Embodied Podcast Discussion Guide
Talking about sex or what’s going on with our bodies is something most of us are used to doing one way: in private. The Embodied podcast invites those conversations to come out of the dark, into the light, for shame-free, thought-provoking explorations about personal health, relationships and the body-brain connection.
Host Anita Rao takes the lead on that mission in season one of the show, sharing some of her personal experiences and inviting her parents to come along for the ride as well. Now, you are invited to join in these conversations, too!
This discussion guide will take you deeper into each episode, introduce themes and big ideas to consider as you listen and give you fun bonus resources to keep learning about each of the topics. Are you ready?
Episode One: The Sex Talk That Wasn’t
This episode looks at one thing that’s missing from many sex-ed conversations: pleasure. It explores some of the biggest misconceptions about desire and arousal and examines how we can take back control of our own pleasure through unlearning some of the [patriarchal and heteronormative] narratives we’ve been fed for centuries.
- Am I normal? This episode begins with an anecdote from sex expert Emily Nagoski who shares that at the end of her semester-long, college-level class about sex, the most common answer that students gave to the question, “What did you learn from this science?” was: “I’m normal.”
According to Nagoski, while everyone’s genitals are made of the same parts, no two are alike, and what you see in porn has quite possibly been digitally altered to look that way. Is there an aspect of your anatomy or sexuality that’s made you feel isolated or alone? What would it take for you to let go of some of the shame/fear around it?
- What’s up with my ‘sex drive’? First things first: Emily Nagoski clarifies that the term ‘drive’ implies a biological mechanism that must be dealt with in order for you to stay alive (like hunger or thirst).
About 15% of women and 75% of men experience sexual desire spontaneously, while 30% of women and 5% of men experience responsive desire — they are aroused in response to sexual pleasure instead of in anticipation of sexual pleasure. For everyone else? It’s context dependent. Nagoski suggests a more helpful way to think about sexual desire and arousal is to understand that there’s a dual-control model in your brain: Your level of arousal at any given moment is a product of what’s turning you ON and what’s turning you OFF. Use the worksheets in the gray box to the right and linked below to map out your own desire and arousal and better understand the contexts and circumstances that turn you OFF and ON.
- How much does orgasm matter? Emily Nagoski says that historically there’s been a lot of misinformation about orgasm — from believing that an orgasm was how a woman got pregnant to believing that all orgasms are pleasurable. Nagoski says it’s important to understand arousal non-concordance: just because your genitals are doing something in response to a sex-related stimulus doesn’t mean that it’s pleasurable all the time. Seventy percent of women sometimes, rarely or never orgasm from vaginal penetration alone, and some folks never experience orgasm but can still experience lots of sexual pleasure. In other words, orgasm is NOT the end-all-be-all.
Instead, pleasure should be the measure of your sexual experiences. Nagoski: “It’s not how much you crave it, how often you do it, where you do it, who you do it with, what positions. It’s whether or not you like the sex that you have.” What are your dominant beliefs about orgasm? Does that change when you learn some of the data? What narratives about pleasure have helped shape your understanding and experience about sex? What would it look like for you to think more about pleasure as the goal for a sexual encounter?
- How do I have ‘the sex talk’? Did you get a sex talk from your parents? Or did you first learn about sex ed in school? Whatever your first exposure to sex was, it’s likely that early messaging shaped your beliefs.
Think back to your own sex ed: what messaging did it include? What was notably left out? Do you hold on to any of those beliefs today? If you’re a parent, what do you want your kids to grow up believing about sex and their bodies? Would you feel comfortable bringing dialogue about pleasure into your ‘sex talk’?
Episode Two: Porn For All
This episode examines our personal relationships to pornography and erotica and how they’re shaped by dominant cultural narratives about pleasure. It also journeys inside the adult film industry with a filmmaker and actor to interrogate what it means to create ethical erotic content.
- Am I a good person if I watch porn? Tens of millions of Americans watch porn every day. While there is not a lot of specific data about what exactly people watch or how often, it is clear that porn consumption in the U.S. spans age, race, sexuality and gender. Despite the numbers, a lot of people keep their porn consumption private and may even carry shame about the kinds of stuff they find arousing. While there has been ample media coverage of porn addiction studies in the past decade, there’s actually not that much data to support thatt porn itself is the problem according to sex researcher Emily Nagoski.
