Kris Gowen: Grief, Music, and Sex

This episode contains explicit conversation. 


Kris as a child

This week I interviewed Dr. Kris Gowen, a sexuality educator and researcher with a master’s from Harvard University Graduate School of Education and a doctorate from the Stanford School of Education. She has worked as a leader and researcher at both Portland State University and Oregon Health Sciences University.


Kris is cofounder of Beyond the Talk, the sex ed you wish you had. They provide presentations, workshops, and interactive games all aimed at increasing access to sexuality information.


After her best friend Molly died, Kris decided to travel around to all 50 states, a 17,774-mile road trip, and sing karaoke in each state! She even wrote a book about it: One Nation Under Song: My Karaoke Journey through Grief, Joy, and America.

“The trip itself reinforced my whole belief that karaoke’s not just a bunch of drunk people getting on stage and singing, but there’s really a whole community associated with karaoke. It’s a welcoming environment...karaoke’s one of the few things you can do to get in front of a bunch of people, be really bad at it, and get cheered...and have people clap when you’re done...That kind of support system is magical.”
Kris and her friend Molly

In addition to soaking into the empty spaces of her journey and allowing herself to grieve, she came to appreciate the diversity of the country. One of her favorite places was Detroit, when she found herself as one of the few white people behind a barbecue joint. She wasn’t sure if it was a space for her, but the other singers were fantastic and the environment was magical. In Georgia she sang to a church organist, and the organist/KJ (karaoke jock) gave a welcoming speech about letting go and being a part of the community.


Kris in her element

With the pandemic, karaoke has gone online. She recently entered the North American Open of the World Karaoke Championships and got second place, so she’s now on the North American team for the world championships. You can stay up to date on her karaoke adventures on her One Nation Under Song Facebook page or watch her singing here.


I recalled my first karaoke evening in Osaka, Japan, in August 1986, before karaoke had gotten big in the west. I’ve sung karaoke a few times in Portland in recent years, but this whole idea of a karaoke community was news to me.


Molly’s death was just the latest in a series of deaths in her life Kris has had to grieve. She has written and led workshops around the intersection of grief and joy.

“Joy is a really important part of any form of grief process. A lot of people feel shame around it, or guilt.”

I shared my experience of getting to know other families who had lost their babies in the NICU and learning from them how to continue to honor their children...in particular our friends Doug and Catherine Fettig, who graciously volunteered at Legacy Emanuel Hospital after their own son lived for just a week, helping other parents dealing with the NICU experience.


“As a species, as living creatures, we’re remarkably resilient, and I think resilience shows up in many different ways...resilience is also a skill that we can actively work on.”
Another karaoke outing

After talking about Kris’ unique sojourn across the country singing in every state, as well as her favorite songs to sing, we talked about her work in sex education.


Kris is passionate about incorporating social justice and inclusion into sex education, especially because many young people are rejected or thrown out of their homes because of who they love.

“Every young person deserves to have a safe home, and to be treated with respect, and to be able to exist as they are.”
Before giving a Science on Tap talk

In this focused time on Black Lives Matter, she’s particularly interested in exploring how we can be anti-racist and intersectional in sex education, recognizing where we can do better in honoring all cultures, races, and backgrounds. Kris mentioned that talking about the history of forced sterilization, power dynamics, access to contraception, and access to health care is extremely important if we are to have sexually healthy people. She also noted the reinforcement of racist stereotypes in pornography and the question of whether young people of different races are being punished disproportionately for things like sexting.


We spoke about how kids are much more open-minded about different genders and sexual orientations. Kris has worked with kids at the Rock and Roll Camp for Girls, where she’s found the kids to be really open and evolved in discussing these issues.


Kris has done a great deal of research around how technology can affect sexual pleasure...for example, pornography, Internet dating, and sex toys and sex robots. We also talked about sex in the time of COVID.

Beyond The Talk is offering a discussion-based group for parents and caregivers tolearn, process, and get support with their teens and tweens' online relationships, sexting, and pornography. They will also address how Covid-19 is affecting young people. This group will run for 6 weeks starting November 9-December 14 with a November 2 registration deadline.


Next week I interview my friend Stephanie Coren, who is one of the most resilient people I know. She survived sexual, emotional, and physical abuse as a child yet grew up to be deeply loving and compassionate. She’s been in recovery for several decades and has had to deal with a large number of health issues, including breast cancer. Not long after beating breast cancer, her wife of over 25 years told her she wanted a divorce. That news threw Stephanie into a depression. In spite of all these challenges, Stephanie has continued to survive and thrive.


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