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Media Watch

Questions Matt Lauer Didn’t Ask

May 8, 2009

I may have been lulled into a state of complacency by the conversation on The Today Show on May 5th between Dr. Nancy Snyderman, its Chief Medical Editor, and Ann Curry, a host of the show. It occurred the day before Bristol Palin, the Governor’s daughter, was interviewed on Today by Matt Lauer.

Snyderman discussed the prospects of a contraception injection for men that might be approved within five years. It was a very mature discussion in which the two women showed no fear of using the words “contraception,” “intimacy” and “sperm count.” They were talking about sex honestly.

My expectations were high, therefore, when I tuned in the next morning to hear Matt Lauer, normally a tough questioner, interview Bristol Palin (and her dad) about her unplanned pregnancy and the birth of her son, Tripp, whom she cradled in her arm throughout the interview (see video below). Bristol, with the support of The Candie’s Foundation, has become their national teen ambassador, for teen pregnancy prevention.

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The Today Show piece with Bristol opened with a background segment on teen pregnancy that featured clips of interviews with Levi Johnston, Bristol’s former fiancé and father of baby Tripp, in which he hinted that the couple had been practicing safe sex and “it had failed.”

In the interview, Lauer gave Bristol several opportunities to explain her commitment to teen pregnancy prevention: “If I can prevent even one girl from getting pregnant, I will feel a sense of accomplishment,” she said. He listened attentively while she described how tough life is as a teen mom. Bristol’s father chimed in with praise for “the great job” his daughter is doing: “It’s a 24-hour-a-day job,” he assured the listening audience, adding that Bristol has no time for friends.

It was the next part of the interview that gave me a sinking feeling: a question about the kind of sex education young people should receive in school. Lauer approached the topic carefully. He asked Bristol about a statement she once made that “abstinence [education] is not realistic at all.” But Bristol backed away emphasizing the long-held line long endorsed by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy that “abstinence is the only 100% foolproof way of preventing pregnancy.”

Lauer moved into more dangerous territory by asking Bristol if she and Levi had practiced “safe sex,” (a vague term at best). Again, Bristol pulled back saying, “I am not here to talk about my personal life.” I heard her answer somewhat incredulously, because I thought that she had been invited to be a teen ambassador exactly because of her personal life. Bristol answered, “If you are going to have sex, I think you should have safe sex,” but then she beat the drum again for abstinence-only.

Lauer failed to ask Bristol Palin tough questions about teen pregnancy and sex education programs in the U.S. So, I thought of some questions which I would have liked him to ask Bristol:

  • Why do you think teen pregnancy rates are so much higher in the U.S. than in other Western developed countries?
  • Why do you think the rates have risen lately after hundreds of millions of dollars spent on abstinence-only-until-marriage?
  • Did you talk to your parents about having sex before marriage?
  • Did you have a sex education class in your school, before you began to date Levi Johnston?
  • Did you learn only the about the failure rates of contraception in your sex education class?
  • Do you wish you had learned about the effectiveness of condoms, the Pill and other forms of contraception in your sex education class?
  • In what grade you do think teens should first learn about contraception?
  • As a national spokesperson will you only talk about abstinence or will you talk about the importance of using contraception should teens decide to have sex?
  • What will happen if Congress fails to fund abstinence-only education in the next budget cycle?

Bristol needs to answer some tough questions to convince me that she has the courage to really make a difference in the struggle to reduce teen pregnancy. Perhaps as she travels around the country and listens to other teens, she will decide that young people need much better sex education and more honest information than many of them are presently receiving in schools.

In the meantime, 225 of Bristol’s fellow Alaskan high school student leaders aren’t waiting for her efforts. They are calling for more sex education. “During its recent spring conference in Sitka, the Alaska Association of Student Governments overwhelmingly passed a resolution requesting “a mandatory, comprehensive, medically accurate, age-appropriate nine-week sex education course for all high school students statewide.”

Maybe her fellow students will embolden Bristol Palin to change her message and be ready to answer more hard-hitting questions—that is, if Matt Lauer decides to ask her some.

Why Can’t More Americans…?

