If you’ve never had the experience of listening to public radio—maybe on a morning commute, maybe balancing a mug of coffee—and suddenly encountering a segment on sex toys, then allow me to introduce you to Embodied, a live, weekly WUNC radio show hosted by Durham’s Anita Rao, which celebrated its first birthday last month.

Rao, 33, is the former managing editor and part-time host of The State of Things, which ended its long run at the end of 2020. Embodied began as an experiment during Rao’s time filling in as a host, as she sought to reach a younger, more diverse audience with topics that don’t often see airwave space; once The State of Things ended, Embodied became its own show.

On the WUNC website, the show falls under the tag “health & fitness,” a designation that almost makes it sound as if it’s a show about how to optimize your abs routine. Embodied, though, is a show about understanding, not optimizing. With its three-pronged approach to sex, health, and relationships, it offers an expansive picture of what it means to be human and to live in a body. Past episode topics have included death doulas, love in incarceration, menopause, and bodybuilders.

The sex toys episode, for instance, is treated with a practical and curious touch, with Rao interviewing the CEO of a sex toy company, the co-founder of a company that makes accessible sex toys for people with disabilities, and a blogger who reviews sex toys. Though Embodied does come with occasional “trigger warnings” for particularly sexual topics, in case children are around, Rao is a forthright interviewer and there isn’t a lot of verbal blushing or winking about intimacy. Instead, it is treated as a practical need, a frame that feels especially necessary during a pandemic when the world has felt increasingly isolating.

Listeners have responded in kind, too: the show, which broadcasts on WUNC 12:00–1:00 p.m. on Fridays, is also available in podcast form; by the show’s second season, downloads had increased 21 percent, with 52,5500 downloads. Recently, we caught up with Rao about vulnerability, taboo topics, and having her parents join the conversation.

INDY WEEK: How has your idea of the scope of these topics changed since starting the show?

ANITA RAO: This sounds ridiculous but the name for the show literally came to me at like three in the morning. I woke up and was like, “Embodied. That’s perfect.” It came from the idea that all these things we are experiencing—sex and relationships and things that we’re experiencing out in the world—affect how we see our body and how our body relates to other people and what it feels like to be in a body.

Some of the conversations I have grown to love most are about two people in a relationship and how their conception of their bodies has changed because of their relationship to the other person. One of my favorite conversations was with this couple—she has ALS and they were talking together about her terminal illness and their romantic relationship.

The way that they cared for one another through their words and conversation and what came through about the tenderness of an intimate relationship when you’re dealing with, like, looking at death every single day—I found that to be so powerful. How relational our bodies are is what’s coming to the fore for me.

As a culture, supposedly we’re becoming more open. Do you feel like there are still topics that are still off-limits?

Sex. There’s a 29-second promo that airs in the days leading up to the show that teases what the show is about. And whenever we’re talking about sex we get so much pushback before the show even airs.

One of the criticisms of the show that I struggle with the most is, “Fine if you guys are going to have a show about these topics but put it after dark; it’s not appropriate to be talking about in the middle of the day.”

I find it to be extra important that it’s in the middle of the day because the point of the show is that sex is not inherently salacious. There is a way to talk about these things that open up more—more empathy, more curiosity, and more understanding. Relegating us to a time at night where only certain people are engaging with it is precisely what I’m pushing back against with the show.

Our program director is a huge advocate of the show and when we do get that listener feedback that says that, he’ll say, you know, “Have you listened to the whole show? Or listened to this other episode?”

That attitude is wild because it suggests that sex is just something on a shelf, you know, not something that affects every other area of life.

Yeah, exactly. And the show fundamentally believes that pleasure is a human right. It’s a part of our existence that we should embrace and talk about. So many problems emerge from not being willing to acknowledge that publicly.

Your parents have participated. How did they come to be involved in the show? How has that felt?

In the run-up to launching the podcast version of the show, I did some interviews with other women in the podcasting industry whom I admired, getting their advice for launching a show and becoming hosts. I had a conversation with Anna Sale, who is the host of Death, Sex & Money. One of the things that she said to me that really struck a chord was like, “Why should people trust you to be having these conversations? How are you making yourself vulnerable in the process of doing the show?”

It really got me thinking, because I feel extremely comfortable in the role of interviewer, of being the one leading and moderating the conversation, but when the tables are turned back on me, I’m not always comfortable. Bringing my parents into the show was an exercise in my own vulnerability because I did not grow up in a sex-positive household. I never got the sex talk from my parents. My mom grew up in a very Catholic upbringing and my dad is an Indian immigrant—my parents are both immigrants. We just never talked about sex, ever. Opening up these topics with them was mirroring to listeners that I’m willing to make myself really uncomfortable; I’m willing to be vulnerable about what I don’t know and ask questions that make me scared.

I think they have really appreciated getting to know me in a different way. I feel like the part of my interests that come out in Embodied are not something that I have really shared with them as openly. This was a way of kind of like bringing that full circle into my relationship with them as their kid.

What’s on your wish list for this next year of Embodied?

I want to have more adolescents on. I love that age where they’re unfiltered and brutally honest about the world and also learning about their bodies in real-time—there’s a lot to learn. 

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