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Having “The Talk” with Nikol Hasler

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For a sex-columnist with a “well-developed sense of defense mechanism,” a self-described “potty mouth,” and a book cover featuring amorous bovines, Nikol Hasler was on disconcertingly good behavior. Former host of the comedic and informative internet Midwest Teen Sex Show, author of A Book for Teens: An Uncensored Guide to Your Body, Sex, and Safety and host of the “Sex, Honestly” Column for Crushable.com, the 31-year old mother of three projects a smart-ass “been there, done that” attitude in her writing and a thoughtful deliberation in real life. This apparent dichotomy can be resolved with a closer look and one realization: the smart-ass humor underlies everything, and Nikol Hasler uses that humor deliberately to address something about which she is very serious indeed, correcting misconceptions and opening lines of communication about sex.

Hasler’s admittedly “Utopian ideal” is a world in which parents and kids talk openly and honestly about sex, and where kids are given accurate information without fear or judgment. Her ideal dialogue goes something like this:
Kid – “Hey, Mom and Dad, Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex.”
Parents – “Yes, Son, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex.”
[Note: the gist of this conversation comes across better if one reads the last three “sex”es of each line in rapid succession.]

I mentioned to Hasler that I am currently torturing my oldest child by placing what is now known in our family as “the cow sex book” (more on the cows in a bit, I promise) on her bookcase with the comment “you aren’t ready for this right now, but in a couple of years when you do want to know, you’ll have it where you can find it.” Hasler’s response was encouraging. “I think that if that’s the attitude that parents take, when it [sex] comes up, they will come to you.”

Hasler then launched into an anecdote about a middle-of-the night discussion about masturbation with her son Trast. (For the record, he came to her with questions.) Despite her almost ruthless professional frankness, Hasler admits that she “was surprised at how uncomfortable I became at some of the things that came up.” But, she says “I handled it, and we got through it.” However, “come morning, I was a little embarrassed, a little bit awkward.” Hasler views this episode as an example of the shifting relationship between parent and child. “Afterwards, something changes… something changed in the dynamic of our relationship.” She paused. “Maybe that’s why parents get so panicked at the thought of their children becoming sexual; that’s when they become separate from you.”

For Hasler, this imminent separation, the need for teens to explore and create individual identities, renders even more critical the conversations between teens and parents. However, Hasler recommends against the “Talk” — you know, the stereotypical cardigan and pipe lecture in the den. Her voice drops into a mock baritone, “Well, Son. It’s time we told you…” Instead, Hasler thinks “the casual approach is best. You shouldn’t make a big deal about it, or set your kid down. Throw it out there early on. It’s more about the setting. We see sex everywhere… If you’re with your kid watching something, say ‘do you know what this means,’ do you talk to your friends about this.’”

From her work as a columnist and with MTSS, Hasler knows that “kids talk; whether we talk to them or not, they talk to each other.” And she knows that kids are quite capable of passing along vast amounts of misinformation. At the end of each chapter in Sex: A Book for Teens, Hasler includes a Q&A section; each Q & A includes one question titled, “There Are No Stupid Questions, Except for This One.” Some of the questions were so outlandish, that I had to ask if they were real. “Yes.” I hadn’t even finished my question. “Yes. They’re the tip of the iceberg of the ridiculous questions I’ve been sent.” She went on to iterate some of the “crazy myths” and wild ideas. “This is a gross one: [some teens think] that if you douche with Gatorade, you won’t get pregnant.” In another case, a girl couldn’t wait for a response from Hasler to her initial e-mail, so she took action on her own. “In the first question, she said ‘I can’t get a vibrator, how can I make my own?” The girl sent a followup message saying that she and her friends had come up with their own solution: “they melted crayons, poured them into a condom, and froze it.” Hasler and I speculated a bit on Crayola’s take on this use of their product. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she concluded.

Only one question in the book was fabricated by Hasler, and that was a spur of the moment substitute. “The editor said that I couldn’t use one question I had because it was so common, that it might hurt people’s feelings to call it stupid, so I had to come up with something else.” Hasler feels that “abstinence-only” sex ed programs bear some of the responsibility for the myths circulating in the teen population. “Abstinence only created more mis-information that kids are generating in their circle of friends. It’s ridiculous; not only are you telling kids you have to not have sex, but you’re giving them inaccurate information.”

