Jul 27, 2018

Gonads: Sex Ed

If there’s one thing Gonads taught us, it’s just how complicated human reproduction is. All the things we thought we knew about biology and sex determination are up for debate in a way that feels both daunting and full of potential. At the same time, we're at a moment where we’re wrestling with how to approach conversations around sex, consent, and boundaries, at a time that may be more divisive than ever. So host Molly Webster thought: what if we took on sex ed, and tried to tackle questions from listeners, youth, reddit (oh boy), and staff.

But instead of approaching these questions the way your high school health teacher might’ve (or government teacher, who knows), Molly invited a cast of storytellers, educators, artists, and comedians to grapple with sex ed in unexpected and thoughtful ways. To help us think about how we can change the conversation. In this episode, an edited down version of a Gonads Live show, Molly's team takes a crack at responding to the intimate questions you asked when you were younger but probably never got a straight answer to. Featuring:

How Do You Talk About Condoms Without Condom Demonstrations? Sanford Johnson. Wanna see how to put on a sock?

What Are Periods? Sindha Agha and Gul Agha. Check out Sindha's photography here.

Is Anything Off-Limits? Ericka Hart, Dalia Mahgoub, and Jonathan Zimmerman 

Why Do We Do This Anyway? And Other Queries from Fifth Graders Jo Firestone

"Sex Ed" is an edited* recording of a live event hosted by Radiolab at the Skirball Center in New York City on May 16, 2018. Radiolab Team Gonads is Molly Webster, Pat Walters, and Rachael Cusick, with Jad Abumrad. Live music, including the sex ed questions, and the Gonads theme song, were written, performed, and produced by Majel Connery and Alex Overington. 

One more thing! 

Over the past few months, Radiolab has been collecting sex ed book suggestions from listeners and staff, about the books that helped them understand the birds and the bees.

Check out the full Gonads Presents: Sex Ed Bookshelf here! For now, a few of our favorites:

It's Perfectly Normal: A Book about Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret
Our Bodies, Ourselves for the New Century
The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability: For All of Us Who Live with Disabilities, Chronic Pain, and Illness
Guide to Getting It On!
I Am Jazz
The Boy & the Bindi
Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation
What Makes a Baby
Where Did I Come From?


*Our live show featured the following additional questions and answerers:

How do you talk to your partner in bed without sound like an asshold or a slut? Upright Citizens Brigade, featuring Lou Gonzales, Molly Thomas, and Alexandra Dickson

What Happens to All the Condom Bananas? Rachael Cusick

With live event production help from Melissa LaCasse and Alicia Allen; engineering by Ed Haber and George Wellington; and balloons by Candy Brigham from Candy Twisted Balloons Special. Special thanks to Larry Siegel, Upright Citizens Brigade, and Emily Rothman and the Start Strong Initiative at the Boston Public Health Commission. 

Radiolab is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science. And the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate. 


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MOLLY WEBSTER: Before we get started, just a note. This episode contains some strong language as well as content that may not be suitable or at least ready for younger ears. It is an episode about Sex Ed. Okay, thanks.




MOLLY: Hey, I'm Molly Webster. This is Gonads, episode six, and it's our last episode [laughs]. I'm gonna go cry after this is done, but first I want to share with you this really fun thing that Team Gonads did in May. And that is we did a live event on Sex Ed. You know, if you've been listening to this series, we have been looking at the biology of biological sex and sex determination. And one of the things we kept thinking was, like, man, now that we know how complicated it is, like, how do we teach this stuff? And how do we teach this stuff in a climate where people are really polarized and divided? And thinking about all this, Sex Ed, it just felt like more than a radio story. You know, if you bring up Sex Ed with anybody, they have stories, they get excited, they get animated, and it really felt like something that would live quite beautifully in a live space, in a live event. You know, almost like recreate the Sex Ed classes we all may or may not have gone through. So today, we'll be bringing you clips of that show, and it starts with Jad Abumrad.


JAD ABUMRAD: Hello, hello! How are you guys doing?




JAD: All right! So, so, so excited you are here. So I guess I should just say welcome to Radiolab: Sex Ed!




JAD: That is a sentence I never thought I would say. In the 15 years I've been doing this show, I never anticipated this moment where I'd be on-stage saying that to a live group of humans. But, you know, here we are. And I grew up in Tennessee, so I actually didn't have Sex Ed. So I am looking forward to learning something tonight. Please welcome to the stage Radiolab's Molly Webster!




MOLLY: Hello? Hello, hello, hello. Whoo! This kind of feels like my Sex Ed class, which was, like, nerve-wracking and you're not sure how it's gonna go [laughs]. So to start the night, we are gonna go down South. Mississippi, 2011. The state passes a law that places some restrictions on Sex Ed, notably when it comes to talking about condoms.


SANFORD JOHNSON: The law specifically says no instruction or demonstration on the application of a condom.


