Monday, June 27, 2005

Speaking of Lame Guest Columns

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I wrote a guest column in the N-S a few years ago, and that if any enterprising young staffer over there had the time to dig it up and send it over, I'd post it. Well, no one did, but that didn't stop me from digging through my own personal archives and uncovering it. I've decided to post it, along with my own analysis of it's strengths and weaknesses.
Friday, June 7, 2002 -

I enjoyed Judy Harris' recent guest column in the News-Sentinel, "Don't limit sex education to abstinence." Having recently finished my first year at the University of Southern California, I was reminded of why I have always preferred non-fiction to fiction: The author isn't allowed to make things up.

Unfortunately, it seems as if Harris forgot that -- or at the very least (like a well-meaning college freshman), she forgot to cite her sources and relied on hollow generalizations. A few examples:

A parent who gives "matter-of-fact answers at home tends to raise children who delay intercourse and make health decisions when they become sexually active." According to whom?

"Three million American women get pregnant unintentionally each year, and many of them are teenagers." Any idea how many?

These basic errors, however, fail to compare to the double faux pas of using a quote from former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders (I wonder why, especially in a column on sex education, Harris neglected to use Elders' most famous quote: "In regard to masturbation, it's a part of something that perhaps should be taught." [United Nations World AIDS Day Conference, December 8, 1994]), and seems to me to be inherently illogical. The quote used by Harris was, "The mean age of marriage is 26 years" (and I suppose I can give her the benefit of the doubt on that) "while the mean age of puberty is 11.4 years."

Now, whether or not Harris is banking on the fact that some people don't remember from middle school math what the "mean" is, I cannot say. But since I do (the average), I realize that Elders is claiming that puberty occurs at or before 11 years and five months in about half of kids today (according to the law of averages). Now, it's been almost 10 years since I was in fourth grade, but I'm fairly certain that far less than half the class had been through puberty at the time. We were more concerned with not getting cooties.

But even setting aside her unqualified statistics and bizarre quotes, Harris' argument for "fact-based sexuality education" is still flawed. Except this time, it's not her fault: What she calls "fact-based" is actually based on the avoidance of some very important facts, and by facts I mean information recently released by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in a report designed to help health care providers protect their patients from sexually transmitted diseases. "To avoid the spread of STDs, the guidelines suggest patients should abstain from oral, vaginal or anal sex," states the CDC in a news release accompanying the report.

The fact is that while male condoms are effective in preventing pregnancy and HIV infection (the CDC reports a 2 percent breakage rate, if the condom is used properly, listing six guidelines that must be followed to ensure the 2 per cent rate), they are not effective in preventing transmission of STDs, especially herpes, human papilloma virus (HPV) and syphilis.

The truth is that condoms are not the magic wand that "fact-based" educators would have us believe. When Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "It's the lives of young people who are put at risk by unsafe sex," he was only half right. Those same lives are put at just as much risk by STDs like chlamydia, gonorrhea, HPV and syphilis, all of which can be fatal and contracted through "safe" sex. Abstinence-only advocated are unwilling to do what "fact-based" educators and Planned Parenthood representatives do: promote something as "safe" when it is anything but.

"No doubt," Harris acknowledges, "abstinence is the safest policy, but teens are famous for taking risks that contradict their upbringing."

That sounds a little like telling your son to take the car with the air bags instead of telling him not to drive drunk.
With three years' hindsight, it's pretty clear to me that there is some good stuff in there -- and a lot of stuff that needs to be cut. Like the entire first half of the column.

This was a rebuttal column to another guest column written by Judy Harris, and I got caught up in nit-picking every little flaw of her piece instead of concentrating on the big idea, which was that the safe sex she was advocating was not very safe, according to the report released by the CDC that I mentioned in my column. (I also got much too cute -- something that no doubt is surprising to regular readers of this blog.)

All that stuff about fiction/non-fiction, the law of averages, Jocelyn Elders' quote about masturbation -- unnecessary window dressing that I think took away from the point I was trying to make. Oh, and boring, too.

But the second half of the column ain't bad. (Save for the "car with the air bags" analogy...that was the best I could come up with? Disappointing.) Some nice turns of phrase, all of it on point and reinforcing the big problem with Harris' column. If only I had an editor standing over my shoulder chopping off the first few paragraphs and getting to concentrate on the good stuff.

But guest columnists, like bloggers, don't have the benefit of another set of eyes to sharpen their prose...as FWMN readers are well aware.



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