The Cruel HIV Stalking of Charlie Sheen Takes Us Back To The Ignorant 1980s

Charlie Sheen has officially come out as HIV positive. He was forced to do so in the wake of shrill tabloid reporting that harkened back to the worst HIV-related ignorance and bullying of the 1980s.

11.17.15 12:40 PM ET

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with Sheen’s admission he is HIV-positive.

Did a time machine come and whisk me away? Is it really 1985 again?

It sure feels like it, as I waited for Charlie Sheen’s “personal announcement” to reveal that he is HIV-positive to Matt Lauer on Tuesday morning’s Today.

It feels like the 1980s, because of the nature of the speculation, which is purely prurient about Sheen basically being a man-slut, and how many people he has infected with HIV—and how knowingly has he done so, without disclosing his status to them. None of this is known—not Sheen’s identity as the celebrity, nor his deeds and misdeeds. But the hysteria is well underway.

Suddenly, in my mind, Sheen seems like the kind of hunted man Rock Hudson became, as cameras followed him being shuttled on and off planes as he became sicker and sicker.

The media likes nothing more than an ailing star—even better if HIV and AIDS means the story gets front-loaded with all kinds of judgment about their “lifestyle,” sexual and otherwise.

TMZ reported that several of Sheen’s partners contacted him to threaten lawsuits when they learned he was positive—and claimed he hadn’t disclosed his HIV status to them.

“Our sources say Charlie settled several of the cases and, in return for money, got confidentiality agreements,” TMZ reported.

via Enquirer

So, grab the pitchforks. What these stories omit or muddy is: Did Sheen, if he is the HIV-positive celebrity, have unprotected sex with these women (and men, says the National Enquirer) knowing he was HIV-positive (if that is indeed his status)? If he did not disclose his status to them, why didn’t he? And what risk of infection were they at with an HIV-positive partner? By all means ask the questions, but go easy on the judgment before you hear the answers.

This obviously takes it as a given that Sheen’s right to privacy has been thoroughly trampled, and that this is somehow acceptable: He has been smoked out of the closet.

The Enquirer is pissed. Their “eight-page special” about Sheen’s alleged HIV diagnosis hits newsstands Wednesday, but Sheen seems determined to scoop them himself with his Lauer one-on-one.

The Enquirer, seeing their scoop slip through their fingers, has a feverish front page, the result of much investigation, which promises to expose the “Ex-Lovers’ Horror—Did He Infect Them?” (including an A-list actor, whose face is blacked out on the cover; identity to be revealed inside). Plus: “He’s Slept With Thousands of Women—And Men!”

The headline is a throwback too—to conflating HIV, a virus, and AIDS, the disease that it can lead to, although much less frequently today than it did back then because of advances in HIV drug treatment, which Sheen himself has reportedly started. Some 1.2 million people died of AIDS in 2014, a 42 percent decrease since 2004.

A spokesman for Britain’s Terrence Higgins Trust told the Daily Mail that anyone diagnosed is “given treatment that reduces the amount of HIV virus to an ‘undetectable’ amount, and this means HIV cannot be passed on.”

But do not expect such sobering factual words to allay a media on full shame-and-speculate stampede.

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While the Enquirer headline screams: “Charlie Sheen AIDS Cover-Up,” the Enquirer also promises that Sheen will announce he is HIV-positive.

Being HIV-positive and having AIDS are two totally different things, and it’s a distinction that is over 30 years old.

Sheen will have his say with Lauer, and hopefully—as Caitlyn Jenner did with her own—take purposeful control of the narrative.

But so far, everything about this has a nasty reek of when the media stoked fear around HIV, and stigmatized people with HIV and AIDS.

It began with the classic guessing game of the days leading up to the supposed unmasking of Sheen on Monday.

Last Wednesday, the Mail teased us with: “Hollywood guessing game over lothario with HIV: Speculation mounts over identity of notorious womanizing actor whose hard partying ways have caught up with him.”

This was a neat piece of HIV-phobia, because without naming Sheen, the Mail and others like them had already shamed the celebrity in question. His womanizing and debauchery had “caught up with him” we were told, as if HIV was the inevitable punishment for said celebrity’s wild ways—a natural consequence.

But of course, the Daily Mail, the National Enquirer, and Radar Online have absolutely no idea how Charlie Sheen became infected with HIV, if he did, or—after his alleged diagnosis—what he might have told his sexual partners.

You don’t end up inevitably with HIV after having lots of sex; you can contract HIV through one unlucky sexual contact. Charlie Sheen’s problem is that his wild times are so well-known that an HIV diagnosis inserts itself into his story, with the careless tabloid author not stopping to question their own prejudice about how it got there.

The Mail does note that the then-nameless celebrity was “terrified” about how the revelation of his HIV status could affect his career, a fear that can have only increased when the ghoulish guessing game over the star’s identity went into high gear over the last few days.

