Fordham’s Dr. Celia B. Fisher on Charlie Sheen’s HIV disclosures: ‘Sex workers may not have the economic or social power to say no’

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While there has been no shortage of coverage of actor Charlie Sheen’s announcement last week that he is HIV positive, one aspect of the story has been noticeably missing: the complex power dynamic when an HIV-positive individual solicits a sex worker. For many sex workers, negotiating terms or leaving the situation may not be an option.

Dr. Celia B. Fisher, director of the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education and HIV and Drug Abuse Prevention Research Ethics Training Institute (RETI) weighed in on the issue in an article in The Washington Post:

“For Charlie Sheen to think that simply disclosing his HIV status to someone allows that person to protect themselves in the best way possible – that’s not always the case. They may not have either the economic or social power to say no.”

In the same Washington Post article, Lindsay Roth, executive director of Philadelphia-based Project SAFE and former board president of the Sex Workers Outreach Program explained that it is difficult to hear someone with Charlie Sheen’s power and resources claim that he was victimized by being blackmailed by sex workers who threatened to go public with his HIV status.

“The reality is, when it comes to a sex worker, they’re laboring in a job where they have no legal or human rights,” Roth said.

In recent years, both the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization have identified sex workers as a population at increased risk for contracting HIV, and a significant public health concern. This is the case for several reasons, including the fact that sex work is frequently criminalized, which may impact access to healthcare, prevention measures, and legal services, in addition to a dearth of population-based studies on HIV risk and sex workers.

“While there are growing numbers of advocacy groups for sex workers, they often don’t reach those most in need, like homeless youth, trafficked persons, or other marginalized populations in the U.S. and abroad. It’s very important that the voice of these individuals are heard; it’s one of the goals of our HIV Institute to do so by encouraging and funding empirical research on sexual health through the lens of sex workers’ experience,” Fisher said.

The RETI has funded several mentored research projects involving HIV prevention and sex workers, including in Guatemala, Peru, and India.

The Fordham University HIV and Drug Abuse Prevention Research Ethics Training Institute is now accepting applications for the 2016 Summer Institute. Please visit our website or contact Dr. Elizabeth Yuko ( for more information. The deadline for applications is February 25, 2016. 


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