The Magazine

Sex Talk

The surgeon general's farcical "Call to Action."

Aug 6, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 44 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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OFFICIAL WASHINGTON is a city of the sly evasion, the artful misdirection—spin, we like to call it—but seldom of the outright misstatement. You don’t often see a public official rise in his official capacity to make an official statement that is flatly, demonstrably, unmistakably contrary to the world as it is. It just isn’t done, for heaven’s sake.

David Satcher, the surgeon general of the United States, held a press conference at the end of last month to issue a new report. Issuing reports is what surgeon generals do. Since his appointment by President Clinton in 1998, Dr. Satcher has released reports on mental health (in favor of it), women and smoking (strongly against smoking, strongly in favor of women), children and oral health (in favor of both equally), and suicide prevention (pro-prevention, anti-suicide). The report issued last month was titled The Surgeon General’s Call to Action To Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Sexual Behavior. Such a large, grandiose title invites sweeping claims to be made on its behalf, and after Satcher had surveyed his report’s findings about the social problems associated with sex, from unwanted pregnancies to sexually transmitted diseases, he made perhaps his most sweeping claim of all:

"We have created an environment"—he meant we as in us, Americans in the United States—"where there’s almost a conspiracy of silence when it comes to sexuality."

Now, it is difficult to imagine how a statement could be more untrue. Americans started talking about sex pretty much constantly about 40 years ago and have yet to pause to take a breath. I wonder how many reporters at Dr. Satcher’s press conference wanted gently to take him by the arm and walk him to the nearest cineplex for a screening of any movie rated beyond PG-13, or sit him down for a night of watching reruns of Friends or Will & Grace, or hand him a "literary" novel by John Irving or a "trashy" novel by Jackie Collins or any women’s magazine at all, or let him flip through an issue of Maxim or Esquire, or, for that matter, make him squirm with a couple of long passages from the Starr Report. If this is a conspiracy of silence, it is absolutely deafening.

What was Dr. Satcher thinking? Well, he is a highly skilled report-issuer. He knows the need for a hook. He knows that publicity—a puffer on the front page of the New York Times, a patty-cake interview with Katie or Matt on Today—follows a report that bravely challenges the status quo. A surgeon general can’t just hold a press conference and say, "My fellow Americans, this day we are issuing a report—a report that boldly conforms to the conventional wisdom being voiced by nearly everybody—a report that dares to tackle a subject that is already constantly talked about—a report so courageously predictable in its implications that my publicist will be lucky to get a call-back from the producer at The Early Show with Bryant Gumbel." Since there’s not much to challenge when it comes to sex nowadays, the surgeon general had to invent a "conspiracy of silence," for the purpose of fearlessly breaking it. It worked, too, by the way. Katie gave him four minutes—an eternity in Today time—right at the top of the hour, and for the next two weeks Dr. Satcher did nothing but talk about sex.

There is another step to the report-issuing process. If a government report pretends to upset the status quo, it must somehow generate what newspaper editorial writers call an "outcry." Outcries, as a technical matter, are ex post facto; they are said to arise after a report is issued, even if they don’t. In this instance, since Dr. Satcher is a liberal and his report was a longish paraphrase of liberal conventional wisdom—promoting the wide distribution of condoms among teenagers, for example—the outcry had to come from the right. And what do you know! "How else to explain the outcry from conservative groups?" wondered the Seattle Times, a few days after the report was issued. "David Satcher is under attack," warned the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Conservative groups jumped on Satcher," said the New York Daily News. "The report has right-wing and family-values organizations in an uproar," said the Baltimore Sun. Most colorfully, if yuckily, a columnist in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer lamented "the profusion of venom that has been spewed since Satcher disclosed his findings."