Two recent Asheville Citizen-Times articles really caught my attention. One said that Rep. Heath Shuler had co-sponsored a bill to withdraw government funding from Planned Parenthood. The other reported that state Rep. Patsy Keever, with whom I’ve had serious political differences, bravely cast the lone vote against a law banning anyone considered a sex offender — including 18-year-olds who have consensual sex with someone 14 — from working as an emergency-services provider.
Apparently, Shuler isn’t familiar with his district, or he’d know that this bill could drive a stake through the heart of our Planned Parenthood Health Center here in Asheville, which serves most of Western North Carolina. He should visit this facility and meet the dedicated staff who provide thousands of women with testing for cervical cancer, breast cancer and sexually transmitted diseases while offering very low-cost, immediately available assistance with family planning and birth control. Their nonjudgmental approach encourages many young people to seek help and counseling there.
Keever’s point was that the sex-offender law paints with too broad a brush. No one wants to encourage teenage sex, but some historical perspective may be in order.
When my dad was born, girls were rarely educated past the sixth grade, and high schools had only 10 grades. My dad attended UNC at age 15. Upon finishing school, these teenagers were encouraged to get married, go to work and start a family, which obviously required having sex.
Now we’ve extended the school year to 12 grades for both sexes, but we forgot to mention this to Mother Nature so she could delay the onset of raging hormones. In our high schools, 14-year-olds mingle with 18-year-olds, but if an 18-year-old boy has sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend, he could be convicted as a sex criminal and branded as a pariah for life. (An 18-year-old girl who has sex with a 14-year-old boy is also committing a felony, but just try getting a conviction on that with any men on the jury.)
Under current law, how many of our servicemen who were called away to war right out of high school and decided to have sex with their young girlfriend (whom they might marry later) would come home to find themselves accused of a felony?
The media, the Internet, music and entertainment venues glorify sex 24/7, making abstinence a tough choice, especially for teenagers. Keever, an outstanding Buncombe County schoolteacher for many years, had ample opportunity to observe teenage behavior.
The real solution to many of these problems is sex education. For me, it began when I heard the illiterate workmen, forgetting that a young boy was present, brag about their sexual exploits in such obscene and graphic terms that I couldn’t believe my parents would ever do such a terrible thing.
Then there were those tiny books that were passed around the schoolyard, depicting cartoon characters like Jiggs and Maggie or Blondie and Dagwood in pornographic encounters. Incorrect information disseminated by older kids and National Geographic photos showing bare-breasted African women pretty much rounded out my sex education.
I don’t recall ever having a conversation about sex with my parents or any other adult. I was so naive that when I was walking to Claxton School one day with a more sophisticated fellow student and he said, "Look, there’s a rubber!" I thought he was talking about an overshoe.
I have to wonder what kind of sex education Shuler had as a handsome young jock. Were he and his fellow varsity players, who we know are deemed "hotties" in high school, informed about the responsibilities and precautions necessary for sexual activity?
Congressman Shuler, you need to know that Planned Parenthood provides one of the most important benefits to our society, teaching young people about sexual responsibility and preventing unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
Rep. Keever is trying to educate this community about our laws concerning sexual activity. She recognizes that predatory sex and sexual abuse are heinous crimes that should be punished to the full extent of the law, but she also knows that sometimes, the law goes way too far.
“Everybody who knows me knows that I'm not supporting sex offenders, teenage sex or any of that,” the article quoted Keever as saying. “I just don't want somebody's life ruined because they did something natural but stupid.”
Suppose that 18-year-old boy doesn’t take precautions, and his 14-year-old girlfriend becomes pregnant. He’s convicted of a felony, and he can’t support his child even if he wants to, because he’s in prison. Even after he’s released, he can’t take his child to school, because convicted sex offenders are barred from school grounds.
Meanwhile, if the girl wants to terminate her pregnancy and is denied by law, she must either hunt up some back-alley abortionist or find some way to support and raise this child alone.
If this portion of the law is strictly enforced, our already-crowded prisons will be overflowing, and the number of parole officers required to enforce sex-offender regulations will increase exponentially.
Shuler has been very outspoken about his religious opposition to abortion. Planned Parenthood is on the same page, striving to dramatically reduce the number of abortions in this country, which should please him. Planned Parenthood does more to avoid unwanted pregnancies and prevent abortions than all the Bible thumpers the congressman could ever hope to muster.
Sex is a natural activity. Let's treat it with respect and pragmatism, not punishment and shame.
As I write this, conservatives in Congress, including Shuler, are trying to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood and other affordable medical services needed to protect the lives of low-income American women, assist with family planning and promote reproductive health.
They claim they’re doing this to balance the federal budget — while continuing to authorize billions of dollars’ worth of subsidies and tax breaks for big agriculture, big oil and multinational corporations, and pouring 200 to 300 missiles into Libya at $1 million apiece.
How do we spell MISOGYNY?
— Asheville native Jerry Sternberg is a longtime observer of the local scene. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.