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Media Watch

Melissa Harris-Perry Carries Margaret Sanger’s Torch

May 9, 2012

Melissa Harris-PerryAuthor Melissa Harris-Perry, a former professor of political science at Princeton University, is not Margaret Sanger, the legendary reproductive rights champion who established the American Birth Control League (precursor of today’s Planned Parenthood). But to the packed crowd at last Friday’s Spring Benefit Luncheon for the Planned Parenthood Association of the Mercer Area, she was the next best thing.

An outspoken intellectual who received her Ph.D. from Duke University, Harris-Perry hosts her own news show, Melissa Harris-Perry, on MSNBC. She is also a professor of political science at Tulane University and writes a monthly column for The Nation. Her most recent book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, received rave reviews.

Although Sanger and Harris-Perry never met, the two would have been soul sisters. Both unapologetically believe that women’s reproductive rights are fundamental to a free society. At the benefit, Harris-Perry spoke about some of the recent assaults on women’s reproductive freedom, including the Personhood Amendment that came before Mississippi voters last November. According to the Huffington Post, had it become law, it would have conveyed all the rights of being a person to a fertilized egg.

Calling it “a step too far,” Harris-Perry said that defeating the amendment was a considerable victory, given the state’s conservative population. But she added that similar amendments have been introduced in at least five other states and may be on the ballot this coming November. This threat to women’s reproductive freedom is still alive and well.

Harris-Perry also spoke about transvaginal ultrasound laws, which require a woman to have a probe inserted in her vagina for an ultrasound before she gets an abortion. The New York Times reports that due to national public pressure, Virginia’s governor did not sign the bill requiring women to have the noxious, invasive procedure, but Harris-Perry said that Governor Rick Perry of Texas had no such hesitation. He signed this intrusive bill in 2011. Texas women in need of abortion services are forced to be vaginally penetrated.

Harris-Perry’s talk covered other national news about women’s reproductive health, including the recent Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood funding controversy. She believes that it damaged the goodwill that had existed between these two women’s health organizations.

She also spoke of her concerns about Planned Parenthood’s funding, which was removed and then reinstated in the battle over the federal budget, and the administration’s decision not to allow the emergency contraception Plan B One-Step to be sold over the counter to young women under 17. She disapproved of President Obama using his own daughters to make the case for his administration’s negative decision.

“It is not your daughter that this decision concerns,” she said about the reason the president gave, “but daughters of others who are not so well-resourced.”

Margaret Sanger would have applauded Harris-Perry’s honest approach to talking about not only women’s reproductive rights, but her own personal history. Harris-Perry spoke about being sexually assaulted by an adult when she was young (”but didn’t tell anyone for a year”).

She also spoke about becoming a mother (to a daughter, Parker), having an abortion and a hysterectomy (that “saved my life”), and her desire to have another child through a surrogate.

Harris-Perry said that she felt comfortable talking about sex because of her mother’s work for an underground abortion railroad that helped women who needed abortions before Roe v. Wade.

Using the same honesty, Harris-Perry said that sexual choices, including her own, can “come with regrets,” and that knowledge should keep women on both sides of the abortion debate from demonizing each other. She added that there are people of “great good conscience on the other side,” and that is why “the law must remain silent” in the debate.

“The right to privacy without infringement of government should be fundamental in our society and should not depend on who is in office,” she said.

Harris-Perry’s words made me realize that political allegiances should melt away in the struggle over abortion. Instead, we need to help all women get the health and sexuality education that they need, particularly in school programs, and work together to make abortion remain safe, legal and rare.

Harris-Perry sees the current battles over women’s reproductive rights more about “shaming women,” than a “war on women”-the terminology used incessantly by politicians and the media. Rather, she believes that women can unite around the idea that “patriarchy is always our enemy,” but not that “men hate women.” Our common goals should be to reduce poverty, racism and gender discrimination. Toward that end, she said that we should help our children (and grandchildren) understand that the two most important actions one takes in life are “brushing your teeth and voting.”

She left the podium on a wave of applause. I left the luncheon thinking that Margaret Sanger can rest in peace. Melissa Harris-Perry is carrying her torch and holding it high.

Thank You, Henrietta Lacks

January 20, 2012

I cannot remember the last time I read a book that had me as charged up as Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I am not a big nonfiction fan. I have to read so much of it for work that my home reading time tends to be reserved for escaping into fiction. But a friend whose taste in books I really respect recommended it, and so I tried it. Within the first page, I was hooked.

