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Sexting Teens and the New Jersey Legislature

April 1, 2011
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I get nervous when state legislators or Congress members get involved in the specifics of sex education, particularly in mandating its content. My nervousness stems from the various struggles over sex ed I’ve had with New Jersey legislators over the years as a New Jersey State Board of Education member and executive coordinator (now senior advisor) of Answer. I’ve won and lost battles, and I know that adolescents’ needs are often sacrificed to the political process, which can be about survival and ideology—not education and health.

After I failed to convince a state senator to vote against a sex ed bill that required teachers to “stress abstinence” but withheld equal instruction about contraception, he told me, “I’m not going to sacrifice my career for this issue.” He knew perfectly well that young people need balanced, complete sex education, but he wouldn’t vote for their interests in case his constituents wouldn’t return him to office.

I’ve tried to persuade politicians to be more open-minded and been struck by the fact that many base their decisions about sex ed on fear and what they learned (or didn’t learn) during their own past sex ed classes. They don’t base their decisions on what teens need to know to be safe today.

So I got concerned when I read this recent Times of Trenton headline: “Assembly OKs bill 78-0 to let sexting teens avoid prosecution.” Sexting is the slang term for using a cell phone or similar device to distribute sexually explicit pictures or video. It also refers to sexually explicit text messages.

It is a punishable offence in the United States for teens or adults to send sexually explicit pictures of children or teens under 18 through electronic devices. Teens who send sexually explicit photographs of themselves, or other teens via cell phone can be charged with distribution of child pornography. Twenty percent of teens acknowledge sharing explicit photos, and 44% of high school boys say they’ve viewed a nude or semi-nude photo on a cell phone during school.

I was relieved when I read that N.J. Assembly members showed leniency to teens caught sexting and sending or receiving explicit [nude or semi-nude] photos on a computer or cell phone to other teens. The Assembly passed a law offering teens an educational program as an alternative to prosecution, serving time, and possibly having to register as sex offenders. Instead, first-time sexting offenders would be required to write an essay or attend “a responsibility management course” as part of the educational program.

Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D. Camden), a sponsor of the bill, said that “juveniles do stupid things, and with the click of a switch, they could send [a sexually explicit picture] to somebody, and that particular picture could be sent off to many other people with an additional click.”

Lampitt’s comment plays into the stereotype that all teens do stupid things, but at least she’s more understanding and protective of them than the politicians who’d rather they face child pornography charges. She added that the law assures teens that the educational program penalty won’t be on their record when they apply to college or a job.

This moderate approach received praise. Bill Albert, chief program officer of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy, said that New Jersey should be congratulated, because “helping young people understand the possible consequences of their actions is better than providing them with a record.”

While the proposed law shows empathy for teens, I don’t think it goes far enough, because educators’ roles are not mentioned at all. Perhaps senators, who will next consider the bill, need to seek information about what is actually taught about sexting in New Jersey’s middle- and high-school sex education courses and correct any omissions.

One New Jersey sex educator told me that sexting is not specifically mentioned in the 2009 version of the Core Curriculum Standards, which guides the development of sex and family life education programs for all districts. She thinks a savvy teacher could find a rationale for teaching about it within the relationship strand, but that little is done to ensure that a topic like sexting is actually covered in classrooms anyway.

If the Senate passes this bill and Governor Christie signs it, then students will be penalized for sexting when they’ve been ignorant of its consequences since they haven’t learned about it in sex ed class. This doesn’t seem fair to me.

The bill passed by the Assembly needs additional language requiring that the department of education amend the Core Curriculum Standards to specifically say that sexting should be taught and that money should be allotted to train teachers about this and other aspects of technology that are such a part of teens’ lives.

Perhaps more students should be involved with adults in the development of sex education content, too. I recently read a couple of articles about sexting in Sex, Etc., our magazine and website written by teens for teens. The teen writers understood that sexting had legal pitfalls, but they saw texting in general as a generational step forward from their parents’ telephonic era. Properly used, they say, the new technology brings accurate information to them in a second, and it does not involve a difficult or embarrassing talk with a parent or waiting until next year, when the only sex education course is offered in school. I can’t argue against this point.

One teen writer made a point that I’d never considered: talking about sexual desires over a computer or phone eliminates the risks of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or becoming pregnant. (The writer understood it was not responsible to send nude or semi-nude photographs.) These articles made me realize that a debate about the pros and cons of sexting would lead to a valuable classroom discussion.

If legislators let educators and teens focus on preventing sexting, then perhaps teens will make smarter decisions, and we won’t have new laws to implement.

Education, after all, is an alliance between students, parents, educators, and policymakers. Teens are not always wrong. Teachers and legislators need to meet them more than halfway and offer as much assistance as possible—not just punishment.

Let a deeper discussion about sexting begin.

A Brutal Crime Against an 11-Year-Old Girl in Texas

March 18, 2011

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An 11-year-old girl was brutally raped in November 2010 in Cleveland, Texas, a small community of 9,000 that lies about 50 miles northeast of Houston. There, according the New York Times article “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town,” the girl was gang raped by 18 young men and teenage boys, all of whom have been charged with the crime.

The suspects range in age from middle school students to a 27-year-old. Five are Cleveland High School students, including two basketball players. Another is the son of a school board member. A few men have criminal backgrounds. (The attack occurred around Thanksgiving, but the story didn’t appear in the Times until March 8.)

It is hard for me to write about this rape, because I have a granddaughter who is almost 10 years old. The girl, who survived the rape, attended Cleveland Middle School. School authorities interviewed her and her mother, and when it was determined that the gang rape had occurred, they turned the matter over to the police, because the attack hadn’t occurred “on school property.”

Some town residents’ reactions, as reported in the Times story, are shockingly unsympathetic. Although one resident said that the rape was “really tearing our community apart,” others blamed the victim, because she “dressed older than her age, [wore] makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s, and [hung] out with teenage boys at the playground.”

One of the few residents willing to speak on the record went so far as to say, “Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?”

In a letter to the Times, reader Jinnie Spiegler, of Brooklyn, NY, expressed some of my outrage about this last comment. She pointed to the residents’ willingness to “subtly blame the victim” and her mother, forgetting that the victim as well as the suspects “are innocent until proved guilty.”

