Lessons from the Stimulus Debate: Sex Ed For Talking Heads, Male Lawmakers

The mainstream media discussion of the inclusion of family planning in the stimulus bill ranged from the ridiculous to the pathetic and illustrates the need for sex ed for male lawmakers and talking heads.

The three-ring circus on the stimulus bill and the Medicaid waiver provision for family planning services might have been avoided, some in the advocacy community and Congress say, if there had been more comprehensive sex education.

Nope, not for teens.  

Apparently, the target group most in need of some good old fashioned sex ed can be found among the male members of the Democratic Party and among the talking heads in the media. 

A number of Congressmen attending a House Caucus meeting on the economic package earlier this week reportedly could not stop snickering when the words “stimulus” and “family planning” were used in the same sentence, and continued to tee-hee their way through a presentation by female colleagues until asked to stop.

“They acted like they were in junior high,” reported a participant in
the meeting.  “It made me realize that not only did they not understand
this issue, but that they are uncomfortable even talking about it." 

Rather than chastising their male colleagues further, the women members and staffers involved in the meeting took this as a serious learning experience. 

It should be a lesson for all of us.

“These issues are second nature to the majority of women in Congress,” said one Congressional staffer speaking off the record, “so when we talk to women members or their staffers about the connection between family planning and women’s economic security, they don’t need an explanation.  They just get it.”

"Many of the men, however, do not," the staffer continued, "It is clear we need to educate them.  If they don’t understand the issues, they won’t be able to defend them effectively."

To be fair, some male legislators obviously do get it: Robert Wexler of Florida and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland both made valiant efforts to explain these issues to rather dense talk show hosts on MSNBC.  Congressman Henry Waxman, a long-time champion of evidence-based comprehensive sex ed and of women’s health, supported the Medicaid waiver in the stimulus in the first place.

But the majority of male Dems have not been asked to do much more to cultivate the female vote for reproductive health services over the past decade than to declare their support for Roe v. Wade in election campaigns.  

"We have not had to deal with these issues much beneath the surface the past 8 years," said the staffer, "because for the most part we did not control the debate.  But now we are in the majority, and women helped put us there.  This is going to come up again and again.  Anyone who understands the role of women in elections needs to get educated quickly, because even if they are uncomfortable with making these connections now, men in Congress are going to have to get comfortable very fast with funding for these services" or risk alienating voters.

It appears that while some lawmakers are apt to act like adolescents on the subject of women and sex, they have no problem working aggressively to ensure male sexual needs are met.

Take the case of Viagra.  The National Research Center for Women and Families reported on a similar debate pitting programs for low-income children and families against other "priorities" (remember the "bridge to nowhere?") in 2006.

As we consider our goals for the New Year," wrote Diana Zuckerman in a January 2006 op-ed published in the San Jose Mercury News and a number of other papers,

"what is more important to
American taxpayers: free Viagra or providing essential food, health care and
education for our neediest families? According to our congressional leaders,
free Viagra is the priority.

This sounds like a bad joke. It isn’t. Congress decided this week to
restore Medicare funding for Viagra and other erectile-dysfunction drugs at a
cost of $90 million for 2006. To do so, they had to cut other programs,
mostly for our country’s most vulnerable adults and children.

Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Bakersfield, led the charge in favor of Viagra
funding, insisting that Congress keep its promise to the drug industry —
which had expected ED drugs to be reimbursed under Medicare in 2006. He
apparently thought it was unfair when, a few months ago, Congress decided to
instead use those $90 million in taxpayer money for relief efforts after
Hurricane Katrina.

In the ideal world, we would have enough federal dollars for disaster
relief, food stamps and Viagra for seniors. In the real world, however, tax
cuts and the war in Iraq have meant that billions of dollars in essential
programs have to be cut. And so, Congress decided to come to the aid of
pharmaceutical companies even if it meant harming parents who were counting
on after-school programs, pregnant women who were counting on prenatal care
and low-income families who were counting on food stamps.

The gender gap on life experiences clearly runs very deep.

The mainstream media discussion of the family planning issue revealed a similar level of discomfort among male talk show hosts, but in public view and ranging from the ridiculous to the pathetic.  From Sunday through Tuesday, mostly male talking heads babbled on about an issue on which they clearly had little background knowledge and on which they clearly did not bother to gather much in the way of factual information. 

As has been widely reported here and elsewhere, for example, Chris Matthews, making clear he understands little about women’s health, compared the stimulus to China’s one-child policy the first day, and kept insisting subseqently that the stimulus plan was an effort by the Obama Administration to limit the number of births in the United States. 

