Let's Not Treat Charlie Sheen Like a Criminal

11/17/2015 01:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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For weeks now, British and American tabloids have been circling the wagons. "Hollywood was gripped with fear," The Sun reported. No, a tiger had not escaped the Los Angeles Zoo. It was a celebrity on the prowl, instead -- a "superstar womanizer" reportedly infected with HIV. While major media outlets declined to name the celebrity, The National Enquirer prepared to go to press and tell the world that Charlie Sheen was living with HIV -- forcing his hand to reveal his status on the Today show.

Reading the papers these past few weeks, it felt like Mary McFly had taken us all back to 1989. The vast advances in treating the disease have gone virtually unacknowledged in news reports. Readers would be forgiven for thinking that HIV was easy to transmit and extremely lethal. But nothing could be further from the truth. Not only can people living with HIV live full and healthy lives today because of advances in treatment, but that same treatment has also made it nearly impossible for people taking it to transmit the disease. At a major scientific conference recently, one scientist responded uncharacteristically plainly when asked what the risk of transmission was for a person on treatment: "Our best guess is its zero."

If Americans understood the realities of living with HIV, Charlie Sheen's status would not be the stuff of frothy tabloid exploitation. Instead, they're fed inaccurate and deeply biased reports that characterize HIV as deadly and HIV-positive people as murderers.

This kind of outdated and stigmatizing language gets picked up not just by news media, but also by lawyers and prosecutors. Indeed, the tabloids are already circulating rumors that Charlie Sheen may face legal actions from his partners. In my own research into HIV-related prosecutions in the United States, I have found that judges and prosecutors routinely compare HIV to a deadly weapon, despite the fact that many cases involve no plausible risk of transmission. As my research reveals, an HIV-positive person can be convicted of a felony for giving a lap dance in some states in the United States.

Charlie Sheen should not be made out to be a criminal or a threat to society just for having sex as an HIV-positive person. That kind of language only serves to fuel stigma that can result in deadly consequences. Look no further than the case of Cicely Borden, a Texas woman who was stabbed to death by her lover after she disclosed her HIV-positive status. If we keep treating Sheen and other people living with HIV like villainous monsters, the effects will be predictable: more infections, more stigma and more Cicely Bordens.

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