An 11-year-old girl’s or any woman’s dress or behavior should never be an issue in rape and sexual assault cases. This approach falls into the “she asked for it” type of wrongheaded thinking.

The girl now lives in a foster home after having been removed from her home by Child Protective Services, according to The Houston Chronicle. I hope she is receiving the appropriate counseling and care that she needs. But I am deeply concerned that she will have to relive the brutality of her experience, if or when she has to face the accused who raped her in court, testify to their cruelty, and undergo cross-examination and possible humiliation from their lawyers, who’ll be eager to keep their clients out of jail.

What’s happening in northeastern Texas to address the aftermath of this brutal crime? Are schools administrators, teachers, and community leaders using the gang rape as the “teachable moment” that it surely is? Are other middle- and high-school students learning that rape and sexual assault are illegal, unacceptable behaviors? Are all teachers receiving training, so they can effectively discuss these issues? Are they explaining that even if a girl or woman wears what might be called age-inappropriate clothing and makeup that makes them look far older than they really are, that never means they are “asking” to be raped? I wish I were confident that the town is abuzz with this type of education.

Special attention needs to be directed to young and adult men in Cleveland. I’ve always favored sex education for boys and girls in both separate and mixed-gender groups. When boys and girls are alone, they often feel freer to ask questions that they might feel embarrassed to ask in a heterogeneous group, which is good. But it is essential to have both genders discuss issues like rape together, so they can understand each other’s points of view. If sex education is started early, in elementary school, boys and girls can address subjects like rape much more comfortably as they grow into adolescence and adulthood. Silence on this topic never helps.

Males need to know that if they rape and are found guilty of the crime that they forever will be listed as “sexual predators” and be required to check in with authorities in any town in which they live. This seems to me a punishment that fits the crime, along with jail time. I wonder if the teen and adult men who raped the little girl in Cleveland knew about or understood the lifelong consequences of their actions for themselves and the victim.

Schools need to discuss consequences of sexual actions much more comprehensively than many presently do. We need to ensure that discussions of real subjects like rape are included in sex education/health courses, starting in grade school.

As for the parents in Cleveland, Texas, and elsewhere for that matter, they too need a course on rape and sexual assault prevention. They need to know how to better protect their own kids and how to counsel them about how to avoid dangerous situations.

Mothers and fathers – and if there are no males in the home, then male relatives and friends – must talk to teens and young men about the horrors and illegalities of rape.

I also hope that the community addresses the matter of blaming the girl’s mother. I would ask, “Where were the mothers of the 18 young men charged with the crime? Where were all the fathers?”

Cleveland, Texas, isn’t the only place in America that needs a re-education in how to prevent rape and treat its survivors. Schools and communities all over the country need to talk more forthrightly with young people and adults about rape and sexual assault. The President and First Lady were masterful in calling the nation’s attention to the problem of bullying, with a conference at The White House and a video in which they spoke movingly about the seriousness of the problem. Now they need to consider using the brutal crime against this 11-year-old girl in Texas to call the nation’s attention to the epidemic of rape and other sexual violence against girls and women.

To the young girl in Texas who had to experience such degradation, my concern and deepest sympathy. I hope she will never be ashamed about being repeatedly raped by those men in that house and abandoned trailer filled with trash. I am not a therapist who might counsel her to “put this awful event behind you, and go on and live your life.” I can see the sense in this point of view. But, as an educator, a parent, and a grandparent, I hope that as she grows older – and after the physical and emotional pain have healed – she will find the courage to speak out about what happened.

If she finds the courage, she will be doing other young girls like my granddaughter a real service and perhaps lessening the incidence of rape in our country.

Image from The New York Times.

Parsing President Obama’s Vision for Better Sex Education

February 10, 2011

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“Education,” “innovation,” and “infrastructure” were among the most often repeated words from President Obama’s measured, thoughtful, and at times powerful State of the Union address. Many commentators praised the president for using them to set a new path of investment for our country.

I agree with the importance of each of them, and I want to apply them to sex and health education. A recent letter writer in the New York Times worried that the president’s recommendations about upgrading education was limited to math, science, and technology. She then made a pitch for “history, political science, literature, and…foreign languages.” Her point was that in order to “build a robust, humane, aware-of-the world society, we surely need a more broadly educated population.”

I would add health and sex education to the mix; they need to be upgraded and even conceptualized differently as we redesign our education system to help students be more competitive in the world. Along with more respect for their crucial importance, we need to revamp these subjects through “innovation,” because as we all know, the Internet has changed the way young people communicate and learn.

To start, we need funding to survey graduating high school students to learn what they liked and didn’t like about their schools’ sex and health education programs. This idea came from reading Sam Dillon’s Times piece “What Works in the Classroom? Ask the Students,” which discussed a $45-million dollar research project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to find ways of using students to identify good and bad teachers.

I’m intrigued by the idea of developing a different, and much less expensive, research project to help us design future health and sex education curricula. Ronald Ferguson, a senior lecturer in education and public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, who developed the questionnaires for the Gates’ project, said that “few of the national 15,000 public school districts systematically question students about their classroom experiences.”

“As a nation, we’ve wasted what students know about their own classroom experiences instead of using that knowledge to inform school reform efforts,” he said.

I wish a foundation would fund the design of a national questionnaire surveying students on what they like or didn’t like about their sex and health education programs, and how they would redesign their courses to help them make smart decisions about sex. Dr. Ferguson should design that questionnaire, perhaps with the help of a cross-section of students around the nation.

More respectful attitudes can be to health and sex education what new roads and new forms of transportation can be to our national economy: “infrastructure.” We need to be more understanding of the powerful, often irresponsible, or even hypocritical attitudes toward sexuality promoted by the media. Take MTV’s new controversial series Skins, about the sexual and drug-fueled exploits of misfit teenagers.

Alessandra Stanley, writing on the Times‘ ArtsBeat blog, voiced her concerns when she wrote: “Skins is a remake of a British drama about misbehaving teenagers that stars real teenagers — the youngest is 15. Monday’s episode [the second], which included a shot of a boy standing naked with a cloth over his pill-enhanced erection, generated a lot of complaints in advance and drove several sponsors to pull their ads from the series.”

