It's an extreme experiment. Meeting a stranger at the altar and agreeing to marry whoever is standing in front of you. The show is called Married At First Sight and in its first five seasons on the air [the sixth is currently airing on A&E] it's matched 15 couples via various relationship and lifestyle experts, only three pairs successfully, giving the entire operation a 20 percent success rate.
Regardless of the results, young singles continue to come out in droves for auditions, which are held in a different city each season.
Jessica Castro, who joined the show's second season, was one of the ladies who was not so lucky in love from the show. Castro's betrothed, a then 29-year old businessman named Ryan DeNino, turned out to be not only a disappointing husband, but also exhibited abusive behavior both on and off screen. Castro, whose divorce from DeNino was final in 2016, says the experience was a traumatic one, but through it she learned she was stronger than she thought.“I did the show because two years prior I was in a 7 year relationship with someone who I thought was the one," Castro tells SWAAY, admitting that for her, MFS offered a way for her to move on from a painful breakup. “I thought 'I have nothing to lose. I work hard, I'm a single girl, I live on my own.' A lot of people say I did it for TV or that I must have known [how it would turn out] but I'd never been in a reality show so I did not know what to expect."
A Bushwick native, Castro experienced her share of ups and downs even before her Married at First Sight experience. “Growing up was a little rough," she says. “In the 80s there were gangs and guns and violence. It was difficult to grow up in that neighborhood. My parents worked hard for their kids to not become a Bushwick statistic."
Castro, a naturally bright girl, excelled in the classroom. With aspirations to compete in beauty pageants, Castro moved to Virginia, where she connected with a high school friend who was in the business of managing talent. Castro soon started modeling and booking music videos and commercials, discovering a passion for the entertainment industry.“I had a bunch of television credits prior to the show, but because it was a nationally -televised show, [Married at First Sight] is what put me on the map," says Castro. “I did think my fanbase would grow but when things went way left, it was very unfortunate. I wanted to fall in love and I wanted to have kids and that picket fence. But I learned from the show that everything will happen in due time and that everything needs to take its course."
Soon after their wedding, Castro's on-air interactions with her new husband began to turn from promising to awkward, then eventually to all-out uncomfortable, as DeNino began showing an aggressive streak that made everyday interactions become potential blowouts. On the show, Castro-who was the first Latina on the series- stomached insults and verbal attacks alike, attempting to openly discuss the issues that plagued them to try and save the relationship.
“I think the whole world noticed I was trying to make it work," she says. “Being in that moment I thought 'this is what marriage is.' I was really naive to be honest. I didn't want to let go because I wanted that love. I held as much as I could but during the process I started thinking maybe it was me. I was starting to second guess myself and have all these insecurities because I had been cheated on in the past, so it was a snowball effect."
The more Castro tried to keep her marriage alive despite the growing altercations and increasing rockiness, the more the viewers seemed to turn on her, admonishing her for not leaving and for complaining so much on-air about how she was being treated.
“I got bashed a lot on social media," says Castro. “People would call me a cry baby and say I'm supposed to be a strong Latina. But, they didn't realize what happens when you have cameras and contracts. It's a whole different ball game."
Although Castro and her husband were matched by experts that included a sexologist, a spiritualist, a psychologist and a sociologist, Castro says as the days of filming wore on, she started realizing this was not her perfect man. Despite "undergoing extensive background and psychological checks by third parties," Castro's lawyer at the time believed the network and production company should have done more to ensure potential abusive offenders be kept off the air.
“Being verbally abused is not something that I had ever dealt with in a relationship," says Castro. “It took time to hit me that this is not normal and it's not how any woman should be treated."
Castro says things got so bad that she actually wanted to walk from the relationship before the allotted six weeks of filming, but says she was unable to due to contractual obligations. "There were times where I didn't want to finish with the experiment because it was just that bad and I had no other choice but continue to be in the marriage for those six weeks," says Castro. "It didn't matter how much I was being verbally abused I had to finish with the experiment."
Castro says it wasn't until she actually watched the show on television that she realized how much she had endured, and how she had normalized DeNino's abusive behavior.
“When I saw the show over again I realized it wasn't me, not that I'm perfect, but I tried hard," she says. “I just had to let it go. He was not the one for me. Going through the process I was completely blinded. I felt like it was what I had to do."