“Most people can have a healthy relationship with porn,” Nagoski says. “Most of the time when people struggle, it’s not because there’s something about porn inherently that’s dysfunctional.” What are your stereotypes about who watches porn and who gets addicted? Are there aspects of your identity that particularly inform your beliefs about porn? How do those beliefs shape your ability to access pleasure?
- Should I pay for my porn? According to historian and author Lynn Comella, the adult industry in the U.S. began to form in the late 1960s as the result of loosening obscenity laws and countercultural movements. Plot-driven adult films shown in theaters guided the industry through “the golden era” of pornography in 1970s, and by the early 1980s the industry began to shift with the advent of VHS from public theaters into the privacy of one’s home.
And then...the Internet changed everything. Some online services give performers a lot more control, while others create opportunities for millions of folks to access content for free and provide little-to-no transparency about whether or not that content was created consensually.
Adult filmmaker Shine Louise Houston says that if people pay for their porn, they engage in an economic cycle that allows talent, producers, directors and other crew members to get paid for their labor. That payment helps support systems like the Free Speech Coalition, which is the adult industry’s national trade association. It provides legal support to industry members, as well as runs the FCS-PASS system, which regularly tests performers for a cornucopia of sexually transmitted infections. If you currently consume free content, how much have you thought about how those performers are compensated and treated? Did learning about life inside the industry from Shine & Mia change how you think about the kind of porn you consume or want to consume? Would paying for porn change your relationship to the content?
- What kind of erotic content works for me? While the adult industry is diverse and ever-growing, some people still prefer not to watch porn. The audio erotica app Dipsea is one alternative. It features a diversity of short audio narratives recorded by voice actors and a “Wellness & How-To’s” section with everything from guided tantric breathing exercises to an introduction to BDSM with a certified BDSM and kink educator. What was your experience of listening to the Dipsea story at the end of the episode? How did the lack of visuals shape your experience? If porn is not your thing, is there something else in the world of erotica you’re curious to explore?
Episode Three: The Stress Threshold
This episode looks at what happens to our minds and bodies when we experience burnout. It examines why solutions like “focus on self care” don’t go far enough, and how thinking about burnout as a social justice issue is a more helpful framework for understanding its impact and finding solutions.
- Am I experiencing Burnout? The World Health Organization officially listed burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” in 2019. A recent Gallup study showed that about a quarter of full-time employees said they feel burned out often, while an additional 44% said they sometimes experience burnout. So how do you know if it’s happening to you? Symptoms can include physical effects (headaches, fatigue, gastrointestinal issues), emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a decreased sense of accomplishment.
Expert and author Amelia Nagoski goes by this definition: “Burnout is the experience of being overwhelmed and exhausted by everything you have to do, and yet still somehow worried that you’re not doing enough.” For those socialized as women or those in caregiving professions or activism, it can be especially difficult to notice that you are burning out.
How much do you know about the physical or psychological signals your body sends when it’s in distress? Take stock of your body: have you noticed any patterns in your eating or sleeping habits? Take stock of your psychological and emotional health: how are you feeling about the work that you’re doing? Do you feel numb or detached? Do you keep raising the bar on what it takes to feel accomplished?
- How can I stress less? Stress will never go away, but if we better understand how our bodies respond to stress we can learn how to “complete the stress cycle” and return our bodies to homeostasis. As Nagoski explains, the stress response cycle is a biological process with a beginning, middle and end. But in modern human life, there’s a disconnect between what causes stress — money, kids, work, and traffic — and what we do in response. These are not things we can “run away from” in the way that we could run away from a lion.
So, we need to be able to separate the stress from the stressors and complete the stress response cycle separately from dealing with the stressors. Nagoski recommends some techniques to completing the stress cycle: movement, a 20-second hug or 7-second kiss, or getting a full night of sleep. How is “completing the stress cycle” different from “practicing self care”? What are the three biggest daily stressors in your life? If you think about responding to stress separately from responding to stressors, how does it change your thoughts and behaviors? What brings your body back to homeostasis?
- How much rest do I actually need? The term burnout became popularized after a 1978 report on air traffic controllers in which researchers were trying to understand why extremely resilient employees were developing burnout. Researcher Rajvinder Samra clarifies that for many people with high professional and personal ideals, their answer to exhaustion is often just to work more. The problem with that, she says, is that “burnout is more likely to be a failure of recovery than resilience.” That’s where the 42% rule comes into play. Nagoski argues that to keep our bodies in working order, we need to spend 42% of our lives resting.
What beliefs do you hold about the value of rest? How are those influenced by capitalism, patriarchy or racism? Out of 24 hours in your day, how much time do you spend resting? What internal and external shifts would you need to make to prioritize rest more?
