Talking Sexing History
Averill Earls: Welcome to the wide and wonderful world of podcasting, Sexing History!
Gillian Frank and Lauren Gutterman: Thanks so much!
AE: Long time fan, first time interviewer. You both know I am a big fan of your digital and traditional history work, and I am psyched about your podcast. What inspired you to launch Sexing History?
GF and LG: We love listening to podcasts and would get excited when some of our favorite podcasts would touch upon the history of sexuality. We saw an opportunity to tell stories about sexual diversity in the past through this medium. We had been editing and writing pieces on the history of sexuality for popular audiences (we are both editors at NOTCHES) and wanted to bring that commitment to the medium of podcasting.
Specifically, we want to help our audience understand how present-day conflicts and norms have been shaped by historical forces. And we want to share our appreciation of the strangeness of the past and the contingency of today’s sexual values and ideas.
Sexing History also brings together our passions for collaborative writing, oral history, and storytelling for a general audience. We work together and with our wonderful team of producers, Rebecca Davis, Saniya Lee Ghanoui and Devin McGeehan Muchmore, to create each episode. We also get to interview other historians and the historical subjects who we write about and have wide ranging conversations about sexual politics and values.
AE: Your first three episode teasers give me a little thrill every time I visit your website, and the Prom Night episode was beautifully crafted. Between the interview clips and the post-production, it was a wonderful first episode. How do you decide on episode topics?
GF and LG: We collectively brainstorm possible topics and look for interesting and compelling stories that lend themselves to audio storytelling. So far we have gravitated toward subjects we’re personally curious about. We do preliminary research to see if there’s a story there, and as we dig into the material the topic evolves. For example, a story that was supposed to be about the history of breast implants evolved into a story about sexual scams and mail fraud.
AE: Some of y’all are obviously coming from a purely written storytelling background. How does writing for the ear differ?
GF and LG: Writing for the ear is much more economical. We have to be sparing with our language. We use shorter sentences and smaller words. The story has to be streamlined and can only include the most important details. We have to strategically repeat key information so that audio continuity is maintained. And perhaps most challenging, we have to ruthlessly cut all those amazing little tangents and details that we fall in love with but are inessential to the story.
AE: What can listeners look forward to with Sexing History?
GF and LG: Gripping stories about sexuality in the past that feature interviews with historical subjects, historical experts, and great archival audio clips. Our first episode explores the history of gay proms. We then explore the trial of an abortion provider after Roe v. Wade in our second episode. Our third episode looks at the history of the American obsession with big breasts. We go from there.
AE: What are your favorite podcasts to listen to? Those that may influence your approach, and those that just tickle your fancy — and why they tickle your fancy.
GF: My top three are 99% Invisible, Criminal, and The Moth. With the first two podcasts, I am in love with the smart, historically informed and beautifully scripted (and scored) explorations of American culture. 99% Invisible, in particular, explores the taken for granted and often hidden architecture of everyday life. The Moth features people sharing their stories. The stories range from descriptions of extraordinary moments to moving and often beautiful explorations about everyday relationships and events.
LG: Some of my favorites include the New York Public Library’s podcast, Radiolab, and You Must Remember This. The NYPL Podcast broadcasts a wide-ranging cross section of the Library’s talks with leading authors, artists, scholars, and filmmakers; it also allows me to remain connected, remotely, with an institution I care about. I’m definitely not a science person, but I appreciate Radiolab’s approach to storytelling and the way they’re able to make topics that would not ordinarily grab my attention — like gene-editing — fascinating and accessible. Finally, as a film-lover and admirer of old Hollywood, I also enjoy Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This.
Listen to the first episode of Sexing History, and tune in on SoundCloud:
Averill Earls is the Executive Producer of the award-winning Dig: A History Podcast, and an Assistant Professor of History at St. Olaf College. She writes about same-sex desire in modern Ireland, with recent articles out in the Journal of the History of Sexuality (2019) and Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques (2020). Her forthcoming book, Love in the Lave: A Social Biography of Same-Sex Desire in Postcolonial Ireland is under contract with Temple University Press.