MTV executives — concerned that the racy show may violate federal child pornography statutes — ordered its producers to tone down the segment, but in the end, the “offending material” stayed in the show. What is particularly disquieting to me about Skins is that its first episode “drew 1.2 million people younger than 18,” despite the fact that it was seen after 10 pm, Eastern.

Many viewers feel that Skins crosses the line between acceptable depictions of teen sexuality and pornography. I wonder if it gives impressionable teens — many of whom believe “everyone is doing it” — the entirely wrong idea about acceptable sexual behavior. I think most people believe that sex is a mature behavior and that it is better for younger teens to wait until they are sure that their sexual relationship is consensual, non-exploitative, honest, mutual pleasurable and protected. What Skins seems to emphasize is that teen sex should be casual, furtive, drug and alcohol induced and unprotected.

Much as I believe in giving teens honest, accurate information about sex, I worry that a lot of MTV’s content isn’t helpful to young people. I might feel differently if some of that racy content would actually be discussed by parents or teachers in age-appropriate sex ed classrooms. We need better sex education programs that incorporate what teens see on TV.

Yet, we don’t have that type of sex ed across the country. So, at the moment, I wish MTV would tone down its sexual content and put young people’s well-being ahead of profits.

The president’s speech included other phrases that can be applied to the idea of investing more heavily in our kids’ futures: “Winning the Future” and “This is Our Sputnik Moment” are two of the media’s favorites. I know they seem like sound bites, but we’re a society that likes to compress important ideas into two-second media clips.

Now it’s time to apply these phrases to sex ed.

DADT repeal among Top Ten Sex Stories of 2010

January 10, 2011

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This is the season of lists, and here’s my “Top Ten Sexuality Stories of 2010.”

When I told friends about my list, they said I would find far more stories about the worst aspects of sexuality than the best. Surprisingly, I found many topics offered both the best and the worst within the same area. This contradiction reminded me of words by the famous historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: “Problems will always torment us, because all important problems are insoluble; that is why they are important. The good comes from the continuing struggle to try and solve them, not from the vain hope of their solution.”

So I am starting with the best, most positive, and, yes, often the happiest stories about sexuality of 2010 and will send along the worst and sometimes cruelest stories next week. I hope you will find the contrast interesting. The list is numbered ten to one, building to what I consider the very best:

10. The royal marriage-to-be

Prince William and Kate Middleton are the couple of the year, with Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky close behind. The prince and the young woman whom he will marry in April, who People magazine dubbed “A Perfect Princess,” warmed our hearts because they seem very much in love. Both of these young couples demonstrate maturity and grace through long courtships and enhance the tradition of marriage.

9. A movie about a family with two moms

The American public embraced the movie The Kids Are All Right starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, about a family of two lesbian moms raising two teens where everyone does just fine, despite some momentary upheavals that affect most families.

8. A pregnancy pact debunked

The Gloucester 18should be mandatory viewing for every teen in the country,” wrote a Boston Globe film critic about this film, which discredits the myth of the “pregnancy pact” at Gloucester High School in Massachusetts, where pregnancies spiked to 18 in one year. This outstanding film shows the real complexities inherent in early sexual activity and unplanned pregnancy.

7. Teens trump adults in condom use

A study drawn from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior at Indiana University found that “condom use is becoming the norm for sexually active teenagers.” Researchers concluded that teens are more responsible than adults about using this form of contraception.

6. The birth control pill turns 50

Called “the most important scientific advance of the 20th century,” the Pill celebrated its 50th birthday in 2010. Rather than causing promiscuity, adultery, and the breakdown of the family — as its detractors predicted — the Pill transformed millions of women’s lives by helping them control their reproductive destiny.

5. A new funding stream for comprehensive sex education programs

The Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) gives federal funds of $375 million over the next five years to states offering sex education programs that show proven success at reducing teen pregnancy. While the programs will encourage teens to delay sexual activity, they will also counsel them to use protection if they are sexually active.

4. A new trend in abortion services

A bold new initiative to integrate abortion seamlessly into women’s health care emerged in 2010. “The New Abortion Providers” explored how medical abortion is becoming standard training for medical students and residents in the most prestigious and largest medical schools in the U.S. This training will open up the possibility for women to receive medical abortion services in private physicians’ offices rather than stand-alone clinics, where anti-choice protestors can harass and cause them harm.

3. Pope Benedict XVI speaks positively about condoms

In his book Light of the World, Pope Benedict XVI told veteran journalist Peter Seewald that “condoms could reduce the risk of HIV infection in certain cases, such as for a male prostitute.” The Pontiff had never before made positive remarks about condoms. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said that when he asked the Pope about his words, his Holiness responded, “It’s the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship. … This is if you’re a woman, a man, or a transsexual.

2. New medicines in Africa give women hope in the fight against HIV

Studies in South Africa provided hopeful news that women who used a vaginal microbicidal gel containing an antiretroviral medication, tenofovir, were less likely to contract the HIV virus than women who hadn’t used it. (The study followed 889 women, and broader trials are necessary to confirm the results.) Public health officials cheered when they heard the news, adding that the gel would be the first method women could use without male involvement to protect themselves.

1. The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

The repeal of the 17-year-old policy requiring gay men and lesbians in the military to serve only if they hide their sexual orientation was a dramatic step forward for civil rights in our nation. The House of Representatives and Senate passed a law reversing this cruel and discriminatory policy, which resulted in the loss of many talented men and women in the armed services. Upon signing the repeal legislation, President Obama said, “[T]his morning, I am proud to sign a law that will bring an end to ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ … [T]his law … will strengthen our national security and uphold the ideals that our fighting men and women risk their lives to defend.”

If you have other candidates for this list, please let me know. I will send along what I consider “The Ten Worst Stories about Sex in 2010″ next week. In the meantime, best wishes for a Happy New Year.

Some Truths about Teen Pregnancy

November 17, 2010

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We’re told that we have notoriously short memories. So I wonder, do you remember the infamous “Gloucester 18”? Here’s a hint: Gloucester is a small town in Massachusetts that bills itself as “America’s Oldest Seaport.” Doesn’t ring a bell? Then how about the words “pregnancy pact”?