Hooked may not be the right word: obsessed. Evangelical, even. When I went to the hair salon, I told everyone in the place about the book, and they were riveted. When I was on the recumbent bike at the gym, I’d dog-ear a page and tap the person next to me, who had no choice but to listen to me go off on how amazing not only the book, but also the story itself, were. I couldn’t resist taking any opportunity I could to tell people Henrietta Lacks’ story. As you will read in a moment, the timing is perfect to now share it on the Answer blog.

Changing Medical History

Henrietta Lacks, born in 1920, developed cervical cancer that was diagnosed when she was 31 and then metastasized quickly throughout her body. She was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the few hospitals that in those days would provide care to African-American patients. A sample of the cells from her cervix was removed for testing, and she eventually died at John Hopkins.

Back in 1951, there was no law at the time requiring a patient’s consent for the use of body fluids, tissue or organs taken during surgical procedures. As Skloot explains in her book, even the Nuremberg Code, developed after the end of World War II in response to the medical experimentation atrocities committed by Nazi doctors, only provides guidelines for ethical practices when using human subjects in any kind of research. So no one asked Henrietta or her family whether they’d care if some of her cells, including a part of the cancerous tumor growing on her cervix, were removed during surgery and used in research. Yet this disregard for her privacy and rights to self-determination has probably saved more lives than anyone could ever have imagined. The tragedy is that companies have made billions off of replicating her cells, yet neither she nor her family has ever received one cent in compensation.

The unique thing about Ms. Lacks’ cells-commonly known as “HeLa” cells-were that they could survive in a culture solution outside of the body and vigorously replicate on their own. Hopkins researchers had been trying for decades to do this, but the cells all eventually died. Today, sixty-plus years and trillions of replications later, HeLa cells are still alive, having played a key role in the development of the Polio vaccine, medication for Parkinson’s disease and much more. In fact, a solution mixed accidentally with some of her cells allowed scientists to discover the number of human chromosomes, one result of which was the identification of intersex conditions, such as Turner’s and Klinefelter’s Syndromes.

HeLa and the HPV Vaccine

HeLa cells also helped to develop the vaccine for cervical cancer, Gardasil. Cervical cancer is the third most common type of cancer in the world, the greatest defenses against which are a) for girls to be vaccinated (in boys, vaccination combats genital warts), and/or b) for girls and women to have regular Pap tests. When a Pap test is done and irregular cell growth (called “dysplasia”) is discovered on the cervix, this is considered a precancerous condition that is can be treated before cancer develops.

Although there is disagreement about the use of vaccines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that nearly 12,000 new cases of HPV diagnosed each year in the United States could have been prevented by the vaccine. And we wouldn’t even have the option of being immunized were it not for Henrietta Lacks.

Since January is cervical cancer awareness month, I thought it important to remind girls and women to take care of their health, this month and every month. So in honor of cervical cancer awareness month, take action. Read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Visit the Web site for and consider supporting the Henrietta Lacks Foundation. Talk with the girls and women in your life about how to prevent HPV and cervical cancer through regular Pap tests. If you are under the age of 26, or know someone who is, consider the HPV vaccine. And if you choose the latter, please take a moment to remember the egregiously unsung woman of whom only one or two photos have survived. Whether for the HPV vaccine or the many other medications that have been created thanks to her, we owe Henrietta Lacks a great deal.

Summer’s Eve “Hail to the V” Ad Campaign: It Stinks

July 22, 2011

Last Sunday, I took my almost-9-year-old to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. As the pre-movie advertisements and coming attractions began, we saw one clip that really caught my eye, and that I assumed was a preview for another movie.

The voice-over began with a woman’s deep, British-accented voice:

“It’s the cradle of life,” she told us, as we watched a woman from prehistoric times lift her newborn up to the night sky. “It’s the center of civilization,” the voice continued, as an ancient Egyptian queen looked out over and greeted her people, who cheered passionately for her. “Over the ages and throughout the world, men have fought for it,” the voice said, as two Samurai swordsmen fought and a woman walked by sultrily. We then saw a jousting tournament from Arthurian legend. “Battled for it,” the voice asserted. “And died for it,” she explained. “One might say,” the voice posited, “it’s the most powerful thing on Earth.”

You’ll see that the “it” she is referring to is… the vagina. And in that moment, an entire theater full of children were given a handful of ridiculously sexist (women only have power because they have a vagina), inaccurate (the only reason a girl or woman would care about her vagina is because men want to fight over it) and age-inappropriate information. Judging from the reactions of the adults in the room, most of whom were laughing and responding to the children’s chorus of “What did that mean?” with “You wouldn’t understand” or “Nothing,” this was far from a teachable moment we sexuality educators usually hope for.