Episode Four: The Second Brain Inside Us
This episode goes inside the body, Magic School Bus-style. It investigates how the trillions of microorganisms that live inside our gut influence our physical and mental health and why staying silent about pooping, farting and gut stuff prevents us from having a healthier brain-gut connection.
- Is this new gut fad worth it? Probiotic supplements, healthy gut teas, and so on are branded as the key to building and maintaining a healthy gut. But nutritionist Ian Carroll says start by going back to the basics: what you eat influences how your microbes behave and the type of microbes that are there. Eating a diet that is diverse in macro and micronutrients will foster a rich and diverse microbiome, which supports greater immune and digestive health.
Scientist Lydia Greene says that when she eats, she thinks about feeding her garden. In a healthy gut microbiome, bacteria extract nutrients from our food. The ability for “bad bacteria” to colonize depends on the abundance of “good bacteria.” Have you tried products to help with your gut health? What were they? Do/did they have any effect? How would thinking about eating as “feeding your garden” change your relationship with food or your body?
- Is 'gut feeling' a real thing? There is a strong communication network between the gut and the brain. Lin Chang describes it as a two-way highway system: nerves, bacteria and hormones pass information back and forth which can affect our mood, digestion, stress response and more. How does thinking about the gut-brain connection change your understanding of stress? On days when you’re stressed or have a big presentation, do you notice changes in your poop?
- What’s up with my poop? Unlike chest pain or a headache, gut and poop issues are a lot more difficult for folks to talk about. This can have big consequences, according to Anita’s dad, gastroenterologist Dr. Satish Rao. But ignoring troubles with pooping, farting, bloating or any gut stuff, just leads to more pain. We all fart. We all poop. And paying attention to our poop can actually be super informative. Anita’s dad is a big proponent of getting to know the Bristol Stool Scale to help you diagnose what’s going on with your gut. What kind of pooper are you?
Episode Five: Raising Kids Radically
Hashtag Mom life. This episode questions how much our society pays attention to and supports those doing the work of mothering. How do concepts like “work-life balance” and the nuclear family limit us from building a more joy-filled and equitable society?
- Am I a ‘good-enough’ mom? Entering the tribe of American motherhood brings with it a whole lot of cultural baggage. As Angela Garbes describes, messages about the “right” and “wrong” ways to do things start long before the kid even comes into the world and are baked into everything, from pregnancy books to medical advice. What beliefs do you hold about what it means to be a ‘good’ mom?
Garbes says: “If you don’t have a full understanding of your body … it’s easy to have rights, choices and freedoms taken away from you.” What do you think about this statement? How rooted are your beliefs about motherhood in data and morally-neutral information?
- Is it time to rethink the nuclear family? Katherine Goldstein says the idea that the ideal family structure is the nuclear family structure is rooted in capitalism and dominant, white ideas about success. She argues that orienting around the ideal of a nuclear family limits the health and resilience of both mothers and children, and building real community support networks is the key to surviving and thriving.
Dani McClain agrees, and says that while Black mothers have been cultivating creative structures of support for generations, our assumptions and stereotypes about Black families overlook the strength and value of these extended family kinship networks. What do you make of Goldstein's assertion that “community is one of the few things that capitalism can’t buy?” If you think about mothering as a verb that can invite in folks beyond your nuclear family, what opportunities does that open up for reimagining what family life could look like — whether or not you have or want kids?
- Is that my bias talking? Whether you are a physician, educator, social worker or journalist, the way you think about and relate to pregnant people and mothers has real-life consequences. This episode outlines how those consequences are especially dire for Black mothers.
What did you learn from Dani McClain’s descriptions of her pregnancy and birth process? How does racial bias show up in the way mothers in your own professional universe are treated? Does this episode alert you to any of your own internalized bias against Black mothers? Against all mothers?
Episode Six: What It’s Like To Be Trans In The Exam Room
Navigating the healthcare system isn’t easy for anyone, but this episode examines the particular challenges trans and gender nonconforming people face accessing quality and affirming care. What can those both inside and outside the healthcare system do to improve health outcomes for trans and gender nonconforming patients?
- What don't I know? Morgan Givens says that healthcare providers, journalists and others have a massive lack of knowledge about the experiences of trans and gender nonconforming people. Without immersing yourself in history, narratives and first-hand experiences of trans and gender nonconforming folks, you don’t know what you don’t know. For many trans and gender nonconforming folks in the healthcare system, this lack of knowledge means that they end up having to educate their providers on how to treat them.
