Reflecting on the Sheen case: HIV criminalisation and prosecution papers

17 November, 2015


On November 17th 2015) the public had the unedifying experience of watching a Hollywood star, Charlie Sheen, ‘confess’ to his HIV positive status. He has already effectively been ‘outed’ by salacious newspaper columnists in the United States, UK and elsewhere. A personal health issue, that should have been a private matter has been turned into a festival of stigmatisation.

Dani from HIV activist group ACT UP in London says “Charlie Sheen’s sexual practices and Charlie Sheen’s diagnosis of HIV are not the same thing. …The treatment of this ‘revelation’ by the media so far shows an alarming lack of understanding of the current realities of HIV, and demonstrates that for all the acceptance and progression in Western society, the stigma surrounding HIV is at risk of ruining lives of those affected more than the disease itself.”

Little of the coverage has addressed issues of prevention, diagnosis and treatment. So, crucial opportunities have been lost to inform the public about how HIV is transmitted; where and how to get tested; about the efficacy of drugs to treat people who are HIV positive and protect their partners; and about condom use and safer sex practices.

Most worrying are those using Sheen’s boasts of his multitudinous sexual partners as the basis of calls for prosecution. HIV experts and expert organisations around the world testify that criminalising HIV transmission hampers prevention efforts, deters people from getting tested and treated, ramps up stigma and increases the isolation of people living with HIV.

In its criminalisation issue, RHM  published a range of papers on different aspects of criminalisation and HIV:

Criminalising HIV transmission: punishment without protection – Widney Brown, Johanna Hanefeld, James Welsh. RHM34 2009

Responses to criminal prosecutions for HIV transmission among gay men with HIV in England and Wales – Catherine Dodds, Adam Bourne, Matthew Weait. RHM34 2009

Advocating prevention over punishment: the risks of HIV criminalization in Burkina Faso – Patrice Sanon, Simon Kaboré, Jennifer Wilen, Susanna J Smith, Jane Galvão. RHM34 2009

Vertical HIV transmission should be excluded from criminal prosecution – Joanne Csete, Richard Pearshouse, Alison Symington. RHM34 2009

Ten reasons to oppose the criminalization of HIV exposure or transmission – Ralf Jürgens, Jonathan Cohen, Edwin Cameron, Scott Burris, Michaela Clayton, Richard Elliott, Richard Pearshouse, Anne Gathumbi, Delme Cupido. RHM34 2009.

International consultation on the criminalization of HIV transmission: 31 October – 2 November 2007, Geneva, Switzerland – Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 2007. RHM34 2009.

Criminalisation Round up – RHM34 2009.

Other useful papers from around the world:

Criminalisation of HIV exposure and transmission: a global review Working Paper prepared for the Third Meeting of the Technical Advisory Group, Global Commission on HIV and the Law, 7-9 July, 2011 – Matthew Weait.

HIV and the criminal law – AIDS MAP

Criminalization of HIV transmission – AIDS-free World

Ending and Defending Against HIV Criminalization: State and Federal Laws and Prosecutions, Vol.1, The Center for HIV Law and Policy, Second Edition, Fall 2010 (Updated May 2015) – The Center for HIV Law and Policy