FOR many people with HIV, one part of yesterday’s sensational Charlie Sheen interview resonated particularly strongly.
“I always led with condoms and honesty when it came to my condition,” Sheen said.
While few of us make such a lucrative target for blackmail as a Hollywood star, Sheen’s story of disclosure followed by betrayal echoes an experience that is all too common to people with HIV. Stigma remains a real force in our lives, and people who disclose their status sometimes face extortion, threats of criminalisation, unwelcome exposure of their HIV status, and even violence if they disclose.
Simon* called me late last year in an agitated state. A successful banker, he’d hooked up with a guy online and invited him around to his apartment – he told him before they hooked up about his positive HIV status. There were drugs involved. Midway through having sex, the other guy’s demeanour suddenly changed.
“I know who you are,” the other guy said. “I found your Facebook profile and I know where you work. I’m going to tell your employer you are HIV-positive and that you inject drugs, unless you give me money now. And I’m going to tell the police you never told me you were positive before we had sex.”
Simon, in a panic and under the influence of drugs, agreed. He let the other guy take him to an ATM, where he got rolled for $1000.
In Sydney in 1991, Felipe Flores, who was 27, met a guy at the Exchange Hotel. The two left together, and stopped in a park in Woolloomooloo where they briefly had oral sex. Flores told the other man, Paul Armstrong, that he was HIV-positive. Armstrong flew into a rage and bashed Flores so violently that his liver was almost split in two, then left him to die in the park, with his pants around his ankles. Last year, Armstrong was sentenced to just 13 years’ jail for Flores’ manslaughter.
More common is the unwanted exposure of your HIV status. I’ve spoken with guys in Newcastle, Adelaide and Brisbane who told me they would never tell anyone their status unless they were absolutely sure they could trust them. The smaller the city, the bigger the risk that your HIV status would get circulated publicly, via a network of gossip and whispers. “You’re lucky you’re in a relationship, because coming out as HIV in this town is social and sexual suicide,” one guy told me when I was living in Newcastle a few years ago.
Another friend, Theo, had his status disclosed on Facebook. Someone (he still doesn’t know who) hacked his Facebook account and announced his HIV status to the world. His mum, his dad, his friends – everybody saw it. Once your privacy is taken away from you, you can never get it back.
People living with HIV rightly want to control who knows about their HIV status, because there’s always the risk your status will be disclosed to others without your consent, or that you’ll be targeted in one way or another. It’s a process that simultaneously feeds on the stigma around HIV, and reinforces it.
For Charlie Sheen, the consequences of his disclosure have apparently been ruinous. He says he’s paid out millions of dollars to a number of extortionists over the last four years. He told the Today show he has disclosed his HIV status before every sexual encounter since his diagnosis, as required by law. Now that legally-mandated disclosure has cost him dearly, and no doubt there are lawsuits in the wings.
Unlike Sheen’s home place California, most parts of Australia don’t have a legal requirement for people with HIV to disclose their status before sex. As long as you don’t have sex that carries a significant risk of HIV transmission, it’s usually okay to keep your HIV status to yourself. That’s as it should be – studies have shown that HIV disclosure laws have no positive effect on HIV transmissions, and in fact they can have a negative impact by discouraging testing, treatment and disclosure.
And if you’re HIV-negative, relying on the other partner to disclose their HIV status is a risky strategy – up to a quarter of people with HIV in Australia don’t know they’re positive, and you can’t disclose what you don’t know.
Charlie Sheen said he didn’t want to be the poster boy for HIV, but he acknowledged he has a responsibility now to speak out and hopefully, help other people. If we want some good to come from his tawdry experience of betrayal and extortion, perhaps we can have a conversation about why HIV disclosure is so difficult, how HIV stigma hurts us all, and what we have to do to end it.
If that happens, I’ll be the first to say: “Thanks Charlie, thanks for kicking the door open.”
*Simon’s name and other details have been changed to safeguard his privacy.
Paul Kidd (@paulkidd) is a Victorian law reform activist and chair of the HIV Legal Working Group.