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!"


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.

Behind Closed Doors

Comic artist Marjane Satrapi's Embroideries is a bawdy love letter, a work on a smaller, more intimate scope than her previous books, Persepolis and Persepolis 2, which were set against the backdrop of two revolutions -- Iran's Islamic revolution, and the West's sexual one. The first book featured Satrapi's young alter ego grappling with the hypocrisy of a movement that promised freedom but brought oppression. In the second, the teenaged Marjane struggles through ill-fated romances and brutal xenophobia in Europe before she seeks solace in Iran -- but once home, she finds the Islamic Republic's sexual repression intolerable as well. She returns, ultimately, to the West -- an exile who cannot purge her passion, animosity and hopes for her homeland from her artistic imagination.

Embroideries returns to that home, taking place over one long afternoon as Satrapi's women relatives and friends drink tea and talk over a favorite subject -- sex. Embroideries is an X-rated (and actually entertaining) version of The View -- one where grandmothers, mothers, and granddaughters talk about hymen restoration, the virtues of being a mistress, and the questionable aesthetic value of the penis.

In Embroideries, Satrapi documents the ways in which strong-willed women in Iran have fought back -- in secretly gleeful silence or through overt rebellion -- against misogynistic traditions and piggish men. The book is also a celebration of these women's resilience, their tough-mouthed, tender-hearted talk over tea. Satrapi spoke with me on the phone about geriatric sex, the appeal of the ass, and the promise of young women in Iran today.

Noy Thrupkaew: How did Embroideries come about?

Marjane Satrapi: Embroideries is appearing in America after Persepolis 1 and 2, but I made it between those books. Persepolis was a heavy story -- I had to remember unpleasant things, and had in my mind a mission to teach people about my country, because there has been so much misunderstanding. So I really needed a moment of joy, just joy -- and I wrote about this afternoon that I spent with women of different generations. I really loved the stories the women told me. I don't know if they are made up or true. I don't think it matters. They made me laugh so much I just wanted to share them.

It's very interesting how women make use of gender segregation in Iran -- which definitely can have its disadvantages -- to create such a powerful and private space for themselves.

It has always been like that. Even before the Islamic Republic, we were always a very traditional country. When you have such strong traditions, you have very extreme reactions. In such societies, discussion between the women is the space for freedom. These stories don't present a complacent point of view about women, that they are all suffering, oh my god. They're not victims. And I refuse it completely, I hate that image. Even in the worst days under the Islamic Republic, I never saw myself as a victim. We always have the choice to do something else, to make a parallel life.

And part of that parallel life seems to be these talks over tea. No matter where we are in the world, women will get together and talk about sex.

Absolutely. And so do the men. But the women go more into the details. A woman will tell you about every corner, every inch.

Yes, they certainly do in your book, even saying the penis is ugly. What do you think about the penis, as an artist?

It's not so special. Other parts of the body are more interesting to draw. The penis is not photogenic, I would say. [Laughs]

What other parts are more photogenic?

I like very much the breasts, the shoulders, the neck, whatever leads to the head. Actually, a nice ass is beautiful, too, a continuation of the leg. A continuation of the balls is nothing, just a hole. And then that thing hanging. [Laughs]

Did you have opportunities to draw nice asses in school?

Oh yes, there were many asses. Well, not in Iran. When I went to school in France, we could draw nudes. But when you draw, you become like a doctor, these things don't have any sexual connotation anymore. All you think about is a matter of proportion, just a part of the body.

If you have this sort of scientific detachment, how do you draw something erotically?

Actually, I haven't drawn anything erotically, except maybe one image in my most recent book, which will be published in the States in 2006. I am a little bit too shy for this kind of thing. For me, words are just air. I can say dickdickdickdick! But when I draw, it becomes much more real. Telling is nothing. I was brought up by a grandmother for whom these kinds of words were like hello and goodbye. Even though she never read any Freud, everything had a sexual connotation, which is very funny, especially coming from the mouth of an old woman -- it is ten times better. That's why my grandmother is the central character in the book -- she is the most sexual. She was around 78 at the time, and she was the one who laughs the most. I wanted to show how women of all ages are interested in sex. In Europe it is different, people are sexual only until they are 45. After that, talking about the sexuality of older people is almost like committing a sin!

Why do you think that is?

In Western society, people don't want to face the idea of death. Society is very high-tech -- we shouldn't die, but we do it anyway. So we don't want to see the procedure of getting old, dying, and the suffering in between. We put old people in hospices: you go in, then you disappear. I think that's very specific to Western society. All this plastic surgery, everyone wanting to look young, is very sick to me. Not admitting that you're going to get old is not admitting that you are going to die, not admitting that you're just a human being.

As for the young people, on news reports, they always talk about the young teenagers who commit crimes. A society that is scared of its adolescents and rejects old people is a society that doesn't want to look at its past and is scared of its future. Every two seconds on TV [you hear that] if you don't have sex five times a week with your husband or boyfriend, you're fucked up. But after a certain age, it becomes perverted? We always have sexual needs. Of course, you can't perform the same when you're 60 or 70, but you're not dead yet.

Is sexuality among older people more accepted in Iran?

In Iran, sex is not considered something bad. A woman can complain if a man doesn't satisfy her. If you read the original version of One Thousand and One Nights, they are fucking everywhere. I mean, you have the robbers and the flying carpet and all of that, but basically, it's full of sex.

People might be surprised to hear that Iran might have more progressive notions about sexuality.

In Iran, you don't need a prescription to get contraceptives. It costs almost nothing. There isn't really this feeling of guilt about the idea of abortion, even though it's not something the law permits you to do. All the friends of my mother have had abortions. Many of my friends have had them.

What do you make of sigheh [a Shi'a "temporary marriage"]?

Well, that means they can marry a woman for one or two hours. If you are a virgin girl, your father has to give you permission. But if you are married and then divorced, you don't need a witness. You can be his wife for one day, or three hours, or a quarter of an hour, depending on what you want to do, of course.

Some critics say it's just prostitution without the economic exchange.

You could say that, but imagine a woman who is divorced or a widow, and she wants to have a sexual affair and doesn't want to feel guilty towards her God -- that makes it possible.

It's interesting how you're reframing it -- most of what I've read about sigheh talks about the benefit for the man.

All these points of view completely forget the pleasure of the woman. If the woman can also have pleasure in the sexual act, it can also be freedom. To be honest, in most of the sigheh cases, it is the man who has the woman. But a sexual thing is made by two people. If it isn't, yes, it could be rape or prostitution. But if you like him, you can also have satisfaction.

It's clear in your work, however, that women's choices and pleasure exist concurrently with societal, economic and governmental control over their sexuality.

Absolutely. The day we can say that we are civilized is the day when women can have the same relationship to their sexuality that men can. If we could share the notion of satisfaction, we could be equal toward the notion of pain as well.

Why is it so important for fundamentalists -- and not just in Iran -- to control women's bodies?

Well, in all societies, the base of fundamentalism comes from a patriarchal schema. When half of a society feels they are better than the other half just because they have penises and balls ... you have big trouble from the second the man says, "I am the man, which means I am the leader of the family and decide everything." Big things start with the small things. If we don't have any equality in the family, how can we have a society of justice?

Your book has universal appeal, but is also very immersed in the context of Iran and gender relations in that country. What would ideal gender relations look like in Iran?

They are already starting to happen. Twenty years ago, the thought of a girl living on her own without her parents, or with her boyfriend, was unimaginable. But now I know people who do it. Two-thirds of Iranian students are women -- that is going to change things. In the past, most women weren't educated, didn't have jobs. You have all these rights, but what happens to you when you have been living with the same guy for fifteen years, and no education, no job? You stay with him even if you don't want to, because you are economically dependent on him. But these days, women have education and jobs. And in 20 years, when the law changes, not only will we have the law but we will be able to use it, because we have everything we will need to do so -- economic independence and education. As for our patriarchal macho society, who brings up the children? The mother. The woman makes her son macho, calls him doudoul tala or "golden penis." If this woman is educated, maybe she will bring up a son who is less macho. For me, the education of women is the key -- sexually, intellectually, professionally.

