As the world learned in 2011, Charlie Sheen is a notoriously volatile morning-show guest. So when NBC announced Monday that the actor would make a “revealing personal announcement” to Matt Lauer on the Today show this morning, the media guessing game took off in ferocious fashion.
TMZ was first to push the rumor that Sheen would be telling Lauer that he is HIV-positive, based on a National Enquirer story that claimed he had been keeping it a secret for years. What followed was a series of unsubstantiated media reports, many of which conflated HIV and AIDS and generally demonized what they suspected to be scandalous—and potentially illegal—behavior on the actor’s part.
“I am here to admit that I am, in fact, HIV-positive,” Sheen told Lauer, adding that he wanted to stop the “barrage of attacks and sub-truths” that are “threatening the health of many others.”
Sheen said he was diagnosed “roughly four years ago” after suffering a series of debilitating “cluster headaches and migraines.” He thought he had a “brain tumor” but ended up with an HIV diagnosis instead. “It’s a hard three letters to absorb,” he confessed. The Two and a Half Men star claimed that his much-publicized meltdown in 2011, when phrases like “winning” and “tiger blood” permanently entered the cultural lexicon, had more to do with “’roid rage” but came on the heels of his diagnosis.
The reason Sheen decided to come forward today, at least in part, was to stop the millions of dollars in “shakedowns” and “extortion” that have been draining the money he says he needs to help support his five children and one grandchild. Asked if he’s still paying any of these people, Sheen replied, “Not after today, I’m not.” Later on, Sheen revealed that he’d paid upward of $10 million over the years in exchange for silence on his condition, and that his financial situation is “not great.”
Lauer, for his part, asked a series of pointed questions that aimed to get to the heart of any potential legal troubles Sheen might face after making this admission.
“Have you knowingly or even perhaps unknowingly transmitted the HIV virus to someone else since your diagnosis?” Lauer asked.
“Impossible, impossible,” he replied.
“Have you had unprotected sex on any occasion since your diagnosis?”
“Yes, but the two people that I did that with were under the care of my doctor and they were completely warned ahead of time.”
“Have you, since the time of your diagnosis, told every one of your sexual partners before you had a sexual encounter you were HIV-positive?”
“Yes, I have,” Sheen said, adding, “No exceptions.”
“Have you been involved—if you look at the CDC website and they talk about the transmission of HIV, they talk about risky behaviors. Would it be fair to say that you have been involved in all of those risky behaviors?”
“Negative. You’re talking about needles and that whole mess? No, definitely not.”
“Do you know how you contracted the virus?”
“Sitting here today, not entirely, no. No.”
As The Daily Beast’s Tim Teeman noted Monday, speculation around the number of Sheen’s partners, and whether or not he disclosed his HIV status to them, has been at a fever pitch since rumors first hit the tabloids, with TMZ claiming that some are alleging nondisclosure, threatening civil action, and, in some cases, received settlements. During the Lauer interview, Sheen said that, given his history of being extorted, he’s expecting to receive lawsuits following his televised admission.
As Lauer noted late in the interview, these are questions with legal ramifications, given the partner-notification laws that, in many states, require disclosure of HIV-positive status to one’s sexual partners. As the Center for HIV Law and Policy (CHLP) notes, 32 states have HIV-specific criminal statutes, including Sheen’s home state of California.
Lauer’s fifth-degree questioning saw Sheen insisting that his conduct has been aboveboard, saying the rumors that he has threatened the health of his partners “couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
California makes it a felony punishable by up to eight years in prison for an HIV-positive person to have unprotected sex with the intent to infect someone to whom they have not disclosed their status. In the Today interview, Sheen conceded that he has had unprotected sex with two people since his diagnosis but claimed that they were under his doctor’s care and notified ahead of time.
Relative to other states—Georgia, for example, makes nondisclosure alone a felony—California’s felony statute is a high bar to clear as mere knowledge of one’s HIV status is insufficient to prove intent “without additional evidence.”
Although California’s HIV-specific legislation is relatively lax, the state does have a misdemeanor charge carrying a prison sentence of up to six months for willfully exposing others to communicable diseases, including HIV. This sentence has been exacted in the past, and relatively recently, too. As the CHLP notes, a 56-year-old HIV-positive man was found guilty under the willful-exposure law in 2012 and received the full sentence. But prosecutions under this statute are rare.
And, if true, Sheen’s claim that he has informed all of his partners ahead of time without exception would exempt him from any criminal prosecution.
HIV decriminalization advocates, however, would be quick to point out that people who live in states with stricter legislation may face criminal penalties for sexual behavior while HIV-positive. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, holds that HIV/AIDS exposure laws are “both bad public health and discriminatory,” given advances in HIV treatment and the social stigmas that continue to surround the virus.In 2014, the Department of Justice (PDF) noted in a best-practices report that many state’s disclosure laws “criminalize behaviors that the CDC regards as posing either no or negligible risk for HIV transmission even in the absence of risk reduction measures.”
“While HIV-specific state criminal laws may be viewed as initially well-intentioned and necessary law enforcement tools, the vast majority do not reflect the current state of the science of HIV and, as a result, place unique and additional burdens on individuals living with HIV,” the report concludes. The CDC has encouraged states to “re-examine [these] laws, assess the laws’ alignment with current evidence regarding HIV transmission risk, and consider whether the laws are the best vehicle to achieve their intended purposes.”
Asked at the end of the initial interview if he still feels the same “shame” and “stigma” of the HIV diagnosis as he did when it was first trasmitted to him, Sheen said, “Not anymore, I don’t, no.”
“I have a responsibility now to better myself and to help a lot of other people and hopefully with what we’re doing today, others may come forward and say, ‘Thanks, Charlie,’” he continued. “‘Thanks for kicking the door open,’ you know.”
In a follow-up segment, Lauer spoke to both Sheen and his doctor, Robert Huizenga, who said the actor has an “undetectable” amount of the virus in his blood after receiving strong antiretroviral treatment. As the CDC notes, the combined use of condoms and antiretroviral therapy reduces the risk of HIV transmission by 99.2 percent.
“Charlie does not have AIDS,” the doctor confirmed.
When Sheen said in the first segment that it is “impossible” for him to transmit the disease to others, Huizenga clarified that he meant when using protection for sex.
“Individuals who are optimally treated, who have undetected viral loads, who responsibly use protection, have an incredibly low—it’s incredibly rare to transmit the virus,” the doctor said. “We can’t say that that’s zero but it’s a very, very low number.”
Lauer wrapped up the interview by asking Sheen if he was going to “go out there and make this your cause,” assuming the mantle as the new celebrity face of HIV awareness.
“I’m not going to be the poster man for this,” said Sheen, “but I will not shun away from responsibilities and opportunities that drive me to helping others, and delivering a cure.”