The headline on Anita Rao’s HuffPost article, “I Started A Public Radio Show About Sex And Listeners Were Not Ready For It” is somewhat of an exaggeration. The show has clearly been controversial, but is still on the air and has been extended into a podcast.
Rao starts the article by talking about how listeners have responded negatively to her voice.
While I do have a college degree, I am neither white nor over the age of 55 — the main defining characteristics of our station’s core audience. I also do not sound like the NPR voices they grew up listening to, which irritates some listeners.
As a committed podcast listener, I checked out a fragment of the podcast. She sounds completely fine: clear, comprehensible, pleasant. For what it’s worth, she does not have an Indian accent (which would also be fine). The only way she sounds noticeably different from “the NPR voices” is that she sounds young. People who have complained (and she quotes several complaints) should be ashamed of themselves.
Then there’s the topic, which has also been controversial:
for one month, my producers and I would create a new series around topics I rarely heard on public radio: sex, relationships and personal health. Not only did we dive into conversations about the science of orgasm and female pleasure, fertility and intimacy and aging, but we went beyond featuring the typical voices you might expect on an NPR station to create space for more intimate, personal stories.…
Hosting these taboo conversations on a midday live talk show introduced a whole slew of challenges and new kinds of critiques. Some vocal members of our audience wrote in with big concerns that topics like body hair and sexual pleasure are obscene. Others shared reflections that our content choices are irrelevant to the news and trends of the day, and it is irresponsible and unprofessional for us to give these topics time and attention.
Body Impolitic readers know how I feel about this: the topics are only obscene because they are literally obscene (the words means “offstage”). They cease to become “obscene” when we talk about them.
As for irrelevant, as long as we all live in bodies, these topics are directly relevant to the news of the day. Our newest Supreme Court justice has five biological children and two adopted children from Haiti, so she is an undeniably sexual being who faces daily issues not just of bodies but of bodies categorized into different races. Our White House resident is proud of his track record paying for both sex and silence–an unabashedly sexual being. Covid-19’s reliance on video calls is creating embarrassing situations for other sexual beings who don’t know when to shut off their video, or what not to do when the film camera is running. Draconian laws affect sex workers and pornography producers every day.
This is why Rao’s article, and by extension her show and podcast, are important.
I have no desire to throw the listeners who do not like my content under the bus, nor do I aspire to change anyone’s mind about pornography or sexuality. But what I wish they could hear is this: The reason I want to have conversations about these topics in the middle of the day on live public radio is not to be salacious. It is because I firmly believe that the longer that we keep conversations about sex, relationships and health in the realm of “not for public discourse,” the longer we’ll stay locked into singular narratives that keep us from really knowing ourselves and each other more deeply. If we can recognize that humans are sexual creatures who are wired to have desire and seek pleasure, we can have meaningful dialogue that could serve to integrate aspects of our identity without contributing to the harm of other people.
The fact that the topics on “Embodied” are making people uncomfortable is precisely the point. If we put subjects like porn and sex into a bucket of things that are too “explicit” to talk about, we cut ourselves off from nuanced conversations about fundamental aspects of our humanity.
Laurie and I could have written something very like that paragraph, except that it would be about bodies and nakedness, not directly about sex. Talking about it in Rao’s case, making it visible in Laurie’s photographs, is precisely the point. Rao denies being brave, and I get that. She’s following her sense of what’s right, and that brings a kind of comfort, along with the public critique and the potential real danger. More important than bravery is her willingness to stick with her convictions in the face of opposition, and her clear awareness of why she does what she does.
We’re left, as so often, with James Baldwin’s wisdom:
Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.
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