top of page

It's a Sin: Exploring Dignity and Shame in Dying From HIV/AIDs

(Spoilers ahead)

It’s a Sin is a British drama miniseries that is set in London, England between 1981 and 1991. It depicts the lives of a group of gay men from all different walks of life as they navigate the HIV/AIDs crisis. They explore their own sexual identities through various relationships, and experience the challenges of being diagnosed with HIV. Overall, this series portrays the devastating realities of death during the AIDs crisis and the role of stigma.

A recurring theme in the show is the idea that shame accompanies HIV/AIDs in patients. This is seen when one of the characters, Colin, is diagnosed with the disease: he is immediately apologetic and states that “[He] is not dirty”. While it is established that Colin is gay, he is not portrayed to be as sexually active as the other characters of the show, and is never seen with a partner. There is a pervasive idea that sexual promiscuity amongst gay men is associated with HIV which is then linked to uncleanliness.1 People with HIV are thought to be dirty or impure which incites a sense of shame for the patient. Think about the way sexual health is talked about today; for instance, the question “Are you clean?” when asking about HIV test results.2 This implies that people living with HIV are not clean or less clean. HIV is therefore framed in a metaphor of cleanliness versus dirtiness which is accompanied by moral connotations of good and bad. This further stigmatizes the illness and opens up the space for the patient to experience shame.

Research indicates that shame has a profound impact on the diagnosis and treatment of HIV.1 It can prevent an individual from disclosing all relevant facts about their sexual history to a clinician, from presenting at clinics for STI and HIV testing, and from disclosing their HIV status to new sexual partners. This can have devastating effects on access to adequate care, and can ultimately lead to death.1 It can also serve to psychologically imprison people, which makes living with the illness much harder.1 After the death of one of the characters, Ritchie, his loved ones discuss the shame he felt as he died: “ ‘Cause that’s what shame does, Valerie. It makes him think he deserves it”.

“It’s A Sin” also touches upon the idea of people with HIV dying an undignified death. A key scene from the show is when the character, Gloria dies of AIDs and his family burns all of his possessions. As there was not a lot known about how HIV functions as an infectious disease, this can be interpreted as the family taking precautionary health measures. However, this also alludes to how families often did not want anything to do with the remains of their loved ones that died of AIDs. It was also not uncommon for funeral directors to charge extra fees for handling funeral arrangements for people with AIDS or refusing to do them altogether.3 People who died of AIDs were often buried in potter’s fields, which are common graves for the burial of the unknown or unclaimed.4 While these events may have occurred due to misconceptions about how HIV is transmitted, it also showcases how stigma surrounding AIDs led people to die an ‘undignified death’; one where they cannot be properly honoured or remembered afterwards.

Coming back to the title of the show, the word ‘sin’ has strong moral and religious connotations. When one thinks of the word ‘sin’, they may think of something that is wrong, impure, or undignified. Overall, the show illustrates how death by HIV/AIDs also embodies these characteristics, thus making it the ultimate sin.


  1. Hutchinson P, Dhairyawan R. Shame and HIV: Strategies for addressing the negative impact shame has on public health and diagnosis and treatment of HIV. Bioethics. 2018 Jan;32(1):68–76.

  2. “Clean” Is For The Shower, Not Your HIV Status [Internet]. [cited 2023 Apr 3]. Available from:

  3. Engel M. AIDS Victims’ Funerals Often More Expensive. Washington Post [Internet]. 1985 Oct 14 [cited 2023 Apr 3]; Available from:

  4. Kilgannon C. Dead of AIDS and Forgotten in Potter’s Field - The New York Times [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2023 Apr 3]. Available from:

47 views0 comments


bottom of page