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10 Good Reasons You Should Hate Oprah Winfrey

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Making the News Funnier

Wait -- Rob Corddry does things other than deliver fake news reports on "The Daily Show?"

It might be strange for fans of the actor/comedian/faux correspondent to see him as anything other than a dead-on impersonator of irony-deficient conservative twits (or, as he calls them, "John Stossel-like idiotic libertarian bores"). But the thirty-five-year-old Corddry displays surprising versatility in his new film Blackballed: The Bobby Dukes Story, a low-budget mockumentary about a legendary paintball champion who retired in disgrace at the height of his career and is attempting a comeback.

Although it's a comedy (and a very funny one at that -- the fact that this SXSW-award-winner is being released independently while Queen Latifah movies get dumped onto a gazillion screens is proof the movie industry is not a meritocracy), Blackballed is surprisingly subdued. In the title role, Corddry gets to hold back this time, nicely understating his part as a guy who just wants to form a team to play paintball, meeting unlikely obstacles all along the way.

More surprising might be the fact that Corddry, a drama and English major from the University of Massachussetts, spent years struggling to make a living as a serious dramatic actor on the New York stage. He wound up doing lots of Shakespeare, but eventually migrated to the Upright Citizens Brigade. Along the way, he did "every temp job there is in this city," subsisting on "40s of Budweiser and dumplings." Obviously, he need not worry anymore. Since his 2002 debut, Corddry has become one of the most recognizable faces of "The Daily Show", and was a natural sub for Jon Stewart when the host took ill this past February. (For the record, Corddry says he "didn't really have time to be terrified" when hosting, but admits to coming close to vomiting afterward.) We caught up with him in New York.

Bilge Ebiri: How did you end up starring in Blackballed?
Rob Corddry: Well, it was clearly an important film. [Laughs] It's been in the ether for a long time -- someone had to make it. In all seriousness, it was the brainchild of the director, Brant Sersen, who wrote the story with a friend of his from high school, Brian Steinberg, whom I know from the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. And he got Paul Scheer and me involved -- to help flesh out the story, and of course cast all our friends in it. Which we did. As you can see, if nothing else, we're all very comfortable with each other.

BE: Those familiar with you from "The Daily Show" might be surprised at how understated your performance is here. The film has a Mighty Wind kind of vibe.
RC: I take that as a compliment. I definitely play the straight man here, which is what this calls for -- and which maybe people who see me from "The Daily Show" might not be used to. It wasn't easy, though. I usually like getting more attention than that. And it was hard not laughing at Rob Riggle [who plays a near-psychotic, bellowing ex-marine who joins Bobby Dukes's team].

BE: Is holding back laughter hard for you in general? Jon Stewart seems to crack up pretty regularly.
RC: I very rarely break. Never on "The Daily Show". If I'm improv-ing on stage with my friends, I crack up all the time, because they make me laugh so much. I try not to adhere to the Jimmy Fallon school of comedy, which is to always laugh at how adorable I am. As for Jon, that's just his personality. He's not really cracking up or breaking. That's the way to deliver that material, because he's like part of the audience -- it's a "We're all in it together" vibe. When I hosted, I found myself almost laughing sometimes.

BE: Is it strange that the show has become such a political hot button?
RC: Truthfully, like any other comedy show, we're just trying to take the shortest road to the funniest joke. If a point gets made along the way, that's fine, but it's not what we're out there for. To be honest, it's kind of annoying in the studio to have people applaud everything you say about Tom DeLay. They turn it into a political movement. I mean, I hate looking a gift horse in the mouth, but . . . fuck you people. I'm just kidding.

BE: It might be strange if the Democrats manage to take office, and then you wind up making fun of them.
RC: We poke fun at hypocrisy, and there's no shortage of that on the other side of the aisle. Do you seriously think John Kerry wouldn't provide enough fodder for us? That's a ridiculous notion. That man has never said an interesting thing in his life. That alone is delicious.

BE: As the show becomes more politically pointed and gets more serious guests, does it become harder to use the sarcasm defense?
RC: God no. I take no responsibility for anyone who takes our show seriously. That said, if "The Daily Show" is responsible for one cultural phenomenon, it's that we've provided a forum for people to sell more politically themed books. And for that, I apologize. I've made a habit out of reading a quarter of those things and then throwing them out. If you want a good book, read some of O'Reilly's mystery novels. That's a good read.

BE: I'm sure you've been asked many times about the subjects you interview in your taped segments and whether they're being serious. Are they aware that they're on a comedy show?
RC: Of course. You can't lie to them. Back in the olden days, they said something like, "We're Comedy Central's News Division." I think only an idiot would be taken in by that. Now, everybody knows the show, and they know what they're getting into. They're just out to sell a book or get a hit on a website, basically.

BE: But how do you set something like that up? I just saw a segment where you pretended to be a racist and you interviewed an African-American history professor.
RC: It depends. In that interview, one of the things I had planned to say was, "Look, it's not you. You seem like a nice guy. It's just that the color of your skin puts me off." And the rest of the question was, "I find that easier to judge than the content of your character," which we cut for time. To be honest with you, I didn't know whether I was going to be able to say that to him. But two minutes into the interview, I knew this guy was cool. He knew the deal.

BE: You studied theater in college. Are you worried it'll be hard for you to do serious acting again, now that you're so clearly identified with a comedy show?
RC: It'd be fine with me. I actually think drama is a lot easier, to tell you the truth. I wish comics were given more of an opportunity to do serious stuff. Comedy is like swinging three bats in the batter's box, and when you get up to the plate in a drama, you swing one. In that sense, it's a lot easier. When I first came to New York in 1994, I fancied myself quite the actor. I did Shakespeare for years, but I was always playing jackasses. I got to play Mercutio once, but he's kind of a glorified idiot. He's a jackass with higher billing.

BE: What struggling-actor jobs did you do when you first moved to New York?
RC: I am so good at Word and Excel you wouldn't believe it. I have folded so many pieces of paper and stuffed them into so many envelopes, I should win an award. I always had a rule that I would never work anywhere for over a year, 'cause I didn't want to get comfortable anywhere. I stayed true to that. I worked at Goldman Sachs as the Assistant to the General Counsel! I faked my way all the way up there. And I got fired a day after my one-year anniversary. I put my feet up on the desk -- pretty much knowing that it would do the trick. My boss hated me anyway, 'cause I'd been stoking the fires for a month or so. And I got fired a day later. That way I could collect unemployment. That was another job I had: collecting unemployment. I was very good at that.

BE: Weren't you a museum security guard at one point?
RC: Yeah, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That was a really interesting job. The training was incredible. The head guy was great. I'm pretty sure he was from Boston -- I think they were all Mafia connected. [In a Boston accent] "Question: Can I or can I not carry a gun? Answer: Yes! Question: Can I shoot someone if they deface a painting? Answer: Yes!" I was working with gun-toting maniacs.

BE: Did anyone ever deface a painting on your watch?
RC: I saw someone actually destroy "The Death of Socrates," by Jean-Louis David. There was a school group in front of that painting, and I was watching them. Somebody said, "Yo, where's Plato?" Somebody from the back of the group went right up to it and slammed Plato on the head. "Right here, motherfucker!" And I ran over, like in slow motion: "Noo-ooo-ooo". To this day, you can still see a tiny imperfection near Plato's head. He looks even sadder.

The Conservative Hand of Hollywood

Consider the following scenario: It's Saturday, and you feel like going to the movies. You see the latest installment of The Chronicles of Narnia advertised in your local Examiner newspaper, part of a chain whose name has been trademarked in more than seventy cities. You decide to go to your local theater -- a Regal, Edwards, or United Artists. You sit through twenty minutes of advertising, followed by the film itself, which has been delivered from studio to theater by a fiber-optic line.

The underlying theme? Every stage of your moviegoing experience -- from production to promotion to distribution to exhibition -- was controlled by one man: sixty-six-year-old religious conservative Philip Anschutz.

Named Fortune's "greediest executive" in 1999, the Denver resident is a generous supporter of anti-gay-rights legislation, intelligent design, the Bush administration and efforts to sanitize television. With a net worth of $5 billion, he is Forbes ' thirty-fourth richest American, two spots above Revlon's Ronald Perelman. Anschutz heads a vast media empire whose assets include the Examiner chain, twenty percent of the country's movie screens, and a sizeable stake in Qwest Communications, the scandal-ridden telecom giant he formerly directed. (Anschutz was accused of helping falsely inflate Qwest profit reports, then making millions by selling his own shares in the company -- a claim he ultimately settled by paying millions to charity.)

Anschutz's stake in Hollywood has been growing since 2000, when he began buying the bankrupt Regal, Edwards and United Artists chains and founded two film studios, Walden Media and Bristol Bay. In many areas of the country, the Regal Cinemas chain is the only option for seeing first-run films. Carole Handler, a prominent Los Angeles anti-trust attorney, says this gives Anschutz considerable leverage in his latest domain of conquest. "Anschutz is the person who went and bought the theaters out of bankruptcy," she says. "Don't think that passed unnoticed by the studios."

