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681: Escape From the Lab

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

I think probably every two years, I read an article about some scientist who thinks there might be a way, building off chicken DNA or whatever, to figure out the DNA of dinosaurs and bring one to life. I feel like I run into these stories all the time. There were those scientists a couple years ago who were talking about how you could take Neanderthal DNA and use it to create new Neanderthals.

Or this is, I think, the realest one going. I think this is an actual thing. There's a team led by a Harvard scientist trying to bring back the woolly mammoth. That's right, the woolly mammoth. And have herds of them tromping through the Siberian tundra. That's the actual plan. And can I just say, I know you scientists, you have your reasons. But whenever I read this stuff, I think, did you guys not see Jurassic Park? Have we learned nothing from the movies?

Ian Malcolm

Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.

Ira Glass

Thank you, Jeff Goldblum. Dr. Frankenstein collects the body parts of dead people, sews them together on a lab table, jolts them with some electricity-- very showy electricity, dare I say. The creature comes to life and then does things the scientist did not anticipate at all. Unintended consequences, my friends.

It's not just in the movies, by the way. Of course, as we all know, discoveries in subatomic physics left the lab. Decades later, we got nuclear bombs. Scientists constructed ways with computers to network with each other in the '60s. Now, half a century later, we end up with the Russians trolling our elections through social media.

Cylons return to Caprica to kill all the humans who invented them. OK, that one's not real. But my point is the same. Unintended consequences-- they happen when the experiment leaves the lab. And today on our show, we have three examples, three telling examples from three very different kinds of labs, one of them-- OK, one of those labs is actually just a laboratory of human feelings, but still. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Breakout Star

Ira Glass

Act One, Breakout Star. OK, so we begin with this experiment gone wrong. Like I said, this is not a traditional experiment, not a traditional laboratory, but a laboratory of human emotion, one very familiar to lots of people. I'm talking about the reality TV show, The Bachelor. Been around for 23 seasons. Every season, of course, is romance made in a Petri dish. They throw in one guy, dozens of women. Each week, the guy ejects a few women from the Petri dish until there is just one left.

And that's how it went until last season, when, for the first time, one of the lab subjects, a very important one, escaped the lab with, yes, unintended consequences. One of our producers, Emanuele Berry, tells what happened.

Emanuele Berry

I've been watching The Bachelor for years, and I've never seen anything like what happened on Episode 9 of Season 23. There's this one moment that felt so real that I haven't shut up about it. OK, so, it's almost the last episode of the season. It's The Bachelor, so of course, they're filming in a romantic location, a beautiful property in Portugal.

The bachelor this time around is Colton Underwood. He's 26, tall, sandy hair, handsome, a former football player. And as the show has mentioned a million times, he's a virgin. I could care less. Online, I saw fans of the show describe him as sweet and sincere. My roommate once called him America's chicken nugget.

Colton Underwood

I'm here to fall in love, so hopefully, by the end of this, I am down on one knee.

Emanuele Berry

This show is a Monday night tradition in my apartment. My roommate and I open a bottle of red wine, and for two hours, we enjoy some choreographed drama, contestants who aren't there for the right reason, bachelors who didn't know it would be so hard, tearful eliminations. The entire thing, it's kind of silly. It's actually a total mess, but I'm so into it.

So back to that dramatic moment. It's nighttime in Portugal, and Colton has been dumped by the girl of his dreams. He has shut himself into his room.

Colton Underwood

[BLEEP] I'm done. I'm done with this.

Emanuele Berry

He says, "I'm done. I'm done with this." Cue the most dramatic music. He throws open the door, and his hand is suddenly covering the entire TV screen.

Then this strange thing happens. Suddenly, the invisible TV crew becomes very visible. Cameramen find their way into the frame. Colton is running down the stairs. He's taking off his mic, and the producers start calling for Chris.

Producer

Somebody get Chris.

Emanuele Berry

Chris Harrison is the host of the show, who's forever popping into scenes unannounced. And I always feel like, wait, why are you here? Colton's walking away from Chris, ignoring everyone. And then he reaches this big white fence, like an industrial security gate. It's maybe like eight feet tall. And without hesitation, in one powerful, graceful movement, he leaps up and pulls himself over. He's on the other side in a heartbeat. It's the type of move Captain America would do.

And then Chris Harrison utters what is perhaps my favorite line in the history of The Bachelor.

Chris Harrison

He just jumped the [BLEEP] fence. Is there a button that opens the gate?

Emanuele Berry

The crew takes what feels like a while to actually get the gate open. And when they finally do, Colton is gone.

Chris Harrison

He is gone.

Emanuele Berry

The bachelor has escaped. For three minutes, I watch as they search for him, calling his name. Someone starts whistling like they're looking for a dog.

[WHISTLING]

Chris Harrison

Colton!

Woman

Colton!

Chris Harrison

I have no idea where he went.

Man

Colton.

Emanuele Berry

They get into cars, and they're driving around. And finally, they spot him on the side of the road.

Woman

I'm asking if you're OK.

Colton Underwood

No, I'm not OK.

Emanuele Berry

Colton keeps walking away. Chris tries to get him to talk. Manages to get him to walk toward a car, but Colton insists it's over. He says, I can't do this. I'm done. Then commercial. And when we come back, it's the next day, and it's bright and sunny. And Chris Harrison is knocking on Colton's door to talk.

[KNOCKING]

And it all feels sort of normal.

Chris Harrison

Hey, brother. What's up? Yo, man.