MOLLY: So that's Sanford Johnson. He is a sex educator in Mississippi. And so on the one hand you might think, no big deal, right? It's just a piece of plastic. Kids can figure out how to use it. We don't have to show them everything. But Sanford says it's not really that easy.


SANFORD JOHNSON: I will tell you a story from when I was a high school teacher here in the Mississippi Delta, because ...


MOLLY: The school brought in a guest certified sex educator to talk to the kids about sex.


SANFORD JOHNSON: He said this quote that has -- it has stuck with me for 15 years now. But he said when you make a condom, in the time it takes you to drive it from the factory to the store, it loses half of its effectiveness. And then he said that, in the time it takes you to drive it from the store to your house, it loses another half of its effectiveness. And in the time it takes you to take it out of the wrapper and actually put it on, it loses another half of its effectiveness. And I was thinking, that's not how math works!


MOLLY: So Sanford and all of his teacher friends were like, well if this is what kids are being told, maybe we really do need to do those condom demonstrations. But the question is how. So for Sanford, this all came to a head at a teacher training that he was at. So the teacher training was to train teachers in how to teach Sex Ed, and as part of the training, one of the teachers was, like, up in front of the group and she was supposed to explain how to use a condom. Because this is the caveat in the law. You can talk about a condom, but you can't explain or, like, show how to use one. And so this teacher ...


SANFORD JOHNSON: She was a hand-talker. So as she talks she pantomimed a lot, and as she was reading the steps, like she couldn't help but actually pantomime how to put on a condom. And somebody from the state department said, "I don't think you should do that. I really don't think you should do that." Like, that's a condom demonstration.


MOLLY: Talking with her hands was now illegal.


SANFORD JOHNSON: And it got to the point where as she's saying the steps, she actually has her hands behind her back and, like, that's how she's giving -- like, that's how she's going through the steps. So we thought it was the most hilarious thing in the world.


MOLLY: It's hilarious, yes. But it's also like, we need to tell these kids about condoms and we don't really know how to do it. And so thinking about this the next day, Sanford came up with something that I think might be one of my most favorite things on the internet.


[VIDEO CLIP: Hi, my name is Sanford Johnson. I'm doing Sex Ed training right now.]


MOLLY: It's kind of this, like, grainy, in the shadows iPhone video, in which Sanford Johnson is standing there with one foot barefoot while he's holding a white tube sock and a sneaker. And remember, according to Mississippi law, he's not allowed to perform an actual condom demonstration with a condom. So what he does is he holds up this tube sock to the camera and he says ...


[VIDEO CLIP: I'm gonna teach kids how to put on a sock. If you're gonna be engaged in sock activity, whether you're wearing an athletic shoe or whether you're using a dress shoe, doesn't matter to me as long as your foot is protected. I want to make sure that you have a sock. So if I'm putting on a sock, what I do is I start with the sock and I'm gonna pinch out the air out of the tip of sock because I want to make sure that there's room for my toes when I'm engaging in shoe activity. Then I take the sock and I put it on top of my foot, and all I do is just roll it down. Just roll it down. Now some people stop right here and just only put that sock on halfway, that's not how you do it. You want to take your sock and you want to roll it all the way down your foot. You want to roll it all the way down your foot, and then you can put it inside your shoe. And then you're ready to engage in a shoe activity. Now when I'm done ...]


MOLLY: This video lives on our website and you should absolutely go watch it when you're done with this episode. This video is delightful, but it served a larger purpose for us, which is that it reminded us that there are a lot of different ways to have conversations about sex and the body. And we thought, okay, what if for our live show, we try to reframe the conversations happening around Sex Ed? What if we use metaphor and euphemism and comedy, maybe even a little meditation as a way to navigate all the stuff swirling around Sex Ed, whether that's a law in Mississippi or just the general awkwardness that comes with this topic. So to do this, one thing Sanford and sex educators from all across the country told us was that a key part of a Sex Ed classroom was a question box where students could drop in anonymous questions, and then the teachers would pull them out and answer them to try and facilitate discussion. So we thought, what if we make our own question box and try and answer the questions with this reframing? So we gathered questions from listeners, Reddit, Sanford, fifth graders. It's in no way comprehensive, but we gave it a try. To kick us off, here's Majel Connery singing the first question. This is just her, a mic and a vocoder.


[MAJEL CONNERY: [singing] What are periods? What are periods? Oh, what are periods? Oh what, oh what are periods?]


SINDHA AGHA: It's really an unbelievable pain. It feels like someone's shoving a knife up inside me and then turning it slowly, but with no rhythm that I can track so I can never quite get my head on top of it of predicting it. It feels like I'm, like, in hell and I can't move.


MOLLY: That's Sindha Agha. She's 24, a filmmaker. And she's talking about what she goes through every month when she gets her period. Now periods, sort of a weird topic, still a little taboo, hush hush. I say paternalism, maybe. Like, it is a little hard though, roughly half the planet doesn't get them. And even if you do, every period is so different, they're kind of hard to talk about. But Sindha has seemingly found a new language for discussing her period and it's with kind of an unexpected companion. Some background ...