Hasler is a stickler for accurate information. When asked about her research process, she chuckled and answered, “well, I have more books about sex than most people…” Among her favorite written sources for information, she cites the classic Our Bodies, Ourselves — “it’s updated frequently,” and the website “Scarleteen” – I really love the work they’re doing there. Additionally, Hasler has built her own network of expert resources. “As the past three years have progressed, I’ve been contacted by doctors and sex educators who are saying, ‘I love what you do, let me know if I can help you.” She then went on to describe a question that came up during the editing process of her book. “I wrote the section about what to do if a condom breaks and gets stuck in a vagina, but then the editors wanted to know what happens if it gets stuck in a butt.” Hasler then sent out messages to her experts; “those were some funny subject lines,” she mused. “’Condoms in Butts.’” The conclusion was that none of the doctors queried had ever heard of the situation occurring, but “across the board, the answer was ‘go to the bathroom.’” Simple, logical.

Occasionally, the answers are not quite so clear cut. In her role as a columnist, Hasler says that she is frequently thrown by questions. “Nine out of ten times, my first reaction in most cases is, ‘I don’t know.’ The relationship questions are really hard to answer. Who has it all figured out? Nobody. For each question, I stare at it; I type ‘I don’t know;’ I hit delete; then I come up with some different angles.
Hasler’s different angles sometimes veer off in quirky directions. After seeing a Tweet in which she had mentioned being accused of having “a well-developed sense of defense mechanism,” I asked her about her sense of humor, and how it impacted her work. “When I started writing the book, I asked the publishers, ‘do you want me to create a separate Twitter account?’ I say some pretty f—-d up s–t. With Twitter, 98% of it is just stuff I thought was funny at the time. Especially in dating relationships … the guy’ll say to me ‘I just saw your Twitter; did you really just do that. And I’ll say, ‘no, you were right next to me.’” Of the defense mechanism, Hasler says, “that one was true. I was talking to the guy I was dating; we were trying to have a serious conversation…” She stops. “He was trying to have a serious conversation; I just kept making jokes, and he said ‘you have a well-developed sense of defense mechanism.”

“Most of my life I felt pretty apologetic about who I was and the things I thought were funny.” As she ages, Hasler acknowledges feeling more comfortable in her own skin and in her own brain. However, even so, “I toned down a lot of humor in the book. Things I think are funny, maybe not everyone does.” When pressed for examples, Hasler thought back; “oh, things I said about setting a person on fire. I thought it was pretty clear that you shouldn’t set a person on fire, but maybe not everyone would get it.” Hasler admits to still getting hate mail for a joke she made on the MTSS podcast. In the scene, she had made a comment about pedophilia as a disease and had made a comparison to another common disease that was so over-the-top outrageous that she never expected anyone to take it seriously. People did. Even in life, she says, “with a lot of jokes, people can’t tell when I’m joking. I’m very straight-faced and dry.”

Hasler’s oldest son Trast (age 12) shares his mother’s smartass propensities. A current entry on Hasler’s website discusses the planned mother-son prank war for the summer. In a joint interview posted on Time Out New York: Kids, Nikol and Trast come across as incredibly comfortable; additionally, they wear identical sarcastic smiles that can only be described as smirks. “We are very comfortable with each other. We’re very close; he’s a pretty sarcastic kid; he’s very smart. He’s got Aspbergers, so he’s missing the embarrassment factor.” Despite her willingness to discuss sex openly with her children, Nikol Hasler the mother sets very clear limits on their media exposure. “I use nanny software, so they’re not allowed to visit a new website without me approving it.” With regards to TV, “they are children of divorce, so I can’t control what they’re watching at a friend’s house or at their dad’s.” However, Hasler’s kids know what is expected. “Trast called when he was at his father’s to get permission to watch The Hills Have Eyes.” Hasler’s response was a flat “no way.” She then adds, “he was pretty pissed. But,” she says, “it has a rape scene. And, I told him that, and we talked about it. There’s just too much opportunity to desensitize. There’s a difference in what we should be sensitive to. We shouldn’t try to say that sex is bad, that it will lead to boils, and festering sores, and penises falling off. Kids know that’s not true. But, violence in sex – I can’t stand how desensitized kids are to violence.”

So, Hasler will continue to communicate with her own kids, and to spread her gospel of communication between parents and kids. “I know it doesn’t work that way, but I’m going to keep encouraging it and hope for the best.”

Oh, and the cows? Hasler’s written encouragement to dialog comes in the form of a book whose cover depicts two very happy cows. “It was the MTSS logo; we started with a picture of ladybugs doing it. Then a friend from high school came up with this design. We call them the ‘loving cows.’” Hasler may have a way to go in opening dialogues about sex. “People have thought the cover was shocking.” Still, if anyone can get adults and teens to communicate openly and accurately about sex, I’m betting on Nikol Hasler and her cows.

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