Regardless of the tumult, Castro and DeNino decided to stay together on the show's dramatic "yes or no" finale, where contestants announce to each other, and the world, whether they plan to pursue to relationship or file for divorce. Although it may seem confusing that a couple that was constantly fighting would stay together, it's apparently not uncommon. In fact, of the show's 15 couples, ten stayed together on-air, but only three are together now, which begs the question whether or not MAFS subliminally forces incompatible people to remain together for the sake of the 'win.'
“I felt like saying yes at decision day was me winning, like we made it," says Castro. “But really I remember this day clearly. Right before we filmed it we were in the apartment in Park Slope and my producer, who I became close with, said 'I love you and know you want this to work but you need to write the pros and cons' of this relationship. There were so many more cons than pros but I still decided to stay with him. We decided to say yes but he said 'you'll stay in Brooklyn and I'll stay in Staten Island.' He had no real intentions of making it work."
In the months that followed, the arguments went from bad to worse. DeNino began threatening Castro's family, even spewing vitriol during the show's reunion special, while his mic was still on. In fear for her family's safety as well as her own, Castro decided to get a restraining order against her former husband in May, 2015, which was finalized in summer of the following year.“I thought it [the restraining order] was necessary from the threats that came out," says Castro. “I knew he was serious and after realizing how easily he can fly off the handle from little things, like a window being open in the apartment, I didn't want to risk anything, especially the safety of my family. He knew where I lived and where I worked. It wasn't worth the show or the spin off [a series planned that would update viewers on Castro's life], it was about our safety."
Castro soon found herself the subject of media scrutiny in articles that rebuked her as well as the show's producers for allowing a person with anger issues to participate with the show. “It's no surprise that the tabloids took it and ran with it," she says. “It was an unfortunate situation but I don't regret it. I've learned a lot from my experiences."
Finally, Castro- with the help of a trusted friend- realized she had to formerly end the marriage and move on with her life, turning a negative situation into something that would help uplift herself and other women.
“My aha moment came on a Sunday phone call with my best friend," says Castro. “She was the one who opened my eyes and said 'Jess this isn't the right person.' She said I had to let go of every attachment. I had to block him on everything. It took me a few days to realize this is what needed to be done. I shipped him back his tux, that's how done I was. It happened in the blink of the eye."
Castro then immediately mobilized, taking time to go through the many messages she had received throughout the show, answering the letters one by one, hoping to share her experiences in order to better another woman's life. “I give out my numbers, my email, because you just never know what someone is going through and how a little conversation can help change it," she says.
Castro and DeNino on their wedding day
Last summer, Castro decided to take her message even further through an event she organized called "Women Inspiring Women." There, a panel of women spoke to a crowd about navigating their multidimensional lives and careers, including motherhood, as well as leaving abusive relationships. “It was amazing to see all these women wanting to help and uplift each other," she says. “I love to continue to share my story because I just never know how it can impact another woman to get out of a relationship that she feels trapped in."
Looking to the future, this former reality star is focused on giving back. After the devastation of Hurricane Maria, Castro, who is of Puerto Rican descent, traveled to the country to do relief work with Family Services Network of New York. She and the team brought everything from food to solar lights to furniture, and visited nursing homes and families to help individually where she could. Castro sys she plans to continue speaking out to help women in abusive relationships know they are not alone. “A lot of women and young girls feel like they can't talk to their moms because they feel they are being judged, so, you keep the abuse under the rug," she says. “That was my life. I got bullied as a child and I never really spoke about it, I would just kind of deal with it. I want women to know they can get out."
Additionally, Castro has just signed on to become a mentor to young women in order to help build confidence and feel empowered.
When asked if she believes in the Married at First Sight experiment and whether or not it can be successful in the future, Castro says that because contestants are getting paid for their participation, it's more complicated that simply matching chemistry. “I think it became about the money, because from seasons 2 to 4 there have been no successful marriages," says Castro, underscoring that intentions are everything. “I just don't think the show is really out for the best interest of people in terms of falling in love. There should be [stricter] background checks. I put my life in their hands and thought this would be the perfect ending to my story. But my story is awesome now. Everything happens for a reason."
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.