Emanuele Berry

And I'm watching at home, and I'm confused. Like, didn't he just say he was done with the show? Yet here he is, talking with Chris, planning his next move. On the show, it's never explained how Colton went from running away and quitting to being back in front of the cameras.

Like, where did he go? How long was he gone? And most important, what made him decide to come back? Like, what actually happened? The TV show gave no satisfying answer to any of that. So--

Emanuele Berry

Hey, Colton.

Colton Underwood

Hey, how are you?

Emanuele Berry

Good, how are you doing?

I called him. Colton says when he signed up to be the bachelor, he'd already been on The Bachelorette, so he believed he understood how the show worked.

Colton Underwood

I thought that I did. I thought that I had a lot of it figured out, and I was wrong.

Emanuele Berry

He explained that the whole fence jump goes back to a confusion of his own making. So on each episode, there are dates with the bachelor. Some are one-on-one. Some are big group dates. And sometimes contestants don't get selected for a date at all, which sucks, because it's really the only time you get to spend with the bachelor.

And Colton told me something I didn't know watching the show, that to figure out who goes on these dates, producers are constantly checking in with the bachelor to figure out who he likes. Like, one of the women he initially hit it off with was Hannah.

Colton Underwood

They always asked to rank the girls. And very early on, Hannah was up there. And she got left off of a date.

Emanuele Berry

In other words, in the beginning when there were over 20 contestants, this woman Hannah was his number one pick. But they didn't schedule a date with her.

Colton Underwood

And I sort of recall remember feeling a little burnt when they did that. I was like, so let me get this straight. Hannah's number one on my list right now, and she's not getting a date this week. So from there on out, I was like, all right, if you're going to do that to my top girls, I'm not really going to tell you who my top girls are. Because I don't want you messing with them. So in a weird way, I tried to defend myself and defend the girls by not being truthful to them who my top was.

Emanuele Berry

So even after Hannah stopped being his favorite.

Colton Underwood

I just kept the top the same. So Hannah was always at the top of the list when I always made the list for them to see, and I never changed it.

Emanuele Berry

It's so interesting because it feels like you're learning their game and then coming up with ways to sort of like either foil it, or protect yourself, or put yourself in a better position. Like, did you find yourself doing that throughout the entire process?

Colton Underwood

Well, yeah. So like, that's just me wanting to set myself up for success.

Emanuele Berry

While Colton kept putting Hannah as his number one pick each week, the girl he fell for hardest was actually Cassie.

Cassie

How are you?

Colton Underwood

You look amazing. How are you?

Cassie

Good. On a scale of one to hot, Colton is hot. I feel like we do have some chemistry, and I'm looking forward to just diving right in.

Emanuele Berry

She's got a surfer vibe, blonde hair, beachy waves. They had chemistry. But as a viewer, she didn't seem like a frontrunner. I kind of kept forgetting who Cassie was.

Colton Underwood

I think with Cass, the best way to describe our relationship is it was such a slow burn. And it was, in a weird way, in the dynamic of The Bachelor franchise where it's supposed to be quick, and fast, and intense, it was sort of a relief to find a normal relationship in which it was a slower burn, and which it was a more realistic approach to a relationship. And I think it was just, it was almost like when I was with Cass, it was like a breath of fresh air.

Emanuele Berry

So toward the end of the season, they're down to just three women-- Cassie, his favorite, Hannah, who the producers think is his favorite, and Tayshia, the token black girl. They're all in Portugal, and they each have an overnight date scheduled with Colton. But someone has to be eliminated by the end of the episode.

I don't know exactly what the producers intended. They declined my request for an interview. But watching the show, it seemed like they were trying to get Cassie to quit. They threw a wrench in her and Colton's relationship, a wrench shaped like Cassie's dad. Colton had met Cassie's dad in an earlier episode when he asked for permission to propose. Mind you, he did this for nearly all the remaining contestants. But Cassie's dad said no.

Dad

So I feel like as far as the hand of marriage, that would be a premature blessing.

Colton Underwood

I see where you're coming from. That's not exactly what I wanted to hear.

Emanuele Berry

A week later in Portugal, Colton's certain about Cassie. Cassie's confused. Again, I have no idea what the producers were thinking. But when I was watching it, it seemed like they were forcing Cassie's hand. The show allows a special guest to visit.

Colton Underwood

Later, in that episode, her dad actually shows up, which nobody just accidentally shows up in Portugal. So the producers paid a pretty hefty price to fly that man on out to Portugal to come visit and spend time with his daughter to give her clarity.

Emanuele Berry

Cassie's dad talks to her, and she decides to leave the show.

Dad

There shouldn't be any hesitation in your mind when you meet somebody that you want to spend the rest of your life with. None. It's a lifelong decision. It's not something you make if you're unsure.

Emanuele Berry

Cassie decides to tell Colton at dinner.

Colton Underwood

Normally, during the dinners and during that, the producers are sort of hovering, or they're around to help the conversation flow. Or they're there just to, like, bounce ideas off of when you guys are talking. When we had that dinner, there wasn't a producer in sight. There was just the cameras, and there was just the audios. Everybody else ran. And they didn't want to be near it because I think they knew that I knew.

Emanuele Berry

Knew that they set him up, he means. At dinner, Cassie tells him she's leaving. And she mentions that her dad is here in Portugal and that they've been talking. Colton clearly has no idea that this was happening. And he turns as though looking for someone.

Colton Underwood

Oh, I was thinking I just got screwed. I was thinking that that wasn't her doing. I know what the format of the show is. And for me hearing, hey, by the way, my dad came back, really sparked something in me. I was like, OK. So I don't have the control I thought I had.