SINDHA AGHA: So I have endometriosis, which is a reproductive illness that one in 10 American women have where your endometrium, which is usually the lining of your uterus that gets shed during your period starts growing in all these places it's not supposed to. So on your organs and your intestines.


MOLLY: Wait, it actually starts growing outside of your uterus?


SINDHA AGHA: That's what endometriosis is.


MOLLY: So each month -- and I had no idea about this, I feel embarrassed as a 35-year-old woman to have gotten to this point and not known this, but each month your body tries to push out all that extra tissue that's in places and it can't.


SINDHA AGHA: It can't get rid of it.


MOLLY: And so it's very painful. And you can take birth control to help eliminate the pain, which Sindha did for many years, but then she started getting depressions and all these complications and so she had to stop. And as soon as she did, the pain came rushing back.


SINDHA AGHA: I got my first period off of birth control. I was maybe 22 years old. And it hit me when I was at the airport in Casablanca in Morocco alone, because I was traveling back from Liberia.


MOLLY: She'd been making a documentary for the BBC and was about to fly home.


SINDHA AGHA: And I got my period, and I had, like, 30 minutes 'til I was supposed to board my flight to JFK to get back to the United States. And all of a sudden I couldn't move.


MOLLY: She said she just sort of froze in place in front of the food court.


SINDHA AGHA: And a janitor ended up coming up to me and being like, "Are you okay?" in Arabic. And I was like, "I kind of speak French, I don't speak Arabic." And he was like, "Are you okay?" in French, and I respond and I was like, oh I don't know how to say 'period' in French.


MOLLY: He was very helpful, but the pain was so bad she was just like, "I have to call somebody."


SINDHA AGHA: And I still had wi-fi so I called my dad.


MOLLY: Which I was kind of surprised about. Like, I'm pretty close to my dad, but he's not the "period guy." Maybe we're old-fashioned, I don't know. So we called them both into the studio to talk about it.


MOLLY: All right.


GUL AGHA: Okay, so I'm Gul Agha. I'm a professor and I'm her dad.


MOLLY: I asked him what was it like to get that phone call.


GUL AGHA: You know, it was hard for me because I couldn't do anything. It was sort of helpless, and all you can do is sit there and feel the emotions but not be able to, you know ...


SINDHA AGHA: I feel really bad for you, yeah.


MOLLY: Gul said that on that call, while Sindha was in the Casablanca airport and he was all the way in Illinois, he just started trying to do everything.


GUL AGHA: Close your eyes, take a deep breath. What are you feeling?


MOLLY: Meanwhile Sindha's literally ...


SINDHA AGHA: I sound like I'm having a baby. In labor.


GUL AGHA: Yeah, it's like being in the labor room.


MOLLY: She was crying and moaning and Gul's trying to make her feel better. He's like, tossing out all these ideas, but the pain's still really bad.


SINDHA AGHA: And then my dad said, "Think about a color. Like, think about the color red." And then shift it to a different color in your brain.


MOLLY: In that moment, Sindha became 11 years old again. It was her first period, and the pain was terrible.


SINDHA AGHA: I was laying in bed. My mom couldn't be there. And she was, you know, almost always there but she had to be at work and I was having really bad cramps. So it was my dad and my uncle leaning over me trying to help me, and I was just, like, mortified but I was in too much pain to, like, really worry about it. And my dad turned on Gregorian chants and he burned some incense and he started waving it over my head and he was saying, like, "Just track the smoke with your eyes and just follow it. Follow it. Okay. Imagine you are the smoke and you're just floating." And I was really committing to this. I was like, "Okay, I'm the smoke!" And then he was like, "Okay, close your eyes. Imagine a color. What color you seeing?" I was like, "Red." Obviously, because I was on my period.


MOLLY: Sindha realized in that moment she could actually see the pain. It was a thing that had a shape to it that she could identify.


SINDHA AGHA: And then he's like, "Okay, and now try to change it into a different color with your brain." And I was like, "I guess blue."


MOLLY: Sindha found herself thinking back to that moment, and once again talking to her dad and trying to transform the color of the pain.


SINDHA AGHA: I remember standing on the little staircase that leads up to the plane, and I was, like, gripping onto the bar trying not to fall over and, like, gritting my teeth, just like clenching my jaw. And I was just like, "Okay, the color red. Okay, I see it. Yeah, I see it. All right. Okay, come on. Turn into something else. Pink maybe. Okay. All right, whew!"


MOLLY: And she says standing there about to board the seven-hour flight, it actually helped.


SINDHA AGHA: I mean, I was still in really bad pain, but mentally I can -- I can stay here.


MOLLY: Sit inside of it.


GUL AGHA: It's like it's to be non-judgmental.




GUL AGHA: It's like okay, I'm feeling pain, let's really feel it.


SINDHA AGHA: It's very Sufi, because in his -- in Sufi tradition and Sindhi culture ...


