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Mainstream Media Is Committed to Getting the HIV Discussion Wrong

November 23, 2015

With Charlie Sheen's disclosure of his HIV status, undoubtedly comes weeks of stigma-driven media coverage that those of us living with the virus have learned to expect. During his highly anticipated Today show interview with Matt Lauer, much of what he was asked regarding his sexual behavior perpetuates fear and shaming of people who are HIV positive.

We could only watch as he was forced to quell the fear of millions, answering a series of truly invasive questions to assure strangers that he has not put others at risk since his diagnosis four years ago. Even a journalist as experienced as Lauer failed to conduct an interview that promotes a healthy understanding of this epidemic, opting instead for a reductionist, shock reporting that seems to be the accepted standard whenever an HIV scandal makes headlines.

Support for the father of five, who has been pressured for over a year to share his private health information with the world -- any compassion or concern for his well-being -- has been sparse. There certainly hasn't been the customary outpouring of encouragement from the media or from other celebrities that a diagnosis of cancer or any other potentially life-threatening condition garners. Contrarily, many have spoken out with hostility about Sheen's health battle, adopting the media's tone.

Sharon Osbourne tactlessly referred to Sheen being "busted" with HIV and added that "he's not a victim," insensitive remarks to which The Talk's studio audience applauded. Entertainment Tonight chose to air a "timeline of his lovers," victimizing those who may have had consensually condom-less sex with the actor without knowing his status. From The Wendy Williams Show to The View, the discussion remains centered on his promiscuity and addiction. It's a callous and widespread moral justification for his condition, his forced public admission, and the subsequent void of public sympathy.

While Sheen will never face many of the barriers to a full, healthy life with HIV that are faced by those of us who are not rich, white, heterosexual or cisgender, he now moves through society with three scarlet letters forever emblazoned. For that, he deserves our sympathy.

From the beginning, we've seen clearly that mainstream media is not interested in ally-ship to end deadly HIV stigma. It's not in the best interests of ratings, magazine sales, or likes and shares. Matthew Rodriguez, in his recent piece for Mic., is among few journalists who have covered the current scandal with the appropriate care. Still, Sheen is the latest example of why we've created our own media presence to make sure our stories are told with the necessary sensitivity, due respect, and dignity.

Print publications like Poz and informative sites like TheBody.com exist to confront the hostility, fear and ignorance with the reality of our complex human lives and medically informed perspective on our sex lives. Decades into this health crisis, as we navigate the many emotional and physical challenges of our lifelong healthcare journeys, we bear the social burden of defending ourselves against dehumanizing coverage that creates a dangerous public perception. Our daily fight is one not only for our lives but for our humanity and freedom.

With the diagnosis, we lose our sexual privacy as those fortunate enough to live without the virus begin to see us no differently than any bioterror threat. Our bodies are feared and policed. Our sex is not safe in the way that it's a political, often controversial and sometimes even criminal act.

Among the consequences of the mainstream media's persistent HIV fear and shame campaign is juries that prosecute us, as in the case of 23-year-old Michael Johnson who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for unprotected sex without disclosure. Coverage of the case was focused on Johnson's promiscuity to denigrate his character, per usual, and biased in its' victimizing those with whom he had consensually condom-less sex. The public's perception of the college student was shaped by headlines. Stigma ultimately determined his fate.

Dated HIV laws reflect understandable fear from a time when this epidemic was not understood. Considering how far we've come medically, though -with anti-retroviral treatment and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) nearly eliminating risk of transmission to our HIV-negative sexual partners when used properly -- and how long people have known both the risk and how to protect themselves, laws placing the blame for transmission solely on us are a modern-day witch hunt.

Mainstream media coverage of HIV-positive bodies, of an epidemic that claims human lives indiscriminate of anyone's moral standing or judgment, often fuel the fearful and persecutory fire. When trusted journalists like Lauer handle the topic of HIV as he did recently, they are planting our stakes. In watching closely, I'm afraid that may be the point.

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