Shutting down Sharleen

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Hindsight – 21 March 2010 – Shutting down Sharleen

Sharleen Spiteri was a sex worker, a drug user, and she was HIV+. In 1989, Sharleen went on 60 Minutes and told reporter Jeff McMullen that she tried to get her clients to practise safe sex, but sometimes they wouldn’t wear condoms.

This took place when paranoia about AIDS was at its height. Sharleen was a walking invitation to moral panic. Her interview on 60 Minutes caused a national furore. The NSW government took Sharleen from her flat under police guard, and forcibly detained her in a locked AIDS ward. She was kept in detention for several weeks.

After they let her out, Sharleen spent much of the remaining 16 years of her life under 24-hour supervision by health workers. She became the most expensive public patient in NSW history.For the final four years, Sharleen was under house arrest in a refuge for HIV+ drug users in the inner-city suburb of Surry Hills. She died, still under a public health order, in 2005.

But when these events took place, other HIV+ sex workers were left on the street. So why was Sharleen singled out? And was it really necessary to take away her liberty?

Uncovering the silence which has surrounded Sharleen Spiteri’s story for the past 20 years, this investigative history feature puts these questions to the politicians and bureaucrats who locked her up—as well as the health workers who cared for her, and Sharleen’s friends and fellow sex workers.  

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