Sex, HIV, and 'Being Mary Jane'

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On this National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, I want to talk television. Specifically, Being Mary Jane. Odd? Yes, but BET’s new primetime drama Being Mary Jane is making waves in the television world.

The series chronicles the life of Mary Jane Paul (played by Gabrielle Union), a successful television journalist and fiercely independent woman, as she balances a demanding career, a dysfunctional family, and an intense yet complicated love affair with a married man, Andre. Let’s not forget her on-again-off-again lover David. Being Mary Jane is raw and poignant in its depiction of the messiness and perplexity of one single, black woman’s journey to self-realization.

Being Mary JaneImage courtesy of BET

Aside from Mary Jane’s dramatic personal journey, viewers are drawn by emotionally-charged, semi-soft pornographic love scenes with her married love interest. Passionate sex in a gym locker room. Kinky sex in the hallway. Titillating oral sex on the living room floor. Brock-Akil explores the deep, multifaceted nature of black female sexuality as it relates to pleasure, desire, pain, excess, and addiction. I am particularly drawn to this uninhibited display of Mary Jane’s sexuality as it humanizes and centers her experiences as a black woman.

On Tuesday nights, Twitter and Facebook are often abuzz about Mary Jane's and Andre’s sexy, yet messy, trysts, as the pair engage in compromising sexual situations nearly every episode. For the most part, these sexual situations don’t include condoms nor discussion about common risks such as pregnancy, STIs, and HIV. Is there any reprieve for a sexual health scholar such as myself?

Gabrielle Union
Image: © Allstar/Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com

::Insert Jackie Reid Oraquick® commercial here::

Those of us who don’t hurry off for bathroom breaks or a quick refill of our favorite wine (because this show will make you drink) probably noticed the perfectly timed commercial staring TV personality Jackie Reid sitting in a bedroom giving us a sister-friend talk. Reid engages us with a lighthearted conversation about navigating and enjoying our sexual selves, yet knowing our HIV status in the process. As cliché as the “know your status” talk may seem, this informative commercial serves as a learning moment for women of color. We can enviously imagine and somewhat vicariously live through Mary Jane's very active sex life, but we know that sex is not as carefree as depicted. Thus, it is no mistake that this Oraquick® commercial is aired on BET during a show about a single, black woman navigating her sexual world.

The incidence of new HIV infections has been on the decline in recent years, though African American women continue to bear the brunt of the HIV epidemic among women in this country. Specifically, we account for 64% of all new HIV infections occurring among US women (CDC, 2013). Of these new infections occurring among African American women, about 87% are attributed to heterosexual contact. Unfortunately, it has been projected that 1 in 32 African American women will contract the virus at some point in their lives (CDC, 2013). Understanding the risks that come along with unprotected sex and concurrent sexual partnerships, I applaud this collaboration between BET and Oraquick®, the first FDA-approved in home oral HIV test, and its attempts to lower the shroud of stigma and misinformation surrounding HIV/AIDS.

Regular testing of self and sexual partners along with consistent condom use greatly reduces the risk of HIV infection; furthermore, early detection can positively impact people's linkage to the care and treatment they may need. HIV is preventable and treatable, but we must do the work, continue the conversation, and dispel the myths; there is room for pleasure and desire in HIV prevention. Besides, unbridled sexual pleasure is truly more enjoyable when we recognize and reduce our risk.

 

Wendasha Jenkins

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