Now, I do have a sense of humor, and were there not a lot of children in the room, I’d probably have found it pretty clever, too. So I decided to give Summer’s Eve the benefit of the doubt and went to their Web site, where they purport to be all about the vagina. Voila, the root of the problem: This company tries to make it look like they care about women and female empowerment, when in reality, they are still simply a company that only cares about selling its products. Their “Vaglossary” includes terms that have nothing to do with vaginal care or health, as well as incorrect information. The site is heterosexist, as seen in the ad and most of the other Vaglossary definitions (such as a “spotter” who is “a guy who knows how to stimulate the G-Spot.”) The site is racist, as demonstrated by the abhorrent videos demonstrating how an African-American vagina would speak, as opposed to a Caucasian or Latina vagina. And for all their attempts at progressive attitudes and language, they don’t seem to want to use the word “orgasm,” it appears simply as ******. These are only a few examples of the problematic content on the site.

But above all, if Summer’s Eve is all about the power of the vagina, why do they continue to market products to girls and women that are unnecessary? How can they perpetuate the lie that having a vagina makes women powerful, while simultaneously giving the message that their powerful vaginas are dirty?

At Answer, we have to spend an enormous amount of time reassuring young people that they are normal-and that their bodies are healthy and beautiful just the way they are. We spend a lot of time correcting misinformation about sexuality, like the myth that douching after unprotected vaginal intercourse will help prevent pregnancy and/or disease, which is just not true. Unless prescribed by a health professional, douching is not needed. The vagina has its own cleaning system built in, and douching can actually upset the natural balance in the vagina, increasing a girl’s or woman’s risk for developing an infection.

With this ad campaign, Summer’s Eve has spent millions of dollars supporting a culture of misinformation and poor body image for countless girls and women. And if you ask me, that really stinks.

Parsing President Obama’s Vision for Better Sex Education

February 10, 2011

Obama_union

“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.

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 ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ Hits Close to Home

June 26, 2010


I first saw the book in my 16-year-old grandson’s hands. The cover image and colors—blazing yellow and orange with a lime green dragon—caught my attention more than the title, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I didn’t ask my grandson about the story, but I assumed that since his mother writes young-adult fiction, it was perfectly okay for him to read.

The next time I heard about the book—the first in a trilogy by Swedish author Stieg Larsson—was when my 42-year-old son-in-law raved about the novels, adding how sad it was that Larsson had died shortly after turning in the third one, never living to see his work’s international success. I was puzzled as to why a 42- and 16-year old would be reading the same books.

I began to focus on the first book and comments from my adult friends who’d read it. Most said The Girl was “a page turner” that you couldn’t put down. Then I finally woke up and realized that it had been a New York Times bestseller for 43 weeks! Certainly, I’d been asleep at some switch.

When a friend who’d read the book told me that the movie version was playing at a local theater, I immediately made plans to see it with my husband and neighbor. As I bought the tickets, I asked the young man at the box office the movie’s rating. (Because my grandson was reading the book, I assumed it was probably PG.)

“It doesn’t have a rating, but if it did, it would probably be R,” he said.

“Oh, some sex and violence,” I replied, and went into the crowded theater.

Sex and violence indeed.

About 30 minutes into the two-plus hour film, the scenes of graphic sex and violence began. Twenty-four-year-old Lisbeth, the central character, is forced by an older man, who has newly become her “guardian” and controls her money, to perform oral sex on him in order to get the funds she needs to buy a new computer. She needs this computer, because she had been violently attacked by some young male thugs in a subway tunnel who smashed her laptop. The computer is the most important object in her life, because she’s a brilliant hacker and techie.

After she is coerced into oral sex with her guardian, he writes her a check for a sum far less than what she needs to buy a new laptop. We view her washing the semen out of her mouth.

The young woman—who we later discover is the girl with a dragon tattoo down her entire back—is forced to have more sex in order to get the balance of the money. She goes to her guardian’s apartment, where he throws her on the bed, manacles her hands, gags her with duct tape, and proceeds to perform what looked to me like both vaginal and anal sex on her nude body. We see her afterward, barely able to walk to her own apartment and away from the scene of the rape.

What surprised me is the next scene of sexual violence, where Lisbeth gets revenge on her attacker. Returning to his apartment, she uses a Taser gun to stun him, removes his clothes, gags him, manacles his wrists, and inserts an object into his anus. She goes one step further by applying tattoos to his torso that read (correctly), “I am a sadistic pig, a pervert, and a rapist.”