Anschutz has gained considerable power in negotiating licensing agreements with the film studios, contracts which impact everything from where a movie is played, to how long it runs, how it's marketed, which upcoming releases are given trailer time, and how revenue is split between the studio and the theater. It is a kind of power, says Handler, that harkens back to the early days of cinema, when studios, distributors, exhibitors and even movie star magazines were concentrated into the same relatively few hands.

There's a twist, though: Anschutz's politics. A heavy contributor to the Republican Party for decades, Anschutz helped fund Amendment 2, a ballot initiative to overturn a state law protecting gay rights, and helped stop another initiative promoting medical marijuana. More recently, he helped fund the Discovery Institute, a conservative Christian think tank that mounted a public relations campaign and financed "research" into intelligent design. He has also supported the Media Research Council, the group that generated nearly all the indecency complaints with the FCC in 2003.

Ironically, it was Hollywood that saved Anschutz. As a friend of his told Fortune, Anschutz "has a latent interest in doing something significant in American Christianity. He is working deliberately and diligently on it."

Anschutz did not respond to my request for an interview, and he has given only a handful over the past few decades. This is not for lack of an opinion or a story to tell. A devout Presbyterian who grew up in Kansas, Anschutz is married with two daughters and a son. He inherited his father's land investment and oil exploration business, but didn't grow up wealthy; in fact, he gave up his plans to attend law school because the family business was failing.

Ironically, it was Hollywood that saved Anschutz. After discovering a major oil well in Wyoming, the well caught fire. Anschutz sought to hire Red Adair, the legendary oil well firefighter to put it out, but wasn't able to pay Adair's fee. Anschutz realized he could pay Adair -- and make $100,000 on top of that -- by selling the rights to the footage to Hollywood.

Having faced tough times before, Anschutz is probably not overly concerned about the fact that theater attendance was down six percent this year, even in an industry with thin profit margins. Earlier this month Regal reported a forty-three percent increase in fourth quarter profits, a windfall partly credited to another Anschutz venture, the holiday blockbuster and Christian allegory The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Narnia has grossed close to $300 million, a far cry from the first film Anschutz produced, 2002's Joshua. A depiction of the Second Coming, Joshua pulled in less than $1.5 million for its studio, Epiphany Films, a specialty label of Anschutz's proselytic-sounding Crusader Entertainment. While websites are usually maintained even for box office flops -- 2003's Gigli, for instance -- Joshua's site has been taken down, and its URL redirects visitors to the studio's new name, Bristol Bay.

To some, redirection might be an appropriate metaphor for Anschutz's entire enterprise, which they fear is all about bringing God and conservatism to Hollywood under a more secular and apolitical guise. Or, as Joshua co-producer Bob Beltz told Christianity Today in 2002, "We wanted something that we thought would have more of a mainstream impact, that would expose unchurched people to the person of Christ in a way that they might walk out of the theater saying, 'Is it possible that Jesus could really be that wonderful?'"
Some have speculated that Narnia might be what Anschutz's friend meant by the "significant" contribution the media mogul wants to make: using his wealth to buy a place for evangelicals in Hollywood. The film's distributor, Disney, initially wasn't interested in Narnia. Gradually, Disney began to realize the Christian allegory's potential appeal among evangelicals, who demonstrated their box-office clout with The Passion of the Christ.

Anschutz isn't just blurring religious and secular lines with his film, but taking advantage of a softened divide between production and exhibition. In the early days of Hollywood, film studios dominated the exhibition business, obligating independent theater owners to accept bad films in exchange for the right to play good ones. In 1948, the federal government issued the Paramount Consent Decree, forcing the major studios to divest their theater holdings. Recent theater mergers, such as the consolidation of AMC and Loews (the number two and number three chains, respectively) must pass antitrust scrutiny. AMC/Loews, whose merger closed in January, was forced to sell off theaters in key markets such as Boston and San Francisco last year to avoid creating a monopoly.

"In the 1970s and 1980s, exhibition overbuilt [too many expensive theaters] in shopping centers. The centers declined in value while the rents did not," says Handler. "Then in the 1990s most of the exhibition houses sought bankruptcy. Many emerged from bankruptcy under aegis not of common ownership but of common investment."

Instead of buying United Artists, Edwards, and Regal Cinema outright, Anschutz avoided antitrust concerns by acquiring their debt, Handler explains. Regal already has a distribution monopoly in many areas of the country, and Anschutz's power extends beyond Regal to joint ventures he has formed with his competitors. His partner, Oaktree Capital Management, is financing Sundance's new art-house chain. Instead of selling off pieces of Regal Cinemas' overbuilt empire, Anschutz launched The 2wenty, twenty minutes of pre-show advertising that launched with a free ad for the military, Enduring Freedom: The Opening Chapter. In 2004, Anschutz merged his pre-show advertising business with AMC's and Cinemark's. The result was National Cinemedia, a company that now runs its ads on more than half of the nation's screens, and whose president is a former co-chairman of Regal Entertainment Group.

Some viewers have sued the theater chains that run the ads, alleging that delaying the start of movie trailers until twenty minutes past the posted show time constitutes false advertising. But the ads aren't going away. Cinema advertising is an increasingly lucrative source of revenue, with sales up forty-eight percent in 2004. The theaters that haven't succumbed to the trend Anschutz started are having trouble surviving, says Jason Thompson, director of Captive Motion Picture Audience of America, an organization that protests theater advertising.

Where advertising and programming were once left to theater managers, Anschutz now has centralized control of every Regal Theater through its proprietary Digital Content Network. Anschutz has also bought up television ad time and billboards for his "For a Better Life" campaign, which emphasizes values such as "faith" and "integrity," sometimes promoting them with Disney characters such as Kermit the Frog and Shrek. While the campaign is not explicitly religious, it does offer unsolicited moral advice to movie patrons at Regal's 6,000 screens. The ads were produced by Bonneville Communications, a Salt Lake City agency that produces ads for the Mormon Church.

In 2005, PG-rated films outperformed R-rated films in the theater for the first time in two decades. Conservatives have touted weak theater attendance as proof that the heartland isn't interested in Hollywood's licentiousness and liberal politics. The Dove Foundation, non-profit advocates of "wholesome family entertainment", published a study showing that G-rated movies are eleven times more profitable than R-rated flicks. Indeed: as a co-producer and financial backer of Oscar contender Ray, Anschutz reportedly insisted on altering the details of subject Ray Charles' life, downplaying his drug use and womanizing to obtain a PG-13 rating.

Although Hollywood didn't heed the Dove Foundation's advice in 2005 -- the key Oscar nominations were all low-grossing films that are very political -- studios have begun looking into releasing PG versions of their R-rated fare, an innovation made possible by the advent of digital cinema. The double release would allow theaters to play the cleaner version during more lucrative screening times earlier in the day, and the director's cut later on.

What's good for the theater lobby isn't necessarily good for those of us who don't want our entertainment censored. Yet there is no shortage of screenwriters willing to lend Hollywood's product a cleaner sensibility. In December, the Atlantic Monthly reported on Christian screenwriting school Act One, whose faculty includes producers and writers from mainstream shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and That '70s Show. In 2004, conservatives launched the Liberty Film Festival; last October the festival included a panel discussion titled, "Was Communism a Threat to Hollywood?"

Perhaps the more pressing question: is Hollywood ready to compensate exhibitors by eschewing edgy politics for movies with a built-in audience? A sequel -- or, more accurately, prequel -- to The Passion of the Christ is rumored. New Line Cinema is producing The Nativity, a film based on the life of Mary and Joseph, directed by Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown). The End of the Spear tells the story of five missionaries whose families forgive the South American tribe that killed them.

Fears of a boycott of one of the year's most eagerly anticipated releases, The Da Vinci Code, has Sony Pictures mounting a public relations campaign among evangelicals and Catholics. Madea's Family Reunion, which recently opened at the top of the box office, is a comedy about an African-American Christian fundamentalist family, whose evangelical producer Tyler Perry has, according to the L.A. Times, helped sell studio heads on the African-American Christian film market. Besides working on the Narnia franchise, Anschutz's Walden Media is releasing Amazing Grace, a biopic of the Christian revivalist Wilbur Wilberforce.
Anschutz may well see himself as someone like Wilberforce, the wealthy merchant's son whose embrace of evangelical Christianity led him to fight to abolish the British slave trade. Wilberforce, however, was open about his intentions. Anschutz may better resemble another openly conservative Presbyterian, one who acquired his own vertically integrated empire of newspapers, film studios, and television stations years before anyone realized he would turn those media outlets into his personal political mouthpiece. That man was Rupert Murdoch.

