Sheen’s HIV status is none of your concern

The ignorance surrounding the media frenzy around Charlie Sheen’s HIV status shows we have much progress still to make. Stephanie Farnsworth offers her take on the situation.


The fact that Charlie Sheen has been so hounded shows that we have stalled in our progress when it comes to attitudes towards HIV. I don’t know what has shocked me more – how blatantly the press have stalked Sheen until he was forced to publicly declare his HIV status, or the fact that supposedly progressive campaigners are using their own dislike of Sheen to attack him and raise support for their own causes. The fact that right wing conservatives in the media, and liberal progressives alike, are spouting such ignorance about the virus shows just how entrenched bigotry towards HIV still is in society.

If anything has highlighted the dangers of an unregulated press then it’s this recent story, where unscrupulous journalists have taken advantage of such a situation for their own personal agendas. A guy gets HIV and then is blackmailed for possibly millions so that it won’t end up all over the news. What kind of press is that? People’s private lives, and especially medical issues, are the business of precisely nobody. If you think you’re entitled to know anyone’s HIV status, then your arrogance is astounding. The papers are writing that he was “forced to admit” that he has HIV. First of all, he hasn’t had to admit to anything because being HIV+ is not a crime. This write-up also pays scant attention to the fact that he was quite literally stalked and threatened by the press.

If anything has highlighted the dangers of an unregulated press then it’s this recent story, where unscrupulous journalists have taken advantage of such a situation for their own personal agendas

The media hasn’t been this worked up over the HIV virus for decades now, in fact since Rock Hudson and Freddie Mercury’s health issues were revealed. The reporting was a mirror image from the 1980s (and even though it was The Sun, it was still horrifying) but I do wonder if there would be such shock if the celebrity had been a flamboyant gay man? At the height of the AIDS crisis, campaigners were relieved when Rock Hudson revealed his status, not for the fact that he was so unwell but because it meant that a very masculine guy who everybody assumed was straight would generate attention for a situation that had largely been ignored while thousands were dying. Hudson epitomised the ridiculous silencing of any sexuality that wasn’t heterosexuality. Rumours circled about him for years, yet no one would ever print or say anything. Not because the press was suddenly more respectful back then, but because writing that somebody was gay would be utterly unthinkable. When Hudson’s health status was revealed, it was the only way is sexuality could be acknowledged.

Hudson epitomised the ridiculous silencing of any sexuality that wasn’t heterosexuality.

This was an era when thousands were dying from AIDS and even obituaries would dance around the subject blaming anything (usually a mysterious “long term illness”) so that they wouldn’t have to print the word “AIDS”. The only articles that ever appeared were those examining the threat of HIV and AIDS to the “regular” population; meaning those who were straight, white, cis and did not inject drugs. Nobody cared because it wasn’t crossing over into a population that held all of the power in the media, politics and every day world. It was happening to people who were labelled perverts, junkies and sluts. So many died because it happened to people who, frankly, nobody cared about if they lived or died. The virus itself was a natural disaster – it had spread to thousands before anybody even knew of its existence due to its long incubation period. Yet the AIDS crisis was just as much a political and society disaster. The HIV virus could have been dealt with far earlier, there could have been medications developed far sooner but action was slow and there was little interest because the people who were dying were not a high priority for governments. I wonder how far we have progressed. People are shocked because Charlie Sheen does not fit the immediate stereotype of who people might assume would have HIV and soto explain it there has been a huge amount of slut shaming. The narrative that ‘good’ people can’t contract HIV is clearly still dominating.

The virus itself was a natural disaster – it had spread to thousands before anybody even knew of its existence due to its long incubation period. Yet the AIDS crisis was just as much a political and society disaster.