“Bingo,” I hear you say, “that’s the place where all those girls in one high school made a pact and got pregnant on purpose, right?”

No, you would be wrong—not because you aren’t up on your facts, but because until very recently no one took the time to try to get to the bottom of the story.

Kristen Grieco, a former Gloucester Daily Times reporter who first broke the story, has stepped up to clarify the charge against the girls and the town by producing a 67-minute documentary film, The Gloucester 18. Hers was a team effort with director and executive producer John Michael Williams, and associate producer/editor Joseph Provenzano. They created a moving, compelling film that reveals the real story about the supposed “pact” as well as more profound truths about teen pregnancy.

Grieco was the original person to break and investigate a suspicious spike in the teen pregnancy rate at the local high school in March 2008. She also had heard rumors that “a clique [of girls had formed] with the express purpose of getting pregnant.” Dr. Joseph Sullivan, the school’s principal, started the ball rolling and explained the spike in numbers by saying that some girls purposely got pregnant.

The first truth that the girls in the film reveal is that there was no pregnancy pact.

Teens and sex!!! Always an incendiary mix to delight and attract the media, which can play both the role of voyeur and disapproving adult. After Grieco’s story broke, the national press descended on the small, economically strapped fishing village to sensationalize what actually occurred. After all, 16, 17, or 18 girls in one high school getting pregnant on purpose—what could be juicier for the mainstream media?

A Time magazine reporter coined the phrase “pregnancy pact,” and it drew reporters from such faraway places as Brazil, England, and the Netherlands to every corner of Gloucester to report the lascivious details.

The media got the story mostly wrong. There was no pact, but 18 girls in the high school were pregnant, which was considerably above the average number for a given year.

To Grieco’s credit, she decided to “hear” as much as she could about the true story behind the spate of pregnancies. She interviewed almost half the girls who had become pregnant (of the 18, six chose to have abortions), some of their parents, and the high school health educators. She couldn’t exactly find what the reasons were for the troubling spike but she uncovered some truths about the problem of teen pregnancy in the United States.

The girls who attended Gloucester were white. Grieco expanded her research to Lowell and Springfield, MA, to tell the stories of pregnant minority teens to see if there were any similarities and differences within the populations.  The themes were very much the same. Poverty and teen pregnancy often go hand-in-hand, and these three towns have experienced hard times during the last decade.

The film introduces us to Kyla, Alissa, Brianne, Hallie, Tabitha, Sarah, Leslie—all of whom deliver their babies and try to adjust to their new situations as unmarried, single parents (only a few have steady live-in boyfriends). We also meet one intact family and several other single moms who are raising their teen girls alone. Not many men are in the picture, which is also an unpleasant truth about teen pregnancy.

Grieco shows us the commonalities that most, if not all, of these pregnant teens share:

The girls seem passive and unrealistic about the challenges of raising a child and staying in school. None have much self-esteem or any future goals; they seem to have drifted into having unprotected sex and rarely, if ever, used birth control. They feel that some adult, hopefully their parent or parents, will accept their babies and help raise them, and most have absolutely no sense of what it takes to raise a child in safety and dignity, or the financial and psychological costs of it.

We learn that a high proportion of the teen moms were born to women who were teen moms themselves, and that the cycle repeats itself. Most of the girls who have a first birth in the film are pregnant with a second within a very short span of time.

The most troubling commonality is that so few of the girls had a loving, protective, and helpful family. I doubted, too, that their parents had been given much advice about sexuality and pregnancy. Some had grown up in the foster care system desperately wanting a family of their own. Many were looking for love and thought a baby would provide it.

Leslie, a minority teen girl from Lowell, is the one whose words and face lingers. Her mom gave birth to her at 15 and her brother at 16. I might characterize her as a “throwaway child” for whom no adult had ever cared. She didn’t have a home and spent her time living in shelters and in the back of vans. She seemed to have a lot of unprotected sex, probably in order to secure a place to sleep at night.

Leslie also had spunk. She was more articulate than the rest of the girls in the film. She said that her pregnancy was unintentional, believing that “it couldn’t happen to me,” because she had been told that she had only one ovary. She rationalized her pregnancy as “perhaps the only opportunity to be a parent.” Her only source of income was money earned from braiding friends’ hair. Leslie, by film’s end, is pregnant with her second child, still with no visible signs of adult support.

Dr. Brian Orr, the former director of the high school health clinic, and Kim, Daly, its former nurse practitioner, offered the best explanations for why so many of the girls in Gloucester became pregnant that spring. They knew that many of the high school girls were having sex, but they were not permitted to prescribe the birth control pill or distribute condoms in the health center. They crossed swords with the leaders of the local hospital that oversaw the clinic. Hospital officials publicly questioned the hospital’s liability if birth control prescriptions were written in the clinic. Despite Daly’s best efforts to inform officials that “being on the Pill is safer [for a teen female] than giving birth,” she was unable to change their minds.

Orr and Daly lost the battle and resigned. But the community uproar led the Gloucester School Committee to permit kids to get birth control prescriptions as long as their parents opted to enroll them in the program.
But this policy came too late for the “Gloucester 18.”

Greico is attempting to get funding for general distribution of her film, as in the case of the popular An Inconvenient Truth, about global warming, and Waiting for Superman, about failing urban public schools. Presently, it is distributed primarily to education groups and community nonprofits through the Media Education Foundation.

I hope The Gloucester 18 will be distributed to a wider audience, since many more of us would really understand the roots of teen pregnancy. We would learn more about our responsibilities to the vulnerable teen girls who live in poverty and have little hope for the future. We’d also wise up to how the media sensationalizes teen sexuality to the detriment of those who are working to solve this serious societal problem.

My Message in a Bottle for My Neighbor, the President

August 27, 2010
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For the next ten days, President Obama will be my neighbor on Martha’s Vineyard. He’s not going to be what you call a cheek-by-jowl neighbor. Although we shall both be living in the same area of the Vineyard — Chilmark — we shall be separated by the Atlantic Ocean, Chilmark Pond, Tisbury Great Pont, South Road and legions of Secret Service.

