Social and Emotional Learning

A New Twist on a Touchy Subject -- Sex

A hip and homespun podcast about sex education is a hit with teens.
March 20, 2008
Credit: Getty Images

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

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

MOM (horror stricken, drops her dish towel, plugs each earwith 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 discussedopenly, fully, and without embarrassment. That message -- plus the bite and wit of its delivery, not to mention theprovocative coupling of teen and sex in the title -- has made thishomespun podcast an instant hit on the Web. With its blend ofhonesty, humor, and technology, Midwest offers an accessible,upbeat alternative to what schools generally teach about sex -- if they teach anything at all.

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The young creators of Midwest are not professional educators,but they understand how to reach the first generation ofteens to grow up with new media. The show addresses whatkids want to know, in a way they like to learn, adding a newtwist 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. "Thereare things about sex you can absolutely learn from watchingthe show -- things you won't learn in your health ed class, ifyou're lucky enough to have one."

The three- to four-minute video riffs made their debut lastJune. Since then, the show has covered such topics as homosexuality,abstinence (pros and cons), birth control, the olderboyfriend, and in Episode 12, parents. ("Unless you were foundin a Dumpster, you have parents to deal with. If they haven'thad the sex talk with you, you should have it with them.")

On iTunes, where Midwest is listed as a health program, theshow often appears among the five most frequently downloadedpodcasts in the category. Earlier this year, the open source playerMiro ranked Midwest as its most popular series ever, ahead ofprograms from such heavyweights as the Discovery Channeland 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 theshow's creators.

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

The team behind Midwest did not expect to attract a passionatefollowing. "We were shocked that people actually startedwatching," says Guy Clark, the show's twenty-nine-year-old,Chicago-based director. But it should come as no surprise thatin today's education and cultural environment, teens are flockingto a show that delivers straight talk about the pleasures andthe risks of sex -- direct to their iPods. "It's very much the type ofhonest and nonjudgmental information that young people arecraving," says Esperanza Macias, executive director of HealthInitiatives for Youth, a San Francisco nonprofit organizationthat 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 useof condoms and other precautions if premarital sex occurs -- and it does, for 95 percent of Americans, according to a studypublished in 2007 in Public Health Reports.

Federal and state governments have spent more than$1 billion on abstinence programs since 1996, and PresidentGeorge W. Bush is seeking increased funding for next year --even though a recent $8 million evaluation mandated by Congressfound such instruction doesn't stop or even delay sex.Meanwhile, fourteen states have rejected the abstinence moneyand mandate, choosing curricula that acknowledge teensmay 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 cannotsay in the classroom. They veer toward giving scientificinformation. It's factually correct but not socially relevant."

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

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

Of course, unlike earlier generations, today's teens can usea laptop or a cell phone to inundate themselves with carnalknowledge. But this poses obvious problems, and many kidsare sophisticated enough to understand that. "We hear overand 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 knowwhat's valid, what's accurate, what's helpful."

Educators, public health officials, and several teen groupsare beginning to use interactive technology, such as chat, textmessaging, and computer games, to disseminate accurate,reliable information in ways kids can relate to, and to answertheir questions.

The folks at Midwest didn't set out to make an educationalvehicle, but their videos perform that role for many teens. Asa self-described "would-be filmmaker with no money," Clarkspent several frustrating years searching for a producer tobankroll his talents before he got the idea of taping comedicvignettes about sex and posting them online. He asked NikolHasler (pictured above), a high school friend and mother ofthree, to cowrite and host the show. Through Craigslist.org,they found Britney Barber, a twenty-five-year-old aspiringcomedian who plays a cornucopia of characters, from the gyratingblonde in a cornfield featured in Midwest's opening creditsto 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 HDcamera, a three-year-old iMac, Ikea lights duct-taped to theceiling, and Barber's impressive stash of wigs and costumes.

Midwest has no nudity, "dirty" words or, for that matter, sexualdisplays -- television's Grey's Anatomy is steamier. Hasler'sdeadpan narration combines with Barber's wacky personae togive the show a mix of fact and gleeful parody -- think SouthPark with adolescent hormones. The message, to teens andadults 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 sexwith 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 ofemails daily, with questions, fears, and worrisome misconceptions.If the show's creators didn't expect anyone to watch, oncethey 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 andvet facts with medical experts. In January, Hasler and Clark attendedSexTech, in San Francisco, billed as the first conferenceto examine ways to use Web tools and mobile technology toeducate teens about sex.

Needless to say, Midwest has detractors. "It is appalling thatanyone would think these videos useful to properly educatingchildren about the purpose and place of sex in a well-adjustedperson's life," a viewer commented on the show's Web site. In avideo he made and posted on YouTube, a young man named HalChaffee objected to the show'streatment of abstinence andpresented an eloquent pitchfor waiting until the weddingnight, as he said he and hiswife had done. With Chaffee's permission, the Midwest crewposted 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 waitto share the discovery, writing, "I have a fifteen-year-old daughter andI just told her, I see no negatives about this site, only a positiveway to open up discussions."

And that may be the program's contribution. Midwest isn'teverything everyone should know about sex -- but it is a conversationstarter in a medium students are comfortable with. Bytaking an edgy approach, the program takes some of the edgeoff a subject that makes young people -- and the adults who aresupposed to educate them -- squirm.

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

Fran Smith is a contributing editor for Edutopia.