Persepolis 2 has quite a strong critique of the sexual revolution of the West and the sexual repression in Iran. I noticed that you often draw both Iranian fundamentalists and naked Western people without heads or eyes. Why is that?

Because it's the same kind of intolerance, I think. The debate about the veil -- I am not a religious person, all my life I've been fighting against it. But I can imagine that someone might want to put a veil on. To say that a woman cannot wear it is the same as saying she has to wear it. You cannot just forbid or force someone to do something. From the point of view of some Westerners, the woman who wears a veil isn't worth anything. But to sell orange juice or cars, you have to show a pair of breasts? Isn't that also another kind of veil for women? Isn't nakedness veiling what they really are?

But the women in your book clearly embrace their attractiveness also.

Of course! Me too! God has given me nice breasts for me to show, so I can be attractive. Otherwise, why would God have given them to me? All the men like to watch, and personally, I like to watch men's asses. A well-made ass is always cute to look at, no? God has made it, and God has given me eyes, so I look. [Laughs] It is very good!

I completely agree. Thank you, Marjane. It was a pleasure.

For me, as well. You know, talking about sex and pussy is always a joy for me.

In the Empire of the Obscene

Eric Schlosser's first book, "Fast Food Nation," split the to-go industry wide open, exposing everything from how the taste of french fries is designed to mask the fecal matter in the kitchen sink. En route to the New York Times bestseller list, the book became a minor miracle of viral marketing: what was essentially a 400-page investigative report became a fixture on every 25-year-old's reading list. His new book, "Reefer Madness," is less exhaustive but equally essential reading. In three pieces originally written for The New Yorker and The Atlantic, Schlosser takes a similarly deconstructive look at three products of the American black market: pot, porn and migrant labor. The titular section on marijuana is drawn from two Atlantic articles that won the National Magazine Award, and it's easy to see why: In prose that's pointed but immaculately researched, Schlosser scores a massive takedown with nothing blunter than the facts, outlining the absurdity of mandatory minimum sentences and offering surprising facts about suppliers (specifically, who they are).

In "An Empire of the Obscene," which recently appeared in The New Yorker, Schlosser traces the American porn industry back to one man unknown to most of us. At one point in the '60s, Reuben Sturman was the largest distributor of pornography in the United States, responsible for bringing dirty mags into Shop 'N' Go and obscenity law to the national stage. (His tactic, shocking for the time: When the government tried to bust him on obscenity charges, Sturman actually fought back). As portrayed by Schlosser, he's a trailblazing entrepreneur of ambiguous character -- part freedom fighter, part tax cheat who shipped hundreds of thousands of dollars overseas to avoid government detection. (Sturman's lawsuit against J. Edgar Hoover led to his ultimate apprehension on tax charges.) In presenting the story of Sturman and the FBI agent who worked for 15 years to bring him down, Schlosser cracks open the kaleidoscopic history of obscenity law (which was, amazingly, almost overturned by the Warren Court of the '70s), and comes up with some shocking and surprising conclusions about the past, present and future of porn, and our place in it.

As an investigative reporter delving into issues like porn and pot and ultimately coming up critical of predominant institutions, to what extent do you consider yourself an activist?

You know, I try not to be in my writing. It's a weird thing. I definitely start out with a basic foundation of being concerned about social issues, period, and trying to be socially aware. That's just how I try to be as a person. There are doctors, lawyers, bus drivers who are that way. But I'm really not trying to write agitprop, and I'm not trying to mold my writing into preconceived views that I have. With all these subjects -- prisons, pot -- I honestly start off from a place of incredible ignorance. One of the great pleasures of the work is trying to figure out what's going on, and immersing myself in the material. And as I'm researching and reading and reporting, then I start figuring out what I think about it. And I try to write it in a way that's complex, that isn't simplistic and schematic, that isn't dogmatically, you know, calling people names. I'm trying to make people think about these issues rather than give them my perceived wisdom on it.

I think in this book, I rant a little more. As an investigative journalist, I'm trying to let the facts speak for themselves. But when I'm not going to write about a subject anymore, yeah, then I become an activist. There are certain issues in "Fast Food Nation" that I really care about, that I don't plan to write about, and I'm trying to work as an activist on. And I think out of "Reefer Madness," I'll speak out and be more of an activist about farmworker issues and maybe, to a lesser extent, the decriminalization of marijuana. But as a writer? I feel like, for me, I'd rather be intellectually honest, complex and allow people to come to their own conclusions than write a manifesto.

I'm trying to get people to wake up. The epigram that starts "Reefer Madness" may be kind of pretentious -- it's from Horace -- but my translation is, "Dare to know." Another translation of the same quote is, "Dare to think for yourself." That's my own philosophy, and that's what I'm trying to do with my writing. I don't feel like I have all the answers, but if I can just get people to think about things and make them aware it's even happening, then that's the achievement for me. But I do think that, in this book, my own passion or anger maybe slipped out more than in the last one.

You seem drawn to subjects that seem to think for themselves: marijuana growers, Reuben Sturman.

Well, Nina Hartley fits that category too. She's so insightful about her work that I thought, this woman's voice should be heard. It's heard on film, but not in the articulate, complete sentences she speaks in. She has a very formidable mind.

What was your experience with porn before you started researching the article: were you a connoisseur?

Well, I like to think I'm not a prude, but I wasn't a porn-hound either. My own aesthetic sense couldn't really connect to 99.9 percent of the mainstream porn I'd seen. Most porn to me is the sexual equivalent of watching wrestling on TV.

That's kind of a great metaphor.

It's a caricature, these exaggerated bodies. It's fake in the same way that TV wrestling is fake. It's bad acting . . . it's just bad. I had seen porn before, because I was a teenager in the '70s. I'm not putting it down at all. For people who really like it, to each his own. But to me, the simulated experience just wasn't as interesting as the real experience. It's like, some people like to watch baseball; some think it's fun to play baseball. I wasn't opposed to it, but in the realm of things that occupied a lot of my time and energy, it just wasn't high on my list.

Did you know how the industry worked?

I didn't know much about the industry at all. I don't know which statistic I'd heard, but somebody said something about porn being a multibillion-dollar industry, and I just thought, "Where's all the money?" I've heard of Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century Fox, but where did this industry come from? We're in a time of a free market and a very moralistic government, so I thought there was something subversive in looking at porn just as a commodity, as a business, and not even going near the debates over its ethics or from the feminist point of view. I wanted to look at the industry as an expression of the free market, yet something the free marketers despise.

How did you reconcile hating the product with celebrating the free market?

I don't want to put myself up there as a porn snob and put down things that other people love. But I visited a porn set, and I couldn't think of anything less erotic than that. For me, the most interesting porn I saw was some of the really old stuff. There were moments when it really felt like something deeply taboo was being shattered. Maybe the people doing it were really sad and desperate people, but maybe some of them were really rebellious. And I mean "rebellious" beyond what it is to be in porn today. There wasn't the money, there wasn't the fame and the demimonde. There were no dates with rock stars. Some moments of black-and-white porn were interesting, and, I think that in some contemporary porn that isn't totally scripted and clinically lit like it could be a sex-education video, there are moments of passion that somehow slip through. But most of the porn that's being made and produced is just incredibly bad and misogynistic and not subversive at all.

But writing about porn as a commodity, and believing in the freedom of adults to do what they want behind closed doors, is not to be celebrating the mainstream porn industry by any means. I try to make that distinction.

Does porn create economic good?

Well, it's a business. It employs a lot of editors and cameramen who are between gigs. Some women -- a very small number of women -- are able to better themselves financially. But I'm not going to defend it from an economic point of view. Nina Hartley is Nina Hartley, but the sex workers I've met, by and large, were women with substance-abuse issues who had, you know, damaged childhoods. They're the standard for me. I'm not saying they shouldn't be doing it. I'm not going to judge them. But I just don't know if most women who are in porn are going to look back and be proud of it, and not be even more damaged by it. So I'm not going to celebrate it as an economic activity.

