Matt Lauer Asks Charlie Sheen What You Should Never Ask Someone With an STI
Photo credit Samantha Okazaki,

I don’t want to talk about Charlie Sheen. I have spent the past 24 hours talking about nothing other than Charlie Sheen, and I am very aware that there are HIV activists and experts who can say whatever I have to say more articulately. No one “deserves” to get HIV. No one should have his sexual health turned into a headline. This is a hard week for sex workers, for adult film performers, for anyone living with an STI. This is about much, much more than Charlie Sheen, a man I don’t particularly like because of his erratic, violent treatment of women. I don’t want to talk about Charlie Sheen, but how we talk about Charlie Sheen matters.

How we talk to Charlie Sheen matters too. In this regard, Matt Lauer failed. Of course we wonder if Sheen disclosed his HIV status to his partners. Of course we wonder if he’s transmitted the virus. Of course we wonder if his addiction will impact his treatment. But here’s the thing: it’s none of our fucking business. His interview on the Today Show felt less like an announcement and more like a trial. Lauer asked questions laced with accusation, judgment and thinly veiled disdain. They hit the worst elements of STI stigma: dishonesty, recklessness, posing a threat to others. It was painful to watch as someone who has faced those questions herself.

“Have you knowingly or perhaps even unknowingly transmitted the HIV virus to someone else since your diagnosis?”

“Have you had unprotected sex on any occasion since your diagnosis?”

“Have you since the time of your diagnosis told every one of your sexual partners before you had a sexual encounter that you were HIV+?”

“Would it be fair to say that you’ve been involved in all of [the CDC’s] risky behaviors?”

The tabloids have been whirling with rumors about who Sheen could have transmitted to, and if he was disclosing to his sexual partners. I can understand wanting to address these rumors head-on. But there’s a difference between someone with an STI sharing that information willingly and having it pried out of them by a reporter. It is certainly possible that Sheen and his team went over the questions in advance, and that he consented to being asked them before the taping. But that’s not how it plays to the audience, and it normalizes a line of questioning that dehumanizes people living with STIs. Lauer also reinforced misinformation about how HIV is transmitted, what it means to have “unsafe” sex, and lent credibility to the wildly panned laws designed to prosecute HIV+ individuals who have had sex with HIV- partners without disclosing. The interview did a lot of harm.

Flashback to the scariest moment of my life: me on HuffPostLive.

When I became catnip for the Internet for the first time in April, I was invited on countless talk shows to talk about my article in Women’s Health. I reached out to media friends and received as much training as I could. I chose what programs I would work with carefully, grilling producers about the story they wanted to tell. Eventually I put together a list of questions that I refused to answer, chief among them being “How did you get herpes?” and “Have you transmitted to anyone?” Those are topics I am willing to cover, but only on my terms. I do not have to explain myself to anyone. I do not have to justify myself to anyone. I do not have to defend myself to anyone.

Watching Matt Lauer’s interview with Sheen was like watching my own personal nightmare happen to someone else. The most unsettling moment came when Lauer asked Sheen if he had transmitted HIV to any of his sexual partners. “Impossible,” Sheen said.

Lauer brushed this off. “We’re going to talk to your doctor with you in a second.” I can understand wanting a medical expert to discuss how transmission works, but the undertone of the question made me want to reach into the screen and throttle Lauer. I don’t believe you.

At one point, Lauer even read tweets criticizing Charlie Sheen to Charlie Sheen and asked him what he thought of them. I am sure Sheen has spent the last four years thinking the worst things possible about himself. That’s what caused the drug abuse and depression. There is no reason to repeat stigmatizing comments to a person with an STI. Absolutely none.

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I want to take a minute to thank the journalists covering Charlie Sheen’s announcement with grace, awareness and care. Mic has been leading the charge with intelligent pieces about slut-shaming, HIV myths, depression, and journalism. I also love this piece by Rachel Feltman at the Washington Post about HIV stigma and what our reaction to Sheen’s announcement says about us.

Finally, listen to people living with HIV. HIV Equal has been talking back to the media coverage all day. This is not only about Charlie Sheen. This is about all of us.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

7 thoughts on “Matt Lauer Asks Charlie Sheen What You Should Never Ask Someone With an STI

  1. Thank you so much for all your work Ella.

    I’ve been researching herpes for the last week after a girl I’m interested in disclosed to me that she is positive. I didn’t want to ask her a bunch of questions, I’d rather continue to show interest. Your blog has been very helpful to answer questions I have about life surrounding it, I now have a better understanding of what kind of experiences she’s likely encountered.

    Honestly I don’t give a shit either way, thank you for lifting the stigma

  2. I can say with nearly absolute certainty that all of those questions had been approved and answered prior to the interview. That, and the whole thing where I don’t have an STI, are probably why I wasn’t totally outraged by most of it. The obvious parts that you mentioned, like the doctor thing and showing the ‘you deserved it’ tweets were fuuuucked but even if every question wasn’t given beforehand, Charlie’s team had a whole plan for what he would say and how he would react if faced with certain things.
    Also the whole time I was mostly thinking about what you were gonna write on it.
    My question for you is do you/how do you think it’s different and do the rules change when this kind of thing is involving a public figure versus a random hella courageous badass blogger girl? Does the famous person have any sort of responsibility to the public? How does this compare to when the news broke about Magic Johnson?

    1. All really good questions. I actually don’t think a celebrity has any responsibility to the public when it comes to sharing their personal life and especially when it comes to their sex life. We need more people with STIs to come forward to lessen stigma, but that should be a 100% voluntary decision because it can be such a sacrifice. Someone like Charlie Sheen, who already struggles with addiction and mental illness, didn’t really need the public scrutiny of his life and his choices while healing from something like this. I have no doubt he would have stayed private if the National Enquirer and other outlets weren’t outing him. And I actually hadn’t been born yet when Magic Johnson came forward as HIV+, so I can’t speak to how they compare…. but I’m sure we’ll hear a lot of think pieces about it in the next few days!

  3. Charlie Sheen is smart. I mean, he’s stupid for going on a morning news show to make his announcement, but he is a smart man. You can’t be in his business and not have certain level of intelligence. He had to know Matt Lauer would sit on his high horse of judgement and ask the questions he asked. We all know Lauer is an asshole and we all know that the morning news shows are out for ratings. Hell, GMA is throwing a birthday party for itself. They’re shameless, these morning shows, and they’ll move from left to right to get people to watch. The segment before the Sheen interview they blasted state governors for their decision to not allow Syrian refugees into their states until they could be assured the refugees were properly screened for terrorist ties. They blasted the governors because they weren’t keeping with the inclusive agenda of equality for all. Yet, when Sheen sat down, Lauer treated him in the exact same way the program had just accused the governors of treating the refugees. They want it both ways, to stand in righteous indignation on either side, as long as it draws eyeballs.

  4. I absolutely respect Sheen answering the questions he knew Lauer would ask. All those questions were appropriate, too. I always ask sexual partners for recent clear test results, and if they act coy or as if it’s none of my business, they can find someone else to have fun with. I will not have sex with anyone who can transmit an STI, period. Everyone should be completely honest, as Sheen is.

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