Dr Elle Boag, senior lecturer in Social Psychology at Birmingham City University

Standing in the coffee queue awaiting my time with the barista I overheard some of our students discussing what was clearly a topic of great speculation…Fabulous, I thought to myself….clearly the topic of today’s lecture must have been exciting and stimulating…then I heard one of them pronounce loudly “…and then he went on a shagging spree!” At this point my interest was far more engaged than they had predicted so I decided that I would ask what they were discussing.

It emerged that rather than discussing the topics of the day’s lectures and seminars, our students were speculating about who the mystery Hollywood actor is that has been identified in the tabloids as knowingly engaging in unprotected sex after being diagnosed with HIV.

The story which was reported by Radar Online refers to a well-known celebrity with a “playboy lifestyle” who “has previously admitted to engaging in tattooing, injecting drugs and having sex with prostitutes — all activities that increase the risk of contracting the virus.”

The tabloid press and social media are both hyping the story, adding to the continued speculation of the celebrity’s name… Do we know him? Do we feel sorry for him? Do we feel anger toward him? Do we blame him? All of these questions are arising on social media and within the tabloid press.

Public interest is not something new, particularly in these “juicy” stories that make us able to view celebrities as sliding down the slippery slope into despair and misery. We love a good story of the pain associated with the destruction of the careers of celebrities, as “celebrity” is associated with positive things that are often lacking in our own lives (money, glamour, status, power and so on); to see celebrities as flawed and unable to get themselves out of a self-destructive pit of despair actually makes us feel better about our own lives, our own shortcomings and our own situations. After all, they will lose everything that most of us never have to start with!

But should we know who this Hollywood actor is? Should we feel sorry for him? Should we feel anger toward him? Should we blame him? Strictly speaking the answer should be “no”…. unless we are one of the sexual partners that he has, unless we are or have shared bodily fluids with him, why shouldn’t he keep it private?

Why do we believe that we somehow have the right to know everything about the lives of the rich and famous? We may well pay to watch their TV shows, movies, read their books and buy their music… but we are paying to be entertained – we buy the experience, not the actor themselves. Certainly, his behaviour is not nice. His behaviour is selfish and immoral, but his behaviour is his choice – his sexual partners will hardly be naive to the type of lifestyle he has.

The Hollywood actor is apparently a “megastar” and “known for his playboy lifestyle”. Surely the sexual partners of this man need to take some responsibility? In turn, we should not feel any more pity or compassion toward him just because he is famous, than we would feel toward any other person with HIV. We should feel less compassion for him because of his fame, as there are millions of men, women and children who did not contract HIV due to their lifestyle choices. THESE are the people we should be reporting about. THESE are the REAL victims. Who cares about yet another celebrity who has nothing better to do with his time and money than abuse drugs, alcohol and women… so let’s refocus our attention to those who actually deserve it.

Find out more about studying sociology and psychology at Birmingham City University.

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