I don't think it should be banned or forbidden, and there are definitely strong, independent women who are in control of their bodies and their behavior and their bank accounts who are doing very well and will be okay. But there are also 19-year-old chicks who have just done too much blow, and the industry will churn them up. I think 18 is too young to do porn. Maybe I'm getting too old -- I'm 43 -- but I make that point in the book. As an 18-year-old woman in California, you can't buy beer, but you can have sex with 15 men onscreen. So . . . I don't know. These are complicated issues, and ultimately women have to decide for themselves what they're going to do with their bodies and with whom.

You write that at various times, various agencies and commissions have recommended that obscenity laws be thrown out, and that conservative governments have repeatedly moved to stifle their findings. I thought it was interesting that obscenity laws were originally designed to protect conservative areas of the country from more liberal ones, but it turned out that conservative communities are trying to impose their views on the rest of the nation.

Yeah, that was one of the original Supreme Court interpretations of it. The Court was on the verge of overturning the obscenity laws under Chief Justice Warren. In Stanley v. Georgia, they said it was legal to possess it. The next step was that it was legal to produce and distribute it. But obscenity -- how do you define it? It's impossible to define, and that's why it shouldn't be a crime. You've got to be very specific about what's out of bounds.

You explored the obscenity trial of Phil Harvey, the president of Adam & Eve. Ultimately, the jury -- these very conservative North Carolinians, some of them churchgoers -- voted to acquit him. They said, the "government is trying to dictate too much of what we see."

Most Americans would have no problem with hardcore pornography, as long as it's not shoved in their faces. And I think that's a very grown-up attitude. There's a small group of very well-motivated, very well-funded people who want to ban it for everyone else. In order to do that during the last pornography crackdown, they had to come up with all these creative means to put these companies out of business, because they couldn't get juries to convict them.

I found it weird and sort of great that Larry Flynt might be the voice of reason in all of this. His theory is that if pornography were legalized, the porn industry would shrink. You discuss how that actually happened in Denmark. Do you really think that could translate to the U.S.?

If you go to Scandinavia, Denmark, the Netherlands, they're just more grown up about these things. There's porn, but it's just part of life. Sexuality is just part of life. They have much lower rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. You have to keep in mind that America was founded by Puritans, but we were also founded by nonconformists and rebels and dissidents from all throughout Europe -- the people who didn't fit in came here. So you've got this Puritan tradition, and you've got this rebellious tradition. You've got a lot of Founding Fathers who were rebellious in their personal lives and their political views. It was amazingly rebellious to oppose kings. And those two parts of America are just constantly at odds with one another. And they're often at odds within one person. Thank you, Bill Bennett.

What's interesting is that the old-time government porn crackdowns that you described -- the raids -- are continuing. Police are rounding up distributors and seizing material. Adam "Seymour Butts" Glasser was involved in a lengthy trial; another smaller porn distributor was raided in California a few months ago. Do you think the government will ever be successful, on a wide scale, in enforcing obscenity laws and shutting down producers on specific, obscenity-related charges?

I think it's unlikely now that AOL Time Warner, Marriott, Hilton, Comcast and other very big companies are making many millions of dollars from porn. Taking them on is very different than taking on Adam Glasser. The government will crack down on the margins, and they'll crack down on material they think is "pushing it" in terms of content, but mainstream, Vivid-style, world-wrestling-type porn, I think, is here to stay. It's a huge corporate commodity. It's very different from hounding one man. But we'll see. Ashcroft would love to do it: he covered up the statue of justice. I've always wondered why he did it -- I guess he saw this topless chick with a blindfold on and didn't know what that was about.

If you had ultimate power, what would you do?

I don't know; my own views on porn are not totally libertarian. In the book, I suggest that the Nixon Commission on obscenity and pornography really had the best solution. The current solution is not a good one. Even Larry Flynt will say that he wouldn't publish some of the stuff on the internet. Controlling access to children is a real problem. I've got kids, and I don't think intense stuff should be easily viewed by children. But what the Nixon commission wanted to do was basically overturn the obscenity laws and say, "Okay, we're going to get rid of the idea of obscene. There's no notion of obscenity; we're not going to restrict what's bought and sold. Adults can have it, but children can't, and people who are offended by it shouldn't have it forced on them." So if I had total power, I would get rid of the obscenity laws. I would strictly prohibit a small group of things like child pornography, violent pornography, porno involving bestiality -- because we don't know if animals are consenting to that, and it's really disgusting -- and then limit how it's sold. I'd let anyone post on the internet, but have them put a code in there, so parents can buy a filter and their kids aren't downloading pictures of sex with barnyard animals.

Things would have been so much better if the anti-pornography zealots had just allowed that commission's recommendations to be carried out. We would have had a much more rational, civilized way of dealing with porn. For example, a newsagent here in New York City has hardcore films right behind the counter. I'm not crazy about bringing my kids in there. So I would say cover it up, but if an adult wants to buy that stuff, I say buy six. We've wound up in a really weird gray area, and I think the obscenity laws should just be taken off the books.

The FBI investigation led by Rosfelder -- the agent who spent 15 years trying to bring down Reuben Sturman -- seemed to be a tremendous waste of resources, no?

I felt otherwise. Rosfelder was a good guy, and not an antiporn zealot. I mean he's not a big porn fan, but he was motivated by a very All-American dislike of rich people not paying their taxes. He was a criminal investigator for the IRS going after tax cheats, and he managed to nail the biggest tax cheat in American history. Reuben should have paid his taxes, and he didn't, he should have been a lot more clever about it and not tried to extort money from anyone. I think the interesting thing about Sturman as a figure is that he started out as an upper-middle-class businessman who had his eyes opened to obscenity law and wanted to fight the good fight. But I think the power he accumulated became a corrosive thing. By the end, it's almost like the guy from Scarface -- without killing anybody, he had done things evocative of an organized-crime leader. It was more the FBI-obscenity part of it that I think was a waste of money.

I came away liking Sturman. If the government hadn't tried to shut him down almost from day one, he wouldn't have needed to be secretive about his books and finances.

Well, Sturman created the seeds of his own downfall when he tried to sue J. Edgar Hoover in 1954. He became a top priority of the FBI from that point on. You've got to keep in mind the hubris of doing that. That was the height of J. Edgar Hoover's power. This was the most powerful man in America, and he sued him! What's amazing is how close Reuben Sturman came to beating the federal government. I mean, the federal government is huge and massive and powerful. It's amazing how long he successfully fought them off.

Do you really think that porn will eat itself? Will the brave new world of porn really reduce the need for professionals who produce it?

I think the porn industry is shrinking right now. I think the industry is in trouble. The mainstream porn companies have a big problem, they really do. Look what's happened to Playboy and Penthouse and Hustler. It's tough to make money now because of the internet. In terms of dollar value, I don't think the industry is going to grow hugely, although more people will have access to the material.

Of course: now everyone can download and even produce sexual content of themselves, often for free, and amateur stuff is incredibly popular. The individual is the new pornographer.

Let me give you the pessimistic view of porn, and perhaps the optimistic view. I think that in terms of annual revenues, the porn industry is going to decline, just because it's going to be harder and harder to figure out how to make money off of porn. And maybe I'm overly optimistic, but I think that as the screws loosen, the porn is going to get a lot better. It'll be much more interesting.

In the '70s, Hollywood was moving in that direction and got terrified of it. But I think more interesting filmmakers are going to feel more comfortable doing more sexually explicit stuff, and so maybe you'll have less porn but better porn, in a weird way. To me, it's like fast food. Mainstream porn is to sex as fast food is to real food.

Do you see a connection between migrant labor and porn performers?

Well, I see the connection, and then I'll make the distinction. At the very end of the porn piece, I talk about Roman entertainment and how the destruction of the performers was just part of the show. I think that when you're watching mainstream porn, you are watching some people self-destruct on screen. It's the same way that when you're eating fresh produce, you're often eating food that has involved someone's exploitation. The difference is that 99.999% of porn performers have other options. They're more willingly putting themselves into that position than a lot of farmworkers, who are extraordinarily limited in how they can put food on the table. These porn workers -- you know, there's a lot of dignity to being a good waitress.