The Tenuous Bond of Fathers and Sons

When he was twenty-eight years old, Bernard Cooper received a bill in the mail for two million dollars. It was an itemized invoice from his dad charging him for every expense he'd ever generated as a child. It's easy to see why Cooper chose this incident to title his fantastic new memoir, The Bill from My Father, a recounting of his many baffling, funny and laborious interactions with the peculiar man who raised him. Cooper is the author of two other memoirs and a novel, and a recipient of the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Award. He spoke to us from his home in Los Angeles about reparative sexual therapy, truth in memoirs and the unsteady armistice between fathers and sons.

Will Doig: In many of your arguments with your father, you both seem to be at a remove.

Bernard Cooper: I describe a lot of the arguments my father and I had as being like two men chasing each other on stationary bicycles. There was this sense that we were unable to really understand what the other was after.

WD: Was this combativeness just a natural product of his aging, or do you think the two generations are increasingly alienated from each other?

BC: My father was not a person who believed in talking about his problems or his feelings. He grew up in a generation that was very skeptical about psychotherapy. All that group therapy and primal screaming in the '60s, he saw it as a bunch of nonsense. He did not live his life with the idea that one makes concerted efforts to thoroughly divulge their inner worlds to other people.

When I was much younger, especially in the '60s and '70s -- the post-hippie generation -- I really wanted to believe one could have faith in people, that the world was actually welcoming and not competitive, that people mean well in general. My father was much more skeptical about human behavior. I think I've actually come to see that, to a certain degree, he knew more about human nature than I was willing to believe.

WD: Many of us have parents who are just now reaching old age. Some of us find ourselves increasingly parenting our parents. Does this reversal of roles bring us closer, or just foster resentment on both sides?

BC: I think both. As I grew older, I realized what it would be like to have physical limitations, to lose one's financial security, to move from a huge suburban house in Hollywood to a run-down trailer park in Oxnard, and how much that must have shamed my father.

WD: Toward the end, when your father was becoming very difficult to manage, were there ever moments when you wished he would die?

BC: He had a long and thorough history of alienating every single person he was close to. It was almost methodical. He had always been peculiar, and his eccentricities climaxed in the last month of his life. There was not much left for him. So I didn't ever think, it'll be easier for him that he should pass away. When he did pass away, however, I did think it would have been difficult [if he'd stayed alive].

WD: I think men in the 1950s were taught that they shouldn't be truly open and knowable, and as a result, we now have a generation of sons and daughters who know their fathers as Father Figures, but not really as people. Did writing the book help you to understand him better?

BC: I understand him better and identify with him more, but he simultaneously remains a mystery to me. And I'm not entirely unsatisfied with that. I feel that in some way, people have to recognize the fact that you can never thoroughly know another person.

WD: For such a cantankerous old man, he seemed to take your sexuality in stride.

BC: Oh, yeah. [My partner] Brian has an extremely strong work ethic. He's really organized, has a good income. I think my father had this sense of, "Hey boy, you've snagged yourself a good money-earner, there!"

WD: In an earlier memoir, Truth Serum, you wrote about going into therapy to "cure" your homosexuality. What was that experience like?

BC: At that point I lived with a woman who I loved very much and even had a good sexual relationship with. My therapist believed something could be uncovered to release me from those [homosexual] longings and make this heterosexual relationship possible. His particular method, which I haven't heard of before or since, was to take me next door, where an MD would inject me with a combination of sodium pentathol and Ritalin. The idea was that the sodium pentathol would make me pass out, and the Ritalin would make me wake up a few minutes later, and it would loosen the tongue so I might discover all these hidden things.

Let me just say that it was worth every penny. For the two minutes after that doctor injected me, I was in heaven. There was a neon light over the padded examination table I would lay on. He would inject me, dim the lights, leave the room and I'd stare up at the neon tubes. I would hear what I thought was the typist outside just typing away like crazy. It sounded like some inspired writer. And then I'd start to think, No, it's not typing. It's the sound of light from overhead! And I would feel inexpressible joy about this every time, just like clockwork. Of course, nothing I didn't know was uncovered from the therapy, but it was a great high, so I kept going back for a while.

WD: I have to ask you about James Frey. A 1996 article about Truth Serum in the Boston Phoenix was headlined, "Total Recall: Bernard Cooper blends fact with fiction in his new memoir."

You were quoted in the article as saying, "Toni Morrison once wrote that there is a difference between 'truth' and 'fact,' and I'm always aware of shaping the material I work with. I have no qualms about making embellishments to create a more beautiful piece of writing. The impulse to fictionalize or modify the truth is inherent in all acts of memory. Believing that lets me follow my instincts while I am working; not everything I say has to hold up in a court of law."

So, what's your take on the whole James Frey circus?

BC: I find it really fascinating. I think one thing that allows me to confront those issues without any sense of guilt or embarrassment, is that it's almost as if I'm working in another genre entirely than what he's working in. There's a certain transparency and rawness in his prose that makes it read almost like a journal entry. It's raw and immediate, and that's what people responded to. My response was, I don't really want to read this book because it's not processed or filtered. It doesn't take some kind of risk with language. There's not very much exciting to me about the prose. I think one of the real problems was that his embellishments seemed to be largely in service to a kind of posturing from the very beginning. "I'm tough and I like pit bulls and I drink beer." That also made me not very interested.

In the kind of memoirs I like to read, even if there are fictive elements in them, I feel assured that the writer is at least doing their best to get at the truth. In my book, there are long passages of dialogue. I have always mimicked my father. That I don't mean this in a hocus pocus sort of way, but I almost do feel like I can channel him. And I felt like, who better to invent dialogue than me? It's certainly based on things that happened and things he said, but it's a kind of invention. I really try to explain in this book, that what you're getting are my memories, and I do feel tremendous responsibility to tell the truth, but I also am not interested in telling the truth without my imagination.

This book, it was so much about memory -- my father losing his memory, me remembering things correctly and incorrectly. For a long time, Brian and I thought his headstone said one thing when it actually said another. Instead of digressing into the fallibility of memory, I try to make it part of the text in the way everybody experiences discrepancies. I'm fascinated by that, and I welcome that.

WD: Do you worry Frey could have a chilling effect on memoir writing?

BC: Maybe I'm living in a fool's paradise. It crossed my mind. A couple of things: I think readers of anything should be skeptical. I am, and I feel like I have to be won over by a book and feel a certain degree of trust. But that's me. I wouldn't hold the author responsible if I found out there was, like in most memoirs, some sort of minor discrepancy. It wouldn't surprise me. Making up entire jail sentences out of the blue is pretty weird, and it's troublesome. But I did see the last half-hour of Oprah's public chastisement. It was excruciating. It was like seeing someone put in stocks in the colonies.

Here's what really flipped me out about that show. Oprah had someone in the audience from something called the Poynter Institute of Ethics. Among other things, he said that memoirs should be rated according to how much is true and how much is fictionalized. Suddenly I thought, I don't want to live in a world where people lie, but nor do I want to live in a world where everyone thinks what's true and what's false is a quantifiable, inarguable thing. What you get is fundamentalism when that happens. And that scares me way more than anything James Frey has done.

Not That Innocent

Laura M. Carpenter's landmark study, Virginity Lost, appears at a time when being a virgin, incredibly, might be a marker of coolness.

Pro-abstinence programs like Silver Ring Thing, marketing virginity to teens the way Adidas markets sneakers, are building a critical mass of popularity and appeal. But the salience of virginity has moved beyond the teenage have-you-or-haven't-you gossip mill, becoming a cultural touchstone debated in the halls of Congress and pages of Us Weekly. Can virginity really swing elections, boost Nielsen ratings and be sold for several thousand dollars on eBay? We spoke to Carpenter about the state of the American cherry.

Gwynne Watkins: Let's talk about Britney Spears. Why did we as a culture care if she was a virgin?

Laura M. Carpenter: Partly because she symbolizes our daughters and sisters. But we also want to see hubris come to a bad end. There's been such a love-hate relationship with her. The idea of hypocritical innocence -- that's how she gets interpreted. You don't believe she's really pure at heart because you think it's a marketing ploy, so you want to see her get her comeuppance.

GW: For progressives who are against abstinence-only sex ed, has her downfall been particularly appealing?

LMC: I think for progressives, that's what it's been about. All the people who invested themselves in her, and were like, "We hope she stays this role model [for virgins], otherwise our kids are all going to run out and have sex when they find out that she has." That's if you believe that celebrities have that direct an affect on behavior. I don't think they do.

GW: But you do write that mass media reinforces beliefs that are fostered by friends, family and social groups.

LMC: That's pretty much the finding on a lot of things, drinking and smoking and so forth.

GW: Has television's portrayal of virginity changed in the past twenty years?

LMC: I think so. Like that TV show "Family" that was on in the mid '70s. Kristy McNichol was on it. Lief Garrett played her boyfriend. The characters thought about having sex together, but didn't. And now you've got all these teen shows, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" being my favorite of the genre. It has a great virginity-loss story. The "gift" metaphor loomed large in that show.