Sex and violence are equal-opportunity employers in this film.

We learn that the film’s focus is the investigation of a series of unsolved murders of seven women who were sexually and violently tortured before their death. We also discover that Lisbeth grew up watching her father repeatedly abuse her mother.

When I asked my friend why she recommended the movie to me, she said it was because the subtext of The Girl was Larsson’s deep concern with violence toward women in Sweden.

I discovered that Larsson put a fact about violence against women in the beginning of each section of the book: “Eighteen percent of women in Sweden at one time have been threatened by a man,” “thirteen percent of the women in Sweden have been subjected to aggravated sexual assault outside of a sexual relationship,” and “ninety-two percent of women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police.”

As we all know, violence against women knows no boundaries. Here in the states, one in four women experience domestic violence.

After seeing the film, I asked my son whether he knew about the many scenes of violence and violent sex in the book his son was reading. He said he didn’t know about them while his son was reading the book, adding that his son had told him that he wouldn’t like the book, because “he knows how adverse I am to violence, particularly in the movies.”

However, later when recovering from a virus, he did read it in order to learn what his son had read.

My son said that he and his wife had talked independently to their son about the violent sex scenes. “I told him that the author was trying to make a strong point about how abhorrent he found sexual violence toward women to be – and that the author chose to be very graphic in making that point,” he said.

He added, “I asked [my son] a rhetorical question, ‘Did the author need to be so graphic?’

I told him ‘perhaps not, but he was the artist, the creator, the writer, not me, and he may well have felt that he needed to shock Swedes, who may have been unaware about the high incidence of sexual violence toward women in that country.’ Then together we discussed the power of fiction.”

I thought about older teens that might see an R-rated movie like The Girl without their parents. What messages about sex and violence would they came away with, if they couldn’t process what they had seen with a parent or other trusted adult? If my grandson got his hands on the book, what was stopping other 16-year-olds from doing the same?

How many teens are reading this book and seeing the movie without benefit of clarification or discussion?

I realize that many teens have seen online pornography and may be somewhat inured to scenes that seemed so shocking to me. I don’t want to discourage teens from reading books, and I don’t believe in forbidding them to read adult books with violent sex scenes.

I don’t advocate censorship. But I would urge parents to make sure they talk to their adolescents about the scenes they may be reading and viewing.

Parents and educators should talk to young people about sex and violence, which tragically often intertwine, and not shy away from the subject. They can acknowledge that violent sex exists in novels, films, and the world at large—just as evil does. But they should make clear that sex should include tenderness, love, and affection, and we can work together to lessen sexual assault here and abroad.

As I mulled over the film’s graphic content, I remembered that June 6th was the 42nd anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s death. A favorite quote of his came to mind: “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

His wise words might form the basis of a parent-teen discussion about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

I imagine that Stieg Larsson would have liked that take-home message.

Oprah Winfrey’s Words of Wisdom about Sex

February 17, 2010

I’m grateful to Oprah Winfrey lately and here’s why: She saved me from writing another column about John Edwards by interviewing Bristol Palin about her recent vow of chastity until marriage.

I first wrote about Edwards in August 2008. Back then, he admitted to his affair with Rielle Hunter while his wife recovered from breast cancer. As is old news now, Edwards’ fathered Hunter’s baby, although at the time he denied paternity. (He also gave an improbable excuse for his behavior: that his wife’s cancer was in remission!) I used his affair as an example of how educators can use current events to discuss sex, love, relationships, contraception (or lack thereof), values, and morals as impromptu lessons, if they have the courage to depart from the prescribed curriculum.

Edwards recently finally came clean and admitted that Hunter’s child, Quinn, was his daughter. I figured that, once again, I had to write something more about his shoddy behavior, perhaps this time encouraging parents to use his sudden reversal as a way to talk about sex, and pregnancy and its lifelong consequences with their preteen and teen children. But I didn’t really want to give Edwards more attention.

Then, mercifully, along came Oprah and her interview with Bristol Palin, daughter of Sarah Palin, now a brand-new Fox News commentator. On the Oprah show, teen mom Palin—now 19 and the mother of year-old Tripp—again promised in front of millions of viewers to abstain from sex until marriage. Winfrey asked Bristol, “I am just wondering if that’s a realistic goal.”

Oprah told Bristol that she was “going to give you a chance to retract or ease that statement if you want to and not say categorically, ‘I’ll never have sex until I’m married.’ But if you want to hold to that, may the powers be with you. So, you’re going to hold to that?”