If I feel like my relationship's going to be messed with or toyed with at all, I'm going to be done. Especially at this point, I've completely fallen in love. I've completely, like, gave myself all to her. I mean, I had nothing to lose at that point besides the girl and the woman that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.

Emanuele Berry

So Colton's about to lose the girl that he loves. And in a perverse way, it's kind of his fault. When Colton started lying about who he liked most on his list, the show's not really built for that. It's as if an inanimate test subject suddenly became sentient. Basically, he compromised the entire experiment. He sort of played himself.

Colton Underwood

I think that it backfired because then they were like, whoa, we thought it was Hannah because you kept telling us even on your list, when you'd rank them, Hannah's one.

Emanuele Berry

And so in the end, Cassie ends up basically sort of breaking up with you and leaving, right?

Colton Underwood

Yeah. So we walk, and I just get up and we start walking to the car. And it was in the dark. I remember there was a sidewalk we were supposed to stay on. It was completely lit, and I was like, we're not staying on the sidewalk. Like, I started-- right then and there, I was like, I'm not doing showy things anymore. I'm not doing things just to go through the motions of being the bachelor.

So I was starting to run through scenarios in my head as I put her in the van and said goodbye to her. I was like, all right, I'm going to go upstairs. I'm going to grab my wallet. First off, I got to get away from these people. I have to lose my mic. I have to lose the cameras. I have to just be by myself. And my plan was to get out of there and go grab a new passport, because they did have my passport. So I was like, I got my wallet. I have--

Emanuele Berry

Wait. You're like, I'm going to go get a new passport?

Colton Underwood

I'm done. I wanted to be done. I didn't want to talk to the people on the show. I was about to pay for my own flight to get home. I literally was done talking to everybody. So I went up, I grabbed my wallet, and I remember opening the door and the first thing I see is a camera right there.

And if I had any regrets from the night, the only regret would be is actually hitting and putting a hand on the camera because that's not my property. But I was heated, so I hit the camera just to get it out of my way and went down the stairs. And that's when I undid my mic.

And once I did that, I think they had an idea of what was coming next. And I remember walking up to the fence, and I had no clue how to open it. I didn't want to wait for people to open it. So without hesitation, without even thinking, I was just like, screw it. I'm over this thing. Let's do it.

And I just gathered myself and jumped over the fence, fully expecting the other side to have people, producers, handlers, the food tent. I mean, the scale of this show is so big that there's people everywhere. You can never get by yourself. I mean, there are so many hands on deck, all of these things. But I jumped the fence, and there was nothing. It was darkness. It was fields.

And for me, I was like, this is awesome. So I was like, I'm here. I was like, I don't want them to catch up. So I started running.

Emanuele Berry

So you ran, and you took off.

Colton Underwood

I ran, and I took off. And I'm the worst with directions. Like, I'm very directionally challenged. And I had no clue where I was going. I remember having a ton of bright lights over to the left, so I was like, I'm just going to run towards the lights. And hopefully, I get there.

Granted, these lights are, like, 40 miles away, 30 miles away. I was like, let's do it. I was running in boots and tight jeans, which is the worst combination ever to run in. And I remember hearing in the distance the producers start yelling my name, so I knew they were chasing after me.

Emanuele Berry

Where did you hide? You're a big dude. Were you hiding behind a tree? Were you in bushes?

Colton Underwood

Oh. It was dangerous, too, because I had no clue what the laws were in Portugal. I was hopping personal fences. I was hiding behind people's cars. I was laying down in ditches.

And finally, I hopped through a backyard, and there was like a chain link fence. And all of a sudden, I hear these animals. And they sort of sounded like dogs, and I love dogs. I'm a big dog person. But this was like an aggressive, growling, howling thing. And I was like, all right, this is probably a little dangerous. I probably am a little in over my head here, trying to get back and find a passport. So I'll just turn myself in. I was gone for about a good two hours.

Emanuele Berry

You were gone for two hours?

Colton Underwood

It was yeah, when it's all said and done.

Emanuele Berry

So he turns himself in. Not to police, of course, but to reality TV. He does this by walking to the main road till someone finds him. When they do, he's still upset, and overwhelmed, and not ready to talk.

So he plays the system. He says there's a rule that you cannot be filmed or recorded while talking to the show's therapist. So he asked for that. He says they talked for an hour while he vented and figured out his next move. And then finally, he was ready to talk to producers.

Emanuele Berry

What was that game plan or that conversation like? Did they have to convince you to come back? Because at that point, you were saying that you were done, right? If Cassie wasn't going to be there, you were like-- you seemed very done also.

Colton Underwood

Yeah. Yes, so the game plan--

Emanuele Berry

Yeah, what was the conversation like to get you to come back to the show?

Colton Underwood

So the conversation was-- well, obviously, they just wanted to hear me out. They wanted to hear what I had to say. And then the game plan was to talk to Cass again, but I only wanted to do that after I talked to the other two women.

Emanuele Berry

The lab rat is suddenly running the lab. Colton wants to break up with the other two contestants, so he can make it clear to Cassie that she's the one that he wants and they don't have to get married. This goes totally against the show's format. It means no final two, no big bro ceremony, no proposal scene. All of these sacred touchstones are just gone from the show. It's like watching the Olympics without the medal ceremony at the end.

Emanuele Berry

So you felt like you sort of had more power or maybe a little more leverage to have control when you went back.

