Sex, Lies and Colin Powell

We're a nation at war. Yet one of America's most celebrated soldiers -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell -- recently came under intense fire from some of President Bush's most ardent supporters. Not for his stance on terrorism, but for shooting straight through the shiny armor of America's war on sex.

Before Powell headed to a Valentine's Day MTV teleconference with hundreds of young adults from around the world, his daughter is reported to have told him, "Dad, don't try to snow these kids." Heeding her advice, Powell put truth before politics when confronted with a question about condoms.

"I believe condoms [are] part of the solution to the HIV/AIDS crisis and I encourage their use by our young people who are sexually active," he answered the Roman Catholic woman from Italy and global audience. "Forget about taboos, forget about conservative ideas with respect to what you should tell young people about. It's the lives of young people that are put at risk by unsafe sex, and therefore, protect yourself."

Frank answer. Common sense that most American parents support, according to extensive polls, as do national medical and scientific institutions. By refusing to "snow these kids," the majority of whom are legal adults, and ignoring the Republican platform that advocates abstinence-ONLY sex education, Powell tripped an avalanche of outrage from conservative policy groups. Circulating frenzied press releases, their twisted lies and half-truths appeared in most major news stories.

"Reckless and irresponsible," responded Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council. "Young people need to know the truth that the only sure way to protect themselves from the spread of life-threatening, sexually transmitted diseases is to save sex for marriage."

"Colin Powell is the secretary of state, not the secretary of health," said Focus on the Family President James Dobson, who called for Bush to publicly repudiate Powell's statements immediately. "He is talking about a subject he doesn't understand. He clearly doesn't understand the science regarding condom efficacy."

Dobson seemed to forget that Powell is a longtime supporter of pro-abstinence group Best Friends, chairs a Cabinet-level task force on HIV/AIDS and has worked tirelessly on prevention efforts worldwide, especially in Africa. Somehow he seems a bit more qualified on the subject than leaders of a retro-religious agenda.

Science proves that abstinence plus condoms and other contraceptives, not just abstinence only until marriage, saves lives. Conservatives love to brandish the National Institute of Health's one report that they claim proves condom impotence. In fact, the study concludes that condoms "do prevent transmission of the HIV/AIDS virus," but more data is needed to determine their effectiveness against some sexually transmitted diseases.

More farcical than the knee-jerk braying from the predictable family values crowd is the smooth spinning by Republicans. To appear reasonable under the glare of Powell's global spotlight, the Bush administration has had to stray from its medieval bandwagon pushing unmarried chastity -- fornicators be damned! -- as public health policy.

"The president and the secretary are shoulder-to-shoulder on the importance of both abstinence education as well as health education and sex education as a way to prevent unwanted pregnancies and to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted disease," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

To which I say, "Bravo, Mr. President." Although, an abstinence-plus approach is exactly what your recently dismissed Surgeon General David Satcher called for last summer, and you distanced yourself from him. Age-appropriate sex education that starts with abstinence is exactly what 77 health, education, youth and women's groups called for in a recent letter to you. If you really believe in Powell's prescription, support the Family Life Education Act, currently in the House, which funds a comprehensive approach to disease and pregnancy prevention.

In other words, show me the money. Otherwise, I call bullshit on your latest spin cycle. Your 33 percent budget increase in abstinence-only-till-marriage funding has pretty much wiped "comprehensive" out of the plan. And stop asking for funding parity between abstinence-only programs -- which says keep your legs crossed until your honeymoon -- and family planning, which helps poor women control the onset and size of their families, plus offers basic health care like STD screening and breast exams.

Bush's recently appointed co-chair to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS happens to be condom-foe Dr. Tom Coburn, a former Republican congressman and fervent abstinence-only advocate. After July's NIH report on condoms, he led a group of medical doctors demanding the resignation of the director of the Centers for Disease Control, which encourages condom use for safer sex.

"As a medical doctor, the best prescription I can give to avoid infection with a sexually transmitted disease is abstinence until marriage and a life-long, mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner," said Coburn in a related press release.

Fine. But thank god I live in America rather than, say, Afghanistan. Here science -- not theology and tribal traditions -- rules. I can still choose from multiple prescriptions involving the latest technologies to live my life as a healthy, responsible, joyful sexual being. The most vulnerable deserve those options just as much as the upper crust.

So maybe our government will reverse its "do as I say, not as I do" chastity course, and support Powell's comprehensive approach to sexual health. If so, we may have a career soldier to thank for finally cracking America's anti-sex armor.

Lara Riscol welcomes feedback at

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