Maybe you disagree, but the concepts of “sex” and “Minnesota Public Radio” are not exactly intertwined in my mind. The state’s oh-so-serious “news service” rarely if ever crosses over into any topic even vaguely lubricious. If sex is embedded in the subject matter under discussion it’s in terms of unwanted pregnancies, diseases, harassment, women’s rights and such. Serious, proper, issue-oriented contexts. Nothing remotely recreational, or “fun.”
So yes, there was a head snap to hearing that Kerri Miller, MPR’s premier host/personality has launched “Smart Sex,” a semiweekly podcast on the topic of what the birds do, the bees do and every creature on the planet does from time to time, although not always well or in “fulfilling” ways.
MPR’s spokeswoman was quick to point out that while sanctioned by her MPR bosses, “Smart Sex” with pal/“coenthusiast” Teresa McFarland, a former gubernatorial press secretary and local PR professional, was an independent project of Miller and McFarland’s divining.
Intrigued, and with only a fleeting ripple of prurient curiosity, I dialed up several of the shows on the website. One was a conversation with Peggy Orenstein, the New York Times Magazine writer whose latest book, “Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape,” has gotten good reviews for its journalistic shoe leather and its let’s-be-rational approach to a sexual landscape afloat in advertising and pornography role-modeling regularly horrifying to parents of teenagers, daughters in particular. With the exception of some graphic vernacular, it could have been a segment on “MPR News With Kerri Miller.”
Another episode, a “salon,” with Smith College professor Emily Nagoski was recorded at Krista Tippett’s “On Being” studio off Loring Park before an audience of 100-plus women, with “Hennessy Sextinis” available to uh, “loosen,” the conversation. That one did a better job of dropping the knitted shawl of self-conscious propriety and evolving into something closer to what Miller and McFarland seem to be going for: namely, an intelligent, unfettered conversation among women about an all-pervasive topic few ever actually engage with … in a genuinely smart way.
Having marketing chops aplenty, and with MPR watching closely for the venture’s appeal to its strata of women, Miller and McFarland have aspirations to take “Smart Sex” on the road, Chicago and San Francisco being two locations they mentioned during a midafternoon meetup at Nina’s Coffee Cafe on Cathedral Hill, a venue that judging by the crowd and demeanor may tap as closely to the target heart of the MPR demographic as any you can imagine.
Kerri Miller: I‘m curious how you found out about “Smart Sex”? Were you following me on Twitter?
MinnPost: No, I’m not a big Twitter guy. A friend of mine, of the male variety, forwarded it on. There may have been some untoward interest, I don’t know.
KM: [Laughs]. We’ll trust that that’s not you.
MP: No, I actually think it’s a great idea. For women and men. I mean, I’m halffacetious here, but we always wonder what women are talking about when they go off to the ladies room together. This, for men, may be a chance to find out.
KM: Yeah, but they don’t talk about it enough.
MP: Well, who can say sex isn’t a valuable topic? But, I have to tell you, a big part of what sparked my interest is the connection to MPR. Because for a lot of people MPR is variation on the old line, “No sex please, we’re British.” Such things simply aren’t discussed. Certainly not in public.
KM: Brian, MPR not only consented to it, they’re very supportive of it.”
MP: But this isn’t on their tab. This is an independent venture.
KM: Right. Teresa and I formed a company. The content is being created outside of MPR, although they’ve left the door open to use some of the content on the air if the situation is right.
MP: Before we go too much further how did the two of you meet, and how did this idea come together?
Teresa McFarland: We met, I don’t know, 20 years ago? I was in politics at the time. I had a position with the Ventura administration and Kerri was still at KARE 11 at the time, covering politics. Then I went out to work for the Mall of America.
KM: So we’ve been friends for a long time. We’ve shared the ups and downs of life …
TM: And Kerri makes me go off on these getaways with her. Which means taking time off from my three teenagers, which is hard. But no matter how much I stress about it, it’s always one of the most delightful weekends I have during the year. We hike and we talk about everything.
MP: Where do you hike?
KM: We’ve been out to Wyoming. We’ve been to Colorado together, Vancouver.
TM: I made her fly fish. We went whitewater rafting. She makes me go to high places and I make her paddle through rapids.
