Leave it to a Daily Beast writer to ride to the rescue of members of the world's oldest profession.
In "Charlie Sheen’s HIV Confession Promotes Whorephobia," Beast staffer Samantha Allen bashes the debauched Hollywood star for coming out about being HIV positive and about how he was repeatedly blackmailed by prostitutes into silence over the years.
While most rational people would think there's really no sympathetic character in the sordid tale of Charlie Sheen vs. extortionist harlots, Allen takes it upon herself to castigate Sheen and to essentially excuse the hookers (emphases mine):
[S]ex workers shouldn’t have to bear the stigma that Sheen no longer wants on his shoulders. There’s room in the world for HIV advocacy that respects the humanity of everyone who contracts the virus, whether they make a living on a sitcom or in between the sheets. And, in fact, there’s a compelling argument to be made that so-called insipid and unsavory types deserve special attention in that effort.
For one, sex workers already feel more of the effects of HIV criminalization laws than Sheen likely ever will, although one of his exes, Bree Olson, has left open the possibility of taking action against him for an alleged failure to disclose his status.
As a report from the Center for HIV Law and Policy (PDF) notes, HIV-specific statutes in several states exact additional penalties on sex workers for being HIV-positive, even if no sexual activity takes place before their arrest. In many states, like Sheen’s home state of California, HIV-related penalties apply to solicitation as well as to prostitution itself, but, in practice, these laws disproportionately affect those who offer services rather than those who attempt to purchase them.
Of the 213 prosecutions and arrests for HIV exposure from 2008 to 2014 listed in the CHLP report, at least 19 applied to sex workers, only three to prospective clients of sex workers, and zero to wealthy Hollywood actors. Several sex workers listed in the report were arrested as part of undercover sting operations, and had their charges elevated to felonies due to an HIV-positive status.
One need only run a Twitter search for Sheen’s name along with derogatory terms like “hookers” or “whores” to see the sort of ugly anti-sex worker animus that erupts on social media in moments like these.
Sheen may not have blamed a sex worker for his acquisition of HIV but, based on the social media response, he didn’t have to. The letter to Lauer was enough to underline pre-existing stigma around sex work, and the public did the math for him. Now, there’s a hellish new wave of Internet and tabloid discourse about prostitution and sexually transmitted infections. This would have happened anyway, but Sheen didn’t have to stoke the flames with his poor phrasing.
In truth, the relationship between sex work and HIV is immensely complicated from a public health perspective, and it can’t be explained away through character denigration. It’s easy to deride sex workers as being “dirty”—or “unsavory,” as Sheen would put it—but it takes work to learn about the structural factors that cause this perception.
If Sheen, whose net worth is estimated to be over $100 million, can ask for sympathy based on his financial position, surely he—and the public—should be able to understand that sex workers may contract HIV at higher rates because of structural obstacles, and not because of sexual immorality.
Indeed, the rigid association of sex with morality is the key ingredient of HIV stigma, and by reinforcing this tie, Sheen only stands to harm his own case. If Sheen wants to “kick the door open” and shake off this stigma, he should. But he shouldn’t shut the door behind him, either, and that means recognizing the humanity of the “unsavory and insipid types” he was so quick to judge.