Colton Underwood

Well, I think it was just me-- they knew I was serious. Like, it's one thing when leads say, OK, I'm done. Like, it's OK, but you turn around, and you're in an interview the next minute. It's like, you're not done. You're sitting right in front of them. You're doing exactly what they want you to do. So they knew not to really cross that line.

Emanuele Berry

In the end, he gets what he wants. He talks to Cassie. They decide to date and not get engaged. Colton is still friends with the producers. And he says he and Cassie are still together and very happy.

The promos for Colton's season of The Bachelor were all about the fence jump. They tease viewers with footage of the jump. My roommate and I watched every week, asking, is this the week he does it? There's a Twitter account dedicated to the question, articles guessing when and why it would happen. The week he finally jumped, we threw a party in my apartment. There was a cake with a fence.

Emanuele Berry

One of the things that I think is so sort of interesting about this situation is the very big independent act that you did, which was deciding to basically run away from the show, which hasn't happened before.

And then that sort of act of independence got taken and then that was the promo for the season, right? From episode one, it was like, when is Colton going to jump the fence? When is Colton going to jump the fence, over and over again. Watching those promos, how did it feel seeing this moment end up being used as a piece of plot?

Colton Underwood

That was sort of hard for me to deal with because in a way, they're teasing it. America's making jokes about it, making memes about it. And that's their number one marketing and selling piece. Meanwhile, I know the seriousness behind it. I didn't really real-- I didn't even know if they were going to put that in the show until, obviously, I saw the trailer of me jumping the fence, and then I realized that they probably had to.

Emanuele Berry

In the end, the most disruptive thing that could have happened-- driving your lead to jump over a fence and run away-- was probably the best thing that could have happened for the TV show. Ratings for Colton's finale were up compared to the previous season, which makes sense because hopping a fence, it felt real.

Those are the moments I like the most in reality shows, the rare moments of sincere emotion inside this artificial human experiment. Cameras everywhere, insane locations, over-the-top clothes-- the producers can control all that stuff. Scientists can control the lab. But they can't control the results.

Ira Glass

Emanuele Berry is one of the producers of our show.

[MUSIC - BING CROSBY & THE ANDREWS SISTERS, "DON'T FENCE ME IN"]

Act Two: Two Times a Lady 

Ira Glass

Act Two, Two Times a Lady. OK, so a product is developed in a lab. Then after months and months, it's allowed out in the world for the first time. And it does something that its creators really did not intend. It somehow pits men against women, industry leaders against an inventor. Lina Misitzis reports.

Lina Misitzis

She was most of the way through 2018, and Lora Haddock was making something new.

Lora Haddock

Biomimicry is literally translating human or biological movement, and we're translating that into microrobotics. So we've actually created brand new mechanical workings that have never been created before.

Lina Misitzis

Lora knew that what she and her team were working on was innovative. But it wasn't until her newly appointed publicist encouraged her to submit it for awards that she really started seeing her new invention for what it was.

Lora Haddock

That day, she looked at us and she said, you need to apply for tech awards, because this is serious tech. And I mean, you guys just made a robot.

Lina Misitzis

A robot named Osé. Osé left its lab in Oregon, sent out into the world for the first time to apply for this award, an innovation award at CES. That's the Consumer Electronics Show, one of the largest trade shows in the world, with more than 170,000 attendees in recent years. Run by the Consumer Technology Association, the CTA, tens of thousands of new tech products debut at CES. Among them historically are the VCR, the camcorder, the game Tetris.

Winning a CES award is game changing. With it comes industry wide promotion, product listings in CTA's trade magazine, and the chance to showcase your product beside the most buzzed about products at the expo. It's a very big deal.

Lora Haddock

It took about a month to get all of our patent documents together that we were submitting. And then we put everything in. And then we kind of sat and we waited. And there's a handful of judges that are experts in robotics and drones. And they decided that Osé deserved an award.

And we got that email, and I think I literally went running through the office, like, yelling at all of our engineers. And pretty sure some people cried. And it was just absolutely astounding and felt so validating.

Lina Misitzis

The Osé is a robot-- a robotic sex toy. There's no way to talk about this without acknowledging the existence of sex and the body parts typically involved. So if you're listening with kids or you don't want to hear about it, this might not be the story for you.

OK. According to its inventors, what makes the Osé different from other sex toys is that it conforms to each user's particular dimensions, stimulating both the G spot and the clitoris, resulting in a blended orgasm, which is an internal and external orgasm together in the same person at the same time.

Lora Haddock

And then you go, holy shit, that was awesome.

Lina Misitzis

And then do you, like-- do you do it again or like--

Lora Haddock

Of course you do it again.

[LAUGHTER]

Then you do it again just for good measure.

Lina Misitzis

The biomimicry part, what's being imitated by the robotics, is what Lora calls the come hither motions made by a sexual partner's hands, mouth, or both.

For Lora and her team, which was largely made up of female engineers, the award meant a frenzy of activity. The Osé was still in prototype, meaning the design still needed to be finalized. The marketing and the product launch still needed planning.

Lora Haddock

I was in an engineering meeting, and my phone went off and it was our publicist. And I stepped out, and I got on the phone. And I said, is everything OK? And she goes, are you sitting down? You need to sit down. And she tells me that they are revoking our award.

Lina Misitzis

She got this news in an email. Apparently, higher-ups got to talking.

Lora Haddock

And they said when we had this bigger conversation, we decided that we are going to revoke your award. And we're very sorry to have made this mistake. I literally feel like this right now. I welled up. I was heartbroken, and angry, and very confused.