MOLLY: And so Sindha and her dad are from Southern Pakistan.


SINDHA AGHA: You don't, like, try to avoid suffering. Instead, you just try to express it. Like, when someone dies there's literally professional wailers that you hire to come wail and cry with you, right? Or maybe you don't pay them, but you were telling me about this.


GUL AGHA: Yeah, that it is common. Yeah. Yeah, and you know, and every time somebody comes visiting the whole story is repeated and then the professional wailers start to ...


MOLLY: Crying. It's their job to, like, express suffering.


GUL AGHA: And it's to get you to cry again.


MOLLY: It's not to be the crier if you can't cry? It's actually to get you keep going through it.




SINDHA AGHA: To keep crying, to keep pushing through the feeling.


GUL AGHA: Right.


MOLLY: So sit with the pain, that's point number one. And point number two is, pain to me seems pretty dark. I don't know about you, but I don't know if I would actually think about a color. But Sindha said for her family it's not that surprising because her dad's, like, a little obsessed with color.


SINDHA AGHA: You know, he would always wear, like, Post-It note hot pink, bright orange, purple.


MOLLY: You're wearing purple right now. Is that culture, or is that just you not caring?


GUL AGHA: Well, there are many people in the culture who ...


SINDHA AGHA: Like, men wear pink.


GUL AGHA: Pink, not unusual. Red is more common.


MOLLY: And Sindha's laughing here, but if she was being honest, she would say that when she was a kid, this color palette ...


SINDHA AGHA: Well, this used to really embarrass me. Now I'm proud of it. Sorry.


MOLLY: In the end, color was a place that she and her dad were able to meet. And then just keep meeting, because the month after Morocco, another period, more pain. She called her dad. The next month, another period, more pain. She called her dad. And then the next month?




MOLLY: What are you saying and doing in those moments?


GUL AGHA: So the first thing I'm trying to do is just to get her to be in the color, rather than sort of trying to switch it right away. You know, can you really feel it?


SINDHA AGHA: Yeah, I'll close my eyes and I'll focus in on where the pain is and what it feels like, and I let it just kind of shoot up into my brain. And it feels like kind of like if you watched, like, a watercolor kind of like wash across a page, you know? And everything's red all of a sudden. And the first thing I think is, "Aha! Yeah, that's it." Like, I've identified it.


GUL AGHA: Trying to be one with it, in a way. And see what do you see, what do you feel?


SINDHA AGHA: And then I try to just kind of shift the color. It'll start, like, you know, changing the tint a little bit into orange, and it's like mixing with the red and then pushing it all the way to something different like a pink, you know? It's like a wash. And it gets, like, thicker and thicker, and then all of a sudden the wave is coming in a different color.


MOLLY: At this point in the live show, we put onto the screen these amazing images. They're hyper-saturated, poppy, surreal, and they are made by Sindha. If you want to see them you can go to Radiolab.org/gonads and and check them out. Sindha's inspiration for these photographs is what she sees in her mind's eye when she's in incredible pain, and she's able to capture the images and write them down as her dad is coaching her through these color meditations.


GUL AGHA: Think of the sea, think of clouds. Think of blue. Just consider the vastness of the ocean.


SINDHA AGHA: Yeah, that's a classic.


GUL AGHA: Goes on and on. And waves come and waves go.


SINDHA AGHA: My dad, he thinks a lot about the scale of the universe and the scale of all time.


GUL AGHA: And nothing stays and nothing is permanent.


SINDHA AGHA: And our smallness, and how insignificant our unhappiness and our suffering is when you think about all of that.


GUL AGHA: Waves come and waves go.


SINDHA AGHA: And he just makes me feel -- it sounds weird, because he's very loving, but he, like, makes me feel how little I matter, and it calms me down.


GUL AGHA: Think of waves. The vastness of the ocean. It goes on and on. And waves come and waves go. And nothing stays. nothing is permanent. It all just seems very real and yet it's gone. And it continues. And it's gone. and waves come and waves go. And it's a sea of blue. And then imagine you're one of those bubbles, just for once. Your pain is one of those bubbles. It will increase and then it'll just pop and be gone. And then more waves will come.




MOLLY: That's cool!


SINDHA AGHA: That was good. That was actually realistic.


MOLLY: You still call him?


SINDHA AGHA: I always call him.


MOLLY: And how do you, like, schedule that? Like, for you, I would almost be like, "Oh, crap! Is today the day she's gonna call? And, like, how do I book my afternoon?"


SINDHA AGHA: It is in your calendar.


GUL AGHA: It was -- yeah, it is in my calendar.


MOLLY: What is the ...?


SINDHA AGHA: My period is in my dad's calendar. [laughs] He's blushing!


MOLLY: That was filmmaker Sindha Agha and her father Gul Agha. We'll be back with Radiolab Live: Sex Ed. The final episode in the Gonad series.




