‘Slut-shaming’ Charlie Sheen should be the last of our concerns

charlie sheen today

This week, in Literally The Stupidest Thing I have Read About Charlie Sheen In The Past 48 Hours, is the call to “stop slut-shaming” Sheen.

Leading the charge on this one is a writer at Mic, EJ Dickson, who claims that, after Sheen went public about his HIV-positive status on The Today Show yesterday, “people immediately rushed to point fingers at Sheen, shaming him for his sexual braggadocio.”

Wowowowowowow. Ok. Ok breathe.

So after all that we know about Sheen — his history of abuse, his serial use of prostituted women, his virulent misogyny, his selfish and destructive behaviour — what we really need to concern ourselves with is “slut-shaming”??!?

To be clear, I do not believe Sheen “deserved” HIV. I do not believe anyone “deserves” any STI. I am not “gleeful” at his diagnosis, by any means. But my concern, with regard to this situation, does not lie with Sheen. It lies with all the women he used and abused (and will likely continue to use and abuse).

This is a man who called his ex-wife and mother of his children, Denise Richards, a “whore” and a “heretic washed up piglet shame pile” on Twitter and had a crowd at one of his stage shows chant “fuck that bitch” after a bit about his breakup with her. He referred to the women he paid for sex as “unsavory and insipid types” despite the fact that he is the only one engaging in unethical behaviour within these exchanges, not the women.*

Despite the extreme and ongoing violence and misogyny he’s directed at women, Sheen has maintained a healthy career and will, in all of this, certainly maintain his wealth, fame, and white male privilege.

Rather than being “ashamed” of his lifestyle, Sheen was, in fact, proud of it and used it to his advantage. The character he played on Two and a Half Men was based on him — an irresponsible, womanizing manchild, who lives a “playboy” lifestyle and parties to excess. The show essentially glorified his behaviour and treatment of women until they finally fired him in 2011, not because of his misogyny or violence, but because he publicly disparaged the show’s creator, Chuck Lorre (yes, it’s likely that public tirades like this one were connected to drug abuse, but Sheen’s addictions were not new). He immediately landed another gig on Anger Management, where he would play a softer version of that character (still an irresponsible cheater/womanizer with “anger management” issues, but “more mature”) in yet another show that relied heavily on sexist jokes and stereotypes. His original costar, Selma Blair, was fired via an abusive text, in which Sheen called her a “cunt,” after she complained that he was a “menace” to work with. The show was cancelled last year due to what was said to be “slipping ratings,” though now some are speculating it had to do with his health and appearance.

While I absolutely agree that there are a ton of misconceptions and stigmatization around people living with STIs, how they are transmitted and what that says about them as people (nothing!), the idea that we should somehow not be judging Sheen’s behaviour — or that judging his “lifestyle” amounts to “slut-shaming” — is ridiculous. We aren’t just talking about a guy who was very fond of women and happened to enjoy sex. We’re talking about a man who hated women and used them for his own means, absolutely disregarding their humanity and well-being, disrespecting them at every turn.

Jeremiah Johnson, an HIV prevention research and policy coordinator at the New York City-based Treatment Action Group, told Mic that he was “concerned [that] because Charlie Sheen has a history of having sex with sex workers, there will be a push to vilify those decisions and vilify people who engage in sex work.” What’s maddening about this statement is that, not only should men who pay for sex most certainly be judged and shamed for doing so (just as any misogynist, dehumanizing behaviour should be “judged”), but that it goes unmentioned that it is Sheen himself — a john — who is doing the vilifying. After this statement, Dickson goes on to express concern about “criminalization rendering [“sex workers”] invisible,” all the while invizibilizing Sheen’s misogynistic treatment of women, both in general, and specifically with regard to the way he discussed the women he paid for sex. She expresses concern about the “high risk” prostituted women face, but fails to mention who it is that puts them at risk: Men like Sheen.

Dickson writes:

“What is clear… is that because Sheen is not a ‘sympathetic’ HIV-positive person, and because many of his former sexual partners are on the fringes of society, many are comfortable shaming him — and his partners — for his status, rather than using his diagnosis as an opportunity to launch a wider conversation about, say, drug addiction or safer sex practices.”

HOLY MOTHER OF GOD.

So after all we know about Sheen’s behaviour and his treatment, disregard, and outright hatred of women, we are expected to “launch a wider conversation about… drug addiction or safer sex practices?” Because, what? That conversation will convince selfish, abusive johns like Sheen to care about the women they buy? Fat chance.

Men who buy sex don’t respect women. Men who buy sex are the ones doing the “slut-shaming,” calling the women they sleep with “whores” and much worse. And you want us to direct our concern and sympathy towards those men? While you do everything in your power to normalize this behaviour, decontextualize the existence of the sex industry as a whole, and blame those of us who “judge” johns for the suffering of the women they buy?

Nope.

“Slut-shaming” happens to women because men hate women. It does not happen to men. This is not an “it goes both ways” type of situation. Men are not punished privately or publicly for having sex with women. They are celebrated. There is no revenge porn site for men. There is no epidemic of male rape victims being tormented to death because their rapist taped the assault. Women do not abuse men by calling them “sluts” and “whores.” Young men are not publicly humiliated after going down on a girl they liked or wanted to impress.

It is wrong that Sheen is being judged now, by some, because of his HIV diagnosis when he should have been judged long ago for his abuse and misogyny. But to call that judgement “slut-shaming” and demand our sympathies is a repulsive reversal akin to accusations of “misandry” or “reverse sexism.” It exhibits a deep misunderstanding of how systems of power work and how brutally women suffer within them, including in the sex industry.

*The wording in this sentence was edited on November 18, 2015 and previously read: “…despite the fact that he is the one who put them — and many other women — at risk, not the other way around.”

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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