Fox and CBS Refuse To Air Condom Ads

It is inexcusable that television networks, one of the best public sites for widespread education about safer sex, is acting coy at the cost of young women's fullest lives.
The first time I met 23-year-old Marvelyn Brown at a Washington, D.C., luncheon celebrating young women's achievements, she reached for her lemonade and I noticed a tiny red ribbon tattooed on her hand. Marvelyn and I got to talking, and I learned that she had been diagnosed with HIV at the age of 19. She contracted it from unprotected sex with a boy she described as "prince charming" back in her hometown of Nashville, Tenn. Her mother, whose only attempt at sex education was "just don't get pregnant," begged Marvelyn to tell everyone she had cancer instead.

I thought of Marvelyn when I heard that Fox and CBS networks recently refused to broadcast condom advertisements. Had they somehow missed the memo that there are 19 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STD) each year or that HIV and AIDS