After something of a media frenzy last week, the truth finally emerged. Yes, a member of the Hollywood elite, an A-list star of TV and film was about to announce that they were, in fact, HIV positive. And, as we all now know, that person is none other than Charlie Sheen. The former Two and a Half Men star, no stranger to hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons throughout his lengthy career, admitted to host Matt Lauer on the Today Show that he had in fact been living with this condition for almost four years, (“It’s a hard three letters to absorb”, he told Lauer), only now choosing to make this public after being accused of ‘hiding’ it for so long. And now, obviously, we (i.e. the public AND the media) can all begin the expected tirade of gossip and finger-pointing. It must have been his drinking, his drug abuse, his endless string of affairs and relationships with women, and his lifestyle in general. How dare he keep this from us for so long- why on earth would he do that? In all honesty, it couldn’t be clearer. Charlie Sheen kept his secret to himself because of exactly what has now happened- the fact his revelation has shown us to be the terrible people we are in our reactions.
You may well have even indulged in the guessing game of who the celebrity could be before the news broke- before promptly forgetting about it. Charlie Sheen can’t, and won’t forget though. This news will effect Sheen and his family for the rest of their lives. The media scrutiny that has circled him for most of his career has now intensified in the days since his announcement that police have had to intervene to ensure his safety from the press and photographers. The only reason Sheen has come out and spoken about his health is because sooner or later, it was going to leak and he was going to be faced with an even bigger backlash than he’s had – and he cannot, he should not, be blamed for trying to keep this as private as he could, for as long as he did. Yet this didn’t stop some. He said when he revealed his HIV status to friends that “the truth became treason”, leading to what he called a process “blackmail and extortion and a circle of deceit”. Sheen alleges that he has paid “millions” to keep people, many of them ex-partners and even former friends and colleagues, from going public about his illness.
But the backlash didn’t stop there. A day after his announcement, an article was posted on the Mirror website and was entitled ‘The Hollywood actor with HIV deserves everything he gets – and worse’, lambasting Sheen’s private life, his relationships and generally voicing the opinion that this is simply karma for his years of decadence. ‘You deserve everything you get because you’re famous’. It makes me sick. The article even ripped into Sheen over his admission that he didn’t always use condoms, and therefore must have had unprotected sex. Genuinely, can every single person reading this honestly say that every time they’ve had sex they’ve used a condom? Even here in Cardiff, as Gair Rhydd’s own recent sex survey revealed, though 83 per cent of students said that they use contraception, 66 per cent said that they have had unprotected sex. Does that mean that everyone who has forgotten a condom deserves HIV? How the author of that post can sleep at night is beyond me.
One of the worst parts about this story is the fact that not only will Sheen have to suffer with this every day, like the other estimated thirty-five million people worldwide living with HIV, but that the stigma attached to it, that stretches back decades, tars him and others to this day. It is still taken at face value that HIV (or human immunodeficiency virus), is a death sentence- those who become infected immediately contract AIDS and die. This is not the case. In truth, it could not be further from it. Though HIV cannot be cured, the life expectancy for people with the disease has improved rapidly over the last twenty years, meaning that the life expectancy for someone living with HIV, who is on the same anti-retroviral treatment that Sheen has admitted to using, and responding to treatment, is no different to the general population. HIV can only be passed on through infected bodily fluids, such as blood- not through kissing, not through spit, not through hugging, and not through sharing cups or cutlery. You can criticise Charlie Sheen all you want, but ultimately, he is human too. He is not a celebrity immune from all sickness and pain, as is now evident, but deserving of compassion, as anyone else suffering from HIV would. However, it would also appear that he also isn’t immune from the kind of vile slander and hate reserved for the worst in society, simply for being ill.