What is it about the words "voluntary family planning" and "unintended pregnancy" he does not understand?  What is it about the economic costs of an unintended pregnancy, childbirth, and childraising when you are not prepared to bear a child (or another child) that he does not get? 

It is worth asking if this kind of uninformed blather would have taken place on more "serious" issues.  Imagine Chris Matthews or Sam Donaldson going on air unprepared to ask intelligent questions of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Iraq or Afghanistan.  (Okay, maybe not such a stretch with these two, but you get the point).

And make no mistake, the media aided the Republicans in their long-running strategic plan to stigmatize family planning services.  In fact, "Matthews," noted the Congressional staffer, "may have been our single biggest problem."

"If," the staffer continued, "instead of throwing us to the lions [with such a large audience], Matthews had done his homework, he could have helped turn the issue for us."

The staffer imagined a productive session of Hardball during which Matthews took the Republicans head-on by stating:

"This is a red herring issue…what do you do if you are a woman trying to avoid an unintended pregnancy who is not insured, has no sick leave, has no maternity leave, can’t afford to lose her job and cannot afford contraceptives? This is obviously an economic, a jobs and a family security issue."

Alas for now, it remains the stuff of dreams.

While the mischaracterization of the Medicaid waiver was mostly the province of male commentators, at least one female host, Nora O’Donnell, also got it totally wrong.  She repeatedly tried a gotcha strategy on Congressman Chris Van Hollen, as he attempted in turn to explain the issue on its merits.

"I take your point Congressman. but go ahead and answer what Congressman
Boehner said. How can you spend hundreds of millions of dollars on
contraceptives. How does that stimulate the economy?"

Obviously not "taking the point."

But for the most part, it was left to women, such as House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Julie Menin of the DNC’s Women’s Leadership Forum trying in vain to educate Neal Cavuto on Fox News, to bring substance and sanity to this debate. In referring to the contraceptive waiver for Medicaid, Cavuto–underscoring the point that many of the talking heads could not deal with this issue without a smirk–asked Menin:

"How is this, no pun intended, ‘stimulative’ of the economy?"

Menin, in perhaps the most intelligent explanation of this issue to date, referred to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt:

"I think FDR said it best in the 1930s, when he talked about the economic stimulus is really about relief, it’s about reform, and it’s about reconstruction.  And this falls into the relief package.  You’ve got 50 million Americans with absolutely no health care, 40 percent of Americans have severe medical debt, and this is really what this is targeted to."

But….this was too much for Cavuto, who interrupted….

"This is contraceptives…."

Menin continued to try to explain the economic link for women of an unintended pregnancy, the need for these services among young people, and the savings to both states and the federal government of lower health care costs associated with expanded choices in family planning. 

This led Cavuto, who apparently considers Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale as a possible guidebook for federal policy to suggest  that maybe we needed more people to pay taxes and….providing family planning would prevent women from producing those people!

Come to think of it, Matthews and Cavuto need the remedial sex ed course.

To a certain extent, this episode has done us all a big favor by underscoring early in the new Congress that we can not take for granted that "Democrat" or "national talk show host" = "understands the concerns, needs, aspirations, or human rights of women."

One thing is clear: We have a big job ahead of us and we should take it seriously. 

If we are going to reverse the concerted effort by the far right to undermine basic reproductive and sexual health care, then we need to create a sex education program — I am serious — for men and women in the Democratic caucus and in the media who may not yet fully grasp the importance of these issues.  It has to go beyond the cultivation of a few "champions" to make sure that the majority of the Democrats in Congress really get it.

This strategy must also go beyond leaving talking points with a staffer in a one-off visit.  It should involve at the least one day-long basic sex ed and economics retreat that brings together advocates, researchers, staffers and members of the media to discuss how basic reproductive health care is health care.  It might also include some of the college students and recipients of Medicaid who themselves were lobbying–and eloquently so report some–on the waiver this past week and who are direct users of the services.  And like any good outreach effort, it should include continuing education, reaching out to a broader community, using new technology and media such as YouTube.

And it needs to start now, before we find ourselves in this same situation with the Omnibus, or with the health care reform process.

The Republicans are leaving this weekend on a retreat to do their own planning on how to subvert the majority Democratic agenda….we need to work aggressively to ensure the success of ours.

If we are going to win this and other battles in the long run, we need to develop our own program of sex education for the very adults in whom we’ve vested the power of the purse.