KM: Yeah, fast, swirling water, which I don’t love.
TM: But it was before our last trip out to Palm Springs, we were walking around talking about our next trip and we got onto this sidebar about talking about sex in a real smart way that we hadn’t even done after all our years of friendship.
MP: Really? Never? So up until then it was, what? Just gossipy girl-talk?
KM: No, it was more the way women talk about sex until they gauge the receptivity of their friend. There are just certain places you don’t go, until your friend sort of leans in, which is exactly what Teresa did, and says, ‘Tell me more.”
That kind of conversation could have stopped with a casual remark from me. But because she’s the kind of person she is and we have this friendship, we talked in ways I haven’t with most of my friends.
TM: And I have this really strong network of girlfriends, and I tell them everything. But it made me think, “Huh. Why haven’t we talked about this before?”
MP: Is it an issue of trusting their discretion?
KM: Possibly. And I think some of it is judgment, too. I mean, I’ve been married a long time, Teresa had been married a long time. And this is a conversation that is like opening a door and saying, “This is something that may not be just perfect that [my husband and I have in] our romantic life.” It puts you in that sensitive territory where your friend may not want you to know too much more about their life.
TM: When I got divorced four years ago I became kind of a sounding board for a lot of people, a lot of married people, a lot of unhappy people. I mean, I know there are people who are happily married. But I also know a lot of moms who don’t have sex and they regard that as a very normal thing, something that comes with a phase of your life. It doesn’t have to stay like that, but people don’t want to talk about it. So it’s kind of a shutdown conversation.
MP: And this is talking with people you regard as friends, not just casual acquaintances?
KM: Yes. I can tell you I have friends who I have traveled with for two weeks at a time and we have never talked about things like the frequency of lovemaking in our marriage or anything like that, until this project started. It’s kind of like them thinking, “Is what’s happening in my life normal? And if it isn’t I don’t want to talk about it.” Until they find out everybody’s questioning almost every aspect of sex, fulfillment, toys, you name it.
TM: And on the trusting thing, honestly what we’ve found out from the books we’ve read and the people we’ve already had in, all that reluctance to open up is so very normal. Right now, a lot of our focus is on women who are moms and working women. Someone trying to understand that whole dynamic is sort liberating for women. That and understanding pleasure. Men have a much easier time with pleasure than women do.”
MP: It’s right there.
TM: Yeah, exactly. But talking about it is empowering. My favorite story, since we got this going in January is having lunch in downtown Minneapolis with some girlfriends I’ve known for a million years, and because I’m doing this we had the most boisterous conversation with all these references to sex, to the point that a bunch of guys at the bar had to be wondering what was going on with us.
MP: Kind of a “I’ll have what they’re having” sort of thing?
TM: Yeah, like “When Harry Met Sally.” But almost every one of them said, “That was so much fun. We have to do it again.” And of course a lot of them have come to the salons.
MP: So it was a cathartic experience for them?
TM: I think it was. And I can’t promise we’ll always have that level of fun, but the point is it’s much easier to have the conversation once you get the ball rolling.
MP: So what was it like selling this to MPR?
KM: Well, initially I went to Dave Kansas [Chief Operating Officer], who is second in charge there, and said, “I have a project and it’s got kind of a cause at the middle of it. It’s about more women having more transparent conversations about [sex], and I’m going to approach it the way I do my job every day at MPR, with curiosity and transparency and interest and preparation. And we’re going to have some fun.
In other words it’ll sound like it does every day at MPR except that I’m going to be talking about sex. It’s not always going to explicit. The conversation with Peggy Orenstein, for example, could easily be on MPR. There’s no content in there that …
MP: Uh, isn’t there a section in there where she’s talking about young girls and anal sex? I can’t imagine that playing on MPR.
KM: Oh, [laughs] well, other than that. But the point is that some of these are big sexual issue-driven discussions. Some of them, like “Toys and Taboos” are something else.
TM: There might some things there that wouldn’t play on MPR.
KM: But Dave Kansas was very supportive and so has Nancy Cassutt [MPR’s Executive Director, News and Programming].
MP: So they’ve set no parameters. They’re trusting you to not do anything that’ll embarrass them.
