When Matt Lauer asked Charlie Sheen in Monday’s Today interview whether he felt the stigma of his HIV diagnosis, the actor responded, “Not anymore, I don’t.” It was a brave reply but also a painfully ironic one, as Sheen’s interview displaced that same stigma onto the sex workers he has hired over the past few years.
In a letter to Lauer, which was read on air, Sheen wrote: “I dazedly chose or hired the companionship of unsavory and insipid types. Regardless of their saltless reputations, I always led with condoms and honesty when it came to my condition.”
Lauer himself later adopted Sheen’s old-fashioned and pejorative language, referring to sex workers as “unsavory types” that the actor “kept bringing” to his house.
The underlying imagery of the interview was straight out of a morality play, with Sheen holding himself up as a weak but honest man, besieged by seedy prostitutes who preyed on his vices and betrayed him. It’s a compelling narrative that plays well with a crowd, but it’s also deeply insulting to those sex workers, who have now been reduced to stepping stones in his emerging redemption narrative.
Sheen coming out as HIV-positive will likely prove to be monumental in terms of raising public awareness and challenging the shame that often accompanies a positive diagnosis. In the interview, Sheen himself acknowledged that he now feels a responsibility to start “kicking the door open” for others to come out behind him. That should be celebrated.
But sex workers shouldn’t have to bear the stigma that Sheen no longer wants on his shoulders. There’s room in the world for HIV advocacy that respects the humanity of everyone who contracts the virus, whether they make a living on a sitcom or in between the sheets. And, in fact, there’s a compelling argument to be made that so-called insipid and unsavory types deserve special attention in that effort.
For one, sex workers already feel more of the effects of HIV criminalization laws than Sheen likely ever will, although one of his exes, Bree Olson, has left open the possibility of taking action against him for an alleged failure to disclose his status.
As a report from the Center for HIV Law and Policy (PDF) notes, HIV-specific statutes in several states exact additional penalties on sex workers for being HIV-positive, even if no sexual activity takes place before their arrest. In many states, like Sheen’s home state of California, HIV-related penalties apply to solicitation as well as to prostitution itself, but, in practice, these laws disproportionately affect those who offer services rather than those who attempt to purchase them.
Of the 213 prosecutions and arrests for HIV exposure from 2008 to 2014 listed in the CHLP report, at least 19 applied to sex workers, only three to prospective clients of sex workers, and zero to wealthy Hollywood actors. Several sex workers listed in the report were arrested as part of undercover sting operations, and had their charges elevated to felonies due to an HIV-positive status.
One example: In 2007, an HIV-positive sex worker in California was hit with a felony charge after an undercover officer solicited her, even though she had condoms on her person and had not yet engaged in sexual activity.
Both Sheen and any given HIV-positive sex worker have had multiple sexual partners. Both face the same manageable virus, albeit with dramatically different levels of access to advanced medical care. But one is far more likely to see the inside of a jail cell than the other. Sex workers aren’t inherently “unsavory,” but they are unfairly targeted.
Sheen’s reference to the sex workers he solicited as “insipid” types, then, serves only to insert a useful rhetorical distance between himself and them. Sex workers become shadowy others in his narrative of a drug-driven descent into immorality. And as Mic’s EJ Dickson has already argued, this is a narrative that appeals to people who already stigmatize sex workers.
“Indeed, it’s Sheen’s former sex worker girlfriends who are currently being smeared on social media—despite the fact that Sheen himself told Matt Lauer he’s not certain how he contracted the virus,” she wrote.
One need only run a Twitter search for Sheen’s name along with derogatory terms like “hookers” or “whores” to see the sort of ugly anti-sex worker animus that erupts on social media in moments like these.
Sheen may not have blamed a sex worker for his acquisition of HIV but, based on the social media response, he didn’t have to. The letter to Lauer was enough to underline pre-existing stigma around sex work, and the public did the math for him. Now, there’s a hellish new wave of Internet and tabloid discourse about prostitution and sexually transmitted infections. This would have happened anyway, but Sheen didn’t have to stoke the flames with his poor phrasing.
In truth, the relationship between sex work and HIV is immensely complicated from a public health perspective, and it can’t be explained away through character denigration. It’s easy to deride sex workers as being “dirty”—or “unsavory,” as Sheen would put it—but it takes work to learn about the structural factors that cause this perception.
As the CDC notes, sex workers are indeed at risk for higher rates of HIV and STIs. But this risk is attributable to a wide range of socioeconomic factors specific to their work, and not to some sort of moral deficiency.
“Many sex workers face discrimination, poverty, and lack of access to health care and other social services—all of which pose obstacles to receiving HIV prevention efforts,” the CDC’s resource states.
In his Today interview, Sheen asked for sympathy because of the amount of money he’s had to spend—“millions” by his estimation—to keep his alleged extorters silent about his status.
“What people forget is that’s money they’re taking from my children,” he told Lauer. “You know, they think it’s just me but I’ve got five kids and a granddaughter.” If Sheen, whose net worth is estimated to be over $100 million, can ask for sympathy based on his financial position, surely he—and the public—should be able to understand that sex workers may contract HIV at higher rates because of structural obstacles, and not because of sexual immorality.
Indeed, the rigid association of sex with morality is the key ingredient of HIV stigma, and by reinforcing this tie, Sheen only stands to harm his own case. If Sheen wants to “kick the door open” and shake off this stigma, he should. But he shouldn’t shut the door behind him, either, and that means recognizing the humanity of the “unsavory and insipid types” he was so quick to judge.