For years HIV has been stigmatized as a bad person’s disease. That it’s a virus only people who make poor decisions or lead irresponsible lives, or are gay even get. While there are many uneducated and judgmental individuals still holding on to those beliefs, thanks to the work of safe sex advocates and the bravery of HIV-positive individuals who’ve shared their stories with the masses, the image of HIV as a death sentence handed down as promiscuous karma has greatly subsided.
And then enter Charlie Sheen, the poster child for sexually indiscriminate, drug-induced behavior whose life almost reads like a list of HIV risk factors, announcing that he in fact has the disease and has lived with it for about four years now. Almost as soon as rumors spread that the actor would be announcing his diagnosis to the world this morning, an ex of his came to his defense, telling PEOPLE “He is not a monster” and assuring “He has regard for human beings and cares about people. I do not see him knowingly putting women at risk.”
When Sheen appeared on the Today Show his sole purpose appeared to be to disprove just what his ex knew many would think: Charlie Sheen is a monster. It’s not a fair label. Sheen told Matt Lauer he has told every single woman he’s slept with about his diagnosis and always wears protection, except for with the two women who were aware of his status and who were under the care of his doctor at the time. He appears more responsible today than we’ve seen him ever in life, but the one-liner that “I have a responsibility now to better myself and to help a lot of other people and hopefully with what we’re doing today others will come forward and say, thanks Charlie,” I’m simply not buying.
The Today show appearance came across more as a PR move than any type of genuine effort to advance the fight against HIV and AIDs. Sheen admitted he doesn’t know how he contracted the disease and when Lauer asked if it would be fair to say he engaged in every single risk factor known to cause HIV, Sheen said that would not be accurate, shuttering at the thought of using intravenous drugs. When all was said and done, I thought about the “big revelation” and thought, so what?
Viewers saw a victim on stage when Sheen disclosed his disease, a man who said “I have to put a stop to this onslaught, this barrage of attacks and of sub-truths and very harmful and mercurial stories that are about me, that threaten the health of so many others that couldn’t be further from the truth.” It’s nice Sheen has been given the platform to do that, but what does his coming out do for the men and women across the globe engaging in similar risky behavior and transmitting the disease left and right? Furthermore, the admission that he still battles with substance abuse, coupled with his doctor saying Sheen has an undetectable level of the virus in his blood gives off the impression that HIV is no big deal. On the stigma front that’s helpful but on the prevention side, not so much.
I don’t want to fall into victim-blaming myself, but it’s hard to believe a man in any state other than sober would always choose to wear protection before engaging in sexual activity. And this image of a helpless man claiming people are taking food out of his kids’ mouth to extort him over the disease simply doesn’t sit well with me. No one deserves HIV and if a lot of us are honest about our sexual health we’ve probably taken some risks ourselves, but the way in which Sheen’s risky lifestyle was glossed over did no one any favors, except himself, of course. Sure, this makes for juicy gossip in the mainstream, but HIV and AIDS are far too serious to be a headline of the day and tossed aside tomorrow simply because their isn’t a famous white face attached to it. Meanwhile, the overwhelming prevalence of the disease in the minority community is chalked up to hypersexuality and irresponsible behavior people like us are known for. I’m glad Sheen got the monkey off his back but if he isn’t here to help others do so as well, he could’ve kept his disease to himself.