What did you learn from Nick Smith’s story about “trans broken arm syndrome?” Did hearing the personal stories in this episode challenge any of your assumptions about the health needs of transgender and gender nonconforming people? Have you ever anticipated or experienced neglect or dismissive treatment by a health professional? If you are a health care provider, how much education do you have on the particular health needs of patients of diverse gender identities?
- How much do microagressions matter? As many as a third of trans patients delay necessary health care because they are worried about having a bad experience at the doctor. These experiences can range from intentional mistakes to those born out of ignorance, but the impact is the same: poorer health outcomes.
Microaggressions inside and outside the health care system — like being misgendered, asking invasive questions or deadnaming (the non-consensual use of a trans person’s given name) — can take a toll on people’s mental and physical health. Educator Rebby Kern digs further into the data, explaining that 72% of transgender and gender-expansive young people report hearing their families making negative remarks about LGBTQ people, and youth who are transgender or gender nonconforming are more likely to engage in self harm and experience anxiety and depression.
What types of microaggressions did this episode draw to your attention? Did this episode challenge any of your beliefs around the importance of language? How much do you know about education around gender in your community’s schools and community institutions?
Episode Seven: Sexual Desire And Dating After 50
Like it or not, we’re all getting older. This episode looks at how folks in their 50s and beyond are navigating their changing bodies, relationships and sex lives. Can talking more openly about menopause, divorce and the human need for desire at any age allow us all to experience more joy in the aging process?
- Why is menopause still a mystery? While many people can name hot flashes as a symptom of menopause, there is not much open conversation about the many other physical and emotional side effects of this period of life for people with ovaries. Menopause and perimenopause happen at different times for everyone, and according to obstetrician Dr. Karen Clark it’s important that people recognize that if their symptoms are interfering with their quality of life, it’s okay to talk with your doctor. Nobody should need to suffer in silence.
As Omisade Burney-Scott and Sheila Rao shared, going through this period introduced weight gain, insomnia, and emotional highs and lows among other things. For Burney-Scott, menopause also felt lonely, and sparked her desire to start having open conversations about what she was experiencing. What did you learn about menopause from this episode? Why do you think there is cultural silence around this topic? What did hearing about these experiences bring up for you about your own menopause, or that of your mother’s, aunt’s or grandmother’s?
- Is it worth it to find a new companion? Divorce rates for adults ages 50 and older have roughly doubled in the past 25 years according to the Pew Research Center. While folks over the age of 50 are less likely to have tried online dating than single younger folks, they are definitely still on the apps. Laura Stassi became newly single after the end of a 30-year marriage, while Ellen Ashley got on the apps after her marriage of 25 years ended in divorce.
Ashley talked about her experiences finding new non-romantic companions through Meetup. What kind of companionship do you have/hope to have in your 50s and beyond? Did this episode introduce you to any new perspectives on companionship, romantic and otherwise? How much do you value intimacy and companionship in your life now? Do you expect that to change in the future, why or why not?
- Does hot sex have an age limit? Sociologist Pepper Schwartz says the biggest cultural myth is that sex is not acceptable or exciting as you age. Data from Linda Waite, who has been studying the behavior of older couples for more than a decade at the University of Chicago, confirms that “women who remain sexually active through their mid-80s don’t report any more problems with sexuality like lubrication or lack of desire than women like them in their 50s.”
What do you make of Schwartz’s assertion that our beliefs about sex and intimacy as we age are shaped much more by ageism than by our changing physical bodies and abilities? Did this episode challenge any of your assumptions about sexuality and aging? Do you feel comfortable imagining a full and vibrant sex life for yourself in your later years? Why or why not?
About Anita Rao
Anita is a radio journalist and host of Embodied. She has traveled the country recording interviews for the Peabody Award-winning StoryCorps production department, founded and launched a podcast about millennial feminism in the South, and hosts Embodied, a weekly show on North Carolina Public Radio that inspired the podcast of the same name. Anita was born in a small coal-mining town in Northeast England but spent most of her life growing up in Iowa and has a fond affection for the Midwest.
Follow her on Twitter @anisrao.
Embodied’s first season production team is Grant Holub-Moorman, Jenni Lawson, Amanda Magnus, Rebecca Martinez, Laura Pellicer, Charlie Shelton-Ormond, Dana Terry and Lindsay Foster Thomas.
Illustrations by Charnel Hunter.