Today is World AIDS Day.
I would have never thought that out of all the actors in Hollywood, an announcement by Charlie Sheen would’ve meant anything to me at all. Aside from his surprising comedic talent during his tenure on Two and a Half Men, I otherwise knew Sheen as a notorious, reckless, non-stop party man-child. But when he announced on the Today show, to Matt Lauer, that he was diagnosed as HIV-positive, and had been so since 2011, I felt a little shook. My concerns about STIs and STDs came back tenfold. The last time the virus was aggressively splashed across headlines, celebrity-wise, was when the legend Magic Johnson told the world in a devastating press conference that he was retiring from the NBA because he had contacted it. I remember thinking–granted I was little–that he had looked disappointed in having to retire from his job. And he seemed kind of young to be throwing in the towel. Was it really necessary to have to do that? But back in 1991, HIV and AIDS were at the heights of its scary level. The year before, the great Keith Haring had passed away from AIDS-related complications, as well as Ryan White, a young teen infected with HIV from contaminated blood. Haring was 31. White, only 18.
I hadn’t given much thought to sexually transmitted diseases until Sheen’s announcement, most recently. Through his Today appearance, the subject was brought back into the limelight and I believe it’s important we talk about it, even if it is uncomfortable. I’ve always concurred that sex in America is a bizarre topic. You are shamed if you’re having it. Shamed if you are not. America doesn’t treat sex as an act that is normal yet constantly has it at the center of a salacious conversation or entertainment. Sex appeal is quite manufactured in the U.S., as well but the gist remains that more is more when it comes to flaunting your sexuality or your body.
Sheens’ news was a reminder that the virus is still out there. If I had to be more specific about the last time I talked about HIV or AIDS, it was from a protocol standpoint as a full-time journalist for a website. I had written a piece for World AIDS Day, a commemorative day every year on December 1 for those that have passed away and/or surviving. I did the preliminary percentage check online (of the number of current diagnoses and doctor statements of progress); mentioned Johnson; and dropped a line about M.A.C. Cosmetics’ altruistic Viva Glam lipstick (I got one too: “Viva Glam I”). It all just felt a little routine, however. (By then, I was also jaded by media journalism). I think Johnson’s consistent efforts, through his foundation, since 1991 are wonderful. With Sheen, I felt nervous. Scared again about HIV’s lingering status. Thank God treatment has gotten so much better. But we aren’t talking about HIV and AIDS they way we used to on mandatory terms.
Back when I was a kid, there were truly conscious efforts from popular culture’s side to encourage young fans to practice safe sex. Salt-N-Pepa released “Let’s Talk About Sex”, a pop-rap joint that had me singing along in my living room, at what, four years of age! TLC wore condoms as eyewear and accessories when they released their debut Ooooo…On The TLC Tip! Even the sex provocateur herself, Madonna, did a safe sex commercial with MTV. And speaking of MTV, they were stalwart in airing TV specials well into the late 90s on how to prevent HIV and AIDS and speaking to those who bravely shared their experiences on national television, after being diagnosed positive. These initiatives weren’t made to scare us, but to keep us aware.
This past summer, as everyone raved about the biopic Straight Outta Compton, it was exactly 20 years ago that one of N.W.A.’s founding members Eazy-E died of HIV in March 1995. And the insolent quasi-documentary film of KIDS, also hitting the 20-year milestone, through its lead character Telly, a Manhattanite teen, was having unprotected sex with hapless virgins, and he unknowingly had the HIV virus. Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the Broadway epic RENT, the Jonathan Larson penned play about poor 20-somethings in New York’s Lower East Side and Alphabet City. A majority of the characters were HIV and AIDS patients. In the 90s, the disease had a integral place in popular culture, amongst some of the decade’s biggest (sex-drenched) hits such as “Doin’ It” and those topless women or drunk sex faced men covers of Rolling Stone.
Where are those safe sex specials, on TV or print, for the social media generation now? (Who still watches MTV anyway?) VH1 doesn’t bother. BET only tackles it via its provocative series of Being Mary Jane. In 2015, some of the most polarizing celebrities out right now are a result of highly sexualized content or imagery. And it seems like we all just gloss over the later pages of Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Marie Claire when they do publish articles on the mortifying happenings of sex trafficking not just internationally, but right here in the free world of America. The media has lessened its once staunch reporting on HIV and AIDS. Though it is not their responsibility to remind us to be safe, we’ve been quiet on the fact that the disease has not been cured or eradicated.
The truth of the matter is, and not to get preachy, but we all have got to do better when it comes to having sex. While you may not contact HIV, you sure as hell don’t want syphilis or chlamydia either. Yeah, when that word was said in Mean Girls, we all laughed, but in real life…
And pre-Charlie Sheen, there were three types of sex reportage in the media. One being the promotion of abstinence, the perpetually debatable influence of the porn and BDSM industries (Fifty Shades of Grey did come out this year in theaters) or completely irresponsible proposals on how to have sex. Just before drafting this article, I read two pieces on Broadly that reported that Americans were more scared of STDs than dying in a car crash. (That, I can believe to be true). But included as a link to that story was a status report that seriously suggested that “pulling out” was as effective as condom use. Complete BS because who honestly cares for that method? And two, it is risky as hell to even treat that as an option of birth control because if that person is doing that with you, what makes you think they won’t it with others?
I know that Sheen would’ve preferred that that part of his sex life remain private to the public if possible, but the silver lining came out of his announcement: He finally stopped the trend of extortions against him by those who wanted to frame him for HIV, and a reminder to the rest of us that sex becomes the enemy real quick when we make poor decisions surrounding it and that shouldn’t be the case. Let’s all be careful out there.
SN: In 2014, HBO aired its original movie The Normal Heart about the AIDS crisis, specifically in New York City in 1984. It won a slew of awards the following award show season.