March 25, 2009

In the hit Broadway musical and movie My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins sings plaintively, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” The lyrics came to mind recently as I found myself vexed by several national media stories that reveal our negative attitudes about sex. Yet my plaintive question is: “Why can’t Americans be more accepting of their sexuality?”

Story 1: Anna Quindlen on Abstinence-Only

If Americans were more accepting of their sexuality, Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen might never have had to write these sentences in her March 16th column:

“Texas leads the nation in spending for abstinence-only programs. It also has one of the highest teen birthrates in the country. Those two sentences together sound like the basis for a logic question on the SAT, but a really easy one.”

Quindlen writes a brilliant, perceptive analysis of Congress’ blindness to the failure of abstinence-only programs. If we, as a country, were more accepting of our sexuality and more willing to follow sound program evaluation, we’d have decided years ago that all young people deserve comprehensive sexuality education and be done with it.

Story 2: Obama’s Budget and Abstinence-Only

Sexuality educators learned that the new administration hasn’t removed funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Sure, it may have cut some of the money, but the Department of Health and Human Services section devoted to Preventing Teen Pregnancy states:

“The Budget supports State, community-based, and faith-based efforts to reduce teen pregnancy using evidence-based models. The program will fund models that stress the importance of abstinence while providing medically-accurate and age-appropriate information to youth who have already become sexually active.”

I call this budgetary decision a big waffle that divides kids into two groups: the sheep (the “good” kids who don’t have sex while in high school), and the goats (the “bad” kids who do). It denies young people equal opportunity to learn in advance of having sex about important ways to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

Isn’t it useful for kids who decide to remain abstinent in high school to have knowledge about contraception, which they might put to use when they are in college or, as adults, ready to get married or commit to long-term partnerships?

If only Americans were more accepting of their sexuality, the DHHS would fund programs that offer balanced information about abstinence and contraception before most kids become sexually active. And it would support distribution of condoms and birth control pills to those who ask for them, as is done in many European countries with far lower teen pregnancy rates than ours.

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Sex Education: Forgotten, or Ignored?

March 11, 2009

It always amazes me how frequently the phrase “sex education” is omitted from important articles or statements about reproductive health, family planning and abortion. Sexuality education plays a crucial role in prevention, and it deserves much more recognition than it receives.

Just consider these two recent examples from the national press:

The National Council of Catholic Women recently bought a full-page advertisement in The New York Times. The ad reproduced a statement on the Freedom of Choice Act by Cardinal Francis George, of Chicago, who is president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

The Act, if passed, would ensure Roe v. Wade’s protections and guarantee a woman’s right to choose. The statement from the USCCB was a stinging attack on the Act, and it included no mention of efforts the USCCB would support to reduce the number of abortions in the U.S.—not even a reference to abstinence-only programs. The USCCB focused on how the Act would threaten “prenatal human life,” rather than on ways that we, as a nation, can work together to reduce the number of abortions. Comprehensive sexuality education provides such a way.

The second example is the Times op-ed “This Is the Way the Culture War Ends,” by William Saletan. Saletan, Slate’s national correspondent and author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War, presents his solutions on ending the culture wars that currently rage over abortion, same-sex marriage and birth control.

On birth control, he writes:

“This isn’t [about] a shortage of pills or condoms. It is a shortage of cultural and personal responsibility. It is a failure to teach, understand, admit or care that unprotected sex can lead to the creation—and the subsequent killing, through abortion—of a developing human being.”

Now you may consider me naïve, but I was certain that Saletan’s next sentence would be about the importance of high quality, balanced sexuality education in our pubic schools.  But, you guessed it, he simply moved on without mentioning any instruction that might help young people understand the concept of personal responsibility about sexual behavior.

Maybe Saletan hasn’t heard a crackerjack high-school educator instruct students about the need to use contraception each and every time they decide to have sex, or if they one day decide not to be abstinent. Perhaps he doesn’t understand that for years and years, young people in the majority of states have only been given negative or false information about contraception through federally support abstinence-only programs.

