[The Sexuality Blog] “I Need to Know”, “MTV Shuga” and why we need more TV shows on youth sexual health

MTV Shuga

I wasn’t sexually active until my early twenties, a post-university phase of my life where I had to understand sex in my queer identity. Then, I wasn’t sure why it took me that long, given that my peers (straight and queer) were having functioning sex lives and seemed happy. I was mildly envious, but most importantly I felt they wouldn’t have told me if they used protection. So I always refrained from asking, because I would sound ridiculous and a little puerile, and they would find the question mortifying that they wouldn’t want to speak to me again. On that issue, at least.

Then it struck me that the reason I hadn’t been sexually active was because of HIV/AIDS, and how it’s been fearmongered as an incurable, deadly disease contracted through sex. Also, the stereotype about HIV being a “gay disease” was a message I internalised for a long time. In high school, we had external resource persons come to teach us about sex education, trained peer educators from NGOs who handed us pamphlets and materials and talked disproportionately about adolescence pregnancy and reeled out statistics. But these sessions were often disruptive because of classroom noise, and had minimal impact because they were sanitised.

We were never given condoms but we were told about them, and HIV became a dreadful orbit around which these teachings revolved. As high school students, young adults dealing with puberty and raging hormones, we were infantilised because knowing too much might “corrupt” our “innocence,” and hence limited our options within the scope of what was disseminated. Knowledge about one’s reproductive health and the right to make sound decisions on this can be empowering. So when I came across I Need to Know, the TV show on the National Television Authority (NTA) and sponsored by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), I saw something really special.

At the time, though, the show felt scandalising. I would call it “woke” if I Need to Know were released in 2018. But then we have MTV Shuga, a plush, modern upgrade on youth-cultural tropes with celebrity appearances and booze. But I Need to Know and MTV Shuga were adapted for different times, and credit to the former for being a pop-cultural forerunner and launching pad for beloved actress Funke Akindele, who played the role of the naïve but curious Bisi. The show’s first episode was released in 1998, but I didn’t get into it until much later. I Need to Know isn’t just a cheesy, high school drama. Yes, there are cliques and fights and the kind of slightly tonally dulled, teenage language you would expect from a young person living before the millennium, before social media and “Netflix and chill.” But there’s the complexity of handling sex and pregnancy, condoms, the helpless limitations to what parents know about sex education, and also peer pressure.

I wouldn’t say the show was nuanced, though. If anything, I Need to Know made the discussions about sex marginally easier, and showcased a world where the onus is on its characters to be informed about their sexual health. Bisi and her tempestuous clique of friends made the show relatable and tonally effective. Their school cafeteria, in which they frequented to have disastrously sweet drinks, seemed hermetic and safe for catch-ups and their sex-related curiosities. The male characters had their own secluded space, but it was Bisi and her friends that provided more compelling narrative bite.

Since 2009 when MTV Shuga first aired on MTV Base, the show has blasted out from the little fish pond to become a Pan-African unifier. With an updated millennial vocabulary, swaggering aspect and urban nightclubs, MTV Shuga is the legitimate mimic of I Need to Know, a descendant with its own vibrant, unique pulse. Though I missed the Lupita Nyong’o season, the show’s remarkable, controversial debut in Nairobi, Kenya, I subsequently came to see the show as a multimedia campaign on HIV/AIDS mostly.

There’s sex, love, and more sex. And scenes can get preachy. But I get it. According to healththink.org, youth and adolescents are most at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. And, not-so-fun fact: Nigeria follows South Africa as having the second largest HIV burden in the world. In a 2013 survey carried out by the National HIV/AIDS and Reproductive Health Survey (NARHS), the data showed that 56.4% of adolescent boys and 39.6% of adolescent girls had unprotected sex with their partners. And what’s striking about these figures is that more adolescents were engaged in this behaviour than other age groups in the study.

By tailoring the mass media, especially TV shows to meet the information vacuum on sex and the need for responsible sexual behaviour in the youth demographic, we can cut down this alarming statistics by a reasonable margin. MTV Shuga returns for its sixth season on March 6, and it will do so on a solitary run. With new cast members and Nigeria as location setting, the show is seizing the zeitgeist – and we need more like it.

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