GW: Right, you write that people tend to see virginity loss in three ways: as a gift, a stigma or a learning process. Is there a type of person you associate with each? Can you look at someone in a restaurant and think to yourself, "Definitely a learning processor?"

LMC: [laughs] Wouldn't that be great?

GW: You talk about "gifters" giving it away gradually, in stages -- a very capitalist method of stretching your dollar (your virginity) as far as possible, much like Britney did.

LMC: Yeah. Sociologists who study gift-giving have often pointed out that we talk about gifts as if they're voluntary and entirely different from economic transactions, but are they really?

If I give you an iPod for Christmas and you give me a box of paper clips, what does that mean about our relationship?

GW: And because the price of the gift of virginity is so high, gifters are the most likely to stay with an abusive partner who they lost their virginity to.

LMC: Yes. If you've transferred a precious part of yourself to somebody, then in leaving them, you've left behind this special thing that you could only give to one person.

GW: "Learning process" virgins, on the other hand, treat their first time having sex as an intellectual exercise and tend to be from middle-class, well-educated families. Why?

LMC: The "processors" are pretty curious about sex. Whereas the "stigmatists" are so desperate not to be virgins that they're not willing to wait for someone who might be, you know, pleasant to do it with, the processors can wait. They're not desperate. If their parents have been to college, they were likely exposed to the sociological idea that losing your virginity is a rite of passage. They went to really good schools that had progressive sex education.

GW: And as you were saying before, teen virginity loss in the media has definitely become more progressive, albeit in a very carefully constructed fashion.

LMC: Now, you've got "Dawson's Creek," "The OC" and that whole ilk of shows. They're much more matter-of-fact about sex. It's like the producers think, "Well, we know the virginity-loss episode is going to get good ratings, so we have to have one per character." It almost seems to be the rule now. I think "90210" was the watershed.

GW: Donna Martin was huge.

LMC: We remember her name, right?

GW: And she wasn't even that major a character. But that was her defining trait. She was the virgin.

LMC: As opposed to the other characters, who had other stuff.

GW: Teen movies also come up a lot in your study. You seem to like American Pie.

LMC: I do like American Pie. You've got this range, from girls who talk about virginity as a gift to the band-camp girl, who just wants to find an easy lay. Even though, ultimately, in the third movie, she gets married, which is kind of disappointing. It "rehabilitates" her somehow. She's not just allowed to want casual sex, right? That's bad for women.

What I like most about it is this sub-theme, about women figuring out what gives them pleasure, and making sex contingent on that. Discussing female orgasms, particularly through cunnilingus, really makes female pleasure prominent. There are movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which I think is a great film -- I mean, it's very good for 1983 -- where you see girls talking about sex, having sex, but not enjoying sex. And wanting it to be better, but not knowing how the hell to go about that, and just hoping that someday they're going to find a better partner.

GW: So it seems like by the '80s, mass media had become comfortable with teens losing their virginity. How about in real life? When did "wait for marriage" become "wait for the right person?"

LMC: In the late '60s, early '70s, there's really a big shift as a result of a bunch of things. For the first time, decent contraception made it possible to have sex with people you wouldn't intend to marry in a million years.

Sociologists start calling it "pre-premarital sex" -- sex with people you don't intend to marry. And that's really when it starts becoming common. There was quite a lot of premarital sex with people you expected to marry back between the '20s and '60s.

GW: It seems like we're moving back toward that era today, with programs like Sex Respect and Silver Ring Thing.

LMC: As sex education programs have moved toward abstinence-only, the programs often talk about born-again virginity and tend to have a Christian subtext. I heard from people who spoke about virginity as a way to honor their relationship with God.

GW: What makes virginity such a powerful political tool?

LMC: Culturally, we have a "preserve the innocent" ideology that you see in the "innocent unborn children" arguments of pro-lifers. You see it in "women and children first," as if they're somehow more valuable than everyone else. Protecting women, protecting innocents.

GW: The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal that was blamed for an alleged epidemic of teenage oral sex.

LMC: The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal made it visible to parents in a way nobody had forced them to look at. There's very little data on oral sex before the late '90s, partly because it's been so difficult to conduct a study on that grade level. It's tough enough to ask, "Have you had vaginal sex?" There's the idea that talking about sex will give kids the idea they should be having sex. But I don't think we give kids enough credit for being as smart as they are.

My Tranny Valentine

Before Felicity Huffman won her Emmy -- and prime-time stardom -- with "Desperate Housewives," she filmed Duncan Tucker's smart debut filmTransamerica.

She plays Bree, a pre-op transsexual who discovers that her estranged son suddenly needs her. Against all formulas, they embark on an often-comic road trip. Huffman shakes off the weight of playing one of relatively mainstream cinema's first transsexuals by delivering a performance that is deeply idiosyncratic, even strange at times; ultimately you're so taken by Bree's born-again piety that you forget all about her gender reassignment.

In fact, her performance -- as a male in the middle of a transformation to womanhood -- is so complicated, that I forgot to ask her the hot-button question everyone else pops: "Wasn't it weird to land this part, as a woman?"

Honestly, it hardly seems to matter.

I loved this film, but I've got to admit, going in, I had all kinds of fears about what it might be.

You did?

I was convinced it was going to be another one of those Isn't-This-Person-Just-Like-You movies. You know, like those kids' books: My Two Daddies.

Oh, so you were surprised it wasn't just like, "Transgendered people are people too! They go to the grocery store just like you!"

Exactly.

Well, a lot of that was Duncan (Tucker, the director). In the script, Bree was prissy, uptight, well-educated. Like that stuffy old aunt that drops French phrases.

And you certainly don't play her like the girl next door either.

He gave me a lot of freedom. When he gave me the part, I asked, "What am I going to look like?" He said, "Don't change your voice, Don't change your look." He was concerned with the internal part, the truth of the heart, so I just did a lot of research, and met with a broad spectrum of transgendered women.

But you did change your look and your voice. [She dropped five octaves.]

The first time Duncan saw it all was on the first day of the shoot. He said, "Oh!" Then he jumped into it with me, and said, "Great." He became my champion from that moment on. And he was my watchdog too. If anything fell a certain way, or if I didn't walk correctly for her, if my voice went up, or I dropped my hands, he'd stop the shot. And we'd start over. In indieland, that's hari-kari.

I'd imagine any director might give you that kind of freedom now that you've got your Emmy. But back then, before "Desperate Housewives," you didn't have that kind of star power. Why'd he trust you?

I didn't have anything back then. That's what's so amazing. Duncan is just really brave. He'd only seen me in a couple of off-Broadway plays with maybe a hundred people in the audience, and he just kept saying, "I want her."

Of course, David Mamet [a longtime collaborator of Huffman's husband, William H. Macy] gave you your stage-acting break, so I've been wondering ever since I saw the film about how Mamet must be teasing you.

Well, he hasn't seen it yet. But I hope that when he does, we talk about it. That will be fascinating. Of course, no one teases you as much as Mamet -- or is as loving. I'm sure his zingers will be fantastic.

Did you read Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex?

Oh, of course. I read anything transgender-interested. And while I was shooting, I read a book about MTS, male-to-female transgender surgery. I had to just surround myself with it all the time. I needed to go to sleep with it, to read it before I went to sleep, and then again and again.

How'd you decide what to read?

I just read everything. Biographies, autobiographies, articles. And I met two women from the production company Deep Stealth, Andrea James and Calpernia Adams. They didn't know me from Adam. I just said, "Hi, I'm Felicity and I'm doing this movie." They said, "Sure, come on over."

We started by working on the script and they went through it, page by page, to make sure everything was authentic, and then they shared their own life stories. I spoke to a lot of transgendered women about all kinds of questions: what was it like when you first met a woman? When you told your parents? And Andrea helps men to find their female voice, so I tried working with her. But she couldn't help me do it in reverse! It was completely different.

What books made the greatest impression, specifically?

Well, in Jan Morris's book Conundrum, she had a sexual reassignment done and she had complications, she had to go back in several times, and she was married when she did it. It caused great consternation in her family, and she said in the end, something like, "But I don't care. If I had to cut it off, to hack it off, to claw it off, I would've, because it was not who I was."

That always stayed with me. The transgendered community is quite strong, and very clear that the transformation takes place in your head long before you wonder about what's under your skirt. And I learned a lot from those moments when people realized, "That is not who I was."

Jan Morris talks about her mother, ironing her father's shirt when she is about two or three and sitting under the ironing board. Her mother picks up a shirt and says, "One day you'll wear one of these." And she says, "I'm not going to wear that shirt. I'm a girl."

Any other books?

She's Not Here, by Jennifer Boyle, is really eloquent about the transformation, about what happens when you go from male to female. Emotionally, she talks about what it's like when you're a guy -- this big aircraft carrier going through the ocean, and the waves affect you. You're just moving toward your destination. But when she takes the hormones, she felt like a rowboat, going up and down the wave. She talks about just being buffeted by life much more just through the hormones, and she's really eloquent . . .