Of course, the distinction is huge. But a fairly recent L.A. Times article found that there are more regulations protecting animals on film sets than porn stars. I'm curious why you concentrated on the head honchos of porn, and not the efforts of sex workers to unionize and the hazards they face. It would be like writing the migrant-worker article and focusing on the industrialists.

That's a good point. For me, the story of Sturman, and the structure and the history of the underlying economics of the porn industry really hadn't been told. There had been a lot more written on porn stars; in fact, a really good book was written by a guy named Ian Gittler called "Pornstar." And, so, looking at it, I just felt that this was the institutional history of an industry. But, look, I think someone could write a great book on the performers and their efforts to build a better life.

Michael Martin is the editor-in-chief of

How to Make a Slut

I wasn't a slut in high school, but if I had stuck around my small town after graduation, I would have become one. It doesn't take much in Belle River, a working-class town one hour outside of Detroit. A bit of coke in the guys' bathroom at your best friend's wedding, one giggly blowjob in the back of the rented limo, and the next time you'd stop into Edna's for a coffee, wankers you'd given handjobs to in tenth grade would be coughing "whore" into their napkins. You had to get out, or you'd end up like the girls in the new HBO movie "Hysterical Blindness," which airs throughout September.

As directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding), Uma Thurman and Juliette Lewis are those kind of sluts. Thurman, who executive produced, plays Debby, a town catch at 20 who remains uncaught at almost 30. She has become a sad fixture at Ollie's, a bar in Bayonne, New Jersey. Like Lily Bart in Edith Wharton's House of Mirth, Debby has been so long in the same town, in the same company, that she has lost most of her innocence and youth (both finite, but necessary, qualities for Bayonne's brides-to-be to possess). She also loses her eyesight spontaneously whenever contemplating that reality. Although lesser actresses might resort to the same old tricks, Thurman portrays Debby sympathetically. As someone who's been cruelly picked over, she looks exhausted, and so tarty it's as though the costume designer took an Uma Thurman goddess suit, dipped it in a vat of sadness, rubbed it in Jersey disappointment, squeezed out excess desperation and zipped it back on.

Juliette Lewis is equally compelling as the trashy barfly Beth, Debby's best friend and single mother to a 10-year-old. Debby's and Beth's features have a patina of pathetic '80s authenticity: Wonky hair, amateurishly feathered, is anxious to defy gravity but fails miserably. Eyeliner bleeds in a slightly clownish, maniacal way. Rubber bracelets and unicorn charms feel talismanic, infused with tacky superstition, and serve as a reminder that the '80s were a rough time for yearbook photos.

It was also a peculiar decade for feminism, which seemed to be in complete ideological stagnation. Camille Paglia, Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf had yet to become feminista media darlings. That's why Madonna, in all her sexual arrogance, was such a revelation; girls just wanted to have fun.

Although "Hysterical Blindness" is ostensibly a movie about friendship and hope, it also demonstrates how certain circumstances, particularly rampant in Reagan's America, gave birth to the modern slut: the gum-snapping Madonna wannabe with a heart of glass, not gold, someone never played by Molly Ringwald. In the auto town where I come from, to make a slut, you would take one part common beauty, add high-school popularity and a distracted mother, then remove the father suddenly and entirely. Fold in financial insecurity and a rudimentary public education. Top it off with a V8 engine, a latchkey and booze, and you get the Debbys and Beths, the sad good-time girls. They're so low on the class rung that their need for rescue oozes out of every pore and limp curl.

It's the same neediness Lily Bart tried desperately to conceal in turn-of-the-century New York. She knew that teetering on the brink of poverty, with marriage her only solution, made her a target for women in a similar jam, and for the few men with the resources to save her.

Watching Uma Thurman cling to her one-night stand for dear life, I'm reminded how far women haven't really come. Dark parts of us still believe in matrimonial rescue, which is why I couldn't help but root for Debby every time she traipses out of the bar with some "lucky" guy.

Much of "Hysterical Blindness" could have taken place in 2002, and in a way, it does. Occasionally "Sex and the City" allows us a fleeting glimpse into its characters' deepest fear: remaining single, or, more accurately, unloved by a man. But Nair's film goes further, showing how female friendship becomes precarious in competition.

In "Blindness," even the paired-off girls at Ollie's are anxious for Debby and Beth to meet and mate. The two of them are dangerous, not just because they've slept with the other women's fiances, but because nothing's stopping them from doing it again when the men become husbands bored with their wives. Debby and Beth's personal relationship is equally volatile. Their friendship often depends on their mutual failure to survive. Both must remain equally mired in self-pity and rejection for the other to feel empathy. Debby's resentment of Beth's daughter is constantly apparent; watching Beth's child and adult friend compete for her limited attention is one of the most heartbreaking and ruefully hilarious aspects of the film.

Perhaps the most important element in the formation of the modern slut is the town itself. Towns that breed sluts were generally blue-collar Meccas like Bayonne, New Jersey or Detroit, but trickle-down economics sent a lot of good jobs south, and some men went along with them. Women who had never been allowed to take advantage of better-paying work remained, their shabby Candies mired in their man's muddy tire tracks. Often, as in Beth's case, a snotty toddler was left straddling their waists. What sometimes followed was a mad dash for the altar with any leftover guy; those snotty toddlers grew up to be adolescent girls with far too many "uncles." Or in the case of Beth's daughter, Amber Autumn, they must finish the job of raising their own adolescent-minded mothers, who cursed them with ridiculous names lifted from bodice-ripper paperbacks.

Hysterical blindness, the film points out, is a mental condition that can occur in times of stress. Although too much is made of Debby's inability to "really see" herself -- a heavy-handed metaphor -- director Nair's use of light is more successful. Debby's mother's courtship with a gentle retiree is conducted in the mornings, with sun streaming through the kitchen window, making their affection for each other impossible to hide. Debby's flings are cloaked and dimly lit, her drunken fumblings almost too difficult for even the camera to watch. When she's about to reluctantly give a blowjob, the camera cuts to an angle from the next room.

These days, it is vogue to paint sexually rapacious women as powerful and in control of their bodies. Sex and the City's Samantha Jones is not "pathetic," we're led to believe; she just fucks like a guy. But perhaps she dodges the label because she is portrayed as having more money than the men she sucks off. Samantha has options and no small-town eyes upon her. But if you add poverty and a couple extra pounds, she'd be a different kind of pathetic altogether. Seeing the expression on Debby's face the morning after a one-night stand when she literally squeezes her eyes shut against the image made me sick with guilt for the times I judged girls like Debby in the women's restroom, brusquely washing my hands while they applied mascara next to me. Debby's life is no different than mine was. I grew up working class, raised by a single mother, both of us anxious for me not to repeat her mistakes. I went to that kind of bar, knew girls who hung out at the CanAm Tavern, the Riviera Bar, the Alexander Inn. Every summer break from university, when lining up to have a beer in an old haunt, I smugly noted that my options were expanding in inverse proportion to theirs.

A hundred years ago, a woman with no options was the worst kind of woman to be. Lily Bart committed suicide because she knew that a slut, unlike a whore, doesn't enjoy the sick luck of being paid by men who would probably fuck and leave her anyway. Back then, her New York City was a small town. Samantha Jones's New York City is not. But men still have all the power in places like Bayonne and Belle River. That's why I left. And although "Hysterical Blindness" is set 15 years ago, I would venture to guess that life in a town like Bayonne hasn't really changed at all.

Lisa Gabriele is a writer and TV producer. Her first novel, "Tempting Faith DiNapoli," was recently published by Simon and Schuster.

Trials of a Gay-Seeming Straight Male

I am sitting on her lap as she plays with my hair. I've got a longish late-70s do, and the strands are blond and baby-fine. She runs her fingers through them, massages my scalp.

She is a beautiful girl, probably sixteen, with white poreless skin, full eyebrows, a disarming stare and the naturally red lips for which Snow White was famed. At our performing arts school, run by a renowned theater in the Midwest, we wear black karate pants and gray t-shirts with a bluebird on the front, but she has cut a small V in the neck of her shirt. It's thanks to the V and the way her arms are raised to work on my scalp and the angle at which she is holding my head and the fact that she isn't wearing a bra that I can see her breasts, study them, without worrying that I'll be caught.

