MTV prides itself on being a cool, sex-positive network for young people. Hundreds of think pieces about sex positivity have been spawned by MTV’s reality shows over the years, and the brand even won four awards in 2003 for its HIV/AIDS-related programming.
But if you ask TikToker Suzanna Brusikiewicz about whether MTV lives up to its own standards, she’ll disagree and point to a recent episode of Ridiculousness.
Ridiculousness has run on MTV since 2011 and is hosted by comedian Rob Dyrdek. Dyrdek, along with a rotating cast of hosts, critiques and comments on viral videos. In one episode, Dyrdek shows one of Brusikiewicz’s TikToks where she talks about being diagnosed with herpes but still being “f***ing hot.”
“I knew they would roast me,” Brusikiewicz said in her response video. “[But] I was hoping that the video would reach the people that needed to see it.”
In the episode, all three hosts laugh after Brusikiewicz says she has two fun facts, one of them being that she has herpes.
“That’s not fun facts; that’s a scary fact,” host Chanel joked.
“And, yes, I’m a superspreader,” Dyrdek said, pretending to be Brusikiewicz.
“I was pretty blown away when I heard what was said in the end,” Brusikiewicz told In The Know. “All it did was perpetuate the stigma that people with herpes or any STI suffer under already.”
Genital herpes, one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STI), has a major stigma surrounding it. Slate, which wrote about how herpes became this “sexual boogeyman,” traced the height of herpes hysteria to the 1980s. At the time, media outlets were covering the panic surrounding the STI — Time even referred to herpes as “the new Scarlet Letter” — and, as it coincided with the height of AIDS, it was seemingly the first time Americans realized that there were health risks from casual sex.
But now herpes is treatable. Half a billion people worldwide have it. There are medications and tactics people can use to lower the likelihood of spreading it to their partners. The CDC does not even recommend people get tested for herpes unless they have physical symptoms first.
Despite available treatment, herpes still has that “Scarlet Letter” stigma today. People like Brusikiewicz have been working to dismantle it — not only for the benefit of patients’ mental health but also because the stigma also stops a lot of people from disclosing it to sexual partners.
“For all sexually transmitted infections, it’s much easier for women to become infected, and that’s because our tissues are very delicate,” Dr. Hilda Hutcherson, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University, told NPR. “I find that there is a lot of guilt and shame when it comes to sex and talking about sex.”
Ridiculousness is not a throwaway show for MTV. In 2020, multiple publications noticed that Ridiculousness made up the majority of MTV’s original programming. John Gonzalez of The A.V. Club witnessed a 36-hour marathon of Ridiculousness in August 2020; Variety‘s Michael Schneider and Kate Arthur said that Ridiculousness was on for 113 out of a total 168 hours of MTV programming in June 2020.
For Ridiculousness to mock Brusikiewicz’s herpes diagnosis seems to directly contradict the sex-positive branding MTV has built for itself over the years — especially since MTV promotes the show so heavily.
“[Herpes] is nothing new, and it has nothing to do with promiscuity,” Brusikiewicz said. “Incel and red pill culture love to tag a woman who seems desirable, attractive and who knows her worth as the problem.”
It took Brusikiewicz over a year from her diagnosis to be more open about having herpes. Aside from telling her partners, it was a secret that she admitted she sometimes felt suicidal over.
“Once I educated myself more and started to pull apart the stigma, I worked on regaining my confidence,” she said. “If speaking up about herpes and how hot I still am with it could help people out of that dark place I was in or avoid it altogether — then I won’t stop any time soon.”
Brusikiewicz’s TikTok is full of informational videos and dismissive responses to trolls who try to shame her for being so public about having herpes.
A few weeks after speaking with In The Know, Brusikiewicz took to TikTok to announce that the production company that works on Ridiculousness had finally contacted her. The production company is separate from MTV.
“I understand you have concerns from a clip you licensed to us to use on the show,” a representative from the production company said in a voicemail. “We’re going to remove the clip from the show so it won’t be broadcast anymore.”
But Brusikiewicz wasn’t interested in having the clip removed. She knew what she was doing when she allowed Ridiculousness to use her video. She, instead, wanted the show to have a larger conversation about STIs.
“My intention from the beginning was to reach audiences … beyond TikTok,” she said in the video. “But calling someone a ‘superspreader’ was too far. … My gripe still lies with MTV because they, as a network, promote themselves as being sex positive, and it was really irresponsible to allow content that shames people for having a very common virus.”
Ella Dawson, an author and sex culture critic, went viral for her Tedx Talk about having herpes in 2016 and talked a lot about how herpes is simply “a very common virus.” Brusikiewicz credits Dawson as being the first herpes advocate she was exposed to following her diagnosis.
“Telling someone you have an STI should not be brave or shocking,” Dawson said. “It should be normal, and kind of boring. … An STI, especially herpes, is not a reflection of your character or a consequence of a bad decision. It is an inevitability of being a human being on this planet who comes into skin contact with other human beings.”
For more information on STIs and advocates to follow on Instgram, Brusikiewicz recommends In The Know readers check out the following accounts:
Coach Belize: Life coach.
Araik Tashay: Content creator.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor at no charge by texting the word “HOME” to 741741. Visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to learn more about the warning signs of suicidal ideation, and check out the Jed Foundation’s online Mental Health Resource Center.
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