KM: They’re trusting my journalistic sensibility. But Teresa and I talked about this for months, wondering what MPR would want to know. What was going to be their great concern? And in the end they asked maybe five questions.
TM: Everyone has been very supportive and everything has moved very quickly. When we hit on the idea of a podcast, we were driving from Palm Springs over to hike at Joshua Tree, and as Kerri was driving I registered the domain name and called a designer and she was working on the logo.
MP: I didn’t know the cell signal was that good out there.
TM: Right. I kept telling her, “Slow down! I need the internet!”
KM: And it is validating that you come in and say this is an important conversation. I mean you get that this isn’t salaciousness.
MP: I would be stunned if it was.
KM: OK. But I think the refreshing part is, it’s us. It’s not silly, giggly kind of stuff. But it’s the thing a lot of us want to talk about and need to talk about.
MP: Is there anything that’s changed in recent years, maybe over the last 15 or 20, that makes you think your audience is more receptive to this than it might have been before?
KM: I’ve thought about the timing, with the first woman about to get a major party’s nomination for president, for example. And technologically. I don’t think I could do this without the advantage of podcasting. Not this kind of discussion. But more to your philosophical point, I think this is part of the second wave of the women’s movement, without getting too historical about it. This is the time when women have been through the professional and the personal and reconciling what that means, and now they’re saying, “OK, I‘m going to live into my 80s. What do I want that middle part of my life, which might be 35 or 40 years, what do I want that to be like? I have more control over that than I ever have.” So yeah, there’s something about this moment that feels right for it.
TM: Also I think women now are more open to a discussion of pleasure. And they want to have it in an intelligent way. I have an 18-year-old daughter and I’d like her to have information available to her [that’s] better than so much of what is out there. And that is one of our goals.
KM: And that’s something Peggy Orenstein gets at: The messaging and the content and the volume of pornography that comes at kids her daughter’s age …
MP: It’s astonishing.
KM: I know. And I think we are a counterweight to parents who are so worried about that kind of culture. And also to older women, who are back out in the dating world. We are a counterweight to a lot of what comes out of the culture, about sexuality.
MP: I can’t imagine how kids are processing the amount and kinds of pornography available to them from the minute they figure out to run a smartphone. As an old altar boy who was taught by the nuns that I’d burn in the eternal fires of hell for so much as an impure thought, it boggles the mind to see what any kid anywhere is dealing with.
KM: It’s hair-raising, what kids aren’t talking to their parents about, about the expectations being placed on them by pornography and the hooking up culture and Tinder.
MP: Have you ever done a show on MPR about pornography?
KM: I have, but it’s been a while. But to the point of MPR opening the door to using some of this content, I can’t think of a better subject than using Peggy Orenstein, with perhaps targeted editing. But yeah, this is something that I think hits at the heart of a lot of family life today.
MP: But it seems to me there’s a yin and yang to this wholesale infusion of pornography. On the one hand you have, as Orenstein points out, the effect on kids, young girls in particular, struggling to figure out their sexual role based on pornographic modeling. While on the other, you have older women, struggling with the idea of their own pleasure, and who for whatever reason have never really explored the possibilities, but who are now more aware than ever of what is, I guess, “permissible,” and what might suit them. In a show like yours don’t you have to play on both tracks?
KM: That’s why one of the earliest podcasts is “Toys and Taboos.” That one combines an interview with Jennifer Pritchett, who runs The Smitten Kitten and Christina Vasiliou, who runs a website called OMGYes, which kind of speaks to what you’re talking about. It’s a site that, “instructional” sounds wrong, but it is videos, showing the woman, the viewer, how to do … techniques. But I was struck watching how unsalacious it is. And it reinforced my perception that women are interested in that sort of thing and that you can remove it from the whole seamy side of videos about sex. That too is a change over the last 15 years.
MP: You are betting, it seems, that there is quite a large audience of women who have never expressed in any kind of public way their thoughts about sex and their desires. Is that fair?
KM: I think it’s more a matter of women coming to terms that living a fulfilled life includes a vivid and vibrant sexual life. Whether that’s in the traditional marriage or it’s in a dating life, wherever it is, there’s no judgment here. It’s not about women in the closet.
TM: That’s why our tagline is, “Let’s talk about it.”