Her voice is smoker-gravely and she speaks with flawed grammar and an ease with profanity that to my suburban ears is very cool.

"Leif, you're not going to be one of them, are you?"

I laugh, it tickles.

"Huh? Are you? Leif? Listen to me. Promise me. You're not . . . won't . . . be gay. Promise me."

I turn back to her. Inside the shirt, her nipples have stiffened, extended.

My cheeks flush deeply, feverishly.

"I promise."

I am apparently not the straightest-seeming guy you could ever meet. I don't know what it is about me -- my pierced ears and pageboy haircut, perhaps, or maybe I'm just too clean. For whatever reason, my heterosexuality is frequently called into question. It happens all of the time. A total stranger will approach me, usually in a straight bar, and say "My friends wanted to know if you're gay or straight?" I feel like I'm in a Kafka novel as adapted for the screen by Woody Allen. How am I to respond? If I say I'm straight, isn't that exactly what George Michael used to say? And if I indicate that I am a practicing heterosexual, won't they then assume that I am headed toward an inevitable sexual epiphany, akin to the great John Cheever's? Most recently I joked, "I'm totally straight, but I can't resist sucking the occasional cock." It certainly ended the conversation.

When I told a good female friend I was writing about the topic of my misunderstood sexuality she said without a second's hesitation, "Oh yeah, everyone thinks you're gay." To the best of my knowledge I'm straight, but the question is hurled at me so frequently that I'm beginning to think everyone knows something I don't.

Sometimes, if there's a point, I'm willing to go along and play gay. Last summer, I was doing research in a Carnegie library in a small Midwestern town, a place best known for hosting the national lumberjack championships, when I noticed an adolescent boy between rows of books fixating on me. Taking in his delicate features, ivory skin and black clothes, I thought to myself, town loner, doesn't yet know he's gay, feels a connection with the effeminate stranger.

Not wanting to interrupt my work, I was relieved when he disappeared. Fifteen minutes later, though, he was back and bearing a gift. Blushing to his ears, he presented me with a scalding café latté from the town's new and only gourmet coffee joint. There was no point in explaining the misunderstanding, so while I drank the coffee, we cryptically discussed the difficulties of being different, talked around the terrifying subject. Gay-and-understanding-me encouraged him to hang on until eighteen and then get the hell out of town.

Until being sworn to heterosexuality by that suburban Snow White, the possibility that I might be gay never even occurred to me. I'd always had girlfriends -- from the vixen in first grade who, after some discussion, let me go so far as kissing her index finger, to the girlfriend in seventh grade who sanctioned a visit to "second base." I spent more time wondering if I was a vampire.

Only in high school, when a trusted older friend and homosexual told me, "One morning you just wake up and you know," did I start to suspect that homosexuality was not a question of choice. This was an explosive, frightening thought, with one unavoidable implication: I might be gay! Me, the kid with all the girlfriends, the reacher of second base, the suburbanite with loving parents and a great family, I might be, I might . . .

That was the beginning of a lot of adolescent soul-searching. But even now when I replay every kiss, grope, or penetration of my first thirty-two years, all I see are females. Even leafing through the scrims behind my countless solo sexual efforts, I only come up with women, just one depraved fantasy after another. Granted, throw dreams into the mix and we may have something there; I am willing to concede that I may have had a handful in which it suddenly dawned on me, "Hey, that's no woman, that's the guy who fixes my car!" just as I would have to admit there have been relatives, minors, family pets, inanimate objects and a brief but very kinky cameo by a genderless character who called himself Satan.

The doubting continued until one morning in tenth grade when I woke up soaking in what I initially misdiagnosed as a bed-wetting relapse. As the dream came back to me I felt something akin to what Zora Neale Hurston described as the pride of finding a first pubic hair when I realized that though the vision had not been Farah, it was a woman, and a relief on so many levels.

Finally, at seventeen I had a serious girlfriend. Fellow neophytes, we would fall deeply, crazily in love, lose our virginity together and be a couple for the next seven years. Like all males, I couldn't wait to tell my friends after the first time, and was thankful that the issue was apparently settled, but mostly I was just overwhelmed by the power of emotional and physical love that converged when I was with her. It seemed it would vaporize me. I have to think that those feelings at least make me bi.

To be frank, I am sick to death of this topic. I have been suppressing my homosexuality for so long it cuts too close to the bone. Just kidding! The fact is I don't particularly mind that what everyone's really trying to say is, "Leif, you are a gay man in denial." What drives me crazy is that they say these things with an air of not having their own secrets, aspects of their own sexuality that don't conform to whatever the cookie-cutter conception of normal sex is.

I feel a strong bond with my fellow gay-seeming straight males. I especially treasure the virtual queens who exhibit the mating habits of the homo sapien heterosexual. Strange as it may seem, there is such a category. I'm tempted to propose we all start a club or a support group and print up t-shirts that scream, I LOVE THE VAGINA EXPERIENCE!

I prize my gay-seeming straight male friends so much that when one of them crosses over to gay-seeming gay male, as not infrequently happens, I go through a little mourning, realizing as I do that they have just made it a little harder for the world to buy my sexuality. Most recently it was an old college friend. Talk about gay-seeming -- tall, handsome, former male model, voice well-suited for the fading matriarch of a clan in a Tennessee Williams play . . . He announced recently that he was divorcing his wife and was not, in fact, straight. In hindsight, there was always something forced about his collegiate stories of female conquest, like a teenage boy feigning enthusiasm for the taste of beer. I think I wanted to believe almost as much as he did.

I feel the same way about the other side: straight-seeming gay males. I sometimes go to a dance club where they are everywhere -- young guys I could swear were straight, except for the fact that they are all kissing each other. A woman I'd brought once cut in on such a couple and started making out with one of the guys. He took a pause and said, "You know I'm gay, right?" To which she responded, "Of course."

The shocking thing is that I think of myself and all my mixed-signal comrades as the normal ones. I wonder about everyone else, all the people who seem compelled to keep their mannerisms, interests and selves marching in step with the mores expected of their sexuality. How scary is that? And to be honest, I harbor the sneaking suspicion that my team represents the future, when the masses, including homosexuals, come to honestly accept the full range of sexual nuance.

In the meantime, I think I know what might help. There's a scene in a movie, or perhaps it was a comedic sketch, where the obviously gay character is accused of being gay. He nervously laughs, "Well, well, if I'm gay, well they're going to have to change the definition." Maybe what my people need is a new definition, a nice user-friendly label. Something that says, "not gay, but not straight in the way to which you're accustomed, and maybe not even willing to rule out the possibility of being gay in the future." I've been using "gay-seeming straight male," but since that's unwieldy, perhaps we could go with the abbreviation: GSSM. I guess that would be pronounced "jism," as in "No, I'm not gay, but I am jism." On second thought, maybe labels are not the answer.

Leif Ueland received a Master's Degree in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California. He has written for public radio's Marketplace and several newspapers, and had a play produced in Minneapolis. His first book, Accidental Playboy, will be published by Warner books in November 2002.

Twist of Faith

After winning Sundance's Grand Prize, the film was denounced by a prominent rabbi and shunned by distributors. If it isn't as abhorrent as its detractors claim, it's also a bit more "risky" than fully realized (for one, the film's depiction of fascist culture as a) polite drawing-room society and b) led, in any capacity, by Billy Zane, is a bit hard to swallow). But Ryan Gosling is acetylene in the title role, and Bean works from a canvas with an unusual amount of ethical shading. The director recently sat down to talk about the Holocaust as Hollywood industry and censorship by distribution.

The film is based on the life of Daniel Burros, a Jewish member of the American Nazi Party who committed suicide in the '60s after a New York Times reporter revealed his origins. How did you discover his story?

Maybe ten years after it happened, a friend of mine told me about it. It's been on my mind for 25 years. Burros was really a classic example of Jewish self-hatred in 1965, and weirdly enough, it's not that different today. I found his kind of self-hatred interesting as a starting point. But he didn't go anywhere with it. The more I thought about this story, the more I was interested in a dialectical figure. So the film became about the conflicting, paradoxical, contradictory feelings we have for our religion, our families, our children, our lovers, whatever.

