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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

A New Twist on a Touchy Subject -- Sex

A hip and homespun podcast about sex education is a hit with teens.
By Fran Smith
Credit: Getty Images

In Episode 12 of a new podcast called The Midwest Teen Sex Show, a teenage girl walks into a kitchen to find her mother washing dishes at the sink.

GIRL: Hey, Mom . . . what's sex?

MOM (horror stricken, drops her dish towel, plugs each ear with a finger, and unleashes an I-don't-want-to-hear-this shriek): La-la-la-la-la-la-laaaa!

In the next scene, daughter and boyfriend are kissing.

SHE: So, um -- do you want to have sex?

HE (leaning back): Yeah.

SHE: OK. (She plugs her ears.) La-la-la-la-la-la-laaaa!

The bit is funny, but the point is serious: Sex should be discussed openly, fully, and without embarrassment. That message -- plus the bite and wit of its delivery, not to mention the provocative coupling of teen and sex in the title -- has made this homespun podcast an instant hit on the Web. With its blend of honesty, humor, and technology, Midwest offers an accessible, upbeat alternative to what schools generally teach about sex -- if they teach anything at all.

The young creators of Midwest are not professional educators, but they understand how to reach the first generation of teens to grow up with new media. The show addresses what kids want to know, in a way they like to learn, adding a new twist to an old battle over sex education in America.

"It's groundbreaking, it's hip, it's clever," says Judith Steinhart, a certified sexuality educator in New York City. "There are things about sex you can absolutely learn from watching the show -- things you won't learn in your health ed class, if you're lucky enough to have one."

The three- to four-minute video riffs made their debut last June. Since then, the show has covered such topics as homosexuality, abstinence (pros and cons), birth control, the older boyfriend, and in Episode 12, parents. ("Unless you were found in a Dumpster, you have parents to deal with. If they haven't had the sex talk with you, you should have it with them.")

On iTunes, where Midwest is listed as a health program, the show often appears among the five most frequently downloaded podcasts in the category. Earlier this year, the open source player Miro ranked Midwest as its most popular series ever, ahead of programs from such heavyweights as the Discovery Channel and Comedy Central. Each episode gets about 125,000 viewers, and one survey showed 37 percent are ages 13-20.

"What you guys say out loud, I say in my head," nineteen-year-old Matthew Chase, of Rochester, wrote in an email to the show's creators.

"You're treating sex exactly the way it should be treated," a fan wrote on the Midwest Web site. "As something -- gasp -- normal." "You're interesting, clearly labeled, informative," another enthusiast wrote. "I've worked in religious schools where the one-size-fits-all attitude has alienated many teens and made them worried about sexuality. So I really enjoy your program. Keep it up."

The team behind Midwest did not expect to attract a passionate following. "We were shocked that people actually started watching," says Guy Clark, the show's twenty-nine-year-old, Chicago-based director. But it should come as no surprise that in today's education and cultural environment, teens are flocking to a show that delivers straight talk about the pleasures and the risks of sex -- direct to their iPods. "It's very much the type of honest and nonjudgmental information that young people are craving," says Esperanza Macias, executive director of Health Initiatives for Youth, a San Francisco nonprofit organization that runs workshops on sexuality and risk reduction.

School-based sex education tends to be split into two camps: abstinence only, or the so-called comprehensive approach, which discourages early sexual activity but encourages the use of condoms and other precautions if premarital sex occurs -- and it does, for 95 percent of Americans, according to a study published in 2007 in Public Health Reports.

Federal and state governments have spent more than $1 billion on abstinence programs since 1996, and President George W. Bush is seeking increased funding for next year -- even though a recent $8 million evaluation mandated by Congress found such instruction doesn't stop or even delay sex. Meanwhile, fourteen states have rejected the abstinence money and mandate, choosing curricula that acknowledge teens may indeed have sex. But even in this relatively tolerant atmosphere, the abstinence crusade has left a chill.

"Teachers are not sure what they can and cannot say in the classroom."

"Teachers at this point are somewhat afraid," says Deb Levine, executive director of Internet Sexuality Information Services, in Oakland, California. "They're not sure what they can and cannot say in the classroom. They veer toward giving scientific information. It's factually correct but not socially relevant."