[EMILY: Hi, this is Emily in Louisville, Kentucky. Radiolab Presents: Gonads is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science. Additional support for Radiolab is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.]


[PAT WALTERS: Hey, everybody. Pat Walters here. I'm a producer at Radiolab, and I'm here because I need your help. This summer, I'm hosting a series of stories on the show, and I have a request for those of you who spend a lot of time with kids: parents, aunts and uncles, teachers. We're looking for stories about what we're calling tiny moments of childhood brilliance.


[PAT: Basically, I want to hear about those times when a kid you know did something that just made you lean back and say, "Whoa, how did they do that?" Maybe it was the moment that a kid you'd been reading to for months started reading back to you. Or maybe the kid was at piano lessons and you suddenly noticed they were doing advanced math on the margin of their musical score. Or maybe the kid was in math class and you noticed they were writing music in the margin of their geometry homework. We're interested in those small, specific moments where a kid does something super-smart, but it doesn't have anything to do with a test. If you have a story, please share it with us and go to Radiolab.org/brilliance and record a short audio message for us. Again, that's Radiolab.org/brilliance. Thank you so much.]


MOLLY: This is Gonads, episode six. This is our live show about Sex Ed. So far, we've talked about condom demos without any condoms. Periods. We even went on to talk about the deeply important topic of what happens to all the bananas after condom-banana demos, but we ultimately went on to discuss a question that is one of the primary reasons I wanted to do this show.


[MAJEL CONNERY: [singing] Anything, anything, anything, is there anything off limits?]


MOLLY: What you'll find is you can get together a room full of people who you think have the same opinion on what should be taught in Sex Ed in schools, but once you boil it down to the nitty-gritty and the fine details, you realize everybody draws a line somewhere. And to wrestle with that line drawing, we got together a panel of really smart people who think about this, and we presented them with real-world scenarios we ran into while reporting this issue, and we tried to have them do something where they, like, waved flags for when they thought a line was crossed, or for when they supported the line that was being drawn. I'm not sure if the flag thing worked, but you may hear reference to it.


MOLLY: And so I would like to welcome to the stage -- I'm gonna move. Maybe I shouldn't. I'm gonna stand here and then they'll come and then I'll go. Education historian and author of the Sex Ed book Too Hot To Handle, John Zimmerman. Muslim youth activist Dalia. And sex educator Ericka Hart.


MOLLY: Okay. So the first one. December 1st, 1994. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, who was appointed by Bill Clinton, condoned the idea of teaching schoolchildren to masturbate as a way of avoiding the spread of AIDS. She was asked by Dr. Rob Clark, a psychologist at a UN AIDS conference, about the prospects of a more explicit discussion and promotion of masturbation as a means to limit the spread of the virus. And she began her reply by saying she was a very strong advocate of Sex Ed in schools at an early age, and quote "As per your specific request in regard to masturbation, I think that is something that it is part of human sexuality, and is something that should be taught."


DALIA MAHGOUB: I think masturbation is really, really important. And I think that people should learn about it, and I feel like it should be, like, taught as part of, like, a Sex Ed curriculum. But for this reason? Absolutely not. I think, like, she really, like, politicized that reason and it was used not for her own sexual benefits, but as, like, a way to downplay AIDS and be, like, "This is terrible. I don't want anyone to know about this or deal with this." It's, like, I don't -- this seems like a red flag to me.


MOLLY: Interesting. John?


JOHN ZIMMERMAN: This episode was completely miscast and misunderstood. It was an invented media non-event. It was cast, it was reported as Joycelyn Elders saying that she thought that in schools, teachers should teach students how to masturbate. That is not what she was saying. What she was saying was masturbation's a part of human sexuality, and people should be informed about that. That's very different than saying we're gonna teach them how to masturbate.


MOLLY: Mm-hmm. Which I would then pose to the panel, like, would you go as far as doing a how-to in a Sex Ed class? How to masturbate? Or do you just introduce it as an idea?


JOHN ZIMMERMAN: We're talking about now in K-12 schools?


MOLLY: Well, we can talk about what -- if there's a yes in there, I'd want to know what age. If there's a no, I'm curious if that's age-related.


ERICKA HART: You can't necessarily teach how-to. And I think also speaking to what you said about Joycelyn Elders, this is another example of how race and sexuality gets conflated. Or not necessarily conflated, but definitely comes to the table that Joycelyn Elders was, like, literally essentially lost her career talking about this, which just shows the anti-Black origins of ever talking about sex and how our bodies are used and on the lines, but when we start talking about ways that we can actually own them it's now a problem. And the other part of that is that you don't -- can't necessarily teach someone how to have -- how to masturbate, #Cosmo. You can't really do that, because everybody has a different body, right? And everybody's bodies function differently. Like for example, me, I'm a breast cancer survivor. I don't have nipples. So to be like, "Oh, you can stimulate your nipples," that would be triggering for me because I don't have that body part. But if you just say touch your body in the ways that feel good for you like I told my fifth graders yesterday. And they were like, "What? Like, what does that mean?" I'm like, "Any part of your body you can touch and that is called masturbation, right?" So now they know what it means, and there's not this weird thing around this, "Am I doing it right, Miss?" Which I get questions about all the time. Like, "Am I doing it right?" I'm like, "Does it feel good to you? Then, yes."