What struck you about this story as eminently filmable?

When I heard it was the story of a Jewish Nazi, I loved it. But what was really interesting to me was Burros' ambivalence. When he was a member of the American Nazi party and obviously desperately hiding his origins, he would still bring knishes back to Nazi headquarters. He would hang out with girls whom all the other Nazis assumed were Jewish. He was hiding it and giving it away at the same time.

How did your own faith play a part in shaping Danny's character?

I'm Jewish, from a very assimilated family. There was a sense of a Jewish identity, but it has almost no content other than, "There have been all these people who hated us." No religious content. And for a long time, I thought about the film as a way to explore that aspect of my life. I didn't want to be Jewish, but I didn't want not to be. I married a woman who was from a religious background. I loved talking about religion with her. Not about what people believe, because it's not really a religion about believing. It's about what you do, and so I got very interested in that. I made the movie because I've come from nothing. I don1t think someone from a really religious background could have made it. It's my fascination with religion, me talking about how exciting it is for me, because it's so argumentative, and it lends itself to this kind of contradiction and endless commentary.

How do you feel about the way the Holocaust and the Jewish experience is portrayed onscreen? Is the film, in any way, a response?

In some way, it is. It's not like I sat there and thought of it as a response, but implicitly and intuitively, I'm very uncomfortable with the fact that the Holocaust had become an industry. That the Holocaust is now a genre of filmmaking. That the Holocaust has become really the religion of so many American Jews. That's the form their religion takes: it's about their slaughter. And I think it feeds into the conflict in the Middle East -- this competition of martyrdoms: who's going to be a bigger martyr? Why are people bragging about how much they've suffered? Why shouldn't they be ashamed about how much they've suffered? I hated the Roberto Benigni film. And I hated, for similar reasons, "Schindler's List."

You weren't the only one, from the reviews I remember.

In many ways, those films are about triumphs of the human spirit -- and where the Holcaust is concerned, there should be no triumph. It's a catastrophe, and to make it upbeat is horrible. I've read that "Schindler's List" has convinced some doubters that the Holocaust existed. There's an irony in that: in some way, it's almost a form of Holocaust denial. It doesn't deny that it existed, but it denies what it was. It pretties it.

Have you ever seen a depiction you liked?

I don't think so. I liked "The Passenger." The thing is, when I was a kid, there was nothing on "the Holocaust." There wasn't the word "Holocaust." Nobody called it that. It was 1973 before someone used the word "Holocaust" in conversation with me. I don't want to say it was invented -- it was a real event -- but it's been invented as the cultural phenomenon that it is.

Back to the film: Were any of the subcultural scenes -- from the fascist meetings or skinhead compound -- drawn from situations you saw firsthand?

I did Internet research, and I got contacts to some reputedly racist white kids in Queens. I went out there, and I hung out with them a little bit. They were pathetic. Everything I discovered was so much more pathetic than it was scary that I was dispirited. I didn't know what I was going to do. Because I felt that the reality would never stand up. I needed something that would seem like a reasonable alternative to the Jewish world.

So I thought, what if Clinton tried to start a neo-fascist movement? How do you build what the people can go for? I took a lot of neo-Conservative ideas, and I just pushed them slightly. If you talk to these neo-Conservatives, they're very into Aristotle. They want to return to the ways of Ancient Greece, they want to return to the Classics, Judeo-Christian society. So I did with that character what I did with Danny -- I tried to see him on his own terms. And I found I could believe some of that stuff. I could have that reactionary critque of the modern world as bereft -- of people making religions out of martyrdom. It's so anti-classical.

So it's an extrapolation.

It's an invention. I'm basically making it up. Although I think it's plausible, I just don't think it exists. You know it was funny, when I was doing this I was talking to friends who were political scientists. It was the late 90s, and everybody was saying to me, "Nobody's going to be into that stuff. It's too prosperous. Things are going too well." Now we look at the world so differently.

Did you expect success at Sundance?

Look, let me tell you the truth. When I made the film, I thought I was fucking up totally. When I was editing, I used to lie awake at night thinking, "How can I get into the vault and destroy the negatives so I don't humiliate myself with this embarrassment?"

Why were you so embarrassed?

Because it was so personal. You know, when something is so close to you, you know how you're just creeped out by it? But also, I dreamed of some masterpiece, some masterful film, and it's the first film I ever directed, and it's clunky in a lot of ways. I was saved by a number of things: Ryan Gosling, obviously, one of them.

I read that his being Mormon convinced you to cast him.

The main thing was, he knew what religion was. I thought, "I have to cast a Jewish kid," but I found that when I auditioned, Jewish kids didn't know much more than anybody else. Ryan understood something abut religion. Mormonism is very demanding, and it isolates you the way Judaism isolates you. And he got all that.

Right after Sundance, a rabbi with the Simon Wiesenthal Center called the film "a primer for anti-Semitism." Did you speak to him?

No. I kind of feel sorry for Rabbi Cooper. He didn't go out of his way to trash the film, but he's kind of the Jewish specialist of Hollywood, and studios called him, and he said he didn't like it. I think he didn't understand. Somebody told a writer that the thing that really bothered him was that we desecrated a Torah. And I said, 'Does he think we desecrated a real Torah, or does he just object to even the depiction of it?' Well, it turns out he thought we desecrated a real Torah, when we went to considerable lengths not to. We were real good about what we dropped on the floor.

When you were making the film, did you have any inclination of the coming shitstorm?

I always thought the film was very pro-Semitic, but I didn't think that many people would see that, especially older Jews who would say, "You can't say things like that." So I'm startled people like the film. The whole history has been much more positive than negative.

How pervasive is this sort of censorship by distribution?

If a film is commercial, it's desirable. That's the basic censorship in this country. But I'll tell you what's more pervasive than that. Nobody in Hollywood wants to be picketed. Everybody remembers Lou Wasserman, the dean of Hollywood, being picketed when they released "The Last Temptation of Christ." And they don't want that.

It goes on in every conventional film. Once, I was writing a scene when cops are in a murder victim's house; they're discussing what they can infer about what happened there. One cop says, "We know that the victim is obviously gay." And the other said, "How do you know he's gay?" "'Cause no straight guy ever had such a nice apartment." Then they go on to talk about gays, and if you've ever known cops, you know they're obsessed with gays. They don't say anything derogatory; they just talk about gays in their obsessed-cop way. But the producers said, "Take it out." I said, "Why? It's not derogatory! They say it's a nice apartment, that's a good thing, right?" The producers said, "I had a film three years ago where I got into trouble with the gay alliance, and I just don't want to deal with those people."

What's interesting to me about Danny's character is that he's almost more of a questioner than a believer -- his rage is not blind or inarticulate.

In my head, for twenty-five years, the movie was called "The Jewish Nazi." But commercial reasons aside, it's very difficult to rent locations for a film called "The Jewish Nazi." When it came time to go to Sundance, we thought, we'll just go as "The Believer." Then it won Sundance. So it was "The Believer." I don't like the title; it's a little soft for me. I would have called it "The Fanatic," but "My Son the Fanatic" had just come out. So, bad title.

Did you intend to explain Danny's self-hatred?

My intention was to show what I thought was truthful. I didn't have an opinion about it. I'm fascinated by Danny, and I have a lot of admiration for him.

One of the main criticisms of the film is that it doesn't answer that big endless 'why' -- why Danny got to be the way he is.

It was a very conscious choice of mine not to explain. And there are two reasons why. One is that every human being is ultimately mysterious. The other is that Danny is Everyman. Everybody's like this. We're all not as exaggerated as Danny, but he embodies the kind of contradictions that lie in all of us. Most of us censor them; we manage them more skillfully than he does, or more dishonestly. Kafka doesn't explain why it is that Gregor Samsa wakes up a giant insect, because everyone wakes up feeling like they've turned into a giant insect, right?

"The Believer" opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, May 17, and in other cities on later dates.