Lina Misitzis

The email referenced a CTA policy that products deemed by CTA to be immoral, or obscene, or indecent, or profane, or not in keeping with CTA's image could be disqualified, and that CTA reserves the right to disqualify any entry at any time.

Lora couldn't help but notice that CTA had very recently been fine with other sex toys, so long as they were oriented towards penises and the people those penises were attached to. In 2017 CES show, the company Naughty America exhibited virtual reality porn. You'd put on a headset, choose from one of three boy-girl scenes, each of them through the eyeballs of the male. In one, you're a guy on a workout bench, and a woman in yoga pants just squats over you. Then you have sex.

And at a media partner show at CES, the creator of Real Doll showcased his electronic sex doll Harmony, who comes with her removable mouth insert that can be washed. Harmony can also be programmed to tell you that she loves you and to exhibit character traits, like jealous, insecure, unpredictable, or helpful. Lora took inventory of all this and the fact that Osé got banned.

Lora Haddock

And very quickly came to the realization that it had everything to do with the fact that it's an adult product that is geared towards females and people with vaginas. And we wrote a letter back to the CTA stating that this is-- basically, that this is absolute crap. This is wrong, and you know it. And they stood by their decision. They said, we're very sorry. There was a misunderstanding. We did not realize what the nature of your product was.

And that I did not buy for a second because we looked at our application. In the very first sentence of our application, the very first sentence says this is a robot to elicit a blended orgasm that stimulates the clitoris and the G spot. So there's no questioning what kind of product this was.

Lina Misitzis

CTA has had a pretty tumultuous on again/off again relationship with the sex industry for decades. For a long time, sex was actually part of the trade show. Remember VHS tapes? Some of the first people to make the leap from film to VHS were porn people. And porn viewers were excited to watch porn from home instead of adult movie theaters and booths in the backs of stores.

And CES wanted to connect content creators with tech manufacturers. It was lucrative. So they let porn companies display at their show, but there were strings attached. All adult content was relegated to an entirely different building from the rest of tech. Porn was still a part of CES, but to get to it, you'd have to leave the Las Vegas Convention Center and go to the Sahara, which was a casino more than a mile away.

One of the main porn people back then was Paul Fishbein. He founded AVN, Adult Video News, the quintessential trade magazine of porn.

Paul Fishbein

You go up a little stairwell into this ballroom. And the booths were like any other booth that you would see in any other trade show. And people would have posters of movies, and they would have TV's that would play softcore clips from the movies. And they would have tables for porn stars to sit and sign autographs.

Lina Misitzis

What were some of the big movies in the late '80s, early '90s?

Paul Fishbein

Now you're really pushing. Um, hold on a second. We're talking late '80s?

Lina Misitzis

Yep.

Paul Fishbein

John Stagliano started his first Buttman movie in 1989, The Adventures of Buttman. And he went on to become a major player.

Lina Misitzis

And even though business was good, tensions arose. Porn exhibitors grew resentful. They were being charged the same participation costs as other tech companies, but they weren't getting the same marketing or show placement.

And then things came to a head in 1998 when CES put up signs by the sex industry section bathrooms that said: "Stop. These restrooms are shared with exhibit personnel in the adult software area. You may choose another bathroom. Thank you." As porn veteran Bryn Pryor, who was also AVN's managing editor back then, told me in an email, the implication of those signs was that sex workers might have, quote, "diseases or molest you or shit on the floor."

The next year, 1999, the divorce. Porn splintered off from CES. AVN began hosting their own expo only for adult content. And for a while, they still held it the same weekend as CES. CES, meanwhile, banned porn from their show, though, obviously, some sex stuff still found its way onto the show floor.

Which brings us back to 2019. With her tech award gone and her sex toy robot banned from CES, Lora wrote another letter, this one an open letter, and posted it to Osé's website on midnight, January 8, the day CES was starting in Vegas.

Lora Haddock

Our very first bit of coverage surfaced right about 9:00 AM. And all of a sudden, the floodgates opened.

Lina Misitzis

The story was picked up by Fast Company, The New York Times, Fortune, Gizmodo, Glamour, Cosmo, Wired, The Guardian, and more. Headlines like "Women's Sexuality is Still Taboo for Tech" were popping up, and "Sex Toy Debacle Reveals Shameful Double Standard at CES."

A month later, in February, Lora gets an email from the assistant to CTA President Gary Shapiro.

Lora Haddock

He says Gary Shapiro would like to talk to you. Can we schedule a phone call? And I mean, at that point, I'm nervous. Like, what does he want to talk to me about? OK. We get on the call, and the first thing Gary says is I owe you all a very big apology. We did you a great disservice, and we're very sorry for what's happened. And we realize that we have made a mistake.

Lina Misitzis

Lora and her team were being given their award back.

At the end of the press release came a promise of new and updated policies. They'd make CES a more, quote, "welcoming and inclusive event for all." The first new policy was that they'd include sex products in the CES show on a one year trial basis. It was not clear why they called this a new policy since sex products were actually in the show the previous year. They said these products would now be in the category Health and Wellness.

And they rolled out one other new policy to address something else they'd gotten a lot of criticism for in the past. They instituted a dress code. Quote, "Booth personnel may not wear clothing that is sexually revealing or clothing that reveals an excess of bare skin or body conforming clothing that hugs genitalia." What CES was trying to address was booth babes. Booth babes and CES have always gone together since the 1960s. These are models in revealing clothing, or body conforming clothing that hugs genitalia, hired to stand next to the tech on the show floor.

