There was a time when three simple letters carried the profound weight of impending death. Now, decades later, science has advanced to a point where the illness is no longer a death sentence and many sexually-active people regard human imunodeficiency virus (HIV) as an afterthought, or a specter of the past. And yet, recent news events prove we aren’t as progressive as we might think.
In an interview Tuesday morning with The Today Show’s Matt Lauer, former Two and a Half Men star Charlie Sheen announced that he is HIV-positive. The announcement has been greeted with a mixture of tabloid sensationalism and schadenfreude—Sheen’s antics over the past few years have inspired many a Saturday Night Live sketch. More notable is the fact that Sheen’s announcement is front page news at all. Even more alarming still, the actor said he felt pressured to publicly make the disclosure after being blackmailed by individuals threatening to use his status to launch a smear campaign.
“I have to put a stop to this onslaught, this barrage of attacks and of sub-truths and very harmful and mercurial stories that are about me, threatening the health of so many others that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Sheen told Lauer, noting that he’s paid as much as $10 million to keep his medical information a secret.
As a society, we should be deeply troubled by the fact that individuals—famous or not—are still being subjected to ridicule or shakedowns after confiding their HIV status. Even as Sheen’s public confessional has prompted renewed focus on his tumultuous past few years, his struggles with addiction are irrelevant. Unwittingly, Sheen has revealed how pervasive HIV and AIDS stigma is in mainstream American culture. Besides the terrible toll these stereotypes can take on individuals, misconceptions and fear mongering distracts from the reality of HIV/AIDS, making the illness harder to talk about, and therefore address.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), HIV is mainly transmitted in the United States through anal or vaginal sex, and sharing needles—methods of contraction that can affect anyone, not just gay men or intravenous drug users. Still, statistics show that men who have sex with men (MSM) remain the group disproportionately affected, with MSM representing 63% of all new infections in 2010. The rates of infection also disproportionately affect African Americans, regardless of sexual orientation, and African American heterosexual women remain far and away the most vulnerable group outside of MSM.
The illness isn’t something society at large should be afraid of per se. HIV, like any illness, isn’t something you ask for and shouldn’t be treated with contempt or disgust. No one would shame an individual for having lupus, multiple sclerosis, asthma, or any number of health conditions that require routine care. So why the different standard? The answer is rooted in fear and, yes, homophobia.
As the virus wrought havoc in the United States during the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, HIV became synonymous with being gay. This association has been hard to shake, even after several high-profile straight men came forward to disclose their diagnosis. Before Sheen there was of course Magic Johnson, a basketball star who, at the height of his career in 1991, detailed having unprotected sex with between 300 and 500 women in a single year, a revelation that accompanied his own HIV-related health announcement.
But that was then, and this is now. More than 30 years after the AIDS crisis first made national headlines, we need to finally come to terms with the reality of this disease, and the virus that causes it. I know firsthand the way lingering stigma continues to plague our understanding. Not too long ago, I dated man who was HIV-positive. The disclosure, whispered into my ear in a crowded bar, left me stunned for a moment. But only a moment. “Thanks for sharing that with me,” I said. “It’s not a problem at all, as long as we do what’s necessary to take care of ourselves.” The ensuing relationship—and sex—was incredibly fulfilling while it lasted.
Although the two of us eventually decided to end the romantic aspect of our relationship, I was glad neither of us allowed fear, shame, or stigma to prevent us from fostering a human connection that transcended health issues or what we enjoy doing in bed. Charlie Sheen doesn’t deserve our derision, or our pity. And the fact that he is still being subjected to either is a reminder that scientific advances have overtaken our progress from a societal standpoint. Unfortunately, eradicating this scourge will require both in equal measure.