Sex educator tells it like it is (sorry, Mom) on top-rated TV show
BY LORI BONA HUNT
The telephone call came out of the blue. Guelph graduate Robin Milhausen was at her desk at the University of Indiana, knee-deep in research for her dissertation. A TV producer from Alliance Atlantis was on the line. Would she be interested in flying to Toronto to screen test for a new show on the Life Network?
“When they called me, I was literally surrounded by piles of papers and journal articles, living at my computer 20 hours a day,” she says.
Milhausen, who earned an undergraduate degree in psychology and a master's degree in human development and human relations from U of G, had no experience in television. She had never acted, modelled or worked in broadcasting. At the time, she was a doctoral candidate at the world-renowned Kinsey Institute in Indiana and already an award-winning and published researcher. She had her sights set on being a sex educator and professor.
But after she hung up the phone, Milhausen shut down her computer, packed her bags and caught a plane back to Canada.
“We were shooting within a month. It was all very exciting and as different from grad school as you can get.”
The program Milhausen co-hosts, Sex, Toys & Chocolate, started airing Friday nights on the Life Network last May. Less than a year later, it's among the highest-rated shows on the network. In fact, it's so popular, it's already in “reruns” and can now be seen every night of the week.
The show is known for its refreshing format and open and frank discussions on topics such as dating, relationships, gender barriers, sexuality, and sexual health and behaviour.
“Nothing like it has ever existed before,” says Milhausen. “The producers were looking for someone who was a sex researcher who could moderate, dispel myths and start conversations.”
She says they called her after hearing about her research and listening to a tape of a call-in radio show she did once for adolescents.
Sex, Toys & Chocolate has a new subject matter each week and features different male and female guests who exchange views and experiences — no-holds-barred. In each episode, Milhausen and her co-host, Michael Cho, also incorporate games intended to put their guests at ease and lower their inhibitions. There are few taboos.
“After teaching and researching about sex for so many years, there's not much that can make me blush,” Milhausen says.
But, she adds with a laugh, her parents had to become accustomed to having their only child — and having their friends see their only child — discussing such issues on TV.
“They had 11 years — the time I spent in university — to get used to it, but still. . .”
Since the show first aired, Milhausen has finished her PhD and started work as a post-doctoral researcher at the School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta. She admits that juggling an academic career and a top-rated TV show is a challenge.
Each week during the four months a year the show is in production, Milhausen spends Monday and Tuesday developing interventions to prevent sexual risk-taking among young people, then catches a plane to Toronto on Wednesday to spend a day in planning meetings with producers for the show. On Friday and Saturday, she tapes two shows each day, then flies back to Georgia on Sunday.
“It's crazy. When the show first started, there was a six-month period where I finished writing a dissertation, defended my PhD, planned a wedding, got married, moved to another state and shot 40 episodes. But I don't think you can get through graduate school without being a good time manager.”
As a graduate student and post-doctoral researcher, Milhausen has published a variety of research articles that have appeared in publications such as the American Journal of Health Education and Journal of Sex Research.
Her early research focused on adolescent sex and risk-taking behaviour, including when she was at U of G.
“All the Guelph faculty, and the entire department, were so supportive of me as a student and of my research,” she says, adding that she applied to several undergraduate psychology programs before choosing Guelph after a visit here with her mom.
“Everyone was so friendly and warm,and the campus so beautiful, we knew right away it would be perfect. It had a well-respected psychology department, too, and academic reputation was important.”
It was at the urging of her mentor, now retired family relations professor Ed Herold, that she applied to Indiana's doctoral program. While there, she received the Outstanding Student Research Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality and became the youngest member of the International Academy of Sex Research, a prestigious invitation-only organization.
Milhausen says she continues to feel an affinity with and deep affection for U of G.
“Guelph gave me the foundation I needed to achieve the success I've had. It also gave me confidence in my academic ability, which has allowed me to reach my real potential as a scholar. It's where I got the training to do what I'm doing, and I love what I do.”
Her current research focuses on the dynamics of human sexuality, and her PhD dissertation was on women and sex.
“I take a non-medical approach to women's sexuality, looking at factors that influence women's sex lives and sexual arousal: children, relationships, jobs, financial worries.”
Milhausen will return to Canada in the fall to start another post-doctoral research position, this time at the Social Justice and Sexual Health Research Centre at the University of Windsor. She says she's delighted to be coming back home and still aspires to become a full-fledged professor.
She considers hosting the TV show a perfect fit with her career in academia.
“It's helping me to stay current in my research and to share my findings with the world. I think all academics want to translate what they're doing so it's applicable and acceptable to the general public. We want to see our research used to make a positive change in people's lives.”
Although that life-changing call Milhausen received from the TV producer took her by surprise, what has transpired since is actually right in line with what she envisioned doing with her future.
Growing up in Collingwood, Milhausen learned a lot about sex by watching esteemed Canadian sex therapist Sue Johanson on TV.
“She was my role model, and I always wanted to take steps towards a career that would follow a similar path.”
Milhausen knew from an early age that she wanted to study the sexuality of young people, particularly young women.
“Navigating through puberty, negotiating dating and relationships, coming to terms with your sexual identity — these are extremely difficult and important life tasks. It wasn't easy for me, and it isn't easy for most adolescents.I wanted to learn everything I could about the process to, in some way, make it easier for young people.”
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