Charlie Sheen and the stigmatization of HIV

Image credits: Joella Marano via Creative Commons

Image credits: Joella Marano via Creative Commons

CW: stigmatisation of HIV, misogynistic slur, drugs mention, wh*rephobia, societal ‘othering’ of queer/trans/non-white people

Following the revelation that Two and a Half Men star Charlie Sheen is HIV positive, social media became a crucible of misinformation, dehumanisation, slut shaming and appalling ‘comedic’ remixes of his comments about #Winning and #TigerBlood on Good Morning America in 2011. It is pertinent to note that 2011 was the year in which Sheen was diagnosed with HIV; hence the language of headlines which have represented him as “admitting” that he is HIV positive reflects a society which is treating such a diagnosis as a springboard for gossip and ridicule.

It is troubling that while I can object against the language of “admitting”, this word is appropriate to use when one considers the climate of stigmatisation surrounding people living with HIV and AIDS (PHAs). Indeed, Sheen himself stated on NBC Today: “I’m here to admit that I’m HIV positive.” HIV is still seen as something which PHAs are forced to ‘admit’, or ‘confess’, and it’s not so much a ‘confession’ of their diagnosis but more a ‘confession’ that they have been punished for doing something bitingly unethical or downright dirty. Because, naturally, HIV is still seen as something contracted from cocaine-fuelled sex parties and ‘inevitable’ when one is promiscuous or merely associates with sex workers (as has been the focus in regards to Sheen’s revelation) – stereotypes which contribute both to the misinformation surrounding the condition, and the shaming of both PHAs and sex workers. But HIV is not caused by promiscuity nor by sex work. HIV is caused by the transmission of certain bodily fluids including blood, semen, pre-ejaculate, vaginal fluids, breast milk or amniotic fluid, but not including saliva, sweat, tears or urine. The particular dehumanisation of sex workers is why the US Public Health Institute Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claims that there is a fundamental lack of data for HIV rates among sex workers. Naturally this makes informed awareness and prevention of the virus far more tasking.

It is also worth drawing attention to Sheen’s facticity as a wealthy, white, cisgender, heterosexual male, something which adds to the ‘shock factor’ of his diagnosis, since HIV is commonly associated more with those in the LGBT+ community, those living in poverty, and people of colour. Certainly the National Aids Trust identifies that in the UK, 44% of people living with HIV are gay and bisexual men and 34% are Black African men and women. This is not to mention the high rates within the transgender community, with CDC revealing that in 2011, “a meta-analysis of 29 published studies showed that 27.7% of transgender women tested positive for HIV infection”, and that from 2007-2011 in New York City, of 191 diagnoses of HIV infection amongst transgender people, 99% were trans women. Hence the associations with shame and disgrace perpetuate a narrative of stigmatisation against those on the periphery of western society, coalesced into one ‘shameful’ mass due to their HIV-positive status, whilst a white cishet association with this group is seen as something scandalous and worthy of mockery. It is also therefore important to note that the misinformation regarding the reality of HIV (particularly in western society) is indicative of the neglect of the majority to dispel the rumours and stigma which surrounds an issue which disproportionately affects LGBT+ people.

Sure enough Charlie Sheen is no angel; yet, this can be divorced from his HIV status and does not provide an excuse to encourage a culture of shame around sex and HIV. This climate of shame only contributes to misinformation and dehumanisation which is conducive to discouraging people from disclosing their HIV-positive status to loved ones or sexual partners, getting tested regularly, or feeling able to live as confident and supported members of society whilst living with HIV.

Jason Okundaye (Get Real. contributor)


In a small but significant step to encourage reversing the misrepresentation of PHAs, this coming February, for LGBT+ History Month, CUSU LGBT+ will be running campaigns for HIV awareness and fundraising for charities to help combat the virus – which have been fundamental in ensuring that PHAs today are living long, healthy and fulfilling lives.

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