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The reincarnation of HIV stigma

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There’s a powerful subtext in Charlie Sheen’s “revealing personal announcement“on the Today show that he is HIV positive in November 2015 — one that the media has missed but is critical to the public conversation about HIV/AIDS.

People living with HIV are accustomed to being publicly blamed for their condition.  The public tends to see these individuals as victims of their own promiscuous lifestyles and unsafe behaviors. Many of them live  double lives, hiding the fact that they carry the virus from even close friends and loved ones.

In her 1989 book “AIDS and its Metaphors,” Susan Sontag described how the social blame and stigma that was long associated with cancer was redirected at HIV in the late 1980s. The “gay cancer” was known to affect the specific community of men kept away in shady bars and sleazy clubs, far from the public eye. More than 30 years later, the perception of gay men has improved dramatically. But the public’s reaction to Sheen’s confession reveals the enduring stigma associated with HIV.

Public fear hasn’t disappeared. We now live in an age when Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), an anti-HIV medication that keeps HIV-negative people from becoming infected, is gaining more and more popularity, specifically within the gay community; however, public officials still think they should “come out of the PrEP Closet.” Public fear of the virus has also led to the criminalization of HIV. According to a 2015 report by the Center for HIV Law and Policy, currently, 32 states and two U.S. territories have HIV-specific criminal statutes. In 36 states, proceedings were brought against HIV-positive people for activities such as consensual sex, spitting or biting, although most of these cases involved only a remote possibility of HIV exposure.

Sheen, who is known for his R-rated (some would even argue NC-17) lifestyle gives the perfect back-story to stir up the stigma of HIV as a punishment. The media continually fuels public fear and shaming of those living with the virus. Unlike openly gay and happily married “Who’s the Boss?” star Danny Pintauro, who announced his HIV-positive status two months before Sheen on the Oprah Winfrey show, Sheen can easily be portrayed as the irresponsible sinner.

In post-Obergefell America, where gay men are perceived to be “tamed” and monogamous, it seems that instead of ameliorating the stigma around HIV, the media has reinvented it and created a new poster boy — the promiscuous, unfaithful straight playboy.

In order to really help fight the stigma, it would have been better to complement Sheen’s story with other varying stories that represent the realities of the many HIV-positive Americans who come from diverse backgrounds that do not fit the “promiscuous” label. Some of them, for example women of color who are disproportionately affected by the virus, unfortunately are being left out of the public discussion.

– Doron Dorfman

Doron Dorfman is a Bradley Fellow at Stanford Constitutional Law Center, a Graduate Fellow at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford University and a Doctorate (JSD) Candidate at Stanford Law School researching the intersections between Disability Studies and Law.

Contact Doron Dorfman at ddorfman ‘at’ stanford.edu

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