And so, while a huge ideological gulf separates the sex-ed camps, the fundamental message isn't altogether different. ISIS recently sponsored a contest asking young people to make digital videos about their sex-ed experience in school, and from seventy entrants, two themes emerged: First, if schools teach anything, it's that "Sex equals death." Students know that's not true, so the approach tends to discredit the teacher and the class.

Second, students want information to guide them, not just warnings about pregnancy and infections. They also want to learn about relationships, communication, and the body's responses.

Of course, unlike earlier generations, today's teens can use a laptop or a cell phone to inundate themselves with carnal knowledge. But this poses obvious problems, and many kids are sophisticated enough to understand that. "We hear over and over from young people that they go to Google, Yahoo, MySpace, YouTube, but they don't know how to sift through it,'' Levine says. "There's so much out there, and they don't know what's valid, what's accurate, what's helpful."

Educators, public health officials, and several teen groups are beginning to use interactive technology, such as chat, text messaging, and computer games, to disseminate accurate, reliable information in ways kids can relate to, and to answer their questions.

The folks at Midwest didn't set out to make an educational vehicle, but their videos perform that role for many teens. As a self-described "would-be filmmaker with no money," Clark spent several frustrating years searching for a producer to bankroll his talents before he got the idea of taping comedic vignettes about sex and posting them online. He asked Nikol Hasler (pictured above), a high school friend and mother of three, to cowrite and host the show. Through Craigslist.org, they found Britney Barber, a twenty-five-year-old aspiring comedian who plays a cornucopia of characters, from the gyrating blonde in a cornfield featured in Midwest's opening credits to a ditzy, gum-snapping teen in love with an older guy.

Clark, Hasler, and Barber work day jobs and film on weekends. The show is put together with a handheld Panasonic HD camera, a three-year-old iMac, Ikea lights duct-taped to the ceiling, and Barber's impressive stash of wigs and costumes.

Midwest has no nudity, "dirty" words or, for that matter, sexual displays -- television's Grey's Anatomy is steamier. Hasler's deadpan narration combines with Barber's wacky personae to give the show a mix of fact and gleeful parody -- think South Park with adolescent hormones. The message, to teens and adults alike, is "Lighten up -- but be smart."

"Sex is fun," Clark says. "It doesn't have to be a scary thing." Nor, the show suggests, does it have to be scary to discuss sex with teens.

"You're treating sex exactly the way it should be treated," a fan wrote on the Midwest Web site. "As something -- gasp -- normal."

Credit: Getty Images

Almost from the day it began, the show received dozens of emails daily, with questions, fears, and worrisome misconceptions. If the show's creators didn't expect anyone to watch, once they realized they'd struck a nerve, they, too, started talking -- earnestly and seriously -- to young people and parents.

Hasler answers every email, and she and Clark research each show and vet facts with medical experts. In January, Hasler and Clark attended SexTech, in San Francisco, billed as the first conference to examine ways to use Web tools and mobile technology to educate teens about sex.

Needless to say, Midwest has detractors. "It is appalling that anyone would think these videos useful to properly educating children about the purpose and place of sex in a well-adjusted person's life," a viewer commented on the show's Web site. In a video he made and posted on YouTube, a young man named Hal Chaffee objected to the show's treatment of abstinence and presented an eloquent pitch for waiting until the wedding night, as he said he and his wife had done. With Chaffee's permission, the Midwest crew posted the video on the show's site and invited response.

For a growing number of people, Midwest is a must-watch. A parent who recently stumbled across the show couldn't wait to share the discovery, writing, "I have a fifteen-year-old daughter and I just told her, I see no negatives about this site, only a positive way to open up discussions."

And that may be the program's contribution. Midwest isn't everything everyone should know about sex -- but it is a conversation starter in a medium students are comfortable with. By taking an edgy approach, the program takes some of the edge off a subject that makes young people -- and the adults who are supposed to educate them -- squirm.

Midwest reminds us that it's not only silly to plug fingers in your ears and block out kids' questions, it's dangerous. And they offer this option: Stick in earbuds instead, watch a podcast on sex, and let the conversation begin.

Fran Smith is a contributing editor for Edutopia.

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