In a 1986 story for the Toronto Star, Jonathan Gross wrote, quote, "The quality of the products was inversely proportional to the chest size of the booth babes handing out the literature." Paul Fishbein sold AVN years ago to pursue a career in mainstream TV. But when I told him about CES's new policies, he wasn't surprised at all.

Paul Fishbein

It's the same thing. It's the 2020 version of everything we just talked about. Nothing has changed. Sex scares them.

Lina Misitzis

I reached out to CES for comment. They put me on with their executive vice president, Karen Chupka. But there were conditions. CES wouldn't speak with me about the history of their show, the history of sex tech at their show, Lora's product, the award it got, the award being taken away, or the award being given back. All I could ask about was the future of CES. It was a short interview.

But there was one thing she said that helped shed a little bit of light on their decision making. I asked what would it take for sex to not come back in 2021, after the one year trial? And Karen told me that CES's priority is to make everyone who attends the trade show feel welcome. As long as her 175,000 attendees aren't offended by seeing sex products at the show, sex products can stay. So that's the goal-- satisfying everyone.

Lora, the inventor, she told me that CES actually consulted with her about what category to put sex products into for this one year trial. CES's instinct? Do it like they used to-- sex in its own category, in its own room.

Lora Haddock

And I pushed back on that really hard, because I didn't want to be sequestered off in the corner.

Lina Misitzis

So she argued for sex toys to fall under the Health and Wellness category. But me, I don't know if I agree.

Lina Misitzis

When I think of the sex toys that I have used in my lifetime, I probably can't say on the radio. When I think of, like, the sex toys that I have been aware of in my lifetime, the point, as I understand it, is pleasure. And I think it's OK for products to be marketed to women simply for the fact that they create pleasure. And I actually just-- I wonder why Health and Wellness. I wonder why it couldn't just be in a category called Pleasure. Why isn't pleasure just good enough?

Lora Haddock

It is pleasure, but as far as I read it, pleasure is also a part of health and wellness.

Lina Misitzis

In this one area, Lora's agenda is a lot like CES's. They both want to sell sex. And CES's old solution to the problem was to segregate sex in a separate room in a separate building. But Lora doesn't want to risk losing anyone. She wants to sell to everybody on the main floor with the mainstream products. And if calling her sex robot a health and wellness product gets it out of the lab and into the world, she's fine with that. It's still hidden, just in a different way.

Ira Glass

Lina Misitzis is one of the producers of our show. Coming up, a woman puts on a suit that turns her invisible. What could possibly go wrong in that scenario? That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Three: Fraught Couture 

Ira Glass

This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Escape from the Lab, stories of the unintended consequences-- yes, unintended consequences-- when a lab subject leaves the lab and heads into the bigger world. We've arrived at Act Three of our show. Act Three, Fraught Couture.

So we end our show today with a piece of fiction that was actually written for this episode of our show. In fact, we had this story, and then we went looking for the other stories to put with it. It's by one of our co-workers, Neil Drumming, and it's read for us by actor Susan K. Watson.

Susan Watson

The clerk at the sporting goods store in Georgetown eyes me like I'm taking a dump in his trail mix. Like a black woman can't purchase camping gear. I toss my new overpriced LL Bean rucksack on the counter with the rest of the stuff, hoping Chet will just ring it up and keep his opinions to himself. Hell, what I really want to do is reach under my collar, power up the special adaptive camouflage on my suit, and poof, disappear right in front of his stupid face.

But A, I've been a little wary of cloaking since the incident. And B, the suit's in the trunk of my car. I'm all Ann Taylor business casual for my meeting today. And C, Chet and his stank eye are not entirely off base. Truth is, I don't know how to use most of the stuff I'm buying. I was always more of an indoor kid. The whole private military super soldier thing is kind of a fluke.

I shove the gear into the trunk of my Honda Civic A2, climb in on the passenger side-- I'm old school-- and recline the seat back as far as it can go. I speak the destination, and the A2 quietly shifts into drive and pulls out.

We've got some time. Let me tell you how I got here. I came out of college doing administrative work for defense subcontractors-- data analysis, asset forfeiture, anything to pay Howard University back and support my impressive weed habit.

By my early 20s, I had built up a pretty high level of security clearance for a civilian. I was bored behind a desk, though. The first time a field agent let me hold his gun, I was like, yas! I jumped from agency to agency-- DEA, FBI, ICE. And then I pulled a gangster move. Remember Class 8A, the government's now defunct development program for disadvantaged businesses? I launched my own minority led private security company. You know how we do.

The world had basically been imploding since 2020, and the US defense tab was wide open. Me and my guys started to piece together a living wage doing Black Ops work-- Latin America, the Mideast, most of it pretty unsavory. Surgical hits, regime change.

I learned the secret to doing dirt. Do it and walk away. Don't feel anything. I got good at it. But the bigger firms like DynCorp and Sierra kept muscling us aside, snapping up the best jobs in all the global hot zones. That all changed when the suits came out.

This was a few years ago. The DoD very discreetly announced that they were looking for subcontractors to field test some new nano engineered adaptive camouflage uniforms. No cool acronym. They were for stealth use in ground conflicts. The suit was made entirely of a melanin based polymer. It was synthetic melanin whipped up in labs.

But that didn't stop me from raising the fuss in the right circles. I played the race card as hard as I could play it. I mean, the US military was beta testing high tech leotards fashioned from the souls of black folk. Someone in the Defense Department had to have enough PR savvy to understand why they couldn't do that without handing one to the premier intersectional mercenary in the business, me. And so I leveled up.