Bristol did not waver.

Oprah is on to something: Abstinence before marriage is no longer a viable option for almost everyone, if it ever has been. In the 2007 study “Trends in Premarital Sex in the United States, 1954-2003,” which appeared in Public Health Reports, Dr. Lawrence B. Finer, author and research director of the Guttmacher Institute, concluded that “premarital sex is normal behavior for the vast majority of Americans and has been for decades.”

In fact, my generation may have been the last to follow the stricture “don’t have sex until after the ceremony” along with the words “you are now man and wife.” In my era, the early 1950s, young women were supposed to be virgins on their wedding day—although there was no such prohibition for young men. Most of my friends and classmates got married immediately after graduation, and a friend once confided, “We’re getting married so we can finally have sex.” I often wondered how fulfilling many of these relationships turned out to be, as they focused so relentlessly on this one aspect of marital life.

Oprah—wise woman that she is—really pressed her point when she said to Bristol, “Why set yourself up that way? It may be ten years before you get married. Why set yourself up so that everybody you go out with, you date—the media is going to be looking at that person, trying to get that person to sell you out, to say, ‘Did you have sex or not?’ It is nobody’s business when you chose to have sex.”

Dr. Finer also showed wisdom when he wrote that because of his findings, our society should stop focusing relentlessly on preventing premarital sex and promoting chastity. Instead, we should ensure that young people like Bristol get all the information they need to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease when —not if—they have premarital sex.

I would also add that we need to discuss sexual intercourse as just one aspect of many that make up an intimate relationship, and perhaps not the overriding one. True, sexual compatibility is an important ingredient in relationship and durable marriage, but it is often learned over the course of many months and years. This is a fact that young people need to know before they rush headlong into a sexual relationship-set up as the be-all and end-all of teen relationships—after knowing someone for a scant three months.

Sex is a primal force in human relationships, but other attributes are important, too. A recent eHarmony ad talked about the importance of intelligence and values in relationships. That’s more like it, I thought. We should concentrate on these attributes and not exclusively about sexual intercourse. It was, after all, the lack of both intelligence and values that brought John Edwards’ political career to an end and untold pain to his wife, mistress, and four children.

But to get away from the singular act of sexual intercourse and focus on relationships would take a sea change of huge proportions in our society—since we all know how fixated our culture is on sex. (And I write this just as the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue hits the stands.)

As for politicians, I would like to see them relax, take a deep breath, and drop their concern about wiping out premarital sex among older teens. Rather, I would like to see them shift their thinking—and funding—from abstinence-only-until-marriage programs to comprehensive sex education, which gives young people complete information about the elements of healthy relationships plus knowledge about unhealthy relationships, sexual abuse and violence, and the latest information about pregnancy and disease prevention.

Bristol Palin was in a tight spot when Oprah interviewed her. Her mother sat right next to her, which must have been intimidating. Sarah Palin is the darling of the dwindling abstinence-only movement, and her daughter certainly couldn’t have spoken against the effort with her mom sitting cheek by jowl.

But I hope in the years to come, she will remember and take Ms. Winfrey’s wise words to heart. I wish her luck in forming her own conclusions—free from political ideology—about when and why to have sex in the future.

Perhaps we should name Oprah “Sex Educator in Chief of the U.S.,” and have her talk more about this tough topic. Perhaps she should invite Edwards on her show and try to knock some common sense into his head. But on second thought, maybe she shouldn’t, because then I would have to write another column about yet another male politician behaving badly—and I really don’t want to do that.

Taking Issue with “Sex Ed in Washington”

February 4, 2010

My phone rang more than usual yesterday, and my e-mails were filled with rallying cries. The reason? “Sex Ed in Washington,” a New York Times column by Ross Douthat.

Friends who know my history in sex education urged me to “write a letter to The New York Times,” “write an op-ed,” and “please just do something to answer him back.” In fact, one friend simply wrote, “GO GAL, GO!” (The last time I heard those words was over 12 years ago when I was at the 19-mile mark of the New York City Marathon.)

Not wanting to lose friendships, I’m taking up the challenge of refuting Douthat’s subtle attack on sex education. He pretty much damns most sex education programs currently practiced in the U.S., calls for the end to federal funding streams that support them, and suggests shifting responsibility for deciding their content to localities and states.

First, Douthat claims that while federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have not shown any positive results in reducing teen pregnancies, neither have what he calls “contraceptive-oriented programs.” Comprehensive sex ed programs teach both abstinence and contraception.

