Are you HIV positive?

I bet your immediate response is “absolutely not”. But do you know for sure?

News of Charlie Sheen being HIV positive doesn’t come as a surprise to many people. By his own admission he’s been promiscuous and indulged in drug use.

Charlie Sheen

That’s not to say he deserves to have contracted the disease, as some media outlets and small minded individuals seem to be suggesting.

When rumours began last week about a Hollywood A-Lister about to be exposed, many people’s first thoughts turned to Charlie Sheen. The reporting was dramatic and OTT, and in many ways irresponsible. Such furore serves only to remind people that HIV is still a very stigmatised disease, and does nothing to reassure those who have already been diagnosed that they are accepted in society. Of course it’s a big deal, and our thirst for celebrity news and gossip means that of course there will be interest in the story. But it would have been far better for the media to take the approach of here’s a guy who’s lived a life of fun and is paying a sacrifice for enjoying himself – let’s support him and use his story to educate and inform the general public that this could happen to them. Headlines suggesting Hollywood women were living in fear of who it might be and whether they themselves would be affected were clearly there to garner attention and sales. It was suggested that he’s been practising unprotected sex in the time since his diagnosis and deliberately putting people at risk. Now that he has come forward to tell his own story, he vehemently insists that he hasn’t.

Back to whether or not he deserves it. Only a nasty and sadistic individual would suggest that anyone deserves a life limiting disease (with a few exceptions, of course). No-one truly deserves to live their life with the shadow of disease and an uncertain future hanging over them; not least one that still has the power to turn a person into a social pariah. HIV isn’t sympathised with in the same way as cancer or heart disease. There is still a blame culture around it. Maybe people are trying to say that he openly led a life that put him at higher risk of contracting HIV than your average Joe. And maybe that’s true. But when you’re a world famous film star with money and a love for women and booze, who can honestly say they wouldn’t go crazy once in a while?

In truth it doesn’t matter whether he had unprotected sex thousands of times or just once. The risk may have been higher, the odds more against him, but remember this – HIV happens to people from one sexual encounter with an infected person, or one infected needle. Just once.

HIV and AIDS aren’t at the forefront of most people’s minds when they have unprotected sex. It seems such an uncommon disease; certainly not many people know someone who has contracted HIV (or at least someone who is living with it openly) and so we have that “it won’t happen to me” mentality. Unwanted pregnancy is still at the forefront of most people’s minds; perhaps followed by chlamydia. HIV isn’t talked about. It isn’t in the media and it isn’t in the mainstream, and so it remains this silent elephant in the room that we only consider when we’re faced with it, and then our response is to judge and condemn.

Shame on the people who have been blackmailing him. Shame on them for making him feel guilt and fear. Shame on them for perpetuating the misplaced rumour that HIV is a dirty disease. Shame on them for manipulating him into parting with cold hard cash to keep them quiet about his business, to the point where he has come forward not through choice, but through no choice.

So, what now for Charlie Sheen? Well, he’s now “the famous actor who’s HIV positive”. Which is a real shame, because it wipes out years of his career. Then again he’s been “the famous actor who’s off the rails” for a while, so perhaps it’s a long time since anyone thought of him in terms of his acting prowess.

Hopefully he’ll use his position positively. Because, like it or not, he’s now a figurehead for HIV. In every news article, whether about his illness or not, he’ll be referred to as Charlie Sheen, the HIV positive actor. It shouldn’t be the case, but it’s true. And so hopefully he can remind people not to put themselves at risk, not to put fun before being sensible, not to live a crazy life and screw the consequences. Hopefully he can show that HIV can happen to anyone; not just gay men, not just drug addicts. It doesn’t avoid you because you’re rich and famous. And hopefully he can help to destigmatise what is still an emotive and divisive disease; showing that it can be controlled with medication, that he can still live a full and enjoyable life, and that HIV most certainly is not the same as AIDS.

So, back to the original question. Have you ever been tested? I have. I found out that a boyfriend had been cheating with numerous other girls. For my own peace of mind I decided to get checked out for everything. And sitting there, waiting for the results, was petrifying. The duty of the doctor to tell you that, if the result is positive, you may never get a mortgage or health insurance (I don’t know if that’s till true, this was many years ago). That you could be discriminated against by your employer, your friends and even your family. That everything in your life will change.

It’s hardly surprising that people aren’t keen to share their news.

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