Last year when President Obama and his family visited for the first time, I had already left the island, so I’m really excited have him close by this year. I must admit the chances aren’t great that I’ll actually see him strolling down the beautiful, wide beach that borders this part of the island, or find him at the nearby West Tisbury county fair, which is pulling in the crowds. I’m not going to rule out such a meeting, because some years ago, my youngest daughter ran right into Bill and Hillary Clinton on another Vineyard beach when they were vacationing here. (They stopped and smiled for her camera; we have the pictures to prove it.) But I doubt that summer lightening will strike twice for this family.

So I decided to be creative in getting a message to the president. Some people have written letters to him in the local newspapers. While strolling the beach, I fantasized that I would write him a note about an international topic that’s troubling me, put it in a bottle, and cast it out to sea. With some help from the wind and tides, the bottle might wash up on the sands of Tisbury Great Pond, near where the president is staying. With some luck, it might be retrieved by Bo, the family dog.

Now I know this message in a bottle is a fantasy, but the subject on my mind is anything but whimsical.The administration has not commented on the recent death by stoning of a young Afghan couple that had eloped to a safe shelter and wanted nothing more than to marry. (The story appeared on the front page of The New York Times.)

The Taliban had the “first public execution since their fall from power nine years ago, killing a young couple who had eloped,” according to the Times. The couple – Khayyam, 25, and Siddiqa, 19 – had fallen in love despite her upcoming arranged marriage to Khayyam’s relative, which she refused to do. They fled from their village in the remote corner of Kunduz Province in northeastern Afghanistan.

Family members tricked the couple into returning, and they were seized by the local Taliban. A religious court condemned them to death. Their punishment for “an illegal sexual relationship” was death by stoning.

Hundreds of men of the community, including Siddiqa’s brother and the couple’s neighbors – no women were allowed – surrounded the couple, who had sworn publicly “to love each other no matter what happened.” Amid much festive cheering and shouting, they were stoned to death.

Siddiqa – dressed in a head-to-toe burqa that showed nothing but her eyes – died first. The source who reported the grizzly details said that the crowd was happy, because under strict Shariah law, “death by stoning in this situation is an appropriate punishment.”

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan said he was “deeply grieved” by the killings. Amnesty International also condemned them, as did the local Kunduz governor’s office. Their remarks are reassuring, but I’ve heard nothing from American leaders.

President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have spoken eloquently about freedom of religion in the U.S. in connection with the Mosque location controversy in Lower Manhattan. But neither has spoken out about these barbaric killings in Afghanistan, where Americans are dying to supposedly encourage more democratic principles and a new constitution that would support women’s rights. Surely, this tragedy would offer a moment for American leaders to speak up about ending violence against women.

I’m not naïve. I know there is evil in the world. And what is the death of one young couple, compared to the deaths of many military members and civilians from roadside bombs. I would tell the president that the stoning death of this young couple diminishes all women’s rights, an issue he cares about.

For me, Khayyam and Siddiqa are a modern Romeo and Juliet: star-crossed lovers whose lives were destroyed by hateful adults. In Shakespeare’s play, Juliet speaks these beautiful words when she discovers that her lover has killed himself after he thinks she is dead:

“[T]ake him and cut him up in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will fall in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.”

I shall remember these words when I think about Khayyam and Siddiqa, whom no one in high places seems to care about. If you are interested in making your voice heard about this tragedy, you might want to send a donation to Amnesty International.

I would end my note to the President by telling him that I’ve always admired how he speaks up for his young daughters and wants their rights and opportunities to only expand. Speaking out against Siddiqa’s and Khayyam’s deaths would be speaking out for all young women and men who seek the right to love and marry.

Maybe it’s just as well that there’s no way under the sun for a message in a bottle to get by Secret Service. After all, I really want the president to have a restful vacation and not have to listen to the likes of neighbors like me.

Warren Buffett’s Wise Words about Women

August 6, 2010

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Hey, Eve, are you there? I think you’re going to love these wise words. They may make you feel a lot better about those caustic comments hurled at you through the ages about eating the apple and getting booted from Eden to go work by the sweat of your brow.

The words?

“Women all over the world get shortchanged.”

Warren Buffett said them. He’s “the Oracle from Omaha,” Nebraska, who heads up Berkshire Hathaway and is one of the foremost philanthropists on the planet. They were relayed by his former wife, philanthropist Susan Thompson Buffett, on The Charlie Rose Show.

“Warren feels that women all over the world get shortchanged. That’s why he’s so pro-choice,” she said.

How true the statement, especially when you think about the situations and conditions that place women at a disadvantage in their lives. A recent case in point: Governor Christie’s veto of a bill to add $7.5 million in state funding for 58 family planning clinics. A move that now unfairly affects women’s ability to control their fertility and protect against unplanned pregnancy.

I read about Buffett’s statement in the compelling New York Times magazine piece “The New Abortion Providers.”

This is an important piece by Emily Bazelon, a senior editor at Slate and the Truman Capote Fellow for Creative Writing and Law at Yale Law School. It explores a dramatic new turn in the abortion struggle thanks in large part to the largess of Warren Buffett.

According to Bazelon, “This abortion-rights campaign, led by physicians themselves, is trying to recast doctors, changing them from a weak link of abortion to a strong one. Its leaders have built residency programs and fellowships at university hospitals, with the hope that, eventually, more and more doctors will use their training to bring abortion into their practices. The bold idea at the heart of this effort is to integrate abortion [not surgical, but primarily medical, administered no later than nine weeks into a pregnancy] so that it’s a seamless part of the health care for women.”

Warren Buffett is the brave person at the heart of this new strategy, according to the anonymous sources in Bazelon’s article. His money has funded a series of fellowships in the most prominent academic institutions that make it possible for OB-GYNs and family practice doctors to receive graduate training in abortion procedures.

The money comes primarily from the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation. She died in 2004, and two years later, writes Bazelon, “Warren Buffett gave the foundation about $3 billion. He said that he expected the gift to increase the foundation’s annual expenditures by $150 million.”

Although the article reports that “Warren Buffett has never spoken publicly about his views on abortion,” we now know through his former wife that he feels strongly that “women all over the world get shortchanged.”