This is his “a pox on both your houses” argument. But I think it is clear that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs should bear the brunt of what is wrong with many current sexuality education programs in America.

The federal government has funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs for almost 20 years and only awarded money to programs that adhered to a strict set of eight guidelines, one of which is to teach only the negative features about contraception.

Some 14 states—including California, New York, and New Jersey—refused to take any abstinence-only money for their public schools, because state education officials believed that these programs lack integrity and are not in young people’s best interests.

The U.S. still has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any Western industrialized nation. True, the rate has plummeted in the last decade—although rising again in the last two years—but researchers attribute the success more to comprehensive rather than abstinence-only programs and teens using contraceptives more consistently.

A half-billion dollars of taxpayer money has been spent on abstinence-only programs, and proponents have come up empty-handed when asked for research proving their programs’ effectiveness. Although comprehensive sex ed programs have never received federal funds and have had to rely on private research funding, prominent researcher Douglas Kirby, Ph.D., found that some programs that teach both abstinence and contraception are effective in reducing teen pregnancies, the number of sexual partners, and the onset of teen sex.

Douthat claims that what’s taught in the classroom takes second place to family values, culture, economics, parental examples, friends, after-school activities, and “the cross-cutting of wealth, health, and self-esteem.” He claims popular TV programs like MTV’s Teen Mom have a more profound effect on young people than what they learn in school.

This is a “throw up your hands and do nothing to improve school programs” argument. Of course young people’s sexual behavior is affected by out-of-school factors that school programs cannot totally overcome. Our kids grow up in the most sexualized society on the planet, and many adults are schizophrenic about sex. On the one hand, we use sex to sell every product in sight, and on the other hand, we refuse to give young people high-quality sex-ed programs that will help them make smart, responsible decisions. (This is not quite the case in New Jersey as in other states.)

Further, if students’ math scores are low, we don’t throw up our hands and toss the subject out of the curriculum. Instead, we convene experts to study the issue and implement their recommendations. We do our best to strengthen programs, because we understand that they’re vital to help young people succeed. Why can’t we do this for sex ed?

Douthat goes on to argue that Washington should no longer fund sex-ed programs, but if the federal government continues to do so, “the funds should be available to states and localities without any ideological strings attached.”

This is a “change the rules that we used to like” argument. Taxpayers have already spent over half a billion dollars to support failed abstinence-only-until marriage programs and not one single penny on what Douthat calls “contraceptive-oriented education” programs. Now is the time for us to look at the efficacy of a different type of program—one with proven success in reducing teen pregnancy.

President Obama’s budget and the House of Representatives’ version of the health care reform bill include funds for comprehensive sex education programs for the very first time in the nation’s history—and none for abstinence-only programs. Change is in the air, and abstinence-only folks are needy and greedy for more federal dollars.

Proponents of abstinence-only programs may be feeling bereft. I don’t blame them. Perhaps they will now experience the same feelings of exclusion that proponents of comprehensive programs have felt for years. But at the height of the abstinence-only movement, no columnist—or anyone else, if I remember correctly —suggested that Washington stop funding sex education programs, or that programs be competitive with “no ideological strings” attached.

As to Douthat’s suggestion that localities and states should make decisions about the content of sex-education programs, I don’t think this is the moment to turn all programs back to the states. Historically, local and statewide controversies have often kept young people from accessing life-saving health education.

Douthat claims that there are “competing visions of sexuality” in the U.S.: “permissive and traditional,” and that they will “probably be in conflict for generations to come.” In other words, it’s his “no common ground” argument.

Many in the media like to paint abstinence-only and comprehensive sex-ed supporters in black and white. They fan the flames of controversy by using words that Douthat uses, like “permissive” to describe those who support comprehensive sex ed programs, and “traditional” to describe those who favor abstinence-only. Guess who loses when words like “permissive” are used?

There is a sliver of common ground to stand on in this culture war. Any sex education program worth its salt should cover abstinence and provide correct information about contraception. Programs should be balanced. Abstinence, last I looked, is a very good form of protection from unplanned pregnancy and disease. It is not if you teach about it, but how you teach about it that counts. Scare tactics don’t work, but intelligent strategies do.

Unlike Douthat, I do not believe the sex-ed battles will continue forever. I am frankly tired of them and ready to extend an olive branch to abstinence-only supporters in the spirit of conciliation that President Obama urges us to foster. Perhaps together we can develop new programs that use sound research and will put the health and well being of our children and adolescents first. For starters, we should ask kids themselves what they want to learn about and when, since they often report that their sex ed programs are “too little, too late.”