How much of those in-person interviews actually made their way into the performance? Sometimes actors do research and interviews, and throw it all out. Other times they pick one or two people to mimic.

Actually, it was amazingly productive. I needed to meet the women who were not yet at home in themselves, to see their experiences, to meet women who were newly comfortable with themselves. I needed to see people's walks, their makeup, their hair. I needed to cast a wide net, as they say, and it was incredibly informative and inspiring.

Was there anyone in particular?

Well, some women were so uncomfortable that taking a cab to the hotel where convention is, just walking the 200 feet to the front desk and finding what banquet room. For them, that walk is excruciating, they feel like they're a target and they're very uncomfortable.

Bree seems terribly uncomfortable.

She carries around so much pain, so much self-loathing, just this deep reservoir of agony . . . I found the whole thing difficult. It felt like walking across the country with full glass of water, riding a unicycle, juggling with the other hand, and if you spill a drop it's life or death, because that's what it's like for Bree: life or death.

But it's such a fun movie. I mean, I heard Harvey Weinstein describe it yesterday as a "transsexual road movie." Which it is.

Well, great comedy comes out of great pain. And her comedy, her sense of humor, and her irony definitely come from her pain. I mean, it's not a transsexual road movie, really: it's just a wacky funny road movie, transgender or not.

I have to finish with a question about Andy [the name she gave her prosthetic rubber penis] and your full-frontal scene. One of the strangest things about it to me is that it didn't really derail the story at all.

I'm so glad. Because it is so shocking. What I loved about that moment in the movie, was that on one hand, it's this Brechtian moment, just like how he would pop the audience out of a story. You see the penis and pop out of the story.

But I think when you do that here, you pop into Bree's experience: You're just as shocked and horrified by that picture as Bree is . . . It's a brilliant piece of psychological filmmaking. I got so upset when Duncan told me that he wanted to show Andy. I burst into tears. I thought, "I can't do it." I felt exposed and it felt like betrayal and somewhat of a travesty. I was so embarrassed, and I kept telling myself, "It's just a piece of rubber -- it's pathetic." But I'd lived inside of Bree for so long, I think that's how she would react.

Scenes From a Blasphemous Marriage

To many people, Peter Manseau's parentage -- his mother a nun, his father a priest -- represents yet another embarrassing example of the Catholic Church's many recent transgressions.

But Manseau's parents never saw it that way. When they met in a Boston storefront ministry in the spring of 1968, the world seemed on the cusp of a progressive rethinking. Vatican II was injecting the Church with a charismatic new sense of modernity, and the age of priestly marriages seemed finally to have arrived.

Today, the social revolutions of the '60s seem quaintly anachronistic, and Manseau's parents' marriage -- now in its thirty-sixth year -- remains a minor scandal. Though his father still considers himself a priest and continues to minister to the poor, because of his marriage the Vatican basically denies his status as such.

This act of definace has kept he and his wife on the fringes of the Church leadership, though they've never been entirely excommunicated, and they continue to lobby the Church to change its rules about marriage. In his deeply personal memoir Vows, Manseau details the love triangle that has inextricably tied his mother, his father and the Catholic Church for nearly forty years.

Many people don't realize that priests, and even popes, haven't always been celibate. When and why did that change, and why hasn't it ever turned back the other way?

There's always been a tension between the ideas of sex as sinful and sex as sacramental. In the twelfth century, it was ruled that priests couldn't marry, partly because too many priests' sons were inheriting their churches and the bishops couldn't control who had authority. As to why it hasn't changed back, there's no reason for the power structure to want that. They have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

But priests continued to have children after it was outlawed. There's a history of illegitimate children born to popes.

Yes. The "double monastery," which was a connected monastery for monks and convent for nuns, was a common phenomenon in Medieval Europe, and that practice ended because there were too many pregnant nuns.

Your father advocates allowing priests to marry as part of the solution to the sexual-abuse problem. Why doesn't the Church agree that this solution is viable?

In the aftermath of the sexual-abuse scandal, the church went after priests like my father. They thought that priests who expressed any sexuality, whether it was marriage and consensual relationships or the abuse cases you've heard about, were all the same thing. There's even a phrase for it in canon law: a "carnal sacrilege," which is a sin against the priesthood and against the Church itself.

Your father confessed to you that he'd had a sexual relationship with his elderly mentor, Father Tom. How did that conversation come about?

It was really slow coming to the surface. The more I learned about my father's seminary training, the more I would ask him if he'd ever noticed any kind of homosexuality, and he would always say, "No, no, no." Then he would start to admit, "Well, there was a little bit that I saw here and there at St. John's Seminary." He finally told me about Father Tom, and I think he was able to do that because in his post-ministerial life, he's become a psychologist.

When he finally told me the story, he finished by telling me what a wonderful man [Father Tom] was. He still tells me that. He wanted to make it clear that he feels this man was a mostly positive influence in his life. It's such a complicated relationship, the relationship that the Church creates between young men and priests. And I think [my father] has only started to realize that now.

When your father was training to be a priest, he'd go on dates with girls after seminary. He was living a double life.

Well, I think that we have to remember that dating for my father in 1953 was different from dating now. And he's always quick to point out -- and this is a distinction that only someone like him would care about -- that "it was just in minor seminary." But he wouldn't exactly announce to these girls that he was in seminary at first, and when he finally told them, they would be sort of scandalized. Because they were, of course, Catholic girls.

I had never heard the story of priests putting their mother's wedding ring in the Communion chalice. Your interpretation is that it's "a mingling of the sacrifice the woman had made to bring a potential priest into the world (her virginity) and Christ's sacrifice (his life)." It literally equates the loss of virginity with death.

That's how they think of it. That's the interesting thing -- now the Catholic Church puts itself forth as this great defender of family values, but historically, the Church has been no great defender of marriage. Marriage in the Church's eye was second-class status. Virginity was the way to God, and if you couldn't have virginity then, well, I guess you'd have to be married. To be a mother is a great Catholic thing, of course, but it's only because she made the sacrifice of a greater thing, which is her virginity.

What your father comes to believe is that being married will make him a better Christian and therefore a better priest. Can you explain?

This came about while he was working as a street priest in Roxbury, in the inner city of Boston. He felt like so long as he was defined by this separateness, he couldn't really be Christ-like in the sense of living among the people who most needed him.

Ironically, you became attracted to the celibate life that your parents rejected. You considered becoming a monk. You write, "I had been raised to think of the celibate religious life as an unhealthy perversion of the Christian ideal -- an artifact of medieval politics, a papal power play designed to keep subordinates in line -- and yet the attraction I felt to it was real." Did you eventually pick a side?

Did I pick a side? [laughs] I came to realize that as far as I explored the celibate life, looking back, I see now that I was trying to live a story. I was really taken by the idea of being this young intellectual who was going to chuck it all and find real peace. But as far as the reality of it went, what I found inside the monastery wasn't the romance that I hoped for. As much as I liked all the men I met there, it just felt like a much more sterile environment than I'd ever imagined it would be. And looking back on it now, of course it is. It's part of the institution. And I'm lucky it was like that. I think if it had been a more spiritually fulfilling place, it might have been harder to leave.

Even when I was exploring this idea of celibacy, I was still going to bars and whatnot. So I was living a double life the same way my father had when he was young. Except that, I don't know, his double life -- it might have been more honest than mine. When I was at the monastery, I always felt like I was lying. I didn't want to admit that maybe the bars in Northampton were my more authentic place to be.

What was it like for your college girlfriend when you were considering being a monk?

I kept it kind of secret. In college, I was a bit of a spiritual snob. I didn't have much respect for people who actually went to church and believed things. My girlfriend just didn't really fathom what I was going through, and I wasn't really good at expressing it. Although it was the beginning of a time in my life when I had a religious obsession with monasticism, I also began to have a sort of sexual obsession with the idea of religious women.

It sounds like college. College spirituality is a very particular thing.

I spent a lot of time in college going to a lot of different kinds of religious things. I was really into Jewish things for a while, which had me going to a lot of synagogues. At the Jewish Community of Amherst I met this girl and we both discovered, in talking, that neither of us were Jewish. She was this Texas Mennonite or something, this blond girl who looked so far from belonging at the Jewish Community of Amherst, and when I found out that neither of us were Jewish, that we were both just going to synagogue services, she became my romantic obsession.

She was your soulmate.

Yeah, except that she was a Smith lesbian.

Sexual repression is so much a part of what Catholicism is. What do you think would happen to the church if it changed its attitude about sex?

I don't really know what it would look like, honestly.

Even one small step. Let's say they allowed priests to get married.

That's the thing. My father thinks that's almost a cure-all. But I don't think it is, because there is this deep-down worry about sexuality in the Church. In some ways, it's the foundation of the Church because it's been there from the beginning. And I think it has to be there, in some ways. But there's always been a specific kind of Catholic sexuality that's existed on the margins. And so I think that's likely to continue. I do think eventually the Church will allow its priests to marry, but I'm not sure when it will happen.

