Look, there are lots of reasons to hate Charlie Sheen, but HIV isn’t one of them. Just the fact of having HIV doesn’t mean Sheen passed it on to anyone–even when he slept around. Things to ask before jumping to conclusions about what it means, for Sheen or anyone else:
1. Is he on treatment? Has that treatment suppressed the virus in his body?
A major study that came out in 2011, featured in Positively Negative, found that people who are on treatment can have the virus so well under control that tests can’t even find it in their systems. This is called an undetectable viral load, and the 2011 study, HPTN052 found that just having a suppressed viral load can reduce the risk of transmitting the virus by 96 percent. Ninety-six percent! A more recent follow up to that study found that not a single partner of an HIV-positive person acquired HIV from their loved one. So it may be more effective than 96 percent.
2. Did he tell his partners he had HIV?
The narrative is that the women Sheen slept with were powerless victims of Sheen’s. The law says that Sheen and all people with HIV must disclose their health status to partners or risk jail time–that’s regardless of viral load, treatment or even transmission of the virus. It’s a hold-over from the bad-old-days of HIV stigma, when doctors wouldn’t treat HIV-positive gay men. HIV status disclosure has been linked to violence against women with HIV, in particular. So there are reasons people don’t tell. We are all implicated in the stigma against HIV because we let our fear and stereotypes get in the way. HIV is a virus that can be very well controlled and the people with HIV have bodies that deserve to be loved and touched, just like everyone else. Now, if that image grosses you out in connection to Sheen, fine. But let’s be real that that’s about Sheen, not about HIV. Personally, that was true for me with Sheen even before this announcement.
3. If his viral load isn’t undetectable, can you protect yourself from the virus?
We also need to let go of the old story that HIV-negative partners are powerless and will inevitably get HIV. That’s bullshit. Here’s the truth: There are two powerful ways HIV-negative partners of people with HIV can protect themselves, even if their partner isn’t on treatment, doesn’t have a suppressed viral load or (and here’s the kicker) if they don’t know their partner’s status:
PrEP and PEP. Stick with me, now. PrEP stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis, and it’s not a medicine so much as a treatment regimen. But here are the basics: You’re HIV-negative and you love someone with HIV. If you’re concerned or think it’s right for you, you can take a specific HIV drug called Truvada every day and your risk of acquiring HIV goes down tremendously. Like, more than 90 percent if taken consistently. Studies have found this to be true in gay men, in transgender women, in non-trans straight women, and in injection drug users. Some have called this a chemical condom. It works, and the FDA approved it.
PEP is post-exposure prophylaxis, and the idea is similar. If you’re a sex partner of Sheen’s and a condom breaks, or you find out your man has HIV the morning after you have sex, you can go to the ER or your doctor and ask for PEP. You’ll get a more powerful combination of HIV drugs that you’ll have to take for a few weeks. If you take it within 72 hours of exposure, your chance of acquiring HIV drops precipitously.
Boom. Protection. You don’t have to be (or feel like you are) a victim of someone with HIV.
But it requires you to know your partner has HIV. Which requires all of us to stop being jerks about HIV.
Look. There’s no love lost for me with Sheen. I find him annoying and worry about his mental health. He’s a man who needs help, and instead he’s treated like a sideshow. Let’s not treat him like a sideshow for HIV, too.