The A2 pings me as we pull into the parking lot in Pentagon City. That reminds me. I'm going to have to ditch the old girl. I'm playing it too sloppy as it is, running errands in my own car and so close to headquarters. Besides, something tells me autonomous automobiles don't make great getaway cars.

Security waves me through the lobby, staring at my chest in lieu of asking for ID. I'm not going to miss that. Nor will I miss the bland '90s pop cocktail playing in the elevator. Gina's sitting rigidly behind her desk as I walk into her office. I'm not worried. I know why I'm here, why she called me in.

She's going to tell me that two weeks ago, there was an incident involving the accidental shooting of a civilian non-combatant in Bamako, Mali. Then she's going to inform me that there's to be an official inquiry into the incident and by which agency. Finally, she's going to lean in, narrow her eyes, and ask me firmly if I had anything to do with said incident. Because she knows that I was in Bamako two weeks ago, shadowing possible members of a radical insurgency.

That's her job as my official DoD liaison-- to know where I am at all times, at least as often as I decide to tell her. When Gina and I are off the clock, tangled up in her cozy two-story house in Southeast, I like to call her my handler, then roll out of bed before she can catch me and debrief me. As you were, she yells, before jumping up and chasing me down. That I'm going to miss.

Gina tells me to shut the door behind me. Then she says everything I think she's going to say, except not the way I think she's going to say it. Her voice is trembling. She's worried about me. Jesus, Gina. There you go overreacting again, I think to myself. I mean, the situation wasn't good. It was a shit show. But as military clusterfucks and hostile dust bowls go, it wasn't unusual. Really, it was just cross signals. US Special Forces had surrounded the guy's house, not knowing I was inside. I mean, how could they?

I want to tell Gina not to worry about me anymore. But then she'll want to know what that means. So instead I say what I've been planning to say since I put on my Ann Taylor blouse this morning. I wasn't there. It sucks that that happened, but I wasn't there.

Gina's quiet. My hand involuntarily reaches for my shirt collar, hoping to find the neck of the suit popping out. Then I remember I'm not wearing it. It's in the trunk of my car.

"They airlifted him from Bamako to Walter Reed for observation," she says.

"What?" I snap.

"The civilian from Mali. He's at Walter Reed Hospital."

"I thought he was dead." "I thought you said you weren't there."

I say nothing.

"He's in a coma," she says.

My mind races back to that day. There was a lot of blood. I thought he was dead.

"Kelly," barks Gina, as if saying my name will lasso me into this moment. "We've received reports that for days, the man had been telling friends and neighbors that he thought he was being haunted."

"What are you talking about?" I ask.

"Like a man or a woman that he could only see out of the corner of his eye when he wasn't really looking, watching him, following him. That's what he said. Like a ghost."

"I wasn't there," I repeat.

I see Gina's hand about to move toward me, but I'm already backing away. As I head for the elevator, I take small solace in the knowledge that when they come after me, they won't send her. I didn't shoot the guy in Mali. I was in the house with him, sure. But by then, I was wrapping up the investigation. He was no insurgent, not even a threat. Just a cagey dude waxing too political on Snapchat.

Besides, I was anxious as hell to get out of there. Honestly, I've been feeling off since I first touched down in Africa. When I was wearing the suit, I was jumpy. I was hearing things. I felt overstimulated and hyper aware. And I was starting to feel things, like other people's feelings when they passed too close to me in the street.

The guy whose house I'd been snooping around, I could sense his fear. I didn't like how it felt, being inside other people like this, even if it was helpful. Like, when the special forces squad creeped on the house, nervous as hell, I felt them coming. It's like they were vibrating outside of their bodies through the walls, and I was an antenna. That's why I went outside-- to talk them down.

The suit's camouflage isn't perfect. Wearing it, I'm nearly impossible to spot in dark or busy areas. But if you stare right at it, it's like someone's smudged reality with a Photoshop brush, a moving distortion in space time. I walked calmly out the back door, but before I could pull the hood down and put my hands in the air, one of the special forces guys saw the smudge and let one go.

At the moment I heard the pop from his rifle, I felt a surge of, I guess, resistance that started in my chest and forced its way out through my pores. And when that wave reached the suit, it's like the suit radiated that force outward 50 times stronger. The bullet ricocheted off my shoulder through the door and into the house. I heard the civilian noncombatant scream and fall to the floor. I don't know what he said, but I know what he felt. It was as clear to me as if he'd whispered it right into my ear. Ghost.

Since Africa, I had been doing some research on the origins of the suit. As far back as the '90s, the military had been pouring money into researching melanin. It was known that certain birds used the chemical to change color. So it was a no brainer that defense would be looking at it as a way to camouflage troops. Some scientists also hypothesized that it was melanin that gave blood worms their incredible jaw strength. But I don't know shit about blood worms.

What I do know is that the suit was not designed to stop or repel bullets. It's not armor. Something is happening. The suit is changing, evolving. And I think it might have something to do with who's wearing it. I know this is going to sound crazy, but when I was a sophomore at Howard, this senior with an ankh around his neck used to follow me through the quad, calling me queen and preaching to me about the principles of comedic spirituality.

I bet he would've had a field day with this suit. He'd say the concentrated melanin must be amplifying ancient African mysticism or whatever. He'd say the suit was helping me channel my ancestors. Hell, he'd probably paint a sankofa on the chest and teach himself how to fly. He was full of that kind of bullshit.

Me, I'm thinking this suit never should have been made at all. That it's the result of cocky science assholes and soldiers hacking into natural power they don't understand and can't control. From the few very guarded conversations that I was able to have about this without setting off alarm bells over at the Pentagon, there is only one other person successfully deployed with the suit who ever reported side effects like mine.

