What journalists talk about when we talk about sex

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.

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26 Comments on “What journalists talk about when we talk about sex”

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  1. Joseph M. Liotta says:

    From what you say and what I gather, then you say the Plattsburgh Republican is wrong not to run Gary T.’s strip. Am I right in this conclusion?

  2. brian mann says:

    Joe –

    I respect the Plattsburgh P-R for writing an editorial explaining their decision and engaging readers in the process.

    And I’m clearly arguing for a different journalistic approach to these sensitive sexual topics.

    That doesn’t mean that they’re wrong and I’m right.

    Some of the people chiming in here will almost certainly argue that the P-R hit the nail on the head with this one, while NCPR got it wrong.

    One of the cool things about our region’s journalism culture is that we have a healthy range of editorial approaches.

    And that we can occasionally engage in conversations about this sort of thing.

    –Brian, NCPR

  3. Connie says:

    Frankly, I cheered when I read the Doonesbury strips. I was out of town, and the paper there, a major daily, ran them. How can rational decisions be made if there is no discussion – however difficult it may be? I’m hoping to hear many more women’s voices joining the discussion, which up till now has been dominated by men. After all, it’s not their bodies that are being discussed. And didn’t we go through this 40 years ago?

  4. Pete Klein says:

    Obviously, the Press-Republican was just living up to one half of its name.
    Obviously, it does have the right to run or not run anything in its paper,
    Obviously, it thinks most of its readers are Tea Party Republicans and doesn’t want to offend them.

  5. Mervel says:

    I didn’t find that particular strip that offensive. Doonsbury has always been pretty political and funny.

    But from a political standpoint I don’t find what Texas is doing that big of a deal, if it does discourage couples from not having an abortion than it is a good thing. Besides its the business of Texas not ours.

    Here in good old New York a 16 year old can’t drive but they can go get an abortion without their parents consent, I mean little worry here we are DOWN with abortion any time any place anywhere for any reason.

  6. I find it ironic that it is not considered offensive for a bunch of (mostly male) politicians with no medical training can mandate such a procedure to insure that a woman is “adequately informed” but it is offensive for others to openly question and discuss their decision.

  7. JDM says:

    “Should we not speak bluntly and factually about the very issues that are defining much of our politics?”

    Maybe it doesn’t belong in “our politics”.

    Maybe there should be some limits to government intrusion.

  8. Knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Here in New York there are plenty of step fathers and even fathers who can get their 16 year old daughter pregnant. Maybe nobody wants to think about it. Maybe you don’t approve of abortion, but stuff happens that people have to deal with even though it isn’t addressed in polite company.

  9. Two Cents says:

    I think it’s moved on from just an issue of abortion now to include the invasive ultrasound technique proposed, and it is intended to clearly intimidate a woman.
    For years doctors have been externally sonogramming without being quite so insensitive to the woman’s body, boundries.
    If we as a society have trouble “having to go there”, breaching the subject of sex verbaly, why do we easily jump to clearly a physical “going there”

    Vaginal insertion never seemed a necessary routine part of the procedure, and doctrors seemed to get all the info required routinely. This is as creepy as a page from a Psy-Ops manual.

    They legislation seems to me to be punitive in retaliation for considering an abortion.

  10. Mervel says:

    I agree knuckle; but providing the means for that molestation to continue is NOT the answer. Secrecy kills .

  11. Mervel says:

    I think the legislation is certainly intended to deter abortions, but then again that is the business of Texas.

  12. myown says:

    Texas has no right to order a woman undergo a medically unnecessary procedure.

    These same Texas hypocrites, who abhor governmental regulations on business, have no problem requiring the unwanted invasion of a woman’s body. And they have no problem trying to interfere with an action the Supreme Court says is legal. In Texas, corporations have more rights than a pregnant woman.

