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Op-Ed: Stop Comparing Bill Cosby to Charlie Sheen


Over the past few months, there has been a recurring argument on social media over the difference between Bill Cosby and Charlie Sheen. It goes something like this:

“Charlie Sheen admitted to sleeping with women while HIV-positive and his shows are still on the air. Yet Bill Cosby is “accused “of things that happened years ago and his career is ruined.”

Now in my mind, the comparison is being made for two reasons. First, people believe that the act of rape and the act of having sex while HIV-positive are equivalent. And second, if the acts are equivalent, then the only reason for the difference in treatment of the two men is their race.

While it is evident that African-American men are consistently treated unfairly in our society compared to their white counterparts, this is an illogical and uninformed comparison and it only further stigmatizes a group of people who are living with a disease that, by the way, mostly impacts people color.

One person on social media said that what Sheen did was “attempted murder,” while another said he was trying to “giving women death sentences.” In other words, there is a belief that Sheen had the intention of ending someone’s life by having sex with them. That is not possible, not to mention highly sensational, since HIV doesn’t automatically equate to death. HIV is now considered a chronic illness, which means people can live long and healthy lives with treatment. In fact it hasn’t been viewed as a fatal disease since Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART) became available in 1996. But who cares about facts, if social media says so, it must be true.

Lets look at each situation separately.

For as long as I can remember, Bill Cosby has always been seen as America’s dad. He has been apart of our households for over 30 years and changing the way African American individuals and families are viewed in America. He donates to great causes and he is a champion for education. Yet throughout those 30 years, over 50 women have claimed that he sexually assaulted them. Yes, Bill Cosby is accused of the sexual assault by 57 women to be exact. The general claim he met them, gained their trust, drugged them, and raped them. Let’s break that down. Bill Cosby is accused of giving women substances in order to incapacitate them and engage in sexual acts without their consent. While I cannot say whether he is guilty or not, the accusations are definitely ones of criminal behavior.

Then we have Charlie Sheen, a man who has always been a “bad boy” in the Hollywood scene. He has a well-publicized history of drug abuse, womanizing, and domestic violence. Now,since he has revealed that he is HIV-positive, he is an even easier target for scrutiny. Charlie Sheen has been accused of knowingly exposing women to HIV. And that would be terrible, except for the fact that it isn’t true.

Charlie Sheen was diagnosed with HIV in 2011 and has admitted to having sex with multiple women since then. While there have been different reports as to whether condoms were used every time, there are several other facts that must be considered. First, all of these women had consensual sex with Sheen and to date no one has reported doing anything against their will. So whether he told them about his status or not, if they had unprotected sex with him – Hollywood’s ultimate bad boy – it was a choice that they made. This is an prime example of why it’s always the responsibility of both parties to ensure that sex is safe and they are protected.

Maybe even more importantly, Sheen has reported that his viral load is undetectable. This means that he is in medical treatment and there is such a small amount of virus in his body that even with unprotected sex the chances of him transmitting HIV are extremely low. In fact, there has never been a confirmed case of someone with an undetectable viral load transmitting HIV to another person. For many serodiscordant couples (couples with different statuses), their protection method of choice is ensuring that the positive partner is on medication and undetectable. Lastly, at this point no one has contacted law enforcement to accuse him of anything and there hasn’t been any evidence that he actually exposed and/or infected anyone to HIV. So it seems Sheen is being accused by the stories in the media, which do not amount to actual crimes.

Given his history, it is really easy for society to dislike Charlie Sheen and have little compassion for the fact that he is living with an incurable disease. So you might ask yourself why should I care? You should care because he is a human being.

This is about how HIV is viewed so negatively in our society. It can be easy to forget that every person living with HIV was once negative and had it transmitted to him or her. Just like any other disease, no one deserves HIV… absolutely no one. Unfortunately, people living with HIV aren’t always treated that way.

And on the subject of race, HIV disproportionately impacts African Americans, which means that criminalization of HIV and society’s stigma and ignorance about HIV also disproportionately impacts African Americans. So if you want to help black people, stop comparing having consensual sex and being HIV-positive with being accused of rape. It is only further marginalizing already marginalized groups of people. Instead, educate yourself on all of the issues that impact our community and get the facts about HIV before you jump on the social media bandwagon.