When I read MTV’s Real World Contract posted by The Village Voice, one of the many elements that struck me was the danger and acceptability of misusing language when used for financial gain. Words like “rape,” “violate,” and “sexual assault” are nasty, heavy, uncomfortable words, words that land like bricks, words that everyone has difficulty understanding when they are “appropriate” to use, and ironically, even survivors have trouble using these terms to describe their experiences. It is much easier to say “non-consensual physical contact.” It is easier to write “interacting” or “carries the risk.”
It is easier to dress it all up under the guise that a signature means consent.
Courtesy of Atomic Jeep
It was the day after Christmas, 1999. My best friend was throwing a party at her father’s house. I was eighteen years old and excited to visit with friends who were home from their first semester at college. My best friend’s older brother supplied the alcohol, even blended the margaritas, and they were good. After seeing an old boyfriend, I grew nostalgic and decided I no longer wanted to be at the party but the smart thing was to spend the night. The smart thing was for my car keys to remain in my purse. We all agreed to sleep over, so I went to bed early while the party raged on. In the middle of the night I woke up to my best friend’s brother violating me.
Paralyzed with fear, I shrugged him off, pretended like I was waking from a horrible nightmare, unaware it was the beginning of a decade long battle to reclaim my body. After ten minutes of complete paralysis, he came back to continue, thinking I was asleep once again. I flinched when he touched me, sending him back upstairs. When I finally gathered the courage to get up, I walked downstairs to an empty living room. The party was over, my friends had all left, even my best friend who had gone to her boyfriend’s house. We were alone.
I did everything right. I went to the police. I went to the hospital. When evidence came up inconclusive because I had gone to the bathroom, I wired my phone and confronted my attacker. I got him to confess. I pressed charges and I sent him to jail for “sexual assault.” I cut ties with many people, I cut ties with my past, and I moved to New York. I refused to tell anyone because I didn’t want to give him any more power than he had already taken. Instead, I kept the details of that night buried beneath the breasts I now shield whenever my boyfriend attempts to caress them. I keep that night as a startled gasp in my throat anytime I am gently awaken by the man I sleep next to every night.
That night keeps my dreams in a constant state of alarm, a sleep that never lets me go too deep, in case there is a nightmare waiting on the other side. It has taken me ten years to finally use the term “rape” after a therapist informed me, “It doesn’t have to be a penis for it to be rape.” Only now, at twenty-nine years old, have I begun to unpack the parts of myself that were shut up in silence that night.
MTV’s clause in their Real World Contract stating “Interacting with other cast members carries the risk of "non-consensual physical contact" and should you contract AIDS, etc. during such an interaction, MTV is not responsible. (Stipulation 7) suggests more than “non-consensual physical contact” but rather non-consensual sexual contact, the possibility and the subsequent absolution of rape.
Yes, a rapist, a predator, a murderer are all responsible for their own actions. But can something be said for MTV’s responsibility in creating a powder keg of an environment by placing strangers in a home without criminal background checks, supplying them with liquor on MTV’s dime, and underestimating the psychological effects of being filmed twenty-four hours a day? (For further information on this topic check out Ondi Timoner’s documentary, WE LIVE IN PUBLIC).If you put a four year old in a room with a loaded gun and that gun goes off, who is responsible? If you put intoxicated “young adults” in a hot tub and someone is raped, the fault falls to the perpetrator, no doubt about that. But the culpability of MTV’s responsibility in creating a dangerous environment is one that should be brought into question. If the camera is rolling, then someone is watching. The question is one of ethics, a question so often blurred behind the barrier of a lens. A question answered with the suicide of Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer, Kevin Carter.
The stipulations in MTV’s contract are not only shameful and exploitive but predatory and inhumane. The idea that at eighteen we are “adults” is one that is just that: an idea. There is a reason MTV’s reality shows are filled with adults in their early to late twenties. They make for the best television because they make the biggest mistakes, they take the bigger risks, they are vulnerable, more susceptible to hubris, and perhaps for most of them, it is safe to say they are still kids playing adults. While there can be an argument made that the “young adults” signing these contracts deserve what they sign up for, that they are “fame-whores,” that they know what they are getting themselves into, it still doesn’t make this kind of a contract right. It is in violation of the social contract that we as human beings are all a part of.
Do I blame my best friend for her brother attacking me? No. But did I feel a deep betrayal for her leaving me in an empty house with her brother who already had a criminal record of the same nature? How could I not? Do I blame myself for knowing he had a record and still trusting my environment enough that I would be safe to spend the night at my best friend’s house with a bunch of girlfriends? How could I not? Do I feel the experience could have been averted? How could I not?
Many lives were ripped apart that night and we are no longer discussing where the responsibility lied but rather living with the effects of “non-consensual physical contact.” MTV is looking to make exciting television at a cost far greater than those who sign binding contracts know. The contracts they draw are criminal, the television shows they create are derogatory to humankind, and their high ratings disgrace us all.
Maybe the next time we feel enticed to watch a sixteen year old girl struggle to navigate motherhood and high school while dealing with her cheating ex-boyfriend, we just might change the channel.
I wanted to share a few other great posts I came across as I researched the horrors of this "contract":
Jamie Frevele at The Mary Sue weighs in with: "If You’re Thinking About Being on MTV’s The Real World … Don’t. Please..."
Maureen at Feminists for Choice warns - MTV: You Might Get Raped, or Fired for Becoming Pregnant
What are your thoughts on the MTV Rape Clause and it's potential ramifications?
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