American women are getting shortchanged because the availability of abortion providers has shrunk dramatically, since “most of the OB-GYNs left the stage” after Roe v. Wade, says Bazelon. She explains that “the shadow of the greedy, butchering ‘abortionist’ continued to hover, and many doctors didn’t want to stand in it.”

Women’s opportunities to have abortions in hospitals dried up, and instead they had to turn to “stand-alone clinics” for the procedure. By the mid-1990s, 90 percent of abortions in the U.S. were performed at clinics, and “feminist activists” get credit for their development.

“When the clinics became the only place in town to have an abortion, they became an easy mark for extremists,” said Carole Joffe, author of Doctors of Conscience and Dispatches from the Abortion Wars. Bazelon reports that the number of OB-GYNs providing abortions were either “graying” or “drying up.”

Fellowships provided by grants to academic medical centers from the Susan Thompson Buffett foundation are beginning to reverse the trend; they will help women who need an abortion get one in the privacy of the office of a well-trained OB-GYN or a family practice physician.

Several years ago, I received a letter from a physician at the Blue Mountain Clinic in Missoula, Montana.

Although Blue Mountain bills itself as a “family practice” clinic, the doctor who wrote me said that the free-standing clinic was the only one in the state to provide abortions.

He told me that many women in Montana have to travel hundreds of miles to utilize their right to choose, and some can’t afford the time or money to make such a long journey. I’ve always been pleased to support the work of this clinic, because I do not think that any woman in Montana, or any other state, should be shortchanged from using rights guaranteed to them by the law of the land.

To date, Warren Buffett hasn’t felt the intense ire of the anti-abortion forces. Bazelon wonders if “his plainspoken Midwestern persona and his enormous wealth may make him the wrong enemy for anti-abortion advocates.” She quotes from a letter that he sent with the $3 billion gift to the foundation in 2006. He wrote that the gift was “to focus intensely on important societal problems that had very limited funding constituencies.”

This week’s news also brought another example of how women’s sexuality is shortchanged not by denying them the right to choose an abortion, but by failing to help them protect themselves from HIV during sex.

This time the example comes from Sub-Saharan Africa. In that part of Africa, more adult women and young girls than men are infected with HIV. The difference in infection levels between women and men are most pronounced among young people aged 15 to 24.

There was a glimmer of good news about women and HIV. South African scientists working in two AIDS-devastated communities say they have found a “vaginal microbicidal gel containing an antiretroviral medication used to treat AIDS, tenofovir,” which shows promising results for protecting women from HIV.

If the gel continues on this track, it means that for the first time women can control their own bodies and protect themselves from HIV. “They do not have to ask the man for permission to use it,” said Michel Sidibé, executive director of the United Nations AIDS agency.

However, it will take years before the gel is publicly available. And it will take years to see if Warren Buffett’s words and generosity bear fruit. His words are indeed wise, as are the scientists’ efforts, which can positively affect women’s health in every corner of the world.

Because when it comes to sex, women everywhere are very often shortchanged.

Right, Eve?

Oh, Bristol and Levi Are Getting Married, but Should We Really Care?

July 15, 2010

I overslept yesterday morning and paid a price. Usually I get up at 6:30, catch the opening of the TODAY Show, and am out the door for a run. Not yesterday: I walked into the kitchen and flipped on the TV just in time to catch the 7:30 segment on Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston’s announced engagement (nice, big ring) and impending marriage.

I didn’t intend to start my day with this “exclusive” from Us Weekly, and for a moment I thought I’d tuned in to a story from The National Enquirer rather than NBC.

Then I remembered that Gail Collins had indicated last week in her column, “My Boyfriend’s Back,” that a reconciliation was imminent, and she wisely warned other young women, “Don’t have unprotected sex with your boyfriends, girls. Look what he might turn into,” i. e. someone so taken with celebrity that he will do anything to make sure he remains in the spotlight. However, she never went so far as to talk engagement or impending marriage.

So, I put down my running shoes and listened instead to Matt Lauer interview the

publisher of Us Weekly, who was about to burst for joy at her magazine’s great scoop.(I must admit that the cover picture of the threesome was winsome and quite gorgeous. Tripp, where did you ever get those luminous blue eyes?). I listened while they discussed the couple’s decision to go ahead and get engaged “without her parents’ permission (!),” their decision to practice abstinence-until-marriage (!), and their plans to “see a marriage counselor once they were married (!).”

About my first exclamation mark: The couple’s proclamation that although they posed for pictures and gave the scoop to Us, they needed to ask her parents for permission to marry seems ingenious to me. In the 21st century, most young adults in America (Bristol is 19 and Levi 21) are making this critical decision on their own. Of course neither Bristol nor Levi have any visible sources of income, unless you count her speaking fees and freebies such as the Us Weekly photo shoot, so perhaps it really is essential that they get her parents’ permission before planning what will surely be one of the celebrity weddings of the year and living happily ever after.

My second exclamation mark: I just don’t know how any young person who’s had an unplanned pregnancy can pretend to be a poster child for abstinence-until-marriage. It boggles my mind; at the very least, it is silly and contorted to take this position, and it sends a totally mixed message to other teens.

I’m aware that Bristol has teamed up with The Candies Foundation and, for a rather high fee, speaks to young women around the country on the advantages of abstinence-until-marriage. Why is virginity such an important issue, particularly for young women? Most young people have sex before marriage. There is nothing shameful about this conduct, unless sex is forced or unprotected and unless a person violates a religious principle that requires one to abstain until marriage-but that is a personal matter.

I would prefer that Bristol talk about how condoms can break, how it can be difficult to negotiate with your partner to use them and how, in the heat of the moment, a lot of young people don’t use them. Points like these, I think, would really be helpful to a teen audience.

My third exclamation point: the need for an early visit to a marriage counselor reminded me of a friend who, many years ago when trying to juggle the lives of five very active children, said she needed a live-in-driver. I have always thought this was the smartest idea I’d heard to help harried young women with children keep their sanity.

