Sympathy and Contempt for Charlie Sheen

He seems neither very willing nor very able to do good with his HIV diagnosis.

Bebeto Matthews / AP

Charlie Sheen is a person, and people with problems deserve sympathy. On the Today show this morning, he talked about struggling with the diagnosis of HIV he received “three or four” years ago. “It’s a hard three letters to absorb,” Sheen said. “It’s a turning point in one’s life.” Matt Lauer later read him some of the kind reactions coming in on social media. Sheen seemed touched.

Charlie Sheen is also a celebrity, and celebrities’ words can have public implications. As the most prominent figure to announce a positive status in quite some time, he offers a reminder that even though HIV/AIDS no longer commands the headlines it once did in the U.S., around 35 million people worldwide are living with it. His story also reiterates the idea that it’s not just a “gay disease” and could bring renewed attention to a public-health crisis that has an outsized effect in America on poor communities and minorities.

Not that any of this went discussed during the Today interview. Sheen has donated to HIV/AIDS charities over the years, but the notion of social good only came up when he said he will occasionally speak out but won’t be the “poster man” for the disease. He also made a vague, boastful prediction: “If there was one guy on this planet to contract this that’s going to deliver a cure, it’s me.”

The main focus of the Today segment, the clear reason it was happening at all, was blackmail. Tabloids have reported for weeks about an unnamed Hollywood actor diagnosed with HIV or AIDS being accused by unnamed sex partners of having misled them or even having transmitted the virus to them. The Lauer interview revealed that Sheen had paid millions of dollars to keep a number of individuals who knew about his status quiet. Whatever led him to want to stop the payoffs at this particular moment wasn’t made clear, but Sheen said that his financial situation “isn’t great,”  and said that he had “to put a stop to this onslaught, this barrage of attacks and of sub-truths and very harmful and mercurial stories that are about me, threatening the health of so many others that couldn’t be further from the truth."

Of his sexual encounters in the time since he was diagnosed, he said he “always led with condoms and honesty” about his status. His physician joined him on camera to testify to the fact that he currently has an “undetectable” viral load, which means that so long as he continues to take his medication every day, it’s very unlikely he could give someone else HIV. If lawsuits or criminal charges now come against him claiming he didn’t disclose his diagnosis to sex partners, Sheen said, they’ll be based on lies.

Immediately afterwards, his former live-in girlfriend Bree Olson went on The Howard Stern Show and said that even though their time together in 2011 appeared now to overlap with the time after Sheen’s diagnosis, he never told her about it. She found out a few days ago, from the media, that he has HIV. She said that they used lambskin condoms, which do not prevent transmission of the virus, and although she has tested negative for HIV, she’s angry: “All I know right now is now, because of him, every time someone hears my name they think of HIV right next to it … He doesn’t even value my life.”

Toward the end of the Today segment, Lauer read a tweet from a viewer who said Sheen’s “lifestyle” set him up to contract the virus. Judgement about people’s “lifestyles” has, of course, long been a pretext for not treating HIV/AIDS sufferers with dignity or even giving them the help they need. But Sheen said he didn’t disagree with the Twitter user; over the years, he’s been very vocal about his drug use and sexual promiscuity, and apparently doesn’t mind people drawing a connection between that history and his current condition.

He also blasted some of the people he slept with as “unsavory and insipid types” that he’d hired for sex. Lauer mentioned the stigma around HIV/AIDS, but he did not point out the irony of Sheen deploying the exact same kind of language long used to enforce that stigma. Nor did he mention Sheen’s continuing pattern of mistreating the same women he often brags about having had sex with. He’s been accused of—and a few times pled guilty to—violence and death threats against women; online, he’s gone on vicious tirades against them, including in an open letter to his ex-wife Denise Richards this past June where he called her a “LEAKY AND MALARIA RIDDLED PUDDLE OF SHIT STINK DECAY.”

Given all this, Sheen probably isn’t the ideal public face for a disease that still kills 13,000 people a year in the U.S. He will likely at some point do some good with his diagnosis through fundraising and awareness, but for now that doesn’t sound like it’s a priority to him. So in the end, it might be better for all involved if Sheen stays, as much as possible, in the category of “person.” A person with a medical struggle that you wouldn’t wish upon anyone; a person whose presence you wouldn’t wish upon anyone; a person you can wish the best for, and then try to forget about.