Perhaps what Saletan wants all educators to tell students is “abortion kills a developing human being.” He apparently won’t settle for educators saying, “Most people believe that abortion is killing a developing human being, but some people believe otherwise.”  A balanced statement like this wouldn’t detract from Saletan’s point that students need to learn about, discuss and understand the importance of taking personal responsibility, when or if they have sex.

To his credit, Saletan breaks with traditional Catholic doctrine by saying that a “culture of life requires an ethic of contraception” and that birth control offers people “a loving, conscientious way to prevent conception…” I just wish he had added, “Public schools with students of all different religious denominations should teach about birth control in their sexuality education classes.” Period.

That would have made me happy—that, and a land where the phrase “sex education” is as commonplace as Mom and apple pie.

A Panel of Palins

March 5, 2009

Let’s give credit where it is due: I am pleased that Bristol Palin and her mother, Sarah Palin, the Alaskan Governor and former vice presidential candidate, are speaking out about the birth of Bristol’s son, Tripp. Tripp was born two months ago when Bristol was barely 18. His parents are still in high school and, although engaged, have no immediate plans to marry.

Hurrah for Bristol and the governor for telling Greta Van Susteren of FOX that they are now opposed to abstinence-only-until marriage (AOUM) education in public schools.  (See video of the interview below.) Governor Palin calls abstinence-only “naïve,” and her daughter, although saying everyone should be abstinent, calls it “not very realistic.” These are small steps in the right direction.




It would be great if Sarah Palin and Bristol wrote to the president, their senators and congressperson and asked them to remove funding for AOUM from the federal budget. The unplanned pregnancy that brought little Tripp into the world is a perfect example of the results of incomplete sexuality education for teens.

Given her interview with Van Susteren, it’s clear that Bristol is willing to become the celebrity poster gal for preventing teen pregnancy. (The U.S. has the highest teen pregnancy rate among Western industrialized nations, although it has plummeted in the last decade.) Bristol told Van Susteren, “I’m not the first person that it’s happened to, and I’m not going to be the last.” Later, she added: “Kids should just wait. . . . It’s not glamorous at all.”

I combed a recent People magazine article about Bristol to see if she was going to say something more substantive beyond, “I hope that people learn from my story.”  She added that it was her decision to have the baby, not her mother’s, and that she wishes she had gotten an education and “started a career first.”

However, her message is contradictory, as are most messages when they involve unplanned births; she also told People, “He…brings so much joy. I don’t regret it at all.”

I think Bristol should appear as part of a panel of teens who have been affected by teen pregnancy. For example, consider a panel composed of Palin and teens who’ve had the following experiences:

  • a teen girl impregnated by an older man;
  • a teen girl whose family is entirely supportive of early child bearing;
  • a teen girl who has chosen abortion with her parents’ support;
  • a teen dad who had to drop out of school to work in a dead-end job; and
  • a teen who is having sex but using reliable contraception.

This “panel of Palins” would represent different races, ethnicities and classes and would answer all questions put to it by a teen audience. Teens’ questions would be written anonymously and placed in a large Question Box on a table onstage. A trusted faculty person or student would read questions aloud, without embarrassment or editing, to the panel for answers.

My hope is that such a panel would get to the heart of the matter about why and how teens get pregnant and have babies while still in high school. Bristol Palin can really make a difference if she tells the truth and doesn’t gloss over details. She will need to be exceptionally honest and not mouth platitudes such as, “I wish I had waited.”

Bristol needs to tell her peers about the failures of abstinence-only and the importance of using contraception. She can always make a pitch for remaining abstinent, since many teens choose this route. But she also needs to explain how important it is to talk to parents about sex and urge students to use good teen sexual health Web sites like Sexetc.org.

I don’t envy Bristol the role of becoming the nation’s poster teen for pregnancy prevention. But if she does it well, she could make a real difference. This coming May is teen pregnancy prevention month. Bristol and her potential panel members don’t have a moment to lose.

Darwin and the Swimsuit Issue

February 19, 2009

February 12th was definitely an auspicious occasion: the 200th birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. When I read about the contributions of each, Darwin’s theory of sexual selection caught my attention.