Do you think that will happen before or after it allows the ordination of women?

It will happen before they allow the ordination of women. That's for sure. So that's just another part of the problem. I don't know. I don't know why more people don't leave the Church. I mean, honestly, the fact that women remain the driving force of the Catholic Church, the real passion and the heart of it, without being members of the hierarchy -- I don't know how you can go to church each week and be insulted by that fact. And that's what it really comes down to, is a lot of double-talk about why they won't ordain women. But it's fear of the feminist, it's fear of the body. It's medieval. And as far as I'm concerned, it's indefensible. But it's not really my fight. It's my parents' fight, and I'm happy for them if they're able to win it.

Stonewalling Plan B

The Food and Drug Administration, for all its faults, has largely preserved a dispassionate scientific sobriety above the tides of public philosophy.

In fact, its earliest incarnation was a humorless little office called the Bureau of Chemistry, which was created by President Lincoln in 1862 and headed by an actual chemist. In later years, the FDA would regulate tea importation, penicillin and a polio vaccine with an impressively unsympathetic eye. In 1959, with almost Grinchian relish, they recalled the entire U.S. cranberry crop three weeks before Thanksgiving.

But more bothersome still is what it shows signs of becoming: an agency that allows the safety of our food and meds to fall victim to ideology. Such a concept was disturbing enough to drive Dr. Susan Wood out. The former director of the FDA's Office of Women's Health, Wood recognized, as did virtually every other member of the agency's staff, the safety and necessity of an emergency contraceptive called Plan B. Compared to other products the FDA had approved, Plan B was a no-brainer, safe and effective.

Crucially, it was time sensitive, requiring dosage as soon as possible after, say, condom breakage, to prevent unwanted pregnancy. For this reason, it would need to be available without prescription.

Yet today, Plan B sits not on a Rite Aid shelf, but in a bureaucratic holding pattern that will likely endure for years. After being recommended for approval at every level of its formal review, the pill mysteriously ended up in what is called a "rulemaking process" to determine whether the product can be given "dual status," which would make it available without prescription for adults but not for minors.

FDA staffers say this is simply a way to ensure that Plan B stays in purgatory (for a few more election cycles, one could imagine.) Wood took the strongest stance, resigning in protest on August 31.

What is the function of the FDA's Office of Women's Health?

It was created to focus on the inclusion of women in clinical trials. For example, right now there's a lot going on with coronary heart disease. The office would focus on questions of whether the medications are safe and effective for women. When I was there, we had a budget of around $4 million.

In the case of Plan B, the FDA decided to solicit public comment about whether it should be available without prescription. What's the value of getting input from a public with no medical expertise?

The FDA is proposing going into a rulemaking process, or the development of a regulation. When you develop a regulation, you begin by asking for public comment, asking people what sort of issues they think need to be addressed.

What's wrong with that?

Rulemaking is a long, multiyear process. I'll give you a good example of necessary rulemaking. When the FDA was given the authority by Congress to regulate mammography facilities, it required establishing standards for facilities throughout the country: who does the inspections, what level of training do the physicians need, what about the technicians who upkeep the machines, what about the standards of the machines themselves . . . it was big and complex and took several years to develop the rules and regulations to ensure that an FDA-certified mammography facility is in fact a good one.

In this case, it's an abuse of the system. We've had multiple products out there on dual status, and we've never felt the need to go through rulemaking on them before. But for some reason, this time we announce that instead of approving [Plan B], which is what the evidence says we should do, we're going through rulemaking. It sounds like just sixty days of public comment, but that's just the first one percent of how long this is going to take. It's a very big deal to pass a regulation. It's going to be years before we get through this.

Recently, we've witnessed what seems to be an ideological drift in women's health issues -- abstinence education, parental notification laws, etc. Is this part of that?

The common thread in those things you mention would be that there now seems to be a problem with contraception itself. Contraception seems to have become controversial. We assume that contraception is not controversial and here we are proven wrong. That said, I think it's only controversial for a very small group of people, but they're clearly wielding enormous influence.

The FDA is part of Health and Human Services, which is run by the executive branch of the federal government. The delay of Plan B is certainly in step with this executive's ideology, don't you think?

I agree, but historically, to a very large degree, the FDA has maintained its independence. Though it's part of the chain, it should be able to build a wall so that it gets input, but the decision-making is made inside the FDA. What appeared to happen in the emergency contraception decision was the professional staff was completely locked out and a decision was issued without the usual consultative decision-making. That's extraordinary.

If historically the FDA has been able to maintain that wall of independence, why does it seem to be coming down now?

Well, as to the change in the administration or who is able to influence this administration, I'll let other people speculate on that.

When it's reported that "the FDA made this decision," who exactly are they talking about? Who is "the FDA?"

In a normal process, this never would have reached the leadership of the agency. Somewhere in the middle, there's the authority to issue a decision on a product, and if the normal process had occurred, that's what would have happened. But something above the bureaucratic process -- something happened at the leadership level of the agency, or beyond, and the only thing that I'm at this point willing to say, and it's speculative but I feel pretty confident, is that the agency was not acting independently. The leadership of the FDA overruled every level of staff review in the agency. None of the decision-making process was followed in a normal way. And the fact that the current acting commissioner hasn't changed the direction shows that the agency is still not acting independently.

Who appoints the commissioner?

It's a presidential appointment.

And Lester Crawford, who was commissioner when the decision to start a rulemaking process for Plan B was made, has since resigned.

He resigned suddenly and unexpectedly, and there's lots of speculation as to why, but I have no inside scoop. They've since appointed a new acting commissioner. He was Bush Sr.'s prostate doctor.

He was appointed by the current President Bush?

Yes, and he hasn't changed direction at all.

The FDA is not involved in national security or anything like that. Why does it seem to be such a shadowy organization? Why isn't this process more transparent?

A lot of the stuff is confidential because pending decisions can affect the stock market and insider trading. So there's a lot of regulation that prevents the FDA from talking about where it is in the process.

Critics of emergency contraception say that it could encourage unprotected sex, thereby increasing the likelihood of STD transmission. Is it the FDA's place to consider hypotheticals like this?

Yes, to some degree, they have to balance risk-benefits. But there have been studies done that show emergency contraception does not change sexual behavior or regular contraceptive use. So not only is there a lack of evidence of a problem, there's evidence to show it doesn't cause a problem.

American Life League Director Julie Brown says Plan B contains a chemical that can contribute to heart problems and blood clots. Do you know what chemical she's referring to?

She's referring to progestin, and yes, if you're taking it as hormone-replacement therapy every day it comes with associated risks. But this is one-time use. The vote on safety was unanimous. And American Life League, I'd point out, is opposed to all forms of contraception. People need to understand that a lot of the people who are against emergency contraception have made the same arguments against regular birth-control pills.

The U.S. Bishops Pro-Life Secretariat has said that Plan B can also be used as an abortion pill, after conception, by impeding the movement of the new embryo through the fallopian tube. Medically speaking, is this considered abortion?

Medically speaking, it is not considered abortion. Progestin is the same natural hormone that a woman's body produces while she's breastfeeding to help prevent her from getting pregnant. If you're comfortable with breastfeeding, you're comfortable with emergency contraception.

To Have and Have Not

When I was eleven, I went to visit my two girl cousins -- one a year younger, one a year older -- in Kent, Ohio. My aunt and uncle took us to the A&W drive-in, to a water park and to play mini-golf; in the backyard, we played wiffleball and stayed in the kiddie pool until it was dark, at which point we went inside, built forts and played dare-free games of Truth or Dare. Until then, I had never quite experienced wholesomeness. When I returned to Manhattan's East Village, where I had grown up reading Russian novels and stepping over bums on my way to school, I, so the story goes, bitterly greeted my parents by saying, "You didn't tell me that was going on."

This week, I went back to Northern Ohio for the first time in many years, to see if I could figure out what was going on at Timken Senior High School, where sixty-four of the 490 female students are pregnant. The numbers were teeming with potential: male students impregnating for sport, girls in a pregnancy cult, fertility drugs in the water.

A crotchety August 21 editorial in the Canton Repository started the media frenzy, condemning "faulty priorities." CNN found one girl who said that she knew about birth control, but just wanted a baby. A local Christian radio station, The Light, urged teenagers to keep their sexual feelings "asleep" by listening to gospel music rather than romantic pop songs. One of the station's personalities is the author of a book called Kissed the Girls and Made Them Cry: Why Women Lose When They Give In. The fact that an abstinence-only program is reportedly in place at Timken has not stopped such virginity promoters from pushing their own versions, which have names like "Stay Strong."

The principal of Timken Senior High School, Kim Redmond, announced that she had "no idea" what had contributed to the extremely high teen-pregnancy rate at her school. Naturally, websites from Daily Kos to Drudge pounced. "Maybe that's part of the problem," dozens of bloggers snickered. "Maybe those teen girls could show her."