JOHN ZIMMERMAN: This has been a hugely contested question across American history, and ...


MOLLY: Masturbation specifically?


JOHN ZIMMERMAN: Yes, specifically. And if you -- if you don't want to read about masturbation, don't study sex education because you find it's the most contested subject. And the reason is is it's explicitly and only about pleasure, right? It's not about procreation. And even though I expect that many people in this audience think that sex is for pleasure, it's important to understand that there are, you know, some 330 million Americans and not all of them agree with that premise, right? Some of them think that it's only reserved for heterosexual marriage and it's only reserved for procreation. And that's why they object to discussions of masturbation, because masturbation by definition doesn't fit that framework.


MOLLY: I was gonna say, what's the role that, like, religion has in this? Because masturbation is so tightly tied to, you know, I was raised Catholic. Definite no-no, right? It's -- it's so tightly tied to that. I wonder how do you respect sort of like religious space when you want to introduce a topic like masturbation?


ERICKA HART: I mean, a lot of my students will say things like, well, for example, "God is a man." And I don't necessarily agree with that, but I have to kind of hold space for that. That's their understanding of it. So same thing with masturbation where it's like, "I can't masturbate because I'm Christian or I'm Catholic." I'm like, "Okay, so you will not masturbate then." But I still have to talk about masturbation as you are in my Sex Ed class. And that's a topic that I'm gonna talk about it and not necessarily not talk about because there's some students who are religious. It's like, you don't have to opt into everything that I'm saying. It's just knowledge for you, so you don't go around shaming yourself or someone else for engaging in such behavior.


MOLLY: John?


JOHN ZIMMERMAN: It's really -- it's really difficult, you know? I mean, there's shockingly little Sex Ed in this country, and there are a lot of reasons for that. But one reason is that we differ so fundamentally about sex and sexuality. You know, I mean, we're here in lower Manhattan. This is not a representative audience. Okay?


MOLLY: Yeah. Yeah.


JOHN ZIMMERMAN: And sex is tied, to use a loaded word, our most intimate ideas of ourselves as human beings. And many of those are faith-inflected, you know? And so if you look at Western democracies, what you find is people that object sex education, now they often cluster among two groups: white Evangelical Christians and also recent immigrants, especially immigrants from the Muslim and the Hindu world, you know? And these are often groups that agree about nothing else, but in the UK and Sweden and Canada and the United States, every account of their shared objections, every newspaper account, must use the headline 'Strange Bedfellows.'


MOLLY: Yeah.


JOHN ZIMMERMAN: I've never seen a single journalistic account -- because it works perfectly, right?


MOLLY: Yeah.


JOHN ZIMMERMAN: I mean, these are people that basically agree about nothing including immigration, right? But this is hard. And it should be hard for people like myself on the left because we say we value diversity, but we also want this thing called comprehensive sex education. How are you gonna square that circle?


MOLLY: Dalia, you're nodding. Do you have any thoughts?


DALIA MAHGOUB: Yeah, so I was raised Muslim, and I think it's not a "don't teach your kids about sex." It's more of a it's an unspoken, heterosexual, "we use it to procreate" type way. And I hate, like, feeding into this, like, American narrative of, like, Muslims are, like, all straight, cis heterosexuals, but I'm like, fuck ...


JOHN ZIMMERMAN: They're not!


DALIA MAHGOUB: But I'm like, we're not. But also that's how a lot of us were raised, unfortunately. And, like, with new generations coming in, we're, like, all queer and whatnot. But -- but it's hard to navigate sex in general, let alone masturbation because there is a stigma that's tied, not just within the religion but within our own communities, depending on where we're coming from.


MOLLY: Okay. So this one happened at a charter school, Rocklin, California. So kindergarten class, a student can bring in a book and the book can be read during story time. And so for one of the weeks, a transgender student brought in a book called I Am Jazz, which is a book about a transgender kid. The teacher read the book in class. And then there was a really interesting reaction from the parents. Like, "Holy crap! We were not prepared for this. Our kids came home with -- very confused and tons of questions. And I thought that this was an interesting one, because a lot of what we've been talking about is sort of formalized Sex Ed, and this is informal Sex Ed.


ERICKA HART: I don't necessarily think that it's informal, per se. I mean, it's just about a person's experience. And what cis-normativity does, which is cis, meaning, like, the world is very cisgender dominant, is like, "This is weird. Now we're gonna -- maybe we should have had a letter about this." You didn't need a letter about talking about George Washington or the Civil War or the Vietnam War or World War II, so why is it that when you're talking about a trans person that now you need to be warned that you're gonna talk about this.