Nicholas Wade of the Times recently discussed Darwin’s theory of sexual selection and his fascination with the peacock’s tail: “Showy male ornaments, like the peacock’s tail, appeared hard to explain by natural selection, because they seemed more of a handicap than an aid to survival,” wrote Wade. Darwin’s worry about the “problem” of the peacock’s tail led him to “the idea of sexual selection, that females chose males with the best ornaments, and hence elegant peacocks have the most offspring.”

Fast forward to the 2009 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, published each February. I picked up a copy by chance just before boarding a flight to Florida. As I put the magazine on my lap, I became uncomfortably aware that a boy about eight years old was sitting next to me. I looked down at the cover showing model Bar Refaeli on Canouan Island in the Grenadines, wearing the skimpiest bikini I have ever seen. Then I saw the cover line: “Bikinis or Nothing” and began to fervently wish that I could quickly slip the magazine into a brown paper bag. Since I didn’t have one, I compromised by holding the magazine at a 90-degree angle, so the eight-year-old could only see the back cover.

Darwin was on my mind, and I looked through the photographs only to discover that, in this case, he was wrong, wrong, wrong about who was attracting whom. Almost all the men in the issue were completely clothed in very conservative coats and shirts—even when on the beach—while the women wore nothing but the flimsiest coverings on their breasts and pubic regions. Now, I know this isn’t really about sexual selection; it’s about who’s getting paid to strip down to the bare essentials, but just stay with me here.

The women were gorgeous—make no mistake about it—and the cover headline kept its promise: “Bikinis or Nothing.” (In fact, if this was a contest between bikinis or nothing, I’m really not sure which side would have won.) The gals certainly won the peacock tail contest, though. They put the guys in the shade. Had Mr. Darwin seen the 2009 swimsuit issue, I wonder whether he would have had to go back to the drawing board with his theory of sexual selection. At the very least, he’d have to say that both women and men wear tail feathers to attract the opposite sex. What a difference 200 hundred years make.

Perhaps it was because I was sitting by the 8-year-old boy that I felt concerned about the swimsuit issue and its possible effect on preteens and teens. Millions of households must receive copies of this issue, and I wonder what parents say to their children about the way women are depicted. What messages do these images send to young people, who are just barely out of puberty?

For girls, is the message, be what I am? Is it, aspire to be a swimsuit model and make a gazillion bucks? Is it, if your body isn’t like those in the magazine, then you are seriously deficient? For boys, is it, only go after the girl with the beautiful breasts? Are the girls who are willing to bare almost all more desirable and worth pursuing than those who are covered up? Do the models have the ideal American female body (and did they achieve it through starvation, plastic surgery and Botox injections), and is anything less, undesirable? I could go on a long time with a lot more questions.

I wish school officials would allow sexuality educators to use the swimsuit issue to trigger conversations about the body issues that are so critical to self-esteem. But most teachers taking a copy of the issue into a classroom would have to fear for their reputations, particularly if they don’t have tenure.

I wish the models themselves would talk openly with young women about body image and how they developed the (high or low) self-esteem to be photographed with hardly any clothes on. More and more young men are struggling with body image issues as well, so there’s plenty of reason to have a group discussion. But since teachers or models will probably not be able to discuss the ramifications of this issue and its effects on body image, then parents should use the magazine as a vehicle for talking to their own kids.

In the meantime, Mr. Darwin, how would you attempt to explain sexual selection and the swimsuit issue of 2009? Have any good ideas?

Dangerous Liaisons

November 10, 2008

Recently, I was reminded of the possible dangers of the religion/sexuality connection after reading “Catholic School Uninvites Whitman” in my regional newspaper.

The “Whitman” the article refers to is New Jersey’s former governor, Christie Whitman, who had been invited to speak at Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart’s annual “Women in Leadership Forum.” Who would be more qualified to speak about women and leadership than the Garden State’s first and only female governor?

Unfortunately, Diocese of Trenton Bishop John M. Smith didn’t feel Whitman was an appropriate choice because her pro-choice beliefs were “totally contrary” to the church’s teachings. In a communication written to the school, the Bishop stated Whitman’s presence could falsely mislead the Stuart community into thinking the school supported abortion rights. As a result, the headmistress of Stuart—a nun—uninvited Whitman.

