For UC Berkeley alumnus, sex ed finds voices outside the classroom

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Olivia Staser/Staff

For Danielle Bezalel, the decision to start up a sex education podcast aimed at the Bay Area started around 7,000 miles away — in Israel.

She was there as a volunteer, teaching English and learning Hebrew. But as they often do, the experience led to a clash of cultural, generational and religious ideas.

Essentially, I had a super heated interaction with a rabbi there,” Bezalel explained in an interview. “He said that he had five daughters, and that when all of his daughters eventually respectively turned seventeen or eighteen, they would be married off by the matchmaker, and hopefully they would get pregnant that night, and no one was going to teach them or talk to them about sex prior to that night.”

That didn’t sit well with Bezalel, and neither did the relative reticence of her teaching cohort to question it. “I felt like these young women weren’t getting the autonomy and the choices that they deserved — and the education and knowledge they deserved — to make their own decisions to be happy and healthy individuals,” she said.

That was in 2015, the year after she graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in film and media studies and a minor in education. By 2017, she had taken a class on creating podcasts and established “Sex Ed with DB.”

Though that experience in Israel drove her towards creating the podcast, its focus is on the Bay Area. For its first season, both the guests and hosts were pulled from a diverse slice of identities and sexualities in the Bay Area community.

“The difference between a textbook article and our podcast is that we have on these real people who have gone through these really challenging things, and they’re all so different, I think that people can relate to them on different levels” — Danielle Bezalel

The first season featured a large spread in guest ages, from two queer-identifying 18-year-olds to her own mother, who has been an OB-GYN for more than 25 years. It included a lecturer at San Francisco State University as well as a queer-identifying youth worker from Oakland. Bezalel also points to the diversity of ethnic backgrounds present — she herself identifies as white, though her father is from Afghanistan, and those on her show have represented a range of cultures and ethnicities, including Chinese American, Filipino American, mixed-race Black-identifying and Latina.  

“They all have really different experiences, different upbringings, different backgrounds,” Bezalel explained. “I think we really wanted to focus on that diversity, making sure we were, essentially, putting our money where our mouths were when we were calling this an ‘intersectional podcast.’ ”

That season has since been downloaded by around 3,000 unique visitors, mostly in and around the Bay. But for her second season, Bezalel hopes to reach 10,000.

That’s not easy in a media landscape that’s saturated by similar content — even something as specific as sex-education podcasts has thousands, if not tens of thousands, of options. All are fighting for funding from a similar slate of companies, and only those with the most downloads are economically feasible for the companies wanting to participate.

Like many of those resources, Bezalel attempts to use her podcast to take sexuality out of the zone of awkward taboo. “On every episode there’s laughing, there’s lightheartedness, there’s silliness and goofiness,” she said. “Simultaneously, these topics can be very serious — I think we strike a really great balance of making the content bold and refreshing and new and covering it in a comedic way, with this dichotomy of it also being really challenging to talk about these things.”

The episode topics for season two, which have not yet officially been released, cover a wide range of sex-education topics as well, including:

  • Periods and menstruation
  • Abortion
  • Culturally responsive sex education
  • Sex while disabled
  • “Don’t Assume Motherhood”
  • Sex toys and masturbation
  • Post-menopause / Pain and dysfunction during sex
  • Sex workers’ experiences
  • Pornography’s impact on young people
  • Body image

It’s a list that highlights some of the advantages podcasts have as a format — especially the ability to cover a breadth of topics rarely seen in any classroom, whether in high school or college.

Season two is scheduled to air starting in late April or early May. But beyond this second season, the future of the podcast is a little less certain. “This fall I’m going to be moving to New York City and attending Columbia to get a masters in public health with a focus on sex, sexuality, and reproductive health,” Bezalel said. Though she hopes to come back to the podcast after her first semester or year, the move highlights the transience that often plagues content produced for podcasts, YouTube, and other forms of new media.

“…the internet has served as a democratizing force that allows these voices to be a part of a larger conversation about sexual health and sexuality.”

However, the rise of new media has also revolutionized the way many people, from students to adults, obtain sexual health information and education. Here on UC Berkeley’s campus, programs such as the Sexual Health Education Program, or SHEP, run by University Health Services, offer classes, outreach events, contraceptives and other resources for students to learn about sexuality. But outside of the college sphere, accessing these types of resources is more difficult.

This is particularly true of resources oriented around the experiences of LGBTQ+, nonwhite, non-cisgender and disabled individuals. As such, the internet has served as a democratizing force that allows these voices to be a part of a larger conversation about sexual health and sexuality. “The difference between a textbook article and our podcast is that we have on these real people who have gone through these really challenging things, and they’re all so different, I think that people can relate to them on different levels,” Bezalel said.  

The task of providing accurate sex education to those who haven’t received it — both locally and globally — is a daunting one. But it’s one that Bezalel and a host of other individuals and organizations are tackling head-on. Each plays a small, but critical role in the the mission to, as Bezalel puts it, “revolutionize the way we talk about sex.”

Imad Pasha is the Weekender editor. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @prappleizer.

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