In the rush to support Charlie Sheen for revealing his HIV status and address the stigma surrounding HIV, it has been largely overlooked that Charlie has heaped stigma on another group of people: sex workers.
In his Today interview, Charlie spoke of hiring “the companionship of unsavoury and insipid types” and revealed that a sex worker had attempted to blackmail him with photographs of his HIV medication. Of course there are unsavoury people in this world and the person who tried to extort Charlie is a scumbag. But that has nothing to do with them being sex workers, let alone is it representative of sex workers. By referring to “hiring” unsavoury characters (as opposed to “spending time with”) and the extortioner’s profession Charlie is capitalising on the pre-existing stigma towards sex workers.
The broader insinuation that Charlie contracted HIV from a sex worker is both disingenuous and misplaced. By his own admission, Charlie has no idea how he contracted HIV; he has slept with over 5,000 women, many of whom were not sex workers; and he engaged in unprotected sex; and has a history of drug use. This is not a judgement, rather pointing out that his lifestyle was chaotic with a great deal of high risk behaviour making it difficult if not impossible to pin down the circumstances of transmission.
A person is no more likely to contract an STI from a sex worker than from the general population. Indeed, evidence supports the fact that sex workers have equivalent or lower rates of STIs than the general population and higher rates of condom use*. Sex workers also have more regular health checks (in some jurisdictions it is a requirement of work) and thus take greater responsibility for their health – in the event they do contract an STI (either from work or personal activities) they are unlikely to unwittingly pass it on.
But without even looking at the statistics, the stereotype of sex workers being disease riddled doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It relies on a premise that sex workers are more likely to engage in high-risk sexual behaviour, which defies logic. Sex workers don’t want to have unprotected sex. Sex work is not typically driven by the desire to sleep with a lot of men or to satisfy some risk-taking impulse. Whatever the specific reasons a person decides to pursue sex work, it is about earning money and conducted as a business. Beyond protecting one’s physical health, using condoms also acts as a psychological barrier.
In circumstances where unprotected sex is considered, it is usually initiated by the client. Sometimes the request is overt – unprotected sex for an increased financial reward – and other times it is indirect – the indication that a booking will only be secured if unprotected sex is included in the service. In most instances sex workers refuse, attempt to educate and, if necessary, end the booking. Of course there are exceptions, but it doesn’t occur just because a sex worker “feels like it” or “wants to” or is “that way inclined”.
Ironically, given who has prompted this commentary, some of the worst offenders of overt requests for unprotected sex are successful and wealthy men. These guys understand that sex work is a business and believe everyone has a price. Occasionally they offer thousands for the service. So there is temptation and it’s easy to fall into the trap of judging a book by its cover – good hygiene, nice house, top job equals unlikely to have an STI. This is no different to the decision-making process of thousands of members of the non sex work population on a daily basis so to judge a sex worker more harshly than others who have high risk unprotected sex is simply prejudicial; hypocritical if you’ve engaged in it yourself.
Indirect and implied requests for unprotected sex are perhaps more disturbing because they prey on the most vulnerable – those who are desperate for money. This may be a single mother who raising her children alone, a drug user who needs help or a sex worker who otherwise struggles to get bookings. None of these people deserve to be demonised.
Sex workers in the United States are particularly vulnerable to both overt and indirect requests for unsafe services. Because sex work is illegal (except for a tiny part of the country) they do not have the same support or protection enjoyed in Australia and the work is more unpredictable. There isn’t the same level of education about safe sex, let alone the same encouragement to obtain regular health checks or assistance for a diagnosed health issue. Meanwhile, every booking is high risk. Along comes a client with a nice house, good hygiene and the money to offer for one night of work what would usually be earned in a week or even a fortnight. It might seem a small risk to have unprotected sex with someone who looks unlikely to have an STI to avoid the possibility that the next guy might be violent, a thief or a police officer.
But then as a result of that decision, that woman contracts HIV, because she’s slept with someone who didn’t know they were HIV positive or someone who did but concealed their status and/or failed to take precautions.
It works both ways. Charlie Sheen refers to sex workers as unsavoury, but for many sex workers out there of whom he was a client, he is the unsavoury one. Even if all precautions were taken, these women will almost certainly be extremely stressed. And if unprotected sex took place, they will be angry at him for putting them at risk and for not providing them with the information to make an informed decision, not to mention finding out the information from the media.
This is not to shift victimization onto sex workers and judgement onto Charlie. Rather it is to counter Charlie’s tired stereotypes, hypocritical deflection of responsibility and transferring of judgement to a group he knows don’t have much of a voice to fight back.
There should be no judgement of those who engage in unprotected sex, drug use or contract an illness. People make mistakes and do stupid things, sometimes with a risk-benefit analysis, sometimes with a good reason, sometimes with no thought at all. The gravity of the consequences is often random. One person might have unprotected sex once and contract HIV; another might be frequently sharing needles with someone who is HIV positive and not. Indeed, this blog is dedicated to two people whose risks ended in the gravest of consequences where many others taking the same risk have had nothing happen.
However, Charlie Sheen should be challenged and criticised for taking a cheap, cowardly and totally unjustified shot at sex workers.
Later in the interview, Charlie speaks about wanting to be philanthropic and address difficulties and pursue opportunities with regards to HIV and AIDS. Perhaps he could consider funding a service for sex workers living with HIV or campaign for the decriminalisation of sex work so sex workers have better access to education and support services. After all, by his own admission, sex workers were his companions and support during some of his most troubling times. Lest he forget that.
* See eg UNSW Kirby Institute studies