Listeners who tuned in Dr. Laura Schlessinger's radio talk show on April 15 got a real earful: "The ALA" -- American Library Association -- "is boldly, brashly contributing to sexualizing our children," Schlessinger told her audience of 20 million. "And now the pedophiles know where to go." What a way to commemorate National Library Week.
Schlessinger was riled up about the association's bill of rights, specifically a clause that put the group on record against restricting kids' access to any library materials, including the Web. The library group's stand was already controversial, but Schlessinger went nuclear. She couldn't have sounded more outraged had she stumbled upon a bevy of Schlessinger impersonators flashing the pink for Hustler magazine.
"Here it is," she said. "On the ALA's home page list of recommended teen Web pages, the ALA recommends Go Ask Alice, a site discussing many graphic issues including bestiality, sadomasochism, group sex and other. In my opinion, the ALA has done something evil, which -- as you know from Mother Laura -- is something way past dumb."
Go Ask Alice is, in fact, a site produced by Columbia University's Health Service to provide "factual, in-depth, straightforward and nonjudgmental information to assist readers' decision-making about their physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual health." Its Q&A format lets people ask questions anonymously; they are answered by university health educators and practitioners. The site has earned favorably attention from media like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Harvard Health Letter. And in 1998, Columbia's Health Service won an American Public Health Association award for developing the Internet resource.
Alice is a searchable database, answering questions about body maintenance, colds, aches and pains, nutrition, emotional health, drug and alcohol use, relationships and well, yes, sex. "People write in and they say that they're too embarrassed to ask their parents, their health care provider, their friends, their partners about lots of these concerns," says Jordan Friedman, Columbia's director of Health Education. "We also get a lot of questions -- and these tend to be from younger people -- that say: 'My friend told me this about drugs or sex or depression or a diet and I'm not sure if it's true. Do you have any information that can help me?' They want information and they want it from a source that's reliable. And they want it on their level. Alice does not talk down to people. Alice does not criticize her readers. Alice does not dismiss her readers." Alice, in other words, is no Dr. Laura.
The ALA has supported a link to Go Ask Alice for over a year now, almost as long as it has had a Web site. But the link is not exactly prominent. It's buried nine levels down in a series of subdirectories that act as informational turnstiles. "What we're doing is providing access to information that kids need if they want to take the time to find it," says Joel Shoemaker, the president of the ALA's Young Library Services Association. "Nobody is going to accidentally stumble on to sensitive language without knowing what they're getting into, not from our site."
It's much easier to find the URL for Go Ask Alice on Schlessinger's own Web site, where it appears under "Monologues," as part of a press release from the Minnesota Family Council that was posted on April 23.
Interestingly, Go Ask Alice has seen an increase in traffic since the link went live on Schlessinger's site. "We can't tell where things are coming from but in the last month we have had an increase in outside hits to the site," notes Columbia's Friedman. "We are about half a million hits over the average for a given week." Could it be sheer coincidence?
Meanwhile, in contrast to the ALA's cautious placement of its link to Alice, Schlessinger's site offers a pretty provocative tease into the Alice site -- direct quotes from what Schlessinger has characterized on her show as Alice's "pornography": "Several things might make sex with animals, also known as bestiality, appealing: It can be forbidden, secretive, and/or exciting. An animal doesn't kiss and tell, nor does the animal complain about performance or desire orgasm -- you are in control of the when, where and how." This, of course, raises an interesting question: Is Schlessinger putting "pornography" on her site? When is "pornography" not pornography? When it's being used by the forces of Good? When it's being used to educate people? And who gets to decide what's Good and what's education?
Is there a difference between sex education and pornography? Columbia's Friedman thinks there is: "The purpose of pornography is sexual arousal. The purpose of sex education is education."
But regardless of how liberally the word "porn" may be scattered through Schlessinger's radio monologues, this is a distinction that she herself does not feel qualified to address, says Keven Bellows, vice president and general manager of the Dr. Laura show and Schlessinger's spokeswoman: "She's not an expert on pornography and she's not a medical doctor. This is not her issue."