No, Douthat’s column has not changed my mind about the importance of sex ed and what’s needed in the future. Thanks to my friends for urging me to write a rebuttal.

On John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” After N.J.’s Same-Sex Marriage Vote

January 12, 2010

Our state Senate could have made political and civil rights history in New Jersey this past Thursday—but it didn’t. It could have brought luster to our reputation as a progressive state that cares for all of its citizens—but it didn’t. It could have shown that a clear demarcation between church and state exists here—but it didn’t. It didn’t do any of these things, because Senate members defeated the same-sex marriage bill.

Instead of guaranteeing all its citizens the right to happiness, as stated in Article 1 of the State Constitution (”All persons…have certain natural and unalienable rights, among which [is] … obtaining … happiness”), a majority of senators gave in to the powerful impulse of fear of the unknown, fear of retribution at the polls by constituents, and acceptance of religious dogma to defeat the same-sex marriage bill.

For reasons beyond my understanding, 20 senators voted against the bill based on the general argument that “gay marriage would weaken the social fabric.” Only 14 voted for the bill, following Senate President Richard Codey’s prophetic words: “One day people will look back and say, ‘What were they thinking?’ and ‘What were they so afraid of?’ “

The day before the vote occurred-and with the rights and lives of so many New Jersey citizens hanging in the balance—I thought of the Democrat from Bergen County Senator Loretta Weinberg’s words: “[Senators] can’t be hesitant anymore … they have to come to the realization that we were elected to take sometimes difficult stands, but we were not elected to only worry about the next election.”

Weinberg’s words immediately reminded me of John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage, which I hadn’t reread in years. I picked up a copy and leafed through it.

Kennedy presents his theme in the first chapter’s opening sentence: “This is a book about that most admirable of human virtues-courage.” Our late president is not speaking of physical courage. Rather, he speaks of “acts by men of integrity, who find it necessary, from time to time, to act contrary to public opinion” and “on national issues, on matters of conscience defying the angry power of the very constituents that control [their] future.” Kennedy applies this test to eight U.S. senators from different periods of American history and concludes that each passed it.

This book is not a polemic; it is nuanced, thoughtful, and balanced. Kennedy understands the tug of war that most politicians engage in to balance the views of opposing constituents. He mentions the specific pressures that most politicians face: the desire to be liked, the desire to be re-elected, the conflicting demands of constituents, the requirements of party obligations, and the inherent tensions between serving both state and national interests.

Kennedy writes eloquently about the need for politicians to compromise on issues, but not on principles, and to put national interests ahead of state ones at critical moments. He admits that beyond those he writes about “only the very courageous will be able to take the hard and unpopular decisions necessary for survival in the struggle.” He suggests that politicians are reluctant to show political courage, because they have too little faith in the people and need to have greater faith in them-because trust in their power is the essence of democracy.

Kennedy knew that political courage comes with a price. Most of the eight courageous U.S. senators he profiled endured “risks to their careers, the unpopularity of their courses, the defamation of their characters, and sometimes, but sadly only sometimes, the vindication of their reputations and their principles.”

Certainly the political courage it takes to vote in favor of same-sex marriage never entered Kennedy’s mind as he wrote his classic work. Yet I believe that had he been alive today, Kennedy would have sent this message to the state senators as they prepared to vote: “The nation is watching what you do. Act in behalf of its highest ideals and values and not necessarily in behalf of the citizens in your own legislative district, or even the entire state of New Jersey.”

He might also have used these words from the Declaration of Independence to reinforce his point: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

When talking to senators about why they planned to support or opposes same-sex marriage, I heard only the most parochial and personal reasons. I never heard any reference to the Constitution of New Jersey or the Declaration of Independence. No one mentioned “the right to happiness” of all citizens regardless of their sexual orientation.

Happiness for many gay and lesbian couples means the ability to marry. If most citizens believe in the concept of marital happiness, then how can those who can marry deprive others of the same right to seek happiness through this institution?

I wish more of our senators had reread (or at least skimmed) Profiles in Courage before they voted last Thursday. Perhaps it would have helped them understand the meaning of political courage in our society and how their vote affected not only people in their own district, but in the nation and even across the world. Perhaps it would have inspired them to seek a larger vision for our society-one based on the right of all people to find happiness.

If they had had the time to reread Profiles in Courage, perhaps last Thursday’s outcome might have been different.