Michael Martin is an editor at

In Praise of the Missionary Position

So there I was, leaning into the wall at a precise sixty-degree angle, one leg balanced precariously on a too-high footstool and one hand grasping a too-low door handle, while my boyfriend squatted awkwardly behind me, trying desperately to get it in, and I thought, what's so wrong with the missionary position? Two minutes later, flat on my back on the couch and my boyfriend pumping away on top of me, I decided that nothing, nothing at all is wrong with it.

Saying that missionary sex is your favorite is kind of like saying that you like bread a whole lot. Sure, everyone likes it, but it's not something you spend a great deal of time thinking about or that you need to form an opinion on. It's just there. To all the sex gymnasts, this kind of banal preference looks lazy, unimaginative and uninformed. If they went to such lengths to determine that "Feeding the Peacock" is their favorite position (except on Saturday nights when they like "Congress of the Cow"), then shouldn't I, too? Shouldn't I get off my back a little more often before settling on doin' it like they do on the networks during primetime?

I'll admit that I'm a lazy fuck. I like being on the bottom. I'm familiar with its ins and outs. The missionary position is like a "You are here" marker, and I know how to get straight from there to my happy place. Which, of course, is exactly why I should be taking the scenic route more often. But when a position requires too many instructions, props, or readjustments, I tend to abandon it for something more comfortable. I'm a bit of a dreamer and I like to think that all the pieces should go together just so, without us having to move to a lower couch or a chair without arm-rests or a harder surface. I like to get swept up in the moment, and I find that harder to do when I'm trying to figure out if this angle is going to break off my boyfriend's penis or scratch his hardwood floors. And getting "swept up" when you're trying out a position for the third or fourth time that hour (because his thing keeps slipping out) feels like reshooting a badly written movie scene over and over. Or worse, it's like being the star of a porno: moving from couch to kitchen to stairwell to doggie style just to keep it interesting for the viewers. If I ever left my bedroom curtains open, my neighbors would be bored limp. (They might also observe that my self-love habits are equally, well, habitual: My vibrator is built by Hitachi, five years old and going strong � no garish "Hello Kitty" logos or gratuitous cheap plastic attachments. Like the missionary position, it's my workhorse; it gets the job done.)

The problem with being a missionary position enthusiast is that my fellow evangelists are not the type I like to associate with. A recent article in Redbook magazine, that bastion of good wifedom, praised it thus: "Think of it this way: Do you look better leaning over your husband with your stretch marks glistening and everything drooping and jiggling �or reclining with your face turned up, lips parted expectantly, and your hair arranged over a bank of snowy white pillows? The missionary position is feminine; it's alluring." Another fan, the inventor of the "coital alignment technique" (a.k.a. the supersized missionary position) has called simultaneous orgasms achieved during MP sex the only "truly satisfying" kind. The idea is as old as Freud: Normal women should enjoy normal copulation (but not too much!) with their providers, the way our good Lord intended it.

And over in TV land, doggiestyle = animal passion with no love or affection; woman-on-top = she's a very together, but slightly cold, sexpot and he's a little freaked out by her; and missionary = one-true-love sex. In a recent episode of Six Feet Under, Nate rushes home to his fiancé after chatting with a rabbi about "soulmates." His beloved, kinky Brenda tells him, "Go away and come back in as an intruder. And take me. I'll be naked." But Nate just wants to do it missionary style 'cause he rilly rilly loves her (and he says so as he comes). Brenda rolls her eyes over his shoulder mid-missionary, and we're led to believe she has "intimacy issues." It's an insidious thing, like associating names with the character traits or physical attributes of people you've known by those names; we just can't help it. And producers use our shallow cultural assumptions as short-cuts to explaining a character: If I lived in TV land, my bedroom behavior would identify me as intimacy-issue-free. It would demonstrate what a good little, slightly submissive, loyal girlfriend I was. I would probably be a good cook.

What the short cut doesn't tell you is that positions aren't submissive, people are. If you think missionary sex puts a woman in her place, then you must not think much of women. If you think it's lazy, then you're obviously not working hard enough at it. And if it's not doing it for you, then maybe you just need a little more practice. If you must reject it, at least reject it for legitimate reasons � because you don't like the view, or it doesn't hit your G-spot � not simply because it was once (okay, still is) embraced by prim housewives, religious types, and uptight sexologists as Proper Sex.

Missionary is kind of like tofu: You have to add your own flavor. If she lines up just right, his pelvic bone presses her magic button better than any reach-around, and if she puts her hips into it, she can thrust with as much gusto as he does. It's the most skin-to-skin contact for your money; if he doesn't prop himself on his elbows, it's the good kind of smothering, too, like a heavy blanket or having your blood pressure taken. And if you're the type to get easily distracted on the road to paradise, being on the bottom frees you from the responsibility of maintaining the rhythm and pressure. It's all about me-time down there.

But I don't enjoy being a selfish lay. (Not all the time, anyway.) So I am learning to find the sexiness in the attempts. I'm beginning to understand the animalistic appeal of shove-your-face-into-a-pillow doggie style, the power trip of being almost fully clothed on top of your naked boyfriend, and the exhibitionistic buzz of doing it against the kitchen wall in front of an open window. These corporeal alignments are like a dirty weekend, a vacation from vanilla sex. But damn if it doesn't feel good to come home again.  

Rebecca Archer is a contributing writer at This article originally appeared in's Missionary Issue.

Kissing Jesus

One of my first crushes was on Jesus. I thought he was handsome and kind, but distracted and lonely; good in thought and deed, but the worst kind of hard-to-get imaginable. Jesus was probably a template for the guys I have fallen for since; those with overbearing dads and Messianic tendencies toward self-exile.

They can be somewhat intimate with many, though never fully intimate with one. Jesus had a hot body too, very rock-star skinny, and he was constantly half-naked. My dirty mind would wander under that loincloth, linger for a moment, then dissolve into a confused mist. I couldn't imagine what hung dormant underneath -- I just knew the Virgin Mary's unsexy outfit and super-calm demeanor did nothing to draw me into her boring camp.

My friends and I used to practice kissing on Jesus' life-sized statue in the cemetery across from the church. He was so often molested that you could see the pink-stained cement showing through the white-wash paint. When I tell non-Catholic friends about these dirty forays, they cringe in disbelief. But other Catholic girls understand because sex, for us, would never be a reality until blessed matrimony. Necking with Jesus at the age of ten was more about love than foreplay. It was benign and silly, not sexual and thrilling. And totally normal to us.

During this time, when thousands of priests stand accused of sexually abusing children and teenagers, I often think about these innocent interpretations of love. Recently, in the marbled Vatican halls, papal sycophants were heard tsk tsking The Amoral Americans. Their culture is soaked in sexual images. Americans place such huge premiums on sex. But it's the other way around.

The Catholic Church is soaked in sexual imagery: Catholic schools are named after the Holy Conception, Mary is never without her virginal moniker, everyone's on their knees, wine flows freely, and Jesus Christ is tongued and swallowed on a weekly basis. It's the Catholic Church that places a huge premium on sex, simply by banning it outside the confines of marriage.

American pop culture has often remarked on the church's twisted sexual hypocrisy. Lou Reed and Billy Joel extolled the virtues of Catholic girls, of adolescent flesh bursting out of plaid skirts and tight white shirts, and many of us lived up to the stereotype. We grew up to be sexual provocateurs, because in our religion, there's no half-way. Catholicism teaches that women are holy vessels to be worshiped and adored, or filthy temptresses to be fucked and avoided.

As girls, we knew that once we started down that sordid path, there was only one way to go: hell, which is in the general direction of down. Hence the fact that Catholic girls are infamously great at giving head. How else to preserve the sanctity of virginity? How else to explain Madonna's early appeal? Camille Paglia was the first to point out that Madonna used Catholic imagery to talk about sex; wearing those rosaries and crosses as thrillingly subversive accessories, she brought a pagan, backwards religion into the realm of shiny, pop culture.

