Saturday, March 15, 2008

Spitzer and the CDC

If you read my column this morning, you may be wondering how the downfall of soon-to-be-former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's downfall relates to the shocking report by the CDC that documents the rates of four STDs in American teenage girls.

To review:

Also this week, the CDC released stunning findings that 1 in 4 teenage girls in America has a sexually transmitted disease, and nearly half – HALF – of African-American girls ages 14 to 19 have an STD. These numbers alone are “overwhelming,” in the words of one physician. But it gets worse: The study only included teen girls, and it only accounted for four diseases, leaving out other prevalent STDS like HIV, syphilis and gonorrhea. The stark and underreported reality of this story is that the STD infection rate among American teens is much higher – and much scarier – than anyone seems willing to accept.
The connection is insidious, but it is undeniable: Americans' fascination with, and tolerance and even acceptance of, sex as a social activity underpins both of these stories.

Spitzer was forced to resign this week after he was linked to a high-dollar prostitution ring.

Regular readers here know that I have three young daughters. At 6 and 3, they are both, I have learned, highly susceptible to marketing and advertising. They know their commercials. I have heard each of my two eldest daughters singing the jingle for Red Robin hamburgers to themselves ("Reeeeddddd Robin. Yummmmmmmmmm"). If we change the television station before the end of a Subway commercial, they chime in, "Eat fresh!" And then there are the entire categories of music and dance numbers they can replicate, dominated by Disney phenom Hannah Montana.

This is disturbing to my husband and me, but not as disturbing on its own as some of the things -- and ideas -- we have seen placed before them. As such, because of scantily clad actresses, ill-mannered, irresponsible and/or disrespectful tween characters and age-inappropriate storylines, we've had to deep-six several programs their friends apparently continue to enjoy.

For example, my girls know not to even ask for any Bratz-related items. We don't have Bratz in our house, period. Bratz are not good examples for young ladies, I tell them. The dolls' very appearance indicates a deficit of self-respect.

The time will come in the too-near future when I will have to talk with them about sex. My mom had "the talk" with me when I was about 12. I don't have the luxury of waiting that long. I had a swing set; my girls have the Internet.

But where my mother couched "the talk" in terms of morality, I will couch it in terms of safety: Fully half of my daughters' classmates in eight years could be infected with an STD.

For those interested in expanding "safe sex" education in schools, I would like to point out that your colleagues in the "safe sex" movement have begun to drift away from the term "safe sex" and toward the term "safer sex." Why is that? "Safer sex?" Safer than what? Than unprotected sex? It seems a tacit acknowledgement of the truth that abstinence advocates have long espoused: There is no such thing as "safe sex." There is only "safer sex" -- and abstinence.

In one of my many discussions with people about this issue, I engaged a young man who holds liberal views with regard to sex education. I tried to draw a parallel for him. Imagine, I said, your son or daughter getting ready to cross a battlefield. The shots are ringing out, mortars are landing and it is possible that he or she may be hit. You have a choice: On one hand, you can give them an armored suit that is 99 percent effective -- if it is put on and used correctly. On the other, you can send your child though a tunnel beneath the battlefield, eliminating her entirely as a target for the enemy.

How would you have your child cross? Because, make no mistake, the hazards lurking for them on the battlefield of sex are just as dangerous as those in any war.

In short, the sexualization of young American children has reached epidemic proportions, so it's no surprise that STD infection rates reflect it. But while it may not be a surprise, it is a tragedy, because it is evidence of an epidemic failure of parents and guardians across this nation to parent, guard and stand up for their children and their dignity.