KM: I think in some ways women think they have to choose between being intelligent and professional and having it all together, and being sexual.
MP: Being “proper.”
KM: Right. I think a lot of women feel like, “The thing I present to the world is competence, professionalism and intelligence.” But it is not a disconnect to be sexual as well. The culture, though, tells us to choose. You can either be the smart girl or “that kind” of woman.
MP: Is it fair to say that your focus is primarily on women in middle age?
TM: Well, I think there are so many ways to take a conversation about sex. It can find something of value to women of every age. I mean in the second half of the salon with Emily Nagoski, Kerri’s 70-year-old mother-in-law was there … .
MP: Really? And she got up and talked about her sex life? That’ll spice up Thanksgiving dinners.
KM: Yeah, when I heard she was coming I was like, “Oh my gaaaaaaa … .”
MP: What did she say?
KM: Well, her moment at the salon ended up being the moment that is most talked about. She stood up and said, “In the end I hear you talking a lot about the passion and the physicality. But I haven’t heard you use two words, and that’s ‘love’ and ‘commitment.’ ” But Emily’s answer was valuable, too. She pointed out that for some people love and commitment is essential to a fulfilling sex life. To others, that’s not the thing that’s really motivating. We are planning more salons, because we’ve seen how lightning kind of strikes. Women feel the moment and share things they’ve never shared before.
MP: I’m wondering if this is just a male perspective, or maybe just mine, but I observe the culture discussing women and sex, in magazines on TV talk shows, and it seems like this giant sea of dysfunction. It’s all problems. The hair isn’t right. The body isn’t right. The marriage isn’t right. Everything is wrong. To the point where I wonder if anyone is even capable of enjoying life.
KM: Well, I think it’s pretty difficult to find your way in this. Because the culture sends you a lot of messages, about how it should be.
TM: Emily Nagoski has a good analogy when she talks about the “brakes and the accelerator.” Did you hear that?
TM: Well, when you hear that you stop and think, “Oh, it isn’t just me.” Women have a lot of “brakes” in their lives. There is stress and dealing with kids and work. But what we’re saying is you have the right to have a sexual side as well, in fact you need to have that side.
MP: Yeah, well it’s not like I don’t see what the culture is doing, especially via advertising and pop culture with body image.
KM: Body image is huge. But here’s the thing, Brian. I think it’s people patching it up and making it work. But not thriving.
MP: You play with what you’ve got.
KM: That’s exactly right. And a long marriage is full of ups and downs. But what we’re trying to get at is that there are some ways around whatever path we thought we had to be on. It can be as simple as, hey, Saturday afternoon, 3 o’clock and getting on your red underwear as Emily says. That’s not some life-changing epiphany. It’s as simple as, “We can try that.”
MP: Is the intention to keep the focus on women? Can you see bringing men and male issues into these conversations?
KM: I would love to have one of our salons be couples. I mean, talk about “lightning striking.” That could be a fabulous … am I making you nervous, Brian? We’d love to have you and your wife. Or are you going to be busy that night? I think there’s interesting topics there. But for now, we’re sticking with women. For now.
MP: What’s the competition out there for this kind of podcast?
KM: When we did our market research we found a lot of podcasting on sex at the 20, 25, 30year-old level. And it goes from “Guys I’ve [effed],” that’s a real podcast, and women hanging out kind of just talking between themselves about their sex experiences. And at the other end, sex experts. Medical and clinical.
MP: Relating back to the comments about “enjoying” and fun, don’t you have to be careful to play on the margins with this show? If you’re trying to get across the message that sex is important to a fulfilling life, it seems to me you have to deliver whatever information you’re going to deliver with a tone implies enjoyment and fun.
KM: Well, you listened to the salons. There was a lot of laughter. But you’ve hit on something I’ve told Teresa a lot. If you want women to gather together in person it can’t be serious and tedious …
TM: That’s why we serve Hennessy Sextinis at the bar.
MP: I saw that. And what is a Sextini, exactly?
KM: Oh, my gosh. They are so good.
TM: It’s Hennessy VS cognac with Moet Chandon champagne, elderflower liqueur and a twist of lemon. It’s our secret weapon.
KM: But you’re right about it being fun. Sex is fun. Why else would we all want to do it, if it wasn’t?