Too often when we are watching reality TV competitions, we forget that the participants are actual people with feelings and experiences we may never understand or know about. We see them in tropical locations, fighting for more money than we will make in a year, and suddenly they become characters rather than people. To add to our perception, large TV networks will occasionally use the participants’ past experiences as a cliffhanger to gain higher ratings and more viewers. On a previous week’s episode of MTV’s The Challenge, Chris “Ammo” Ammon Hall became a victim of these tactics. Ammo had undergone a sexual assault less than a year before competing on The Challenge, and MTV chose to use the panic attack triggered by his post traumatic stress disorder for suspense rather than address the issue that caused it.
To remain in the competition, Ammo and his competitor Jordan Wisely were put in mechanic’s jumpsuits with five velcro patches adorned on their bodies. They wrestled and fought to remove a patch before the other could do the same but with the added twist of being blindfolded. Ammo was initially in the lead before Jordan ultimately won. While Jordan and the other contestants discussed how tough both competitors fought and what Jordan’s win meant for their alliances, the camera twice panned to Ammo sitting on the ground with his head bent. In obvious pain, Ammo crumples to a fetal position, saying “not okay.” The music turns tense and the noise of an ambulance plays as Ammo hyperventilates, unable to open his eyes. The other challengers explain in voiceovers how scary the situation was to witness while we see the looks on their faces.
Unfortunately, that is where the episode ends with our only explanation of the situation being the next week’s teaser showing Ammo in the ambulance before continuing on to the jovial norm of hookups and partying expected of The Challenge. MTV did not address what occurred and instead utilized the situation as a means for drama. However, a quick Google search led to a post Ammo made on You Caring. Ammo’s story is heartbreaking to read, but it’s one that many can relate to. In late 2016, Ammo’s then-partner forced himself on him, and while Ammo recognized the encounter was non-consensual, his conservative upbringing had him believing it was not rape. He saw rape as something that happened between strangers and not the reality that rape can occur between loved ones. It wasn’t until Ammo questioned a social worker if you can be raped by someone who cares about you that he recognized the truth: he had been raped. It’s a situation many can understand because, as reported by the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey on the CDC website, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men are victims of sexual assault or violence by an intimate partner.
So when Ammo was pinned under his competitor, he relived the traumatic experience that occurred only a few months prior, causing an episode of post traumatic stress disorder. On the following episode of The Challenge, Ammo’s exit was hardly discussed; he was taken away in an ambulance and the female competitors continued. One of the twists of this season of The Challenge is that the losers go to a redemption house rather than going home, but in a video Ammo explains it would be best for his mental health for him to go home and not continue in the game any further. MTV had used Ammo’s situation for suspense without explaining why it had occurred and missed their chance to spread awareness on a topic relevant to many of their viewers.
Their decision to avoid discussing Ammo’s rape reflects how we treat male victims of rape in general. Rape has become synonymous with a woman’s experience as seen in the definition of rape, which was only changed in 2012 to include victims of both genders. From movies to TV shows, rape is used to provide character depth and bring a certain “edge” because the understanding that rape is horrible is easily digested, but accuracy is often ignored. Again mirroring our cultural ideas of rape, in these movies and shows, men are hardly the victims. Because Ammo’s story is personal and real, the chance to try to change the rape narrative to include men was perfect. And more than that, MTV has an ideal audience to bring about this change.
A Forbes article from 2015 states the average age of MTV viewers is 21, and 87% of viewers fall between the ages of 21 and 49. RAINN.org reports that 54% of sexual assault victims are between the ages of 18-34 and 28% of victims are 35-64. With the overlap between MTV’s audience ages and the ages most affected by sexual assault, MTV could have used Ammo’s experience to inform viewers of interrelationship violence. The people in this age group are sexually active and/or are parents of sexually active teens, and Ammo’s story could have provided a starting point to discuss rape and interrelationship violence. At the time, it may have been Ammo who was not ready to confront the issues, but MTV had other avenues once the episode had aired: for instance, The Challenge’s official Twitter account has over 200,000 followers, and MTV has 15.5 million. MTV is no stranger to risky, controversial, or taboo content on their other reality shows, such as True Life and Teen Mom, but warnings and helpful information accompany the episodes with such content. Ammo explains in his You Caring post that the reason he decided to participate in The Challenge was to prove to himself, his ex, and the world no one could tarnish his spirit. But instead of using this as part of his storyline, Ammo’s story was completely ignored.
This brings up the question: if large TV networks won’t help, what can we do to change the rape narrative? Ammo and the CDC both encourage sharing the information about interrelationship violence as a way to combat and stop it. Dialogue must be started and information must be passed on so those struggling may find the strength to get help and others may see every definition of rape. Sharing Ammo’s experience and talking about it with friends and family are a great way to start. Hopefully, with more discussion, we can see a change from the cultural norm reflected on screen. Maybe then we will be discussing what we see and not the missed opportunities.