Years after my crush on Jesus dissolved, along with my spiritual connection to Catholicism, our parish priest, Father J., left town in a cloud of sexual scandal. He allegedly molested some boys I knew, boys who'd never make these things up in the small, working-class town where I grew up. One boy, a neighbor, who was considered slower than his brothers and had endured years of taunts from kids like me, found solace as an altar boy. He was the first of six boys to come forward, claiming that Father J. molested them on a regular basis. Father J. was questioned by the church, released, then fled home to Malta before any formal investigation took place.

A.W. Richard Sipe, a former Catholic priest turned therapist, has spent four decades studying sexuality and abuse among Catholic priests. His numbers dovetail with other studies that claim nearly half of all priests are, or have been, sexually active. About a third are gay: half of them actively so. But with whom? Each other, and post-pubescent boys, it seems.

In the course of his research, Sipe administered psychological tests; he found that most Catholic priests have the average emotional and sexual maturity of a thirteen-year-old. Sipe claims priests mostly target sad, needy kids between eight and thirteen, because that's with whom they psychologically relate, and consequently spend much time. Some priests were abused themselves, so they repeat the cycle, but most simply never advance beyond adolescence because celibacy doesn't exactly foster sexual growth and maturity.

I now understand why I never wanted to be around priests all that much. The ones I've known, like Father J., were unintellectual, uninteresting and childlike. They hugged too much, smiled too easily, and nodded too readily, like black-clad, sacral Teletubbies. Their facial expressions floated between squinty, Robin Williams fakery and wide-armed, Michael Jackson creepiness.

And who can blame them: preaching celibacy and virginity until marriage is inherently infantilizing, a set of rules simple to understand but impossible to follow. The church must abolish celibacy so that priests can finally grow up. Let them fuck other consenting adults legally, because we now know they're hiding more beneath those holy robes than sacred, throbbing hearts.

What's being overlooked here is that celibacy is not an organic Christian tenant. Jesus did not preach celibacy, and there's no proof that he lived by it. Celibacy is a medieval concoction, an eleventh century papal land-grab, which prevented property from being passed down to a priest's son and has enjoyed a phony endurance for eight ignorant centuries. There is an irony here: Celibacy law may have made the Vatican rich, but victims of sexual abuse are now suing the Catholic Church for billions.

For guidance on how to handle the current crisis, the Vatican need only note how the Protestant, Anglican and Jewish faiths are coping with their respective sex scandals. Oh, right, they don't have any. Those religions, though endorsing piety, do not endlessly obsess about sex, nor do they ask their clergy to take an impossible vow like celibacy. Those religions probably attract healthy-minded, sexually mature adults who enjoy physical expression and release with consensual partners who are not children. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church will continue to attract the sexually confused, stunted and ashamed to its blessedly shrinking ranks.

I used to defend my affinity for Catholicism as a kitschy hangover from my youth, when memorizing prayers, songs and psalms was comforting and fun. It made me feel a little holy back when I needed to belong to anything other than my own screwy family. But today I find sex and shame to be sorry bedfellows. When a religion tells you that a little masturbation will guarantee you a spot in hell, you have to laugh. How can you tackle the more challenging aspects of Catholicism, such as celibacy and sexual orientation, when you're told a bit of diddling will result in eternal damnation?

Catholic shame nearly crippled me; I can only imagine it hits devout, homosexual teens even harder. They're in love with a church that clearly hates them. For them, celibacy must be a weird panacea: maybe they can pace, chant, and pray away their demented thoughts! Lord knows, I tried. Problem is, you're kneeling in front of a naked hottie, tortured, because of you and your rotten lust.

I've never wondered what type of person I might have become had I remained a virgin for my worthy husband. Nothing about that woman intrigues me, in all her pious obedience; a "good" girl who listens to her "wise" priest. But smart women walked away from the church long ago in droves, and it's too bad.

The church needs vital women now more than ever, to bust up the male propensity towards hierarchy and stoicism, which have contributed to the church's current perverted state. And frankly, Jesus never struck me as the type to live with hypocrisy or to live without passion, risk and worshipful babes.

Lisa Gabriele writes for, where this article originally appeared.

Buried Desire

Six Feet Under is the cat's ass. It's well-written, but the dramatic resolutions on Alan Ball's HBO funeral-home opus are a little too clean, a little too let's-everyone-hug gooey. The show's principal device -- having dead people haunt/guide the living cast members -- is theater-camp hokey. Plus, I'm instinctively prejudiced against any series that gives a role to Ed Begley Jr.

That said, the show is better than 95 percent of the junk on TV, and it has true innovative merits. The first is Rachel Griffiths, who plays Brenda Chenowith, the brilliant yet emotionally tortured girlfriend of Nate Fisher. The hardest thing to authenticate on screen is a brain -- usually the solution is to put a pair of glasses on someone like, um, Sandra Bullock -- and yet Griffiths manages to project a frayed intelligence that makes her both human and a bit unnerving. Everyone knows a Brenda. Some of us even broke up with a few.

But Six Feet Under's greatest contribution may be its portrayal of sex. That's not simply because the principal character, David Fisher (Michael C. Hall) is gay, wound tight as a top, and spent much of the first season trying to come out to family and friends. Nor is it because Six Feet Under is on HBO, and therefore can show a bit more T&A than, say, 7th Heaven. (Though it does show a breast or a penis now and again, or a naked stiff, Six Feet Under is actually somewhat restrained with the flesh, especially compared to the theatrics of Sex and the City, or the peepee-a-minute Oz.)

No, what makes Six Feet Under a breakthrough for sex and television is its staunch unwillingness to draw attention to the act itself. After years of watching television repeatedly push the boundaries of sex, sex talk and sexual depiction -- to the point where the show practically bragged how in-your-face they were -- it's pleasing that the sex on Six Feet Under is just matter-of-fact. That's not to say it's repressed, or ignored -- it just exists. Whether it's David's dalliances in clubland, his sister Claire's teenage misadventures (which usually take place in the back of a hearse), or Nate and Brenda's flat-abbed, yogalike lovemaking, the show steadfastly seeks to depict sex as it is -- an act between people, not something used to hype a television series upon, or to give jollies to chubby television critics.

And though the sex portrayed on Six Feet Under is hardly conventional for television -- Ball's greatest barrier-breaker may be giving a sex life to Fisher matriarch Ruth (Frances Cornoy), now widowed in her late fifties -- it's not freighted with the self-conscious, look-how-daring-we-are theatrics that pretty much take the fun out of sex on TV. Sexual breakthroughs on TV have usually been important but pretty boring, to tell the truth, whether it was Ellen, the two guys in bed on thirtysomething, the Big Lesbian Kiss on L.A. Law, or even Dylan getting into Brenda's pants after the prom on Beverly Hills 90210. Producers often are so proud of themselves for taking sexual risks that they fail to make the act interesting at all. Or they go so over the top, it becomes boring, too. Seriously, when was the last time you got excited after seeing Kim Cattrall get some action?

Six Feet Under also refuses to engage the oldest rule of sex in television, which states that for every misbegotten sexual adventure, there must come a big learning moment. You've seen it in everything from Friends to a Very Special Episode of Blossom -- no good boink goes unpunished. Even Sex and the City's characters do some morning-after learning. Six Feet Under, however, doesn't feature much post-coital deliberation. That's not to say there isn't scattered reflection and regret -- by the end of season one, for example, David had sworn off his booze and ecstasy-fueled one-nighter, and sought a return to monogamy -- but there's never been the overarching finger-wag that usually accompanies TV sex. David ultimately realized his quick-pleasure sex life was making him feel empty. He wanted to fix it and find his old boyfriend. And you know, that's how real people usually do it.

There's other stuff -- Claire's teenaged sex life is about as genuine a portrayal as you'll get, full of mistakes and contradictions, fits of insecurity and queasy pleas from unfit boys. The fact that she's having sex -- and the writers don't use it to force some gigantic household meltdown -- is remarkable unto itself. Mom Fisher has slept with two suitors already (and accidentally taken one of David's ecstasy tabs, which had been hidden in an aspirin bottle). Ironically, it's Nate and Brenda who lately seem to be doing it the least, but then again, that's not unusual in couples where the initial attraction was sex. They'll likely get back to it in due time. But at least on Six Feet Under, it won't merit a Very Special Episode.

This article originally appeared on

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