MOLLY: Dalia, what about you? I know when we were talking backstage you said you could go either way on this one.


DALIA MAHGOUB: Yeah, because my only thing, my only qualm is, like, cis people don't know how to facilitate discussions about gender with their kids, obviously. Especially if you're in kindergarten and you're asking like, "Am I a boy, am I girl?" Like, these questions that you are too scared to ask. So I wish that the parents knew about it just so they'd be able to facilitate a conversation. So it would have been like a productive experience for the kindergarteners themselves. A letter, like if -- a letter would have been okay. Like, I'm kind of like a letter would have been better because so that way they would have been able to know about this beforehand. So, like, the kid wouldn't come in at, like, 4:00 p.m. and be like, "I don't know what's happening. This is what happened at school today." So if they knew about it beforehand, I feel like it could have been a more productive conversation. Yeah.


MOLLY: John, any thoughts?


JOHN ZIMMERMAN: Look, it's really hard. I share the sentiments that we just heard about cis-normativity, and I'm deeply supportive of trans rights. But I'm also supportive of public schools and I understand that they are under threat. All right? And I think that there's a really delicate balance here. If you want people to support your public schools, you can't at the same time transmit the message that somehow they just didn't get this thing, this sex thing right, and we the school have to intervene.




ERICKA HART: There is a fear. I mean, I think -- and what you were saying, there's a centering of institutions in this country. It's like, oh the institution needs to be upheld. Like, oh don't mess up the school. The school is gonna fall apart. And if the school falls apart then we have nothing, rather than centering the most marginalized. And I think to think that a school is gonna fall apart but not trans folks and non-binary people and genderqueer people, and to not think about their experience is a mindfuck for lack of better words. So I think what is missing in sex education is talking about intersectionality, which is not just this celebration of various identities, but talking about the ways in which people are impacted by systems of oppression. So actually talking about that when you talk about masturbation, is this really something that someone has access to? If you're talking about putting on a condom, why is it that Mississippi the poorest country in this country has no -- cannot talk about condoms? Like, that is really a function of race and class, right? And really being mindful of that and really bringing that into your classrooms, and people don't necessarily do that. They're like, "Oh, let's just talk about sex, and let's just have this conversation," and not be mindful of the things in which, like, people are also bringing to the table.


MOLLY: Yeah. John?


JOHN ZIMMERMAN: I agree with all of that. I just think that a true and honest intersectional approach would also acknowledge that a lot of recent immigrants to this country find a lot of these themes anathema, don't think they belong in a public school. Believe that they're familial and religious matters and not school matters. I'm not saying I agree with them.


MOLLY: Mm-hmm.


JOHN ZIMMERMAN: I am saying though, that an honest intersectional approach would have to acknowledge that. Would have to take account of the fact that we are a diverse society, and many of our recent immigrants -- not all, but many -- find these themes inappropriate for a public school.


ERICKA HART: But that's the opposite of what I said. I said it matters that you actually talk about where people are from, and that you actually get interested. And if someone is dealing with being documented, they probably don't want to talk about masturbation.


MOLLY: As the conversation went on, I wouldn't say that we ever actually came to a consensus on any single scenario. And you can feel, it gets thorny. But what was brought into the room were all of the different things that go into thinking about how lines are drawn in Sex Ed. So race, immigration, class, maturity, body type, age. And we went on to discuss other scenarios. Some of my favorites are ...


ERICKA HART: Bondage in ninth grade?


MOLLY: Introducing bondage to ninth graders.


DALIA MAHGOUB: I'm gonna say 12th grade.


MOLLY: Or live BDSM demonstrations.


MOLLY: Attendees were warned ...


MOLLY: Because yes, that has actually happened on a college campus somewhere. We aren't able to play all those for you here on this podcast, but we are gonna do is play you the final segment of the night, which is a batch of questions from what is sort of the quintessential Sex Ed target population.


[MAJEL CONNERY: [singing] Oh, lightning round!]


MOLLY: Okay, so I'll just do a little thing. So last week, we heard about this sex educator who made an amazing discovery. This educator was teaching a workshop at a middle school in southern Maine, and they were talking to the school nurse. And as they talked, they saw that on the nurse's desk there was this, like, overflowing envelope. And she asked what it was, and it turns out the nurse said, "Oh, those are my fifth graders' Sex Ed questions." And so we obviously were like, we want those. Thank you very much for telling us this story. And they're pretty great. And so we're coming to the end of the night. And like all Sex Ed classes, we've only gotten through about five questions. And so one of the things Sanford tells me that they do is they'll do a lightning round, where they just try and, like, whip out answers. So to help us out from The Tonight Show and Comedy Central, please welcome our very own self-proclaimed Sex Ed expert Jo Firestone.




JO FIRESTONE: Do you want to stand far apart or closer together?


MOLLY: I think we should stand here.




MOLLY: So, Jo.




MOLLY: What made you our sex expert?