That brother, a tough ex-Marine from South Philly, is currently doodling on the wall at a psychiatric hospital somewhere in New Mexico. The hospital staff won't go near him. They say he can tell you what you had for breakfast or who you're fucking just by looking at you. That's not going to be me, stuck in some psych ward somewhere, David Blaine to a bunch of orderlies. That's why I'm running.

After Mali, I knew I needed some time alone with the suit, to figure out exactly what was going on, what it was doing to me. I figured I'd do some beta testing of my own. I'd go off the grid, head west, maybe even make my way to New Mexico or San Diego, where a lot of the original melanin research was done.

No one's supposed to know about the suits, not foreign governments. Folks in the White House don't even know. So I knew that if I took off with it, someone would come looking to take it back. Until this morning, I was pretty confident I could stay gone. But now, I have another item on my to do list. And I have to take care of it before I can leave.

I meant what I said to Gina about this sort of eye witness who was currently convalescing in Bethesda. It sucked that he caught wind of me. It sucked that he caught a bullet that was meant for me. Hell, it sucked that he'd gotten caught up in all this at all. But coma or no coma, he was proof-- literally living proof-- that I'd been at the center of that mess in Mali. And everything I'd learned over the years about how to do dirt and get away clean told me that this was simply not something I could let go. He was a loose end that needed to be tied off.

Slipping into a secure military hospital sounds difficult, but not when you have a top secret cloaking device or when everyone inside already thinks you're a nurse. I'm on the right floor in the correct ward before I even have to put the suit on. I stare at it for a minute. It's an impenetrable impossible matte black. But at the same time, if you gaze into the fabric, it's every color in the spectrum. It feels good to put it back on. I realize as it bonds to my skin that I've been missing it. I feel stronger, like twice myself.

I shake out of this Bilbo Baggins moment and exit the bathroom stall. I sneak easily around the two schlubs who got stuck guarding a coma patient and enter the Mali guy's room. He's alone in his bed, breathing slowly through a tube. Machines chirp all around him. I approach the bed and check the name on the chart. John Doe. Of course. Luckily, I'm wearing psychic pajamas.

I lean in and put my hand over his. And whoa. This is new. His memories come rushing at me. It's like his mind pours up through the sleeves of the suit and into mine. It takes me a second to slow it down. His name is Oumar.

Wow. I really underestimated this guy. I flip through his recent past like a carousel slide show. The entire time I'd been watching Oumar in Mali, he'd been watching me or trying. He'd actually caught a few glimpses of me at my sloppiest, circling around behind him to see who he was texting, sliding into his room as he drifted off to sleep. He'd been looking right at me as the bullet bounced off me and struck his skull. He's going to recover from that, by the way. His vitals are good.

I find myself thinking, maybe I don't have to do what I came here to do after all. It's not like he actually saw my face. So what if he wakes up and tells a few more people he saw a ghost? What's the harm in that? The thought surprises me. I'm used to cleaning up after myself. But I'm also relieved. I back away from the hospital bed, thinking if I leave now, I'll still have a pretty good head start on whatever spooks are chasing me down.

That's when it occurs to me. I can't just leave him here. The people who are coming after me have way more to lose than I do. If they're ready to kill me for stealing the suit, they'll take Oumar out just for knowing about it. I'm still holding his hand. I squeeze his fingers, scan his dark features, and then I realized, I can't let that happen. I have to protect him.

The thought really freaks me out. It seems to come from somewhere deeper inside me than me, pulled up to the surface by-- by-- oh, shit. It's the suit. I know it. First, it has me reading minds, and now I'm supposed to care about this guy. Not convenient. Not cool. I could die right here today fighting for some African dude I don't even know, all because of a double extra strength dose of melanin.

I get a text from Gina that reads simply, "as you were." I know she means they're coming, and I should run. I don't. I move to stand between Oumar's bed and the door. I've got no weapon, and my hand-to-hand combat training is rusty as all hell. Pray the ancestors can help me with that. I take off my earrings.

Ira Glass

Susan K. Watson reading a short story by Neil Drumming. Susan is in the TV show This is Us, which has a new season, and she's in the Mr. Rogers film with Tom Hanks. It's coming out soon.

[MUSIC - OINGO BOINGO, "WEIRD SCIENCE"]

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Neil Drumming. The people who put our show together include Emanuele Berry, Susan Burton, Sean Cole, Jessica Lussenhop, Miki Meek, Lina Misitzis, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Raimondo, Nadia Reiman, Robyn Semien, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Nancy Updike. Our managing editor is Diane Wu. Our executive editor is David Kestenbaum.

Special thanks today to Carrie Morgan, Alvin Melathe, Peter Warren and AVN, Zoe Ligon, Wendy Zukerman, Kaitlyn Sawrey, and Lois Drabkin. Original music for our science fiction story in the third act was composed by Blue Dot Sessions, Ricardo Gutierrez, and Andrae Taylor.

Our website thisamericanlife.org, where you can stream our archive of over 680 episodes for absolutely free. There's also videos and tons of other stuff there. Go get our app, which has all that stuff and also lets you download as many episodes as you want. Again, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he was complaining this week about how boring weddings seem to him these days. And he got all-- I don't know-- he got all nostalgic about how they were so much more fun back in the '70s.

Paul Fishbein

And they would have, you know, tables for porn stars to sit and sign autographs.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - OINGO BOINGO, "WEIRD SCIENCE"]