In the final passages of the book, Kennedy includes a message that applies not only to politicians, but to all of us:

“To be courageous … requires no exceptional qualifications, no magic formula, no special combination of time, place, and circumstances. It is an opportunity that sooner or later is presented to us all.”

Bringing the Dreaded “P-word” into Sexuality Education

July 21, 2009

“In case you didn’t see this,” read the subject line of an e-mail from my friend forwarding the story “The joy for sex—for teens!” from Salon’s “Broadsheet.”

The story was indeed eye-popping by any standard. It covered how the National Health Service in the United Kingdom had recently published a pamphlet for young people telling them, among other things, that orgasms feel good. Its title: “Pleasure.” The “finger-wagging moralists” were outraged, reported Broadsheet.

To give you some perspective on the brouhaha in the U.K. over the pamphlet, consider what would happen if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Health and Human Services, or any of state health departments across the U.S. published such a pamphlet.

What’s that expression?: “All hell would break loose.”

In America, the P-word draws lightening whenever you join the topics teens and sex. Many people here—as I’m surprised to learn in the U.K., too—think that any mention of the word “pleasure” in a talk about sex with young people sends the wrong message, whether the talk is taking place between parents and their kids or between students and their teachers using a classroom curriculum. That message? That talking about pleasure encourages young people to have sex.

Americans tell pollsters that of course they talk to their children about sex and support sex education programs in public schools. But there’s always a caveat to that support: These discussions must emphasize the negative and dangerous aspects of sex. The thinking goes something like this: If we shroud sexual behavior in fear and shame, then we shall discourage young people from engaging in it at too early an age.

If the conversation is about sexual pleasure, many people think we’re sending the opposite and inherently wrong message. The powerful abstinence-only-until-marriage movement, on which the U.S. spent more than half a billion dollars, is predicated on instilling fear and shame into young people by telling them only about the drawbacks to having sex as a teenager or outside of marriage.

Fortunately, the Obama administration has removed this funding from its 2010 budget, but that doesn’t mean leaders are going to suddenly endorse instruction about pleasure.

The U.K. pamphlet encourages “parents and educators to add a dose of honesty about carnal delights to traditional sex talks.” A spokesman for the conservative British organization Family and Youth Concern called the pamphlet and approach “nothing less than child abuse.”

My hunch is that if such a pamphlet were to ever see the light of day in the U.S.—and I think it would be a long time coming, if ever—a slew of groups and politicians would use the same words, doing their best to ensure that the pamphlet would never appear in any public school or library.

This whole controversy reminds me of a comment I once heard from a 15-year-old teen awaiting the birth of her first child due to unplanned pregnancy. “I sure hope,” she said, “that giving birth won’t hurt as much as having sex.”

Obviously, the first and perhaps only time this teen had had sex before getting pregnant was far from pleasurable. I thought to myself at the time that probably no one in her life had ever told her that sex was supposed to be a mutually pleasurable experience. I doubt that anyone had ever mentioned the word “orgasm” to her, or told her about attraction, stimulation, lubrication, foreplay, intimacy, and enjoyment.

Had she been able to read a pamphlet such as “Pleasure,” she might have realized that she could delay losing her virginity until she was more knowledgeable about sex and the pleasure it’s supposed to provide. She might have also learned that sexual behavior is a two-way street, and that she deserved to feel satisfaction when engaging in it. She might have learned that she and her partner could have used protection, it would not have detracted from that pleasure, too.

My hunch is that if we talked to many young women who starting having sex at 13 or 14 years of age, we would find them abysmally ignorant about sexual pleasure, orgasms, and all the good stuff about human sexual response. Of course, they see sexual behavior on TV, the Internet, and in movies all the time—yet I wonder how many young heterosexual women ever get a chance to talk to anyone about the fact that sex is supposed to feel good for them as well as the guy.

For far too long, we have focused on the negative and dangerous aspects of sex. The outcomes of this approach are none too good. The U. S. has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the Western industrialized world and, according to the latest statistics, one in four teens has a sexually transmitted disease.

Enough of the dire warnings about sex: Let’s take a new approach in a new century. Let’s use the P-word with young people. I’ll take any bet from any reader that if we adopt a positive approach and communicate honestly about sex’s delights, then we can raise a generation of young people who are more careful and more caring about their sexuality.

If young people understand that there is something precious about the gift of human sexuality, they might treat it with more respect than they presently do. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments in more progressive states like New Jersey, for starters, should publish pamphlets similar to “Pleasure.”

It would take a lot of courage to step up and speak honestly to young people about the pleasurable aspects of sex—but what a gift they would give them.