I know what you're thinking ... I'm too old to watch or care about MTV's The Real World. Yes, this is true. However, because I'm old enough to vividly remember the early days of The Real World, I feel the need to explore what I'm seeing with the latest cast members.
This season marks the 25th anniversary of the show. Since 1992, there have been 25 separate groups of young people living together and having their lives taped. The Real World was the very first ever reality show. The show has been ground breaking and progressive in its entertainment and in its social commentary.
Case in point: the introduction of Pedro Zamora during the 3rd season (1994) in San Francisco. He was the first openly HIV+ person showcased on any media platform. Not only was he open, he was outspoken and determined to share his story with the world. We watched his journey on the show, his reactions from his house mates, his engaging personality and the influence he had on everyone he came in contact with. It was a proud moment for him, for MTV, and for all of us watching.
Fast forward 17 years and 22 seasons. The current cast is in Las Vegas (for the 2nd time) and they are embracing their youth and the hedonistic atmosphere. Nothing wrong with that. However, as they are having fun, some of the cast mates are making high-risk sexual decisions. In episode 9, we see cast members Naomi and Leroy, who have been in a sexual relationship together for much of the season, deal with some sexual health issues. We discover that they have been having unprotected sex with each other and with other partners as well. They discuss their fears and concerns, mainly around the threat of STDs and pregnancy. The threat of HIV or AIDS is never uttered.
Much has changed since the days of Pedro Zamora on The Real World.
To be clear, I'm not passing judgment on the sexual exploration of these young people. Watch the rest of the episode and you see other cast members exploring and expressing their sexuality. That's not the issue. For me, the issue is that 17 years after Pedro, young people are reverting back to high risk sexual behavior. There is a return of denial, especially when it comes to perceived HIV risk.
In fairness, The Real World does show us what is "real" and unfortunately there are countless young adults and teens practicing unsafe sex today. Just look at the prime scapegoat -- Bristol Palin. Something has got to give. When will young people take HIV/AIDS, unplanned pregnancies and other STDs seriously?
It is sad to see the shift back to severe complacency and utter denial. Newsflash people: HIV does not discriminate. Anyone is at risk and many people have HIV and do not know it. Your partner may look healthy, yet that is not an indicator of anything. This is a sad statement and myth that is somehow making a comeback in our vernacular. There is no specific look that goes along with being HIV+. There is no look that indicates a person is living with AIDS. For our culture and our young people to somehow embrace this myth and use it in their thought patterns when engaging in sexual risk behaviors is incredibly scary. If these myths continue, we will continue to see a resurgence of the AIDS epidemic among our young people. The HIV infection rates are already high and climbing among this population as it is. To see it get any worse before it gets better is a horrific thought.
In a way it's probably a good thing MTV showcased this. It's real, after all. Our youth are clearly misinformed, undereducated and just plain in denial when it comes to HIV awareness. This could clearly be a result of Abstinence Only Education. In addition, MTV could have done a better job at providing resources for HIV testing to dispel the myths and raise awareness on the subject. Yet there was none of that.
Clearly we all have a ton of work to do. My hope is that HIV/AIDS awareness will return to the education of our young people. And that future seasons of The Real World will show young people being young and experimenting with their sexuality ... while taking precautions to protect themselves and their partners.