This case is also being used as an attempt to attack sex workers due to Sheen’s association with them. Let’s be clear: this is an attack on sex workers and not an attempt to support them. Those opposed to sex workers are using this story merely to bolster their own weak arguments, yet the evidence is clear: if you want to keep sex workers safe from contracting STIs then support protecting them legally. A sex worker isn’t going to go to a hospital or to a GP and express a fear that they have been at risk of exposure to HIV if they could go to prison for explaining the reason why. Furthermore, this again feeds into the idea that those seen as bad or immoral are the only ones at risk of being exposed to the virus, but I’m sorry to point this out to the bigots out there – viruses can’t tell if you’re a queer sex worker who burns bibles or not. Viruses constantly mutate to be able to spread from person to person as easily as possible. They don’t sit around on their own version of OkCupid to work out who is the best match for them. It’s why in certain sub-Saharan states HIV is spread largely by straight men who have extra marital affairs or who are engaged in polyamory; this is exacerbated by the fact that there is also a lot less access to condoms and little education with regards to safe sex, particularly as the Catholic Church is the fastest growing religion in the region.

The coverage of HIV is also completely at odds with the reality of living with it. Despite the hyperbole, HIV is a virus that can be brought under control by advancements made in medication over the decades. Life expectancy is almost equal for those living with HIV, to those who aren’t. Furthermore, there’s near silence on the fact that gonorrhoea  is actually more concerning from a scientific standpoint as it has become increasingly resistant to antibiotics. The biggest issue we have in this country with regards to HIV is that there are still thousands of people who are positive and don’t realise it. This is due to an amalgamation of factors: cuts to preventative work, very little teaching of it in schools and colleges, and the stigma that still exists around the virus.

There is also complete ignorance and entitlement when it comes to the idea of disclosure. There’s been a lot of talk of late about issues regarding disclosure and intimacy, particularly with regards to trans status. The fact is that nobody owes you anything. If in consensual sexual activity you choose not to use protection then that is the risk that you take. You cannot tell who has an STI just by looking at them. You cannot make those assumptions. If you don’t want to use condoms then fair play, that’s your choice but you can’t blame anybody for not disclosing their status when you knowingly took that risk. Your body, your choice. Condoms won’t even protect you from everything (not only because they can tear) as some infections are spread simply by touch and not the exchange of bodily fluids. The truth is that somebody with an undetectable viral load is extremely unlikely to transmit HIV even with unprotected sex. Their viral load however, is still none of your damn business.

You cannot tell who has an STI just by looking at them.

People will be wary of disclosing their HIV status for a variety of reasons and disregarding that and demanding that everybody should reveal their health status is a view based on hatred, fear and the same old bigotry that goes right back to the 1980s. There’s a reason medical records are supposed to be private. Coming out as being HIV+ can be extremely dangerous. Sheen was blackmailed over his status, and this is not an isolated example. Telling someone can be potentially dangerous. They might react violently, or could even out you to others, potentially putting people’s friendships, or even employment, at risk.

Just a few months ago, a charity accidentally released the names of service users who were HIV positive. It is vital for these records to be kept confidential because prejudice is so obviously still rife in this country. It is for safety reasons that people do not disclose. There are very few people in this world who would deliberately want to put someone in harm’s way. There are countless people living with HIV who want people to know their status but are terrified of what that response may be. There are also many who feel it is their responsibility to tell potential partners, regardless of what reaction they may face. There are lots of arguments over responsibility but that is for each person living with HIV to decide. Help build a society that is more accepting and understanding of HIV and then people may well start to feel more able to talk about living with the virus, but outing somebody who is positive is just as bad as outing somebody for their sexuality, and just as dangerous.

Help build a society that is more accepting and understanding of HIV and then people may well start to feel more able to talk about living with the virus, but outing somebody who is positive is just as bad as outing somebody for their sexuality, and just as dangerous.

I feel for Sheen. I’ve never been a fan of his but people are talking about him, and hounding everybody he’s been rumoured to have ever had sex, with because of something that should have remained private. What is happening to him is the result of nothing more than prejudice. This story serves nobody. If the press cared about preventing the transmission of HIV then they would be demanding more funding for preventative work, and they would urge more action in breaking down stigma so that more people can receive the support they need.

Follow Stephanie on Twitter (@StephFarnsworth)

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