, “If you didn’t want to date me, that’s all you had to say.” 

And, in reality, a lot of men don’t want to date her, purely because of her high visibility on a sensitive topic that still is surrounded by stigma. Still, she shares her status in the beginning of every relationship. 

“[My boyfriend] took the choice away from me, and I would never do that to someone else,” she said.

Looking Forward
Asked what kind of HIV-related programming she would like to see on television, Marvelyn thinks it is time for an HIV reality show, like an MTV Real World season where all of the housemates are positive. “HIV doesn’t stop. We still have to pay rent. We still have family problems. And I have to take eight horse pills a day that have such serious side effects, I need even more medication, to treat all of that.” 

Even so, Marvelyn lives her life with no regrets. “I thought I was invincible when I was younger. I didn’t know what I was going to do in my life, and I was irresponsible. HIV has given me a reason to live and to have self-esteem.”

Visit Marvelyn’s website,, for more information about her accomplishments, awards, consulting company, and the different ways she shares her story—and makes a difference—marvelously. 

 -Special thanks to Renata Simone-
For more information on Marvelyn contact 
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