JO FIRESTONE: Well, you asked and I just said it. And I don't -- I actually probably have had sex less than everybody here.


MOLLY: But you felt ready to answer these questions.


JO FIRESTONE: I mean, I figure at that level I think I could handle it. And I just want to say I'm very nervous about the speed.


MOLLY: Okay. Okay. It is a lightning round.


JO FIRESTONE: I understand.


MOLLY: All right.


JO FIRESTONE: It's raining outside. Oh!


MOLLY: Oh, okay. I'm ready.


JO FIRESTONE: Okay. There's no ticking.


MOLLY: Unless you want there to be.


JO FIRESTONE: No, I do not want ticking.


MOLLY: Ready?




MOLLY: Does breast milk taste like carton milk?




MOLLY: I take long hot tubs. Does that mean I won't make a lot of sperm?




MOLLY: This wasn't mine.


JO FIRESTONE: Right, of course. No, you have so much sperm.


MOLLY: Yeah.


JO FIRESTONE: Yeah, don't worry about it. Lots of sperm.


MOLLY: How long do you have sex for?


JO FIRESTONE: Two to twenty.




MOLLY: The time of this lightning round.




MOLLY: I heard my friend lives off donuts and McDonald's. What do I do?


JO FIRESTONE: Oh, passion and love.


MOLLY: How big can a penis get?




MOLLY: Why do we do this anyway?


JO FIRESTONE: Because it's -- we don't want to do math.


MOLLY: My mom buys me books that answers my questions. I still want to ask her my questions, but I don't want her to get mad. What should I do?


JO FIRESTONE: Oh, definitely take her out to lunch.


MOLLY: Other girls have developed but I haven't. Can I use a cream? I think it's any cream you can think of.


JO FIRESTONE: I mean, I think creams are always good. Especially in winter. I would say go for it, you know?


MOLLY: A little coconut butter?


JO FIRESTONE: Yeah, it's gonna happen eventually. Just keep it -- you know, moisturize it, right?


MOLLY: What happens when two sperm reach an egg at the same time?




MOLLY: Can people have sex with objects?




MOLLY: How does a girl not get the sperms?


JO FIRESTONE: She's shoes them away.


MOLLY: Why do kids start to like each other in fifth grade?


JO FIRESTONE: It's exposure. It's just exposure.


MOLLY: You surround them long enough, you just start ...


JO FIRESTONE: It's a horrible cycle. Home-school them.


MOLLY: How does a penis fit in a vagina?


JO FIRESTONE: It's really hard, but there's -- there's a lot of maneuvering and I would say use -- use each other.


MOLLY: When girls are still young, does milk come out of their breasts when they squash them?


JO FIRESTONE: I guess it depends how hard you squash them.


MOLLY: Why do girls have the baby and feed it and help make it, and the boys don't have to do anything but help make it?


JO FIRESTONE: It's so fucked up, it's so fucked up. Yeah.


MOLLY: Yeah.


JO FIRESTONE: I don't understand. I wonder that. Can I keep that one?


MOLLY: Yeah. Yeah. This is a rain-related one.




MOLLY: Can a penis shrink or grow because of the weather?




MOLLY: Anyone?




[AUDIENCE: Yes! Yes!]


MOLLY: I have a crush on someone. How do I tell her?


JO FIRESTONE: Oh, obviously hidden messages. Definitely don't be direct. I would say gifts.


MOLLY: I had the white clear oily substance on my underwear. What should I do?


JO FIRESTONE: Oh, laundry!


MOLLY: Why, when a boy sees a girl he likes, his penis hardens and sticks up?


JO FIRESTONE: It's the eternal question. And I guess the answer is, it's -- the penis is guiding you towards what you should be doing, which is your homework.


MOLLY: And that's a show!


MOLLY: Radiolab Team Gonads is Rachael Cusick, Pat Walters, me Molly Webster and Jad Abumrad. Live music, along with the Gonads Theme was written, performed and produced by Majel Connery and Alex Overington, with live event production help from Melissa LaCasse and Alicia Allen and Engineering by Ed Haber and George Wellington. Special thanks to Upright Citizens Brigade featuring Lou Gonzales, Molly Thomas, and Alexandra Dixon, and to our panelists Dalia Mahgoub, John Zimmerman and Ericka Hart.


MOLLY: Before we go, two corrections. Joycelyn Elders' quote read, "As per your specific question in regard to masturbation, I think that is something that is part of human sexuality, and it's a part of something that perhaps should be taught." Plus, Sindha Agha is actually 25 years old. We said 24. Go to our website to see Sindha's images, Sanford's video, and check out our listener-created Sex Ed bookshelf. It's awesome and it's for all ages. Thanks so much for listening to Gonads: The Series. See you soon.


[JEN: This is Jen Frolic calling from Berkeley, California. Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design. Maria Matasar-Padilla is our Managing Director. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Maggie Bartolomeo, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Robert Krulwich, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Malissa O'Donnell, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, Carter Hodge and Liza Yeager. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.]