Must we assume Sheen’s partners are passive victims of some kind of HIV monster?
BY LISA BARROW
Charlie Sheen’s recent acknowledgment of his HIV-positive status on NBC’s “Today” show may seem like the last thing we ought to worry about. Between the Syrian refugee crisis, bombings around the world and the ongoing electoral shit show, why should we devote a single brain cell to the health problems of an unapologetically degenerate celebrity? Especially one who’s just as famous for offscreen recklessness and domestic violence as for his waning television and film career.
For better or worse, Sheen is the latest, most recognizable public face of a condition that affects 35 million adults and children worldwide, according to estimates from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS).
In the US alone, the CDC puts the number of AIDS cases at 1.2 million. The New Mexico Department of Health reports the latest numbers as 3,114 for our state, mostly in Albuquerque. These numbers make the public response to Sheen’s announcement a telling – and at times, chilling – one.
One of the biggest barriers to the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of HIV today is stigma. Scrolling through comment threads on the hundreds of articles posted by news and entertainment websites in the wake of Sheen’s disclosure reveals that, amid plenty of sincere well-wishing, a significant percentage of the public is stuck in 1988 when it comes to their attitudes and prejudices about HIV.
Many commenters suggest that HIV is the inevitable outcome of having lots of sex and doing lots of drugs. (It’s not.) Some paint it as a sort of karmic retribution – a reaping of what’s been sown. (Not that either.) Others posit that it proves Sheen engaged in homosexual sex. (Who cares? But again, that’s totally not how it works.)
As the CDC notes, “Early identification of [HIV] infection empowers individuals to take action that benefits both their own health and the public health.” But stigmatizing those with HIV – precisely what people are doing when they spew this hateful, ignorant garbage as comments online – is precisely what keeps people from getting tested in the first place.
Sheen is, by all indications, a violent misogynist whose rampant self-destructiveness and delusions of grandeur cost him a job that reportedly paid around $1.8 million per episode. I’m not exactly a fan. But that doesn’t mean we need to pass judgment on the guy for contracting a virus that literally anyone can get.
I asked Sashua Patton, the executive director of Alianza of New Mexico, which provides programs and services to New Mexicans living with or affected by HIV, to help out with some facts. (Patton also happens to be my cousin.) “Men, women, gay [and] straight” can all acquire the virus, Patton says. “HIV does not discriminate.” Contracting HIV doesn’t say anything about what kind of person you are or what your morals are. As she points out, “HIV is present in blood, sex fluids (pre-cum, cum, vaginal fluids and anal fluids) and breast milk.”
Getting HIV-positive blood in a cut on your hand can lead to infection. Having an HIV-positive mother can mean being born with the virus. This doesn’t mean that behavior is divorced from the spread of HIV. As Patton explains, “Having sex with anyone, when you don’t know their status, is a risk. Multiply a single partner with unknown HIV status by any number of partners, and that risk increases. This is true for any gender identity, sexual preference, age, race or ethnicity.” But we’re talking risk here, not absolutes. Some people engage in risky behaviors and never contract HIV; it’s also possible to become infected the first time you have sex.
In the “Today” interview, Matt Lauer leaned heavily on Sheen about his partners. But must we assume Sheen’s partners are passive victims of some kind of HIV monster? “When we see partners where one is HIV positive and the other is negative, we say they are a magnetic couple. I have never viewed the negative partner in a magnetic relationship as a victim,” says Patton. “That’s ridiculous. There are millions of magnetic partnerships. There have been for years. Proper self-care, knowledge of which behaviors (sexual or other) might put you at risk for contracting HIV, and knowledge and practice of prevention methods help keep negative partners negative.”
It’s also crucial to acknowledge how far medical knowledge has come since the 1980s. “Now,” says Patton, “with the introduction of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) the risk of infection is even lower.” PrEP involves taking a specific, FDA-approved drug that dramatically lowers the chance an HIV-negative partner will become infected. There’s also PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis), a drug regimen that, if taken within 72 hours of exposure (because, say, a condom broke), can prevent the virus’ spread.
As discussed at length in Sheen’s interview, modern-day drugs can reduce the amount of HIV virus in the blood to “undetectable” levels. “The less virus present in the blood, the less likely transmission becomes, and the less damage is being done to the person living with HIV by the virus,” says Patton.
The first cases of HIV – then known as gay-related immune deficiency or GRID – were reported in 1981. None of this is new. Yet until confronted with this reality by a vulgar white celebrity, you’d think everyone woke up on Nov. 17, 2015 completely unaware that millions have been living with, dying of and grappling with HIV for the past 34 years.
Here’s hoping that Sheen, faced with the prospect of being a spokesperson, will live up to his own assessment: “I have a responsibility now to better myself and to help a lot of other people.” That’s good advice, and I know some Internet commenters who ought take this suggestion to heart.
Lisa Barrow is a member of the Dirt City Writers collective and most recently served as arts & lit and web editor at Weekly Alibi. Find her on the interwebs at facebook.com/LisaBarrowLikesWords.