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.
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.
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.