Over the last week, a lot of newspapers around the US decided not to run Gary Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” cartoon as it delved into the flame-hot issues of sexuality and politics that have emerged in the 2012 presidential season.
The editorial board of the Plattsburgh Press-Republican argued in an essay that the “six ‘Doonesbury’ installments just struck us as too offensive,” and so the strip was shelved for a week.
NCPR has also wrestled with this question: How do we talk about sex — especially the politicized, polarized aspects of human sexuality now being debated — without being “offensive.”
When our reporter Sarah Harris interviewed Erica Macilintal, a Roman Catholic woman at SUNY Plattsburgh struggling to live within the constraints of her Church’s teaching, we took a deep breath and plunged ahead.
“Are you sexually active?” Harris asked. “I know that’s a really weird question to ask you, but I’m kind of curious because a lot of people, you know, can believe something and practice another.”
Weird, yes. Awkward, yes. Borderline offensive, even, by any traditional rules of social decorum.
Polite people just don’t ask other people publicly about their sex lives.
But as Harris’s lead editor on this project, I made it clear that I didn’t think we had a choice. We had to ‘go there.’
Here’s why. As a journalist, I’ve reached the conclusion that we have to set aside our squeamishness and address these issues head-on.
If lawmakers are going to force women who are choosing to have legal abortions in the US to have ultra-sounds that include the insertion of medical devices into their vaginas, journalists and pundits need to talk about that stuff honestly, not obliquely.
We need to accept that the politics of sexuality require us to open our airwaves, news pages, and editorial space to frank discussions that might, in some quarters, be viewed as “offensive.”
What, after all, is the alternative? Should we not speak bluntly and factually about the very issues that are defining much of our politics?
In this culture war era, politicians have marched boldly into our bedrooms, into the treatment rooms of our gynecologists and family physicians, and into the moral decisions that Americans (not just women) make about their sexuality.
They have also hoisted their flags over that fractious, bitter terrain that lies at the intersection of religious faith and human intimacy.
For better or worse, journalists have to follow them.
This isn’t to say that Mr. Trudeau gets it “right.” His argument that the government-mandated insertion of a medical device into a woman’s vagina is “rape” is clearly only one possible point of view.
Others have argued that requiring these ultrasounds is a way to ensure that women have all necessary medical information “before making such a critical decision.”
This is the debate we need to treat accurately and unblushingly, even when it makes us uncomfortable.