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What’s a Teen Girl to Do?

October 15, 2008

For this blog, I’m pretending that I’m a teen girl. Yes, I’m really 78, but go with me.

I have to say, I have a few issues with you adults. Talk about being under the microscope and having everything constantly scrutinized: the way I dress, my body and my sexual behaviors!

One specific issue I have with you is how you talk about me. In The Truth About Teen Girls, Time magazine writer Belinda Luscombe talks about how some adults think teen girls are being “too sexy” and “too liberal with sexual favors.” Some of you even feel that we’re “sexually loose” because we’re copying what we see on TV or read about in magazines.

If that’s how you feel, why blame us? Why not look at yourselves and how you use sex to sell products? Don’t you think that has something to do with teens being so overtly sexual? Why not look at our culture and come up with some solutions instead of blaming us for mimicking what we see?

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Selling Bodies

July 31, 2008

I never fully grasped the extent to which advertisers use sexual imagery to sell products and services until I stumbled upon a Macy’s ad a couple weeks ago. The advertisement promoted a “Hot Summer Sale” and featured a beautiful model in a skimpy bikini sitting on a rock in a pool of blue-green water. A quarter of her bare breasts were visible.

Even more riveting about this image was the way the water lapped at the edges of the model’s bikini bottom. I actually wondered if I was seeing her pubic hair. Her left arm draped across her body while her hand seemingly touched the exposed pubic hair.

The image left little doubt in my mind that the advertising agency was using the promise of sex and a woman’s scantily clad body to lure customers into Macy’s for the storewide sale.

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No Real Help for Teens

July 8, 2008

We all agree that teens need honest, accurate information about unplanned pregnancy and its consequences in order to avoid it. Yet I doubt most will find this information in the new ABC Family miniseries The Secret Life of the American Teenager. It features high-school freshman Amy Juergens, who gets pregnant even though she isn’t sure she’s had sex.

After the first hour of the first episode, I found my head reeling as it was bombarded with many stereotypes about teen sexual behavior. For example, I learned that

  • the one and only subject on teens’ minds is sex,
  • “nice” 15-year-old girls don’t have sex—unless they have a one-night stand that might also be date rape,
  • all Christian girls and guys wait to have sex until marriage…
    …but if a Christian guy is seduced by the school “slut,” God will forgive him,
  • abortion? Don’t even go there, especially in a miniseries,
  • guys only like “nice” girls, so don’t wear suggestive clothes that show your navel,
  • if you’re a guy whose father has sexually abused you, you will seek revenge by having constant, indiscriminate sex,
  • if guys can’t have sex, they will become sterile, and
  • willpower and self-esteem are the only answers when it comes to sex

The first episode has one sensible moment. It’s when the actress playing Amy steps out of character and says to the audience: “Teen pregnancy is 100% preventable.” She is 100% correct.

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Equal Time, Please

July 1, 2008

Tiger Woods may have led me to watch men’s professional golf championships on TV, but he also led me, inadvertently, to watch something else: discussions about the problem of erectile dysfunction in middle- and older-age men, and advertisements for Viagra and Cialis, drugs that are the newly-developed magic bullets for overcoming the problem.

I keep wondering what it must be like for men watching these golf programs with their teenage sons—or daughters, for that matter—who may have to answer the question, “Dad, what exactly is erectile dysfunction?” Or what it’s like for fathers who may have to respond when the voice-over says that if a man on one of these drugs has an “erection that lasts for more than four hours,” he must seek medical help.

I suppose I should be a good sport. After all, we’ve become sufficiently comfortable as a nation using such terms as erectile dysfunction to have these ads shown on both network and cable TV. I do applaud this. But, if we can promote products such as Viagra and Cialis, why, I want to know, can’t we promote the lowly, little latex condom?

Why won’t the major networks accept ads that talk about the effectiveness of using condoms to prevent unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS? Why, to the best of my memory, have I never seen an ad promoting condom use on a major network, during primetime viewing hours, in this country?

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