January 22, 2004

A Little Story

Marjorie Ingall

A very personal little story, about how hard it is to conduct safer sex education in the dead-tree medium. It illustrates, I think, why the web an essential resource for honest discussion of safer sex aimed specifically at teenagers.

I used to be a Senior Writer at Sassy magazine, where I was responsible for the magazine's health column. One day in 1994 I realized that I'd been getting a bunch of suspiciously similar-sounding letters from teenagers urging me to write that condoms actually don't protect you from AIDS or pregnancy. "You need to tell your readers that condoms are ineffective because they slip off or break 50% of the time," the letters urged. Furthermore, they insisted, "the AIDS virus is small enough to slip through the holes in condoms."

Huh? This is flat-out wrong. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), when used consistently and correctly, condoms slip off or break less than one-half of one percent of the time. Latex condoms are very good protection from HIV and STDs; it's animal-skin condoms that are iffy (1). Obviously the letter writers weren't making any distinctions between latex and animal-skin.

I wondered why all the letters, from all over the country, authoritatively used this "condoms break 50% of the time" statistic. Where'd they get it? And why did they always pair it with the "fact" that even if condoms mysteriously managed to stay on (or miraculously failed explode like cherry bombs), the teeny and wily AIDS virus was no match for them? My belief is that so-called counselors with a religious and moral agenda were willfully feeding kids misinformation. Sunday school and health teachers in right-wing communities were telling kids the only way to stay safe was to be abstinent. Now, it's true that total abstinence is the only sure bet in the pregnancy and disease-protection sweepstakes. But telling kids "just say no" and offering no further information or advice is utterly unrealistic in a country where 75% of kids lose their virginity by 12th grade.

I wanted to write something in my column countering this misinformation kids were clearly getting. And most of all, I wanted to explictly tell readers how to use a condom. We've all heard the phrase a million times: "Condoms, when used consistently and correctly, prevent the spread of AIDS." But what does "consistently and correctly" mean, anyway? Not all kids know that condoms roll only one way (when a condom won't roll properly, it's probably inside out). Not all kids know that the guy wearing the condom should pull out fairly soon afer he cums (before he gets flaccid, lest the condom slip off when he pulls out). Not all kids know to hold the base of the condom when they pull out, to reach down and check periodically during sex that the condom is still on, to leave a bit of space at the end of a condom without a reservoir tip, or to avoid using oil-based lubes like hand cream, Vaseline or vegetable oil with condoms. Not all kids know that condoms can degrade in sunlight or in a battered wallet. In short "consistently and correctly," as a phrase, doesn't give you many specifics.

I thought it was especially essential for girls to get this information, especially since studies indicate that women are 10 to 20 times more likely than men to get HIV from unprotected sex with an infected male partner than vice versa. But when I tried to say what I just said in the previous paragraph, I was stymied. There was no way the word "cum" was gonna get by the publisher, the senior editor insisted. I tried "ejaculate," a stilted and giggle-inducing word which I felt made me sound like an uptight, nebbishy girdle-wearer. Nope. The publisher nuked it; advertisers would be horrified. Hands tied, I finally ended up writing, "If you're unclear on exactly how to use [a condom] properly (it's not just roll it on and go) read the direction or order a free borchure from the CDC's National AIDS hotline, 1-800-342-AIDS." Way to be helpful.

Later, in 1995, I was asked to write a safer sex book for an entertainment juggernaut (hint: a network that features the innovative convergence of music and images that rhymes with Femme Pee Wee). In my first meeting with the roomful of executives, I explained that I wanted the book to discuss non-penetrative sex, that I didn't want to relegate "the gay stuff" to chapter 17 or whatever in the way back of the book, and that I wanted to be realistic about the fact that teenagers are for the most part sexually active. At the time, the roomful of executives nodded eagerly. But when they actually saw the first draft, they felt it was "too pro-sex." They also felt that "the gay stuff," which I introduced in Chapter 2 as part of a general discussion of sexual identity, was "much too prominent." Finally, they were unsure about whether they wanted a book written for teenagers at all. Maybe it would be better to do a book that adults would buy for their teenage children. Or maybe they should collect a bunch of celebrities' stories about their sex lives (oh yeah, that'll glamorize safer sex!). And obviously I should only quote attractive kids who'd be willing to be photographed for the book. Reality check! By limiting the options that way, you eliminate any teenager who might say something private or stigmatizing.

We went around and around. The executives kept changing their mind about what they wanted. I felt I made compromises; I moved the gay stuff to the back of the book and added some pro-abstinence stuff to the front of the book. Finally it was decided that the entertainment juggernaut would bring the project in-house; I was paid off and set free. But I kept hearing gossip about the internal debates about the future of the book. To assuage my guilt, I ended up writing an impassioned letter to the president of the entertainment juggernaut begging her to do the right thing and publish a real safer sex guide, not some glitzy celeb-riddled volume made toothless by anxious lawyers. I never got an answer. Two years later, the book still hasn't come out. I presume they're still wrassling with it.

And now we have the World Wide Web. The lovely, link-y Web. Here we can have no page counts, no space restrictions, no skittish fashion advertisers, no censorship. (Yet, anyway.) Here we can let readers make up their own minds about thorny, still-debatable issues like the safety of oral sex rather than telling them what to do. Here readers can explore the specific topics that interest them, with ease and privacy.

And here I can chant "cum cum cum cum cum" as much as I want.

Used by permission.

Posted by filchyboy at January 22, 2004 08:27 PM | TrackBack

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