It started on Nov. 2 with a Radar Online piece, which again conflated HIV and AIDS (“Hollywood Superstar’s Desperate Battle With AIDS Revealed”).

The real mystery is less Sheen’s identity, but why at that point—after salivating at their keyboards—Radar chose not to identify Sheen. Maybe they had his identity confirmed by “multiple sources,” but not Sheen himself.

Radar claimed Sheen—if it is he—had been diagnosed at least two years ago, told friends a year later, is on a drug cocktail like many with HIV, and while “devastated” by the news, had a good medical prognosis.

But of course, if this is Charlie Sheen, he matches the “lifestyle” (that word is back, everyone!) of the entertainer mentioned in the piece—one who had injected drugs and had sex with prostitutes; a “pal” (some pal!) told Radar, “He led a dangerous lifestyle. He’s learned this the hardest possible way.” So HIV is a lesson—if your “lifestyle” falls within the judgmental purview of another nameless human being, whose “lifestyle” we know nothing about.

The Enquirer, which claims to have conducted “an 18-month dogged investigation” (wow, hope outing a celebrity’s very personal illness was worth the cost, guys!), reminds readers they were first out the gate.

They want us to know they were on to exposing Charlie Sheen’s alleged HIV status to the world before anyone else, exposing originally “how a notorious Hollywood womanizer was hiding a deadly health crisis.” Though they hastened to note, “Our story—headlined ‘Hollywood Superstar’s Desperate Battle With AIDS!’—did not reveal Sheen’s name.”

Instead, it created a “firestorm of speculation over his identity.” Again, congrats: Hope you all had a great beer after that. A fine day’s journalism.

The drug-shaming and sex-shaming of this nameless celebrity has already begun, even before he has disclosed his HIV status.

And this is perhaps the most insidious part of the pre-announcement witch hunt, and at a time of greater ignorance 30 years ago it was even worse. The stories so far about the HIV-positive celebrity barely stop short of saying, “He deserved it,” just as the headlines and moral majority bozos of the mid-1980s said the same about gay men and drug users.

It is still a big deal, a huge deal personally and professionally, to come out as HIV-positive—it still requires courage. Just because HIV can now be treated more effectively than it could back then does not diminish the shock of discovering one is HIV-positive, or lessen the self-blame and feeling of stupidity, and the fear that others will blame or stigmatize.

If, like Sheen, you are deemed to have put someone else at risk of contracting HIV, you are assumed to be nothing short of a killer, long before anyone asks why you have behaved in the way that you did, or sticks around for an answer.

The Enquirer and Radar even serve up details of a text, supposedly from Brooke Mueller, Sheen’s wife from 2008 to 2011, saying how she couldn’t “handle” his HIV news, and how it possibly affected her.

This may be true, and may not be, but the media is already painting Sheen as a victim and victimizer, and not doing much of the necessary shading in of the territory between the two.

The headlines are all about secrecy: “how he hid the deadly virus for 4 years”; “spent millions to silence the truth”; “the leaked text messages.” Because, of course, the media wants to shame Charlie Sheen—and the language and tropes of secrecy does this most effectively—before it understands him, or understands people with HIV, or understands the psychology of living with HIV.

We really are back in the 1980s, typecasting the person in question here as fearful, a victim, a wild man, and a killer.

The HIV narrative will become the natural, told-you-so extension of the crazy-guy Sheen narrative that is so familiar.

So far, the media coverage of Charlie Sheen’s HIV diagnosis, or the diagnosis of whoever-it-is, confirms all the worst of that. Sheen’s past—most notoriously, his erratic behavior in 2011, when he was fired from Two and a Half Men—is being used as cause and HIV its consequence.

The wild times of Charlie Sheen and what happened to him are so far being played out as a morality tale, with an HIV-positive diagnosis the definitive narrative coda. Have wild sex, do drugs, and look what happens, kids.

This will do nothing but increase prejudice against and fear of those with HIV, to say nothing of the many who will look at the unseemly media-pile-on around Sheen, and be thoroughly discouraged from getting an HIV test themselves. Everything they fear about HIV—the doomful proclamations of the future, the blame and shame of others—is there front and center.

Suddenly the poisonous idiocy written about HIV in those horrible early years of the virus, where governments and bigots aligned to let many thousands die painful, stigmatized deaths, seems oddly present again.

This is bad enough in and of itself, but even worse when you consider that 1 in 8 people living with HIV are unaware of their infection; and 1 in 4 new HIV infections are among the young, ages 13-34.

The manner in which this celebrity HIV story is being covered will not improve those figures, not least in the example of this celebrity being unable to deal with the matter, as presumably he desired, in private or public in his own time and his own way—as many non-famous people in his situation would also desire to do.

Who he told, how he told them, and when he told them has been taken completely out of his control.

Those who should listen most carefully to Sheen are the tabloid press. As they rush to merrily judge, they should examine their moral compasses, and seek immediate acquaintance with the facts about HIV and AIDS. Only then they should write their copy and headlines.