So what is her issue? "The issue is that it's wrong for the library not to filter," Bellows says. "Her issue is protecting children. Go Ask Alice is just our example of inappropriate material."
Ann K. Symons, the president of the American Library Association, sees value in sites like Alice. "I know that some kids are sexually active in high school," Symons says, "and it's always [a librarian's] goal to make sure that young people get factual good information. Go Ask Alice has accurate information, it answers a broad range of questions and concerns, and not everybody is interested in everything on there. I would recommend it to my child -- but I would also tell him that I would want to be there and I would want to talk about it with him. We believe that it is the parents' job to decide what is appropriate and not appropriate."
And therein lies the rub. Unquestionably, the Internet contains material that is unsuitable for young users. But there are differences in opinion about the best way of controlling access. The ALA is adamant in its stand against uniformly adopting filtering software. "Filters are only one way to modify Internet use," says Symons. "They may be the best way in the home but they're not the best way in the library." Well, reasonable people may disagree. Both Schlessinger and the ALA seem to want responsible use of the Net -- but while Schlessinger's approach favors the mechanical, the ALA's leans towards the philosophical. What we have here is a difference of opinion.
But Schlessinger does not suffer differences of opinion graciously. Over the past year, the talk show doyenne has redefined the scope of her radio practice considerably. No longer content to administer tongue-lashings to callers lamenting their divorce, infidelity, unwanted pregnancies or abusive spouses, lately Schlessinger has become a woman with a mission, a scriptural absolutist, seeking nothing less than a complete moral make-over of society. There's no room for conscientious objectors outside of Mother Laura's army. But does she go too far?
Bellows says she is only responding to the current cultural climate. "Many librarians have written to tell us that they're having terrible issues with pedophiles since computers were introduced into the libraries," Bellows says. "Now that pedophiles can access porn on the Internet they're hanging out in libraries."
But those letters do not appear on the Schlessinger Web site. And the ALA's Symons counters, "We are not hearing this nor did a survey of its membership by the Urban Libraries Council" -- an organization of major metropolitan libraries -- "show this." Is Schlessinger using hyperbole to make her point?
Schlessinger certainly appears to have leaned toward excess in crediting her faithful with influencing the outcome of a legislative committee vote in California. On May 18, the state Senate's Public Safety Committee voted to reconsider SB238, a bill that if passed into law would require Internet blocking software in California libraries. Previously the committee had deadlocked on moving this legislation along for appropriations consideration. The May 18 vote allows that decision to be revisited.
"All of your letters and faxes have made a significant and meaningful difference," Schlessinger gushed in a letter posted May 18 to her site. Not so, according to Sen. John Vasconcellos, the chairman of the Public Safety Committee, who has denied seeing any mail at all and told the ALA that he was "aghast at the hypocrisy" of Schlessinger's claim. Reconsideration is a routine courtesy extended to every bill's author, Vasconcellos said, characterizing Dr. Laura's version of events as "preposterous and offensive."
Veteran talk show host Ronn Owens of San Francisco's KGO radio sees the danger of demagoguery as an occupational hazard. "You eventually fall into one of two categories. Either you view your program as info-tainment and a wonderful way to make a living but don't take yourself that seriously or you begin to believe your own press clippings. Laura and Rush [Limbaugh] tend to fall into the second category. Both shows want (Laura demands) listeners who agree with them. Thus they are validated with every call. After a while you begin to see your opinions as incontestable."
In other words, maybe Schlessinger is taking herself -- and her role as the righteous moralist -- a bit too far. "A lot of people talk about how they loved Laura when she first came on," says Owens, "but she is becoming too strident, dogmatic, preachy, religious, unpleasant ... She will either heed these listeners and continue her success or will eventually fall victim to listeners turning her off." But for now, at least, Schlessinger remains America's top-rated dominatrix.