Earlier this month Charlie Sheen announced that he is HIV-positive. The announcement was a desperate attempt by Sheen to escape the control of blackmailers who, according to him, had extracted upwards of 10 million dollars from him in return for not disclosing the fact that he has HIV.
HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus which attacks the immune system and weakens your abilities to fight infections and disease. It can be transmitted through having sex without a condom, sharing infected needles, or from a mother to her child during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding. Throughout his interview Sheen stressed that the levels of HIV in his blood were ‘undetectable’, meaning that treatment since his diagnosis four years ago has worked so well that the levels of virus in his blood are now too low to be measured. Current research suggests that those in the same position as Sheen are virtually unable to transmit the virus to others, yet a lot of people still believe you should never have sex with someone who is HIV-positive. This highlights the misinformation and stigma that surrounds HIV and the need for more education on the subject.
The fact that Sheen would pay over 10 million dollars in order to have his HIV status kept a secret is testament to the stigma that still surrounds the virus today, and his announcement would have been a perfect opportunity to begin a discussion around HIV and AIDS that worked towards combatting it. Instead national newspapers and websites have delighted in transforming what could have been a positive and informative dialogue into one of blame and hysteria, portraying Sheen as a sexually promiscuous drug monster who ‘had it coming.’
Before Sheen made the announcement there was already speculation mounting that a high profile celebrity was going to come out as HIV-positive. Radar Online blamed it on a ‘dangerous lifestyle’ that included injecting drugs and ‘high risk sexual practices’, proving that drug shaming and sex shaming is still extremely prevalent when it comes to HIV. When Sheen made the announcement, National Enquirer ran with the headline: ‘Decades of Debauchery have finally caught up with Charlie Sheen’, contributing again to the perpetuation of the (totally false) idea that the more promiscuous someone is the more they are likely to contract HIV. This is simply not true. Having a lot of sex does not transmit HIV; the virus doesn’t discriminate against people who have had one sexual partner or 5000.
And it gets worse. A columnist for the Mirror said that Charlie Sheen ‘was in just about every way you can think of, short of going to Lesotho (a country in southern Africa where 23% of the population are HIV-positive) to get laid, asking for HIV.’ The National Aids Trust lambasted the article, saying: “These statements actively incite hatred of people living with HIV. It is dangerous to encourage the, unfortunately still prevalent, opinion that only some people living with HIV are deserving of the basic human dignities of privacy and health.”
The choice made by many in the media to focus on Charlie Sheen’s lifestyle when reporting on his announcement is an extremely harmful one. It does nothing but fuel the stigma that HIV is something dirty that is only contracted by those living an ‘undesirable’ and ‘high risk’ life. This then stops people from disclosing their status to those close to them, and can thus lead to others getting infected. As Sarah Kate Ellis, the president of Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) says: “stigma prevents people from getting tested, it prevents people from getting treated, and it can contribute to increased rates of infection. In this new era of prevention and treatment, including methods like PrEP, the media must take this opportunity to end the stigma and shine the light on the stories of more than 1.2 million Americans living full lives with HIV today.”
Thanks to the efficacy of antiretroviral medications today HIV is a totally manageable virus, provided there is of course access to treatment. Even those that develop AIDS – which is only 0.3% of those who are HIV-positive in the UK – can recover and go back to only having HIV. Globally the number of AIDS related deaths has fallen since 2005 by 41%, and the number of new infections a year has fallen by 24%. The UN’s anti-HIV agency UNAIDS have said that if progress continues at the current rate, the epidemic could be over by 2030.
With figures such as these you would think that the hysteria surrounding HIV would be on the way out, yet the way that the media have handled Charlie Sheen’s announcement proves that we still have a long way to go before the hysteria and blame culture of the 1980s is well and truly behind us. As a society we should be challenging outdated stereotypes and encouraging a positive outlook on HIV. Knowing that you’re HIV-positive is not a shameful thing and should not be seen as such – it allows you to take steps to keep yourself and others safe.
[Louisa Burden – @burdisthew0rd]