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):
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
"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
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
"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