In a highly anticipated interview with The Today Show‘s Matt Lauer earlier this week, Charlie Sheen, the Hollywood ‘bad boy’ everyone loves to hate, revealed that he has been living with HIV for the past four years.
“It’s a hard three letters to absorb. It’s a turning point in one’s life,” a visibly anxious Sheen told Lauer about his struggle to accept the diagnosis. “I was so depressed by the position I was in [and] I was drinking way too much.”
Sheen was allegedly blackmailed for years, as those privy to his private medical condition threatened to reveal his secret. Considering Sheen — most famously known for Two and a Half Men, often-joked-about drunk videos and #Winning — has had a long history of abuse, violence, and misogyny toward women, many people have found it difficult to empathize, or even sympathize, with his tumultuous journey to publicly disclosing his HIV status.
Even during the interview with Lauer, the ways in which Sheen discussed sex workers and porn actresses reeked of patriarchy. Still, this abhorrent, unhealthy and often unchecked masculinity should not define how we treat people living with HIV/AIDS.
But…what if I told you that in admitting Sheen is a horrible individual, we still don’t have to devalue those individuals living with HIV?
It should come as no surprise that his exposure has led to reckless national conversations about sex, respectability politics, shaming, and stigma associated with HIV. This dialogue is not new. If statistics mean anything, then it is clear that we all likely know at least one person living with HIV/AIDS, and if they have not disclosed their status, it is important to consider if safe spaces are being created in which they can do so. Stigma didn’t start with Sheen and it won’t end with him, so it is critical that we remain mindful of how we’re discussing HIV and those living with the virus.
Even in 2015, there are common misconceptions about HIV and how it is transmitted. HIV is not what it was 25 years ago and we must begin discussing it as a health issue, not as a morality crisis. The chances of HIV transmission from a single sexual contact are small— at least smaller than people may realize. Even the sexual activity with the highest risk—receptive anal sex—results in transmission less than 2% of the time. And that is without taking into account prevention technologies like condoms or the advent of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).
With access to care, treatment, and supportive networks, people living with HIV oftentimes lead long, productive lives; yet, we are still discussing HIV/AIDS as if we don’t have advanced science, and like it still stands for the Gay-related immune deficiency (GRID).
Newsflash: It doesn’t.
This negligent discussion surrounding Sheen’s “risky” behavior as the cause of his diagnosis has led us to hyperfocus on slut-shaming. The stigmatization of those living with this illness comes by conflating multiple partners with the faux-concept of being “reckless.” When this happens, all we’re doing is creating an environment in which we believe people have contracted HIV for “good” and “bad” reasons, which also sustains a very real—and very unhealthy— hierarchy of sexual practices.
This hierarchy, as Charlene Carruthers posits, “[is] what further marginalizes and criminalizes Black folks and LGBTQ folks (including Black people who are LGBTQ) living with HIV/AIDS.”
People like Michael Johnson, a Black, gay man who I am in no way comparing to Sheen, was sentenced to 30 years this past summer for “recklessly infecting” one male sexual partner with HIV and exposing others to the virus. This trial, and others like it, often become perfect cases of an unjust legal system that intersects racism, homophobia, HIV stigma, and the criminalization of Black bodies. This is why “outing,” forced disclosure and HIV criminalization will always be problematic.
And that is reckless.
While treatment for HIV has significantly improved since the 1980s, shaming and stigma have not. No one deserves HIV—not Sheen, not drug users, not sex workers, not people who engage in condomless sex, not people who have sex with one person, and not people who have sex with 100 people every night for the rest of their lives.
Yes, we should admit that Sheen has a horrific past when it comes to his actions toward women. Yes, we must criticize Sheen for the way he slut-shamed sex workers in his interview and blamed them for his actions. But what we cannot do is continue to shame those living with HIV because of our outdated stereotypes and self-righteous, unfounded opinions. This is fear-mongering and it is wrong. Shaming or punishing someone living with HIV leads to neither prevention nor treatment. Asking someone how they contracted HIV is not going to advance how we help people living with HIV/AIDS.
We grow one step closer to solving this endemic when we use compassion, conversations not rooted in reductive stereotypes, [accurate] scientific research, and nuance. With this Sheen story, it is frightening to see how far we have to go.
Charlie Sheen should not become the face of HIV, a face in which we seek solace in believing that contracting the virus cannot happen to the “right” kind of person. We all have a role to play in eradicating the stigma and shame that surrounds this virus. We must lift some of the onus from those living with this illness and begin recognizing that engaging in safer sex is a shared responsibility that should never stop with simply asking, “What’s your status?” Accepting any answer given to us runs counter to that responsibility.
Sheen is not the enemy, at least not in this. He is neither the cause nor cure we need to push this conversation forward to a place of healing.
Preston Mitchum is a Washington, DC-based essayist, activist, and policy nerd. He has written for the Atlantic, Ebony.com, Huffington Post, Think Progress, and theGrio. Follow him on Twitter here to see just how much he appreciates intersectionality.