Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: Writer Outs Bert and Ernie, Producers Shove Them Back in the Closet

Martha Kempner

In a surprising denial from the typically inclusive show, the makers of Sesame Street say that the puppets are best friends, not partners.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more. 

So Are They or Aren’t They?

In a recent interview, a former Sesame Street writer seemed to confirm decades-old speculation that puppet roommates Bert and Ernie were gay by saying that he based them on his own relationship with his long-term, same-sex partner.

Instead of embracing this revelation or even ignoring it, Sesame Workshop, the producers of the show, released a statement categorically denying that the characters were more than just friends and suggesting that puppets do not actually have a sexual orientation.

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Unlike other Muppets who are clearly frogs, pigs, bears, or monsters, Bert and Ernie appear human albeit with yellow and orange skin, oddly shaped heads, and large noses. They are best friends despite having very different personalities; serious Bert often seems exasperated with the sillier and sometimes fearful Ernie. Their shared bedroom—in which they sleep side by side in twin beds—is the setting for many scenes between the puppets and likely the origin of the question as to whether they are a couple.

Mark Saltzman wrote for Sesame Street and other Muppets media for 15 years beginning in the mid-1980s. When asked this very question in a recent Queerty interview, Saltzman replied, “And I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert and Ernie, they were. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.” Saltzman wrote for the characters based on his own relationship with his partner, Arnold Glassman, whom he was with for 20 years until Glassman’s 2003 death.

Sesame Workshop has always been known for inclusivity. Its human cast has included biracial actors, Spanish-speaking characters, interracial couples, a deaf character who used sign language, and a child in a wheelchair. And it has tried to do the same with its puppets. Last year, it introduced Julia, an autistic puppet character, as a way to help kids better understand their peers on the spectrum.

This is why it was so surprising that the producers didn’t embrace Saltzman’s suggestion and, instead, came out with a statement to deny it:

Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identified as male and possess many human traits and characteristics, they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.

While it may be true that, as puppets, Bert and Ernie don’t have sex (and likely don’t have genitals), characters on Sesame Street do have long-term relationships and most of those appear to be heterosexual. Elmo’s monster parents, Louie and Mae, are clearly a male-female pair. Humans Maria and Luis got married in a 1988 episode. And Abby Cadabby’s parents got divorced.

Denying the possibility that Bert and Ernie could be gay while allowing clearly heterosexual couples to live on Sesame Street seems antithetical to the show’s long history of affirming and embracing our differences. The producers are not just missing an opportunity to remind viewers that some men are in loving relationships with other men. They made it a point to say that wasn’t the case in their neighborhood.

Saltzman has since walked back his comments, saying that the two characters love each other but are not necessarily a gay couple. Bert and Ernie’s creator, Frank Oz, asked in a tweet why we all cared so much: “It seems Mr. Mark Saltzman was asked if Bert and Ernie are gay. It’s fine that he feels they are. They’re not, of course. But why that question? Does it really matter? Why the need to define people as only gay? There’s much more to a human being than just straightness or gayness.”

The fact that there’s so much more to people than their sexual orientation is exactly why this matters. There’s more to people than their skin color, which is why Sesame Street has a racially diverse cast. There’s more to people than Down syndrome, which is why it featured a child with this condition. There’s more to people than whether they have a virus, which is why the South African version of the show introduced an HIV-positive puppet. And there’s more to people than their diagnosis on the autism spectrum, which is why the show introduced Julia.

But this is a show that knows the importance of representation, and it is a true shame that it has chosen to deny viewers who may be gay or have same-sex parents the opportunity to see themselves on television. Saltzman says he would like to see a same-sex couple on the show though he’d like them to be human. That’s a nice idea whose time has come, though we’d be perfectly happy if they were puppets.

Oregon Clears Up Confusion Over Mandatory Reporting

School personnel and other professionals who work with children in Oregon got clarification this month from the state’s attorney general who said that mandatory reporters do not have to report consensual acts of teen sex as long the teens are within three years of each other’s age and there were no signs of force or abuse.

The confusion began last year when the Salem-Keizer school district conducted a staff training on mandatory reporting procedures. All school personnel fall into the category of mandatory reporters, which means they are required by law to report knowledge or suspicions of child abuse to state or local authorities. According to the training, this included knowledge or suspicions of any sexual relationship that included a student under 18 even if they believed the sexual behavior was consensual. In fact, one example used in the training suggested that teachers would have to report their own child’s consensual sexual relationship.

Teachers, parents, and students felt this went too far and would be detrimental to teens who could no longer ask school officials questions about birth control or seek information about sexual orientation for fear of being turned in. An online petition asking the school district to change its policy has garnered more than 4,500 signatures.

The district, however, said this was not a new policy but merely an interpretation of existing state law. The age of consent in Oregon is 18. Anyone involved in a relationship with someone younger than this could be prosecuted for statutory rape. Like many states, however, Oregon has a “Romeo and Juliet” law, which protects young couples of similar ages (within three years) from statutory rape charges. This means that your typical high school relationship in which a 15-year-old sophomore is dating an 18-year-old senior is not illegal.

But the age-gap law is not tied to the mandatory reporting law, leaving this one school district under the impression that all teenage relationships constitute abuse that needs to be reported.

State legislators tried to solve this problem by creating a new law that included a section on mandatory reporters and clarification of the age-gap exemption. The bill originally had bipartisan support, but that fell apart as various amendments were added. Ultimately, the mandatory reporting part of the bill was dropped.

The state attorney general’s official opinion should help clear matters up. It states unambiguously: “Sexual conduct between participants less than three years apart by age does not need to be reported if the lack of consent is due to the age of the minors, and no other factors make the conduct a crime or otherwise qualify as ‘abuse.’”

Student advocates from the Salem-Keizer school district were thrilled with the outcome. Kimberly Schott and Marissa Dougall created the petition and spoke to the state legislature about the issues. They told the Statesman Journal newspaper in an email: “We feel freaking amazing! … It’s so great to know that all the hard work paid off. We did this for the students, staff, and community. We’re so thankful for everyone who supported us.”

Most Couples Don’t Do It After Saying ‘I Do’

Very few brides and/or grooms make it to their wedding night without already having had sex with each other. But it is still generally assumed that after the cake has been cut and the champagne drunk, the happy couple will have a little newlywed nookie. A new, small survey from the website Wedding Wire suggests that most couples actually do something else when they get to the honeymoon suite.

The survey asked almost 400 people—brides, grooms, and guests—what they did after the big event. Only 40 percent of couples said they had sex that night. What did they do instead, you ask? Well, some of them (22 percent) stayed up all night partying, others opened their wedding gifts (23 percent), looked at pictures of the event on social media (25 percent), and ate food in bed (26 percent).

We applaud these alternative wedding night plans. Have sex if you want to, of course, but don’t just do it because society has expected it of wedding couples for centuries. Sharing a good room-service ice cream sundae while you look at pictures of the big day and try to figure out what to do with the porcelain clown statue from Aunt Shirley could make for way more special memories.

And you can always have sex tomorrow.

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