When Us Weekly mentioned that Bristol and Levi were going to see a marriage counselor once they married, I wondered if marriage counselors rather than live-in-drivers are the way to go for this generation. Periodic visits to a marriage counselor are wise, but I wonder if in Bristol and Levi’s case, with so much early stress in the relationship, the visit should precede rather than follow the wedding.

When the segment was finally finished and Lauer had moved on to another topic, I picked up my cup of coffee and glanced at my local paper, The Times of Trenton, and read the headline: “In India, divorce or die.” It turned out to be a rather fascinating segue from the Bristol/Levi tale.

This story centered on a newly married young couple, Ravinder Gehlaut and Shilpa Kadiya, who are in mortal danger of being killed because of an ancient mediaeval custom requiring that members of the same clan not marry. (Clan in India is not to be confused with caste. These two are members of the same caste.)

The marriage of the young couple had been arranged quite properly by their families as required under Hindu law and took place in March. Then the older male elders of the village, frustrated and angered by rapid social change, intervened and ruled that Ravinder and Shilpa were members of the same clan, making them brother and sister to each other, although they were not related by blood. The elders said that the couple had “dishonored the village” and demanded that they divorce. Although Shilpa is pregnant, the elders insisted that she marry another man. The couple refused and after warding off the blows of an incensed mob, fled the village. They are presently hiding out among Ravinder’s extended family, but fear constantly for their safety.

No glossy magazine cover for these two. They are fleeing for their lives.

These two unions represent extremes along the bell-shaped curve of marriage. Somewhere there must be a middle, where we stop fawning over every little move that celebrities make and where we offer, through the U.N. or our foreign policies, to provide protection to young couples whose lives are endangered by ancient rituals.

My head is still spinning from all that I had to think about with Bristol and Levi and my heart still hurts from reading about the plight of the young Indian couple.

Perhaps the only and best thing I can do is to make sure my alarm is set properly tonight, so I will not oversleep again tomorrow.

The Pill that Changed the World Turns 50

June 9, 2010
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If some imaginative person had made a birthday cake for it, she—it would have had to be a she—might have put 100 million candles on it. For that represents the number of women around the world who start each day by swallowing it.

No, it is not a vitamin pill. It is a birth control pill—known generically as the Pill—and many celebrated its 50th birthday on May 9th with justifiable gratitude and fanfare.

May 9, 1960, is one of those days that will shine bright in American history: it is the day that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the sale of the tiny pill that gave women control over their fertility. The FDA’s “blessing” attested to the safety of hormonal contraception, or “birth control,” in the words of Margaret Sanger. The Pill changed the world.

When it was approved, 500,000 women in the U.S. were already taking it, according to the recent Time cover story. This number would continue to swell rapidly, leading The Economist magazine at the end of 1999 to predict the far-reaching and wide-ranging impact that the scientific discovery had on women’s—and men’s —lives. In her book When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present, author Gail Collins called the Pill “the one invention that historians a thousand years in the future will look back on and say, ‘That defined the twentieth century.’”

A recently released National Survey of Family Growth study found that the Pill is “the most popular method [of contraception] in the United States, used by 10.7 million women between the ages of 15 and 44. The Economist’s crystal ball seems to be working well. The early years in the life of the Pill were relatively easy ones. Millions of women “embraced” it, whatever the public arguments were for or against its use. It was an effective and convenient way to avoid pregnancy.

Most saw its promise in offering a different life beyond child rearing. More women were able to imagine a life that included both children and job. The results soon became plain: more companies, no longer afraid that women would leave as soon as they conceived a baby, eagerly opened their doors. Congress passed Title IX in 1972, ending not only discrimination in college athletics for female undergraduates, but also throwing open the doors of law, medical, and business schools to women.

But in the 1990s, the recent cover story in Time reported, when the Pill was about 20 years old, a backlash developed. The impetus for the counter-revolution started, or was ramped up, by organized religions and conservative political advocacy groups. The Catholic hierarchy consistently opposed the Pill from its inception, even though in 1970, “two-thirds of Catholic women were using birth control and more than a quarter were on the Pill.” Many Evangelical Christian denominations followed suit, framing their disapproval in the context of what “God intends in marriage.” Church leaders proclaimed that “using contraception can weaken the marital bond by separating sex from procreation.”

These pronouncements—and funded public policies like abstinence-only-until-marriage education school programs, which denigrate the use of contraception—may have had a serious effect on the Pill’s current use. A National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy study recently found that 86 percent of young men and 88 percent of young women “say it is important to avoid pregnancy in their lives right now.” But the same study showed that “63 percent of this group says they know little or nothing about birth control pills, and much of what they think they know is wrong.”

On the eve of its 50th birthday, Katherine Spillar, Ms. magazine’s executive editor, summed up the precarious situation in which the Pill currently finds itself: “We’re still fighting those battles in Congress [like allowing hospital workers and pharmacists who have moral qualms about contraception to refuse to fill prescriptions]. To think that in 2010, 50 years after the birth control Pill, we still have to fight for access and effective family planning—it’s painful.”

If women gaining access to the Pill is painful in the U.S., it is infinitely more painful for women in the developing world. Investigative journalist Michelle Goldberg writes of this dilemma in her book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World. In her concluding chapter, “Sex and Chaos,” she paints a frightening picture of what will happen if we do not provide women in the developing world with the family-planning help many so desperately desire.

She reports that 6.7 billion people share this planet and its dwindling resources of food, water, and energy. She writes of an increasing number of food riots, because of hunger and continued lack of clean water. “Despite falling fertility rates in many parts of the world, global population is still increasing by 78 million people a year,” and it will add a number close to this one through 2020 if no interventions are planned. In 2050, adding only two children to every family, the population will reach 9.2 billion. If fertility remains half a child higher, there will be 10.8 billion people vying for the fundamental resources of life.

In developing countries overall, 15 percent of married women, and “seven percent of unmarried women have … an unmet need for contraception,” Goldberg writes. “This means they are sexually active, do not want to become pregnant, and yet are not using birth control.” In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of unmarried women with an unmet need for contraception is 24 percent and in many Latin American countries, “more than 40 percent of births were unwanted.”

The director of the population program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation tells Goldberg that “in some ways, contraceptive access is worse now [particularly in urban areas of Africa] than it was in 1979.” Goldberg concludes by saying nothing less than “a massive investment in women’s education, birth control access, and income generation would lessen the danger that the world’s population would outstrip the planet’s resources.”