It's been a national running joke for days. There was the too-perfect matter of the school's team name: the Trojans. Someone's already floated the idea for an "I couldn't get laid at Timken High" T-shirt. When I told the gawky young rental-car counterperson why I was in Ohio, he put his hands up and said, "I didn't do it." The more you look, the more accidental jokes there are. My favorite was the sermon title on a church sign directly across from the school: "The Nature of Doing it Again ... Again."

Canton is a third-tier industrial city that was briefly successful decades ago. The downtown area is decrepit and vaguely dangerous. On the main street, there are boarded-up buildings, stretches of trash-strewn grass, gas stations (Regular costs $3.09 a gallon), fast-food restaurants, churches and car dealerships. During the day, only a few people are walking along the main street at any time, and menace hangs in the air. During my three days there, men followed me through the streets several times. One pursuer stopped cold when he saw my notebook and asked if I was a caseworker. When he found out I wasn't, he hit on me.

Timken is one of two large schools in the city; the other is McKinley, which is set in a cozy tree-filled suburban neighborhood, right behind the Football Hall of Fame. Timken is set in an imposing, Germanic-looking building on the main street that runs through downtown. There are multiple outbuildings, including one very shiny new one.    

Tuesday was the first day of school. Roughly half black, half white and most relatively poor, a crowd of students poured into school wearing their best jeans and T-shirts (one showed a cartoon squirrel and had the caption "Protect Your Nuts"). Since the principal hadn't returned my calls or emails, I stopped by to see if I could make an appointment. I caught a glimpse of her practical haircut, matronly glasses and administrator jersey tucked into pants just before she started yelling at me. "I want this whole thing to be over!" she said. "I'm not going to talk to you, and I don't want you trying to talk to any of our students on the way out!" She then picked up the phone and spoke with someone about having me removed from the premises.

When I stopped crying (after writing for several years about people who are desperate for press, I'd forgotten what it's like to try interviewing people who really don't want to talk to you), I cut her some slack. It makes sense that she'd be defensive. To review: one in every eight girls, or more than 13%, of Timken's female population is pregnant. The national rate is 8 percent. In the U.S., teen-pregnancy rates have been steadily dropping since 1991, declining 30 percent between that year and 2002. This makes Timken a sexual reactionary among American high schools.

Several girls I met had left Timken this year because of all the pregnancies, creating a kind of "childless flight" that has had the same depressive effect "white flight" had on cities in the '70s. One girl named Kayla went to Timken for ninth grade and half of tenth grade, but transferred to a school in nearby Massillon this year. We had French-vanilla cappuccinos around the corner from her apartment complex, at the Variety's Restaurant where she'd recently applied for a part-time job.

"I didn't like seeing pregnant teenagers everywhere I turned," she said of Timken. Kayla is a good girl, bright and friendly. The last time she got in trouble at home -- where she's raised by a single mom and has two older brothers looking out for her -- was on a Sunday, when she broke her curfew, which is eleven p.m. "I was with my friend Jamie at the park. He went to kiss me, and I was all, no. Then the cops came by at one-thirty in the morning and brought me home. My mother said, 'Do I have to have an unexpected surprise nine months from now?' I was like, 'Ew.'" She says nothing happened in the park that night with her friend, and nothing would. "I still think boys have cooties," she said.

At Timken, Kayla wore a T-shirt approximately once a week that read, "Abortion is Homicide." It's a prevalent belief in Canton. When asked why everyone at Timken was pregnant, Kayla cited boredom and lack of alternatives. She also said that in the two years she was there, she received no sex education.

In the three days I spent stopping dozens of Timken students on the blocks around the school (sorry, Principal Redmond), at the nearby Burger King and at the two area malls (Canton Centre and Belden Village), I received confirmation of this from every student. At a recent press conference, school-district superintendent Dianne Talarico announced that Timken has offered abstinence-only education for the past few years. But the students I spoke with claim it has been implemented scarcely, if at all.

"We don't have sex ed," said one girl in an improbably tight T-shirt, point blank. "Sex ed? Oh, I think we talked about it in health class once," said her friend. "I heard you can go to Planned Parenthood, but no one does," said one of several students hanging out on benches at the mall; her friends nodded.

About Planned Parenthood: the organization has been persona non grata in the school district since 2002. It was not invited to participate in the Canton City Schools pregnancy task force, which was established last February. (Locals have known about the high pregnancy rate at Timken for at least the past year.) That may change. "I'm preparing to submit a grant proposal that -- if approved -- will allow us to implement our community-wide pregnancy prevention public awareness media campaign," said Joanne Green, the community relations coordinator of Planned Parenthood of Stark County. "We are hopeful and believe there is a strong community need for such a program."

But the group probably shouldn't hold its breath, especially given who's building those fancy new outbuildings at Timken High: the Timken family, industrialists made rich by the manufacture of machine-lubricating ball bearings. William R. Timken, Jr. delivered such a large swath of Ohio (and hundreds of thousands of dollars) to the Bush campaign that many in the community have said the Timkens were a -- if not the -- deciding force in the outcome of the 2004 election. President Bush made Mr. Timken the ambassador to Germany shortly thereafter.

After my non-meeting with Ms. Redmond, I went to calm down at the bleak Burger King around the corner. An American flag hung over white bricks; the general color scheme was beige on brown on beige. There, I met Steve Adams, the unofficial mayor of the neighborhood, who spends his days yammering over coffee with his elderly friends, some of whom appear to be homeless. He worked at the steel mill for thirty years and smoked crack before he found God and opened a Christian coffee shop called the Turnaround.

"Of course she threw you out," said Mr. Adams. "My sister teaches there. They're sick of hearing about it. The thing is with these girls, their parents don't want them around because they want to smoke the dope. So they give them money, and they go out and do whatever they want. These kids are out in the street at two, three in the morning. There's nothing to do in this town. You don't see too many stores. It's all restaurants and bars."

While his and others' claims about crack dealing and prostitution in Canton couldn't be confirmed, I can say that I was physically afraid even in a locked car when I swung by the nearby Canton Inn, rumored hub of trick-turning teenagers.

But neither Mr. Adams nor almost anyone else in the neighborhood evinced sympathy for the Timken teens. When I asked about the girls who are pregnant, I repeatedly heard: "They're dummies." (From a guy at a local Christian diner, not Steve Adams'.) "They don't protect themselves. They deserve what they get." (From a Dylan Kleboldish Timken student on the street.) "They just want attention." (From a very eyelinered Timken grad who works at the T-Mobile kiosk at the Belden Village Mall). "It's the atmosphere. They think it's okay."

At one of the malls, I asked a group of Timken students where I could find a pregnant girl to talk with. "Shouldn't be hard," they said, smugly. It was, I should confess now, exceedingly difficult. At the beginning and end of the school day, most students were herded directly off and onto buses, flanked by teachers. I was chased from the school grounds by security guards twice. Several students promised to help me find a girl to provide a face to the shocking statistics; none called me.    
At times, I felt like I was on another planet, one where I was a dangerous criminal and the predatory men were model citizens. At the Belden Mall, a security guard said he'd been looking for me. I'd been reported for taking pictures of the family portraits on the wall of the food court. He informed me that cameras were "against mall regulations."

"Sure," I said, putting my camera away, "but why?" "You might be a terrorist," the guard said, only partially joking.

In looking for Timken girls who were pregnant, it didn't help that big shirts and fast food are still fashionable in Ohio. I chased several Timkenites and hapless passers-by for blocks around the school in vain. At one point, I spotted a very pregnant girl as I was driving. By the time I parked, seconds later, she had disappeared. One mother told me over the phone that she would let her daughter speak with me -- for a substantial sum of money. I started to feel like a creepy old man with a perverse fetish.

Luckily, at the mall there was no shortage of Timken graduates or drop-outs who had babies. I met a nineteen-year-old named Kittie at Canton Centre, where she and her husband were shopping with two children in tow: one her sister's, the other her own. Kittie's eldest was starting kindergarten that day.

Kittie got pregnant when she was fourteen and a student at Timken. That was five years ago, before it was all the rage. She had a hard time. "My friends pretty much disappeared," she recalled on a mall bench. "They were young and could still have fun." She went to Timken's GRADS class, which taught parenting skills. Then she dropped out and started cleaning houses, which she still does while her husband takes care of the children. But she plans to one day become a pediatric nurse, and she doesn't regret anything. "I've got my own place," she said. "I've got my husband [they were married in April after seven years together]. I've got my beautiful kids. I'm pretty happy."

Kittie is, of course, not what all those recently omnipresent magazine articles and books advising early procreation have in mind. Sylvia Ann Hewlett just wants young urban professional women to get pregnant at twenty-two rather than forty-two. And as obnoxious as she and her ilk are, they still suggest women should actually want to get pregnant in the first place. "Wanting" doesn't seem to enter into the equation much in Canton -- they just don't not-want it bad enough to seek out information to prevent it from happening.

