Lauer’s response was sympathetic and thoughtful as Charlie Sheen cathartically declared that, “I have to put a stop to this onslaught, this barrage of attacks, of sub-truths.”
We recently covered the shift in social stigma surrounding HIV; Sheen clearly felt comfortable expressing himself to Lauer in a televised appearance only because general perception surrounding the disease has, for the most part, evolved from one of ignorance and disgust to understanding and compassion.
However, individual responses to Sheen’s announcement were more in the vein of slut-shaming—Sheen is not exactly a respected, or even well-liked, public figure due to his rampant partying, drug use, and infidelity, so the knee-jerk reactions appeared to consist of low-blow jokes and “he deserves it for sleeping around” sentiments.
Sheen has notoriously dated many professional sex workers, which is why the public is now linking his diagnosis back to that, despite the fact that Sheen himself does not know when he received the virus. This reaction is problematic for a multitude of reasons, most of which extend beyond Sheen himself.
Definitively tracing Sheen’s STI back to his relationship with sex workers perpetuates the misleading notion that STIs are solely contracted from contact with sex workers, or that receiving an STI is a result of “immoral,” dirty behavior.
It also leads to continued disparaging of sex workers, which is not useful in any sense; according to Jeremiah Johnson, an HIV prevention research and policy coordinator at the Treatment Action Group, “without discussing the broader context for why sex workers are at increased risk...we force them to be invisible." This invisibility “can put sex workers at a higher risk for contracting STIs, reinforcing the stereotype,” as EJ Dickinson asserts.
While Sheen has also received some encouragement and the general media consensus is one of support, he has been shamed more than other public figures would because of his promiscuous personality—this only reinforces false, derogatory ideas about the nature of STIs. Regardless of his past, to propagate the “he deserves it” narrative is detestable.
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