In a women’s bathroom down the hall from Ann Arbor’s Community Television Network office, Safety Girl is dressing for her December show. She puts on a Santa Girl outfit — a bright red dress with white frills, thigh-high black boots, fishnet stockings, a dog collar, chains hanging off her black belt, and a red hat with feathers dangling down her back.
"I hope I don’t make you uncomfortable or anything," she says with uncharacteristic modesty. I look up from my notebook, and she’s topless, struggling to put on a corset. "I’ll just keep asking questions," I say.
Also known as Tanya Brown, she’s the host of "Get Curious With Safety Girl," a controversial live call-in and variety show on Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti’s cable access network.
The ultimate cable access show, it’s casual, slapdash and unpredictable — sometimes slow, sometimes brilliantly campy. January’s episode begins with a montage from previous episodes: Safety Girl holding a banana; Safety Girl blindfolded and smiling; Safety Girl holding a cat-o’-nine-tails.
In the theme song, a bit of happy pop-rock performed by Ann Arbor’s Mondo Mod, two women sing: "She uncovers it all/from toy to fetish/she even reveals/what makes her wettish!"
One recent episode begins with three women talking about a woman who hasn’t had sex in a long time, and a guy who’s untalented in bed.
Brown’s head peeks out from behind the curtain. "Sexual frustration?" she says in mock horror. "Lousy lovers? This sounds like a job for Safety Girl!"
With the show as her platform, Brown is on a crusade against sexual ignorance: She talks positively and openly about sex while promoting safer sex — including "outercourse," her term for alternatives to intercourse.
"Safe sex is always looked upon in a negative sense," she says. "You see AIDS and unwanted pregnancy and all the horrible things that could happen if you have unsafe sex. Well, I’m trying to put out there into the world that you can be extremely pleasure-positive and have awesome sex without risking yourself."
Safety Girl, says Brown, is "a real superhero who wants to try to help others learn from her mistakes instead of their own."
Those mistakes include contracting chlamydia and getting pregnant at age 16, which seems to be partly why Brown gets upset when viewers call her show inappropriate for minors, and partly how she started her crusade.
For years before going on-air, she sold "personally proven" sexual aids through Tupperware party-like demonstrations. These evolved into presentations about safer sex and outercourse at local colleges.
Recently she left the sex toy business and stopped giving presentations — and, to the surprise of her fans, got married — but she still gives advice to people who call in to her show or e-mail her from her Web site.
She says she’s never got a question she hasn’t had an answer for, and her unassuming attitude helps her talk with people. "I’m not perfect. I don’t make myself out to be an expert, which helps me out a lot. I’m just like anyone else, trying to learn."
There’s no way of knowing how many of the 65,000 cable subscribers in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti watch "Get Curious With Safety Girl."
But even if they haven’t seen the show, they’ve probably heard about it. Readers of the Ann Arbor magazine Current voted it Best Community TV Program in 1998.
And between May 1997 and December 1998, Safety Girl was the subject of 82 of the 117 phone calls the Community Television Network received about its programming. Forty-six were complaints, 34 were messages of support.
By fall 1997, so many people had complained, city officials implemented a rule prohibiting sexual programming until 11 p.m.
"For six months I couldn’t talk about sex," says Brown. "I had to do it in sexual metaphors or not do it at all. We mainly used cooking metaphors." She also invited attorney Geoffrey Fieger to talk about censorship.
Meanwhile, Brown fought the ruling. The Ann Arbor City Council voted to lift the restrictions, but Mayor Ingrid Sheldon vetoed its action, creating a stalemate. City Administrator Neal Berlin then lifted the restrictions, saying there was no clear community standard supporting them.
Safety Girl celebrated with a show that replayed her greatest hits. In one, she dripped lubricant onto a banana, then put a condom on the banana using her mouth.
She also replayed the episode celebrating her 26th birthday, during which she stripped to her bra and garter (revealing a tattoo of the symbol-name of the Artist Formerly Known As Prince in the small of her back) so that two dominatrices could spank her.
More recently, viewers tuned in to watch Safety Girl, in black underwear, receive a 20-minute-long "sensual massage" from a woman named Angjelica, who wore a skimpy slip.
"Do you ever get somebody so excited that they feel like they’re just going to explode?" Safety Girl asked. "Oh, yeah, all the time," the masseuse replied.
"Disgusting and unsuitable for minors," one caller to CTN commented about "Safety Girl Meets Angjelica."
"Too provocative for children," said another.
Brown doesn’t have much patience for those who think she’s too explicit.
"Children don’t care about my show," she says. "I have a child of my own. My son is 10 years old and wants to watch sports and cartoons and stuff."
She doesn’t promote the show to teenagers, but she knows they’re watching. One night, she and her guests fielded two questions from young-sounding women. The first asked how to give oral sex, and Brown and guests explained how to do it safely. The second, who was abstaining from sex but looking for foreplay ideas, received suggestions ranging from blindfolds to mutual masturbation.
"I don’t think kids should have intercourse," says Brown. "They should be able to relieve themselves, though, and get each other off, while protecting themselves, because we all have those feelings.
"I’m really happy to know that there’s a young girl out there that’s going to get some information to questions she’s been wondering about, not being able to ask her parents, and hopefully not fucking up like I did," she says.
Brown also has other motivations. "I live vicariously through her," she says of her alter ego. She’s also happy to be helping viewers explore and accept their sexuality.
"I really appreciate the positive feedback I get," she says. "I get a lot of letters and a lot of e-mail from people thanking me for the show, for entertaining them and giving them great ideas: ‘Oh, I had a great night last night because of your tip!’"
There’s a more basic motivation too. "I am an exhibitionist," she says. "I’m doing it because I love to do it."