And it's no wonder apathy thrives. For fun, Timken students have the option of walking around one of the two malls, or up and down the main street, Tuscarawas West, which everyone calls "Tusc". The rained-out county fair, a few minutes' drive from Timken High, seemed like an excellent metaphor for life there. At the only place downtown with wi-fi access, my waitress said she'd never seen a laptop before, and stared at mine in wonder. None of the teens I spoke with had email addresses.

Passing the mall's China Max on Wednesday, I inadvertently interrupted a tender moment between the counterperson -- a pretty black-haired girl named Brandi -- and her all-American boyfriend Mike, who wore an Insane Clown Posse baseball cap backward and looked much younger than his twenty-four years. They were holding hands over the counter, deep in conversation, and looked completely in love. When they disengaged, I got some food and we chatted about Canton and New York, which they were eager to hear about. Finally, I asked them if they knew any pregnant Timken girls; they said they'd call me if they saw one.

I went over to eat in the food court. About ten minutes later, Mike came over and asked if he could sit down. He'd been thinking about something, he said. When he went to McKinley, his fifteen-year-old girlfriend got pregnant.

"I dropped out and was working three jobs to support the child," he said. "I know kids ain't ready emotionally or physically to raise children on their own. I know I wasn't, and I let my education slip because I made a couple of dumb decisions. It didn't even cross my mind to use condoms. Not until she was ..." He paused. "And I still didn't know how to react. I didn't even think it was real." Mike was sixteen. After all that, his girlfriend's parents banned him from their house and threatened to have him arrested if he tried to come back. "I haven't seen my son in a year," he said, and his eyes filled up with tears.

That night, I went back to Kent and stayed with my aunt and uncle. It was nice, with soft carpet and fresh sheets and the sounds of crickets and an occasional train whistle out the window.

My older cousin is now married and living in Cleveland, an hour from Canton. She and her husband are successful businesspeople. My younger cousin is also happily married to a terrific guy and living near her parents, thirty-five minutes from Canton, with three children. They represent the perfect realization of two paths into one's twenties: child-free and child-rich. The difference between them and, say, child-free Kayla and child-rich Kittie, is that my cousins chose their lives. They had good sex education, loving parents and water parks, and were able to control their futures. From what I can tell, most of the girls at Timken just fell into theirs, for better or more often worse.

Right before leaving to catch my plane, I made a last-ditch effort to meet a pregnant Timkenite. In the school parking lot, which I thought might be far enough away from the building to be fair game, I met a lovely curly-haired girl whose good friend was pregnant. We were chatting jovially when a security guard approached and threw me off the block, radioing my location to the other guards. As I climbed back in the car, four people with walkie-talkies streamed out of the building, heading toward me. The original security guard approached from the other direction.

Speeding away -- or trying to speed, in my impotent Kia Rio rental car -- from what I imagined might be jail time, I felt like a failure. I hadn't spoken to a single pregnant girl, as CNN had, and I didn't have the principal on record, as did the Canton Repository. But as some kind of campus vehicle with flashing lights turned back after following me for half a mile, my adrenaline subsided and I just felt relief that I would be back in New York soon. Timken High is a well-policed fortress; it's a shame the real threats -- politically motivated ignorance and soul-crushing boredom -- lie within its walls.

Learning Curves

Like most children of the '80s, I had received a reasonable sex education via pop culture by the age of 11. In fourth grade, I asked my mother what Darryl Hall was referring to when he sang "I Want to Play that Game Tonight," and laughed knowingly when she answered "Monopoly." I suffered eye strain from repeated late-night viewings of the Spice Channel and was a longtime aficionado of The Joy of Sex. Still, nothing quite prepared me for the copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves (OBOS) I found in my parents' basement.

It wasn't the detailed diagrams of the female reproductive system, or the drawings of six different types of hymens that captivated me. Nor was it the righteous, womyn-power assertions such as, "We are learning to live our sexuality on our own terms." No, it was the book's explicit, unflinching description of fantasies: real women revealing their most private erotic imaginings about horses (ew) other women (less ew) and men (totally awesome, as I may actually have said in 1986). I read the scenarios over and over in the privacy of my locked bedroom, until I finally left for college, where the logistics of living with a roommate promptly put an end to that.

The eighth edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves arrives in bookstores this month. Touted as one of the most lasting contributions of the second-wave women's movement, it has been called the definitive women's-health reference of the last 35 years. But ask the daughters of its original intended audience — the women who now call themselves the third wave — why they love it, and they'll confirm it wasn't the advice on healthy eating or bicep-building that mesmerized them in their youth.

"I definitely remember reading the sex parts, especially the lesbian parts, and being like, this is amazing, they're real people talking about sex," says Liza Featherstone, the author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights at Wal-Mart. "It must be like a teenage guy discovering Penthouse Forum. Except better, because these aren't stories about people having sex in airplanes that are probably made up. It must be the way that people experience amateur porn now."

It's true: reading OBOS isn't entirely unlike watching a jiggly, implant-free woman and her paunchy, real-life boyfriend wrestling naked in front of their home cam. The fantasies in OBOS weren't airbrushed, and neither were the people. And though one friend of mine claims that a childhood viewing of "the crazy picture of two fat lesbians, one of them in a wheelchair" led her to temporarily resolve that sex was absolutely, unequivocally grody to the max, most of us felt deeply, intuitively comforted by the knowledge that we could think our dirty thoughts and look like our less-than-centerfold-worthy selves and still get some action (eventually).    

Hell, you wouldn't even need a lover. (That's the book's very "Saturday Night Live"-sounding term, not mine.) In fact, OBOS picks up where Gloria Steinem's "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" maxim leaves off. Every edition devoted an entire section to sisters doing it for themselves, sexually speaking. From the story about the gym teacher who feels up her female students to the girl who imagines sleeping with her brother because he's "19 and groovy and looks just like me," OBOS provided plenty of things to think about while doing the deed. "I don't remember a lot about the rest of the book," says Marisa Meltzer, a freelance writer who was given OBOS by her mother one Christmas. "I was like, let's get back to the masturbation scenes."    

I'm pretty sure that when the book was first published in 1970, its feminist authors weren't attempting to recruit young ladies to their cause with a bait-and-switch -- get 'em with the sex stuff, then pump 'em full of women's lib. But it worked anyway.

"The book definitely politicized me," says Christine Cupaiuolo, online editor of Ms. magazine. "It made me more aware of the issues. It showed me a paradigm existed that I could work and live in." OBOS illustrated that women could (and should) march in defense of abortion rights, fight the inadequacy of the American health care system, and tell their husbands to shove it when they skipped the foreplay -- but still have a threesome or fantasize about being spanked. In the OBOS worldview, political action was an easy bedfellow of un-PC sex.    

And by inadvertently appealing to pre-pubescent girls' hormones, it provided a much-needed corrective. "One of feminism's jobs has always seemed to be about giving women sexual agency and acknowledging they're sexual people, and yet that's not feminism's identity," says Jennifer Baumgardner, the author of Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism. (The North Dakota native confesses to a penchant for a certain OBOS scenario involving a bathtub and warm running water. "It was cold in Fargo," she explains.) As far as OBOS readers knew, feminists weren't man-haters -- they seemed to love not just men, but also women, bondage, polyamory and water sports.    

And all this free-to-be sexuality wasn't just appealing to girls. "I was first exposed to naked women in Our Bodies, Ourselves, well before Playboy," says Mike Carnegie, a 30-year-old graduate student and artist in L.A. "So any titillation would have always been wrapped up in some kind of awareness of feminist body-image concerns." OBOS may have stealthily made a generation of men more feminist, though Carnegie isn't convinced his experience with OBOS was entirely positive. "On the dark side, it contributed to a kind of imperial guilt in my teens — like jerking off to natives in National Geographic." But he admits that when the time came, "I probably knew my way around a vagina better than I might've otherwise. Or so I like to think."    

To me, OBOS has exhausted its usefulness as a pornographic accessory. The scenarios don't give me the same spark they did, back when I wasn't just like a virgin. But the newest edition sits in an exalted position on my bookshelf, and not just because I'm nostalgic. Now, OBOS is what everyone says it's supposed to be: a kind, tender, essential how-to manual. The new edition covers all of the old sexual stuff, plus more recent health-care issues — there are sections on plastic surgery, antidepressants and menstrual suppression, not to mention a misguided anti-Brazilian-bikini-wax diatribe — but the fierce feminist analysis, nowhere to be found in the average reference book, remains.    

It's a good thing, because our sex lives may be even more embattled now. With TV gays making network execs rich while real-life queers can't even get a tax break, OBOS's loving -- and lusty -- depiction of lesbian sex, coupled with its explorations of institutionalized homophobia, remains nothing less than radical. And as abstinence-only advocates tout the value of technical virginity -- and their young charges comply by substituting unprotected oral or anal sex for vaginal intercourse -- OBOS continues to provide comprehensive sex education without a hint of compromise.

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