This week, longtime actor and notorious bad boy Charlie Sheen revealed (via a sit down with Today’s Matt Lauer) that he is HIV positive and has been living with the virus for four years. Sheen’s admission centers on a torrid tale that involves a wild life of alcohol, drugs, partying and prostitutes. In fact, Sheen’s disclosure is reported to be the result of being bled dry by sex workers and others who’ve extorted over 10 million dollars from him in order to keep his HIV status private. He’s preparing for past sex partners to sue, one would assume because he didn’t disclose his status before (possibly) having unprotected sex with them.
Charlie Sheen does not need to become the new face of HIV or a cautionary tale about HIV disclosure. His public behavior, his “headline news” disclosure itself, reeks of White privilege. And as a friend pointed out in a recent post on social media, Sheen has a long history of abusing women—so how believable is his story of money hungry prostitutes and ex- sex partners anyway? Charlie Sheen will most likely prevail as the victim here; his wealth and Whiteness have already made him forgivable for many, many years.
Forgiveness isn’t always so easily attainable though.
Take the case of Black Lindenwood college wrestling star Michael Johnson, who wrestled under the name Tiger Mandingo. Johnson is serving 30 years in prison, essentially for not disclosing his HIV status before having unprotected (consensual) sex with various men on and off his college campus. In essence, Johnson could spend much of his life in prison for doing exactly what Charlie Sheen did. But unlike Sheen, there are no cameras or sympathetic viewing audiences to play up to, and one must consider how race impacts Johnson’s case.
Journalist Steven Thrasher concludes over at Buzzfeed, “The nasty racial tone the story took is not surprising, given Johnson’s charged nickname, his White sex partners, and research in Tennessee that shows the law punishes Black men more often (and more severely) for HIV-related sex crimes than it does White men.”
For public figures like Charlie Sheen, or even young college students trying to figure out how to live with HIV like Michael Johnson, HIV disclosure can be difficult. It can open a person up to any number of abuses—mental, emotional and physical. But disclosing ones HIV status can also be deadly, as in the case of a Black woman named Cicely Bolden who was stabbed to death by her sexual partner, Larry Dunn, in 2012.
Bolden’s murder was absolutely premeditated; a week after Bolden revealed her status to him, he went to her home to seek revenge. According to Dunn himself, after having unprotected sex with Bolden one more time, he stabbed her as she lay in bed. Dunn confessed, “In my mind, I’m already dead,” he said in the video. “She killed me, so I killed her.”
Dunn, however, didn’t test positive for HIV, even though he was worried Bolden had infected him and that he’d then infected his wife. Yes, Dunn was a married man having an affair with Bolden and consensual unprotected sex with both women. Bolden’s half naked, dead body was found by her 7- and 8-year-old children. Those commenting on her murder subsequently blamed for the way she died, over and over, for the way she died.
Do we really have to wonder why those living with HIV are fearful of disclosing their status (though we understand those infected certainly should do so before engaging in sex with new partners unaware of their diagnosis)? Although Charlie Sheen’s story is deemed more acceptable than Michael Johnson’s or Cicely Lee Bolden’s, each case presents certain social taboos that escalate judgment and stigma surrounding HIV.
Sheen’s supposed cocktail of drugs and prostitutes makes many believe he deserves to be extorted and made to pay his sex partners in court. When Michael Johnson was convicted, it was more for him being a “big Black gay buck” and having condom-less sex with “innocent” middle-American White boys than it was about him using HIV (and his penis) as a “weapon of terror.” Cicely Bolden was a woman having sex—sex with a married man—and obviously a whore for participating in both, so she deserved to die.
We are dangerously callous in our swift verdicts against the three people mentioned. We want them to pay for their HIV status, even if with their lives.
But the reality of the HIV epidemic, the true face of the virus, is heterosexual Black women, many whom believe they are in monogamous relationships with Black men. Professor and MIC contributing editor Marcie Bianco asserts:
The community most affected [by HIV] is Black women, who… compose a shocking 66% of all new diagnoses in the U.S., even though they make up 13% of the entire female population and only 6.45% of the U.S. This means that, as the Black Women’s Health Imperative observes, “One in 30 Black women will be diagnosed with HIV at some point in her life.”
For these reasons, Black women in particular need to be more concerned about their sexual health and realize that choosing to have unprotected sex with anyone could lead to an HIV diagnosis.
People living with HIV are not terrorists or monsters. They are, like all of us, seeking love and connection despite their diagnosis. Yes, people living with HIV should be responsible for how they sex, but honestly, so should we.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and soldier of love. Follow her musings on Twitter at @jonubian.