  13. oa says:

    You’re being a little easy on the Press Republican. They actually DIDN’T involve their readership in the discussion. They just dropped the strip and didn’t explain why until the week was out. Sounds like just the sort of thing you’re critiquing, and the polar opposite of what Sarah Harris did. The PR’s excuse sounded pretty lame:
    “Why didn’t we explain that in the paper?
    We didn’t think of it.”
    I know, and sometimes dogs really do eat kids’ homework. But I have a feeling this was a case of media squeamishness in action, with a paper just hoping the whole thing would go away because it’s icky.

  14. erb says:

    There is much to be said on the topic of sex and politics, but personal confessions only distract from the issue at hand, which is whether the flurry of new legislation concerning women’s reproductive health make compelling arguments for the benefit society and the individual. Show me how institutions’ refusal to pay for employee contraception helps society, show me how mandated ultrasounds and 24-72 hour waiting periods for abortions helps the individual. These are the questions we need to discuss, not how much sex a college student is having.

  15. Pete Klein says:

    Offensive? Crossing the line? These are the reason the Press Republican used to explain why it decided not to run the Doonesbury strip lampooning a Texas law.
    One might ask and maybe should ask, “Offensive to whom and for what reason?”
    I have a problem with anyone who hides behind words and phrases such as offensive, crosses the line, is disgusting, is pornographic.
    Spell it out. Say exactly what you mean. The Press Republican never did that. Why? Who knows. Maybe they just wanted to appear to be holier than thou.

  16. Mervel says:

    When we look at the crazy stuff that is out there in our culture this comic strip is just not that offensive, maybe not at all offensive? I mean listen to the words of most top 40 music that most 11-16 year olds listen to that plays on our local radio stations. I would have not problem with our kids reading that strip and asking me about what it means if they didn’t understand; (then I could give my anti-abortion spiel to them again!), and why this law is a good thing!

  17. brian mann says:

    OA (and others) –

    A lot of newspapers dropped Doonesbury with zero public conversation or explanation.

    The Press-Republican offered some insight into their thinking and in doing so sparked an interesting discussion. Their comment section has roughly three dozen responses from readers — some highly critical, some laudatory.

    I think that’s a valuable process.

    –Brian, NCPR

  18. PNElba says:

    These Doonesbury strips are offensive? Really? Ever watch “Family Guy”, “South Park”, or many reality TV shows? Honestly, these strips are only offensive and embarrasing to those who support this type of government intrusion into our personal lives.

  19. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Post Star ran it.

  20. Sue K says:

    “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.” ”

    The only reason this topic needs to be discussed in the “editorial space” is because Republicans have dragged it out of the “privacy space” that should exist between a woman and her doctor, or a woman and her priest if that is the case. If it had been left where it belonged, all this would not be necessary.

    But now that we are here, let’s hash it out again, re-assert our rights to privacy and contraception, tell the Republicans if they really believe in small government, then they should get the heck out of our doctors’ offices, and if they really believe in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, then they should stop trying to force their religion onto us and our government.

  21. Paul says:

    “”Are you sexually active?” Harris asked.”

    Sounds like a question that you are asked by your doctor in the privacy of his or her office.

  22. John Warren says:

    Here are two enlightening sentences from the P-R’s opinion piece:

    “The personal views of the editorial staff and the news staff never hold sway when it comes to what goes in the paper.

    The six ‘Doonesbury’ installments just struck us as too offensive for the Press-Republican.”

    Those sentences actually follow each other. You’d think they would know that what “just struck us” was a personal view.

  23. I think it’s impossible for journalists to talk about sex in any sort of competent, meaningful without offending someone. The best you can do is to address the issue as much as possible without being gratuitous.

    As for this particular “flap,” I find it ironic. It’s not like Doonesbury hasn’t addressed other very controversial issues (most notably, Vietnam). Any paper that spends its money on Doonesbury knows that getting occasionally controversial content is part of the package. Why would any squeamish paper buy it in the first place?

  24. Paul says:

    John Warren, excellent point!

  25. It's Still All Bush's Fault says:

    The Doonesbury in yesterday’s (Sunday) paper was hilarious.

  26. oa says:

    I think it’s a valuable process, too. I just think the PR was shamed into it, to use a popular phrase, pretty darn late in the game. And then said it didn’t occur to them before the week was out.

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