A call to yawns

Dr. Satcher was brave to release a report that says abstinence isn't everything, but it's up to us to change the culture.

Published June 29, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Media pundits are touting Surgeon General David Satcher's just-released report, "A Call to Action to Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Behavior," as "far reaching." How far does it actually reach? About as far as my hand reaches to cover my mouth when I yawn -- which is precisely what I'm doing over this report.

To Dr. Satcher's credit, he takes some modestly progressive stands on sexuality: Homosexuals are human beings. Sexual orientation can't be changed. Abstinence-based school sex education programs don't work. Kids should be taught about contraceptives and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). And in the real world, sex often begins before marriage.

But in the same report, the surgeon general also takes some sexually conservative stands: Abstinence is the best way to deal with the threats of STDs and unwanted pregnancy. Sex before marriage is OK only in the context of a committed, enduring, monogamous relationship.

The progressive elements are news only to the hopelessly clueless. And the conservative elements pander to the current powers that be. Basically, the new report is a hopeless mishmash of contradictory platitudes that will be forgotten by the time the ink is dry on tomorrow's headlines.

In releasing his report, Dr. Satcher has displayed what passes in Washington for courage. He's a holdover Clinton administration official antagonizing his new bosses by dismissing their sexual Holy Grail -- abstinence-only sex education. But what do we really have here? Will this report foster the "mature and thoughtful discussion about sexuality" Dr. Satcher calls for? Will it make a difference to anyone about anything? Please.

It won't change anyone's views, certainly not mine, certainly not those of the real powers in the Bush administration, who never let the truth interfere with their posturing or programs. They're already dismissing the new report -- by ignoring it (except to say Friday, through Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, "The president thinks abstinence education is important"). They may be Neanderthals when it comes to sex, but they're not stupid about politics. They know that the best way to deal with this little whisper of sexually fresh air is to let it sail into the black hole of yesterday's news.

Promoters of the new report say it's important for people like the surgeon general to show "leadership" on sexual issues, to "set a tone" for national discussion. Perhaps. But are you, dear reader, going to change anything in your life because of this report? So much for leadership and setting a tone.

The fact is, sexual responsibility does not happen from the top down, with the government making pronouncements or issuing silly reports. It happens from the bottom up, with people individually, in couples and in families making their own decisions about how they live their lives.

These decisions show up in many areas. Homosexuality is on its way to being accepted because, as a nation, we've decided that it's OK, a perfectly natural way to be. STD rates have declined largely because, in the wake of AIDS, parents have encouraged their children to use condoms, and the public has become concerned enough about the problem to become a little more sexually responsible.

Sure, government funding of things like STD education programs can help, and I don't want to see that funding cut, which is what many in the Bush administration would love to do. But government plays a very small role in the nation's sexual decision making. And the role of government reports, such as the surgeon general's new one, is even smaller.

It's remotely possible that somebody somewhere may take something in this report to heart. But I doubt it.

I was driving my daughter to day camp this morning. She was flipping radio stations -- they were all talking about the breakup of Benjamin Bratt and Julia Roberts. No one was talking about this report. I hope it isn't just a blip on the radar screen, but I'm convinced it will be.

By Michael Castleman

Michael Castleman is the author of "Sexual Solutions: For Men and the Women Who Love Them."

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