To honor its first 50 years of existence and plan for its future, perhaps we need to consider mounting a second revolution for the Pill: a revolution of access. First, we must get the message out in the U.S.— especially in school programs and health clinics in poor urban and rural areas—that the Pill is effective, safe, and does not cause cancer, strokes, or blood clots, as many of its opponents claim.

Then we need to stand shoulder to shoulder with our sisters around the world in their quest to gain access to the Pill. Perhaps our goal should be that in another 50 years, when the Pill marks its 100th birthday, every woman on the planet who wants it should be able to start her day by swallowing the tiny tablet.

Indeed to reach this goal would be historic, and a success that The Economist in 2099 might say “defined the twenty-first century.”

Yeardley Love and George Huguely: A lesson in What Love Is Not

May 27, 2010
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I can’t get the picture of her out of my mind. Perhaps it’s because her eyes really sparkle like stars in the pictures of her in the media. I can’t forget the lovely words friends and family have spoken about her: She was an angel; she was the kindest, sweetest person; I don’t know how we are going to live our lives without her; her death is beyond belief.

I am not the only person to feel this way: 2,000 people attended her funeral last week.

In case you didn’t hear the story, this beautiful young woman is Yeardley Love, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Virginia who played on the women’s varsity lacrosse team and was murdered last week on the eve of her graduation. Her ex-boyfriend, George Huguely — a fellow senior from Chevy Chase, Md., who played on the men’s lacrosse team — has been accused of her murder. The two were in a relationship, but had just broken up, according to what Huguely told the police when he was arrested. Now Love is dead and buried, and Huguely is in jail awaiting trial for her murder.

Love and Huguely: Even their names indicate irony. She was truly beloved by her friends, family, and fellow team members. “She exuded goodness,” Love’s prep school lacrosse team coach said. “She was a good-natured and good-hearted individual.” Huguely, whose name just looks like “huge,” weighed over 200 pounds. According to press reports, he allegedly “kicked his foot through her locked bedroom door” and “shook Love while her head repeatedly hit the wall.”

yeardleylove051110_optHuguely had previous run-ins with the law. Eighteen-months ago, he was arrested for “public swearing, intoxication, and resisting arrest” outside a fraternity house at Washington & Lee University. The arresting officer said: “He was by far the most rude, most hateful, and most combative college kid I ever dealt with.”

He threatened to “kill everyone” at the local police department.

With this story haunting me, I walked by a newly opened store in the heart of Princeton the other day that had a banner across its front door proclaiming, Lacrosse Unlimited. A large poster of a player wearing a protective face-mask that made him look like a knight in armor asked passers-by, “Are You Warrior Material?” The tragic story of a lovely young woman from Virginia has its ironies, I thought, even in New Jersey.

I’m not going to place the blame for this horrible murder completely on the sport of lacrosse, although I think competitive sports can give the young adults who play them a sense of invincibility and outsized power. I remember the trouble that members of the Duke lacrosse team got themselves into a few years ago, principally because of excess drinking. One of the press reports about Huguely said that he had been drinking the entire day leading up to the moment he allegedly smashed his way into Love’s apartment and killed her.

In the aftermath of the story, I’ve heard reports that the University of Virginia president is considering ways to prevent such tragedies from occurring on campus again by developing better communication between law enforcement officers and campus police. Had the campus police known of Huguely’s previous altercations with the law, would they have better kept an eye on him, especially if they saw him drink to excess? Knowing of his recent breakup with Love, would they have moved in to protect her? Obviously better communication between law enforcement groups is always helpful.

huguelyGEORGEmug051110_optBut does this strategy get to the heart of the matter? I’m not sure. For me, the heart of the matter is having young people on college campuses — and in high schools — learn more about healthy and unhealthy relationships. Students need to know what constitutes a good relationship and a bad one and how they — and women, in particular — can get themselves out of bad, potentially violent ones. Many of Love’s friends said that she didn’t know to whom or how to report Huguely’s abusive behavior, and they didn’t know if they should have reported it to authorities.

The University of Virginia and other universities should institute workshops for all students called “Healthy Relationships” that cover what constitutes abusive relationships and where to seek help. Speakers should be invited to campuses to discuss the relationship aspect of students’ lives, which are in every way as important as their academic subjects.

As a foundation for this series, I recommend a curriculum called Unequal Partners, developed by Peggy Brick and Bill Taverner at the Center for Family Life Education at Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey. Says Brick: “Our Unequal Partners is full of ideas for evaluating relationships. It really gets students thinking about what they really want in a relationship, [and] when a partner’s behavior is NOT acceptable.”

Taverner said that he has used lessons from this curriculum with undergraduates at Fairleigh Dickinson University. One lesson that he used, “Warning Signals,” really caught my attention. If Love had been part of a required workshop about warning signs of violent relationships, would her life have been saved? If she had participated in a role-play on how to get out of a difficult relationship, would it have made a difference? Had she learned to whom she should have reported Huguely’s excessive drinking and flares of anger, would she still be alive?

Many New Jersey high schools wait to offer sex education classes, including those with an emphasis on relationships, in the last semester of senior year. This timing has often troubled me, because I think it reveals administrators’ and school boards’ inherent fear of offering this subject so critical to the lives of young people. It comes too late to be of good use. By waiting until the bitter end of high school, supervisors think they can fend off negative reactions from a few parents and tell them that they are simply preparing students for college.

Perhaps waiting can pay off this year, especially if Yeardley Love’s tragic story can become a teachable moment. If used properly by educators, her story can lead to rich discussions about relationships: the good ones based on love and respect; the bad ones based on verbal abuse and disrespect; and the ugly ones, where alcohol and extreme violence can lead to catastrophe. Students can talk about this abusive relationship turned tragic and learn about what love is and is not.

If educators and parents pick up on the sad, sad story of Yeardley Love and talk openly and honestly with young people about the ramifications of abusive relationships, then this lovely young woman with eyes that sparkle like stars will not have died in vain.

As for the poster in the window about “Warrior Material,” whenever I see it, it will give me chills.