Charlie Sheen tackles HIV stigma but perpetuates stigma against sex workers

I applaud Charlie Sheen’s public announcement of his HIV positive status on national television, but it also saddened me.

I applaud Charlie Sheen’s public announcement of his HIV positive status on national television, it was brave because sadly we still live in a world of shocking stigma and discrimination around HIV.

This is evidenced not least by the fact that Sheen was basically hounded into outing himself by a media frenzy that, in general, has displayed deep ignorance around the facts of HIV, as well as monumental judgement of Sheen’s private life. Also, the fact that previous to his disclosure he’d been blackmailed by people threatening to out him is so striking, particularly when you ask yourself, would anyone be blackmailed into disclosing a cancer or diabetes diagnosis?

It is such moralistic and misguided judgements about HIV which only perpetuate stigma, and increase the public health threat by making it harder for people to get tested and access treatment.

This whole episode is particularly unfortunate because by forcing Sheen to disclose his status, perhaps before he was ready, he was put on the defensive and during his interview used language about sex workers – such as referring to them as “prostitutes” and “unsavoury people” – that only added to the overwhelming stigma they already face.

HIV, sex work and stigma

Sex workers, including in South Africa where sex work is criminalised, already face multiple challenges such as violence, sexual health risks, and little (if any) access to healthcare.

Although Sheen no doubt had good intentions in his decision to speak out and help reduce HIV stigma, it is a shame he couldn’t have done this without perpetuating more stigma towards sex workers.

Earlier this year I interviewed Nicole, a sex worker from Cape Town. She shared how being a young female sex worker in a country which criminalises sex work puts her at greater risk of contracting HIV. She is definitely aware and knowledgeable about safe sex and supports the idea of using protection but realistically speaking that is not always possible.

Getting hold of condoms can be challenging, as they are scared of going to local healthcare centers where they run the risk of being denounced as sex workers. Also, they are often offered more money by clients for sex without a condom, and for those on the poverty line turning this down may not be a viable option. And then of course there’s the fact that sex workers are much more likely to be subject to sexual violence. In South Africa, this is the case not only from their clients but also from the police. It really is tough out there on the streets for sex workers and I can’t stress enough the importance of decriminalising sex work and putting in place more programmes for sex workers in South Africa, particularly to help them access health services.

From social media, it is evident that many people are assuming Sheen got HIV from the sex workers and not the other way around. Frankly, how it happened is none of our business. But people need to realise that sex workers are not only at a greater risk of transmitting but of contracting as well. This notion that sex workers spread HIV needs to end and people need to start taking responsibility for their own actions, rather than blaming sex workers – who are often highly stigmatised, marginalised and vulnerable.

Watch Nicole’s story and find out about the challenges she faces:


  • comment-avatar

    You are misrepresenting Charlie Sheen. He did not, in his interview with Matt Lauer, perpetuate stigma against sex workers.

    The offending bit I presume you are referring to was spoken by Lauer:

    You wrote this to me in a letter, and shared it with me yesterday.

    “In and around this perplexing time, I dazedly chose or hired the companionship of unsavory and insipid types. (I’m imagining prostitutes.) Regardless of their saltless reputations, I always led with condoms and honesty when it came to my condition. Sadly my truth soon became their treason, as a deluge of blackmail and extortion took center stage in this circuit [correction] circus of deceit.”

    Sheen is pointing out that the ‘unsavory types’ took advantage of Sheen’s situation. It’s Lauer’s conclusion that they must have been prostitutes.
    Sure, Sheen does not correct Lauer’s slipup, but to put this on Sheen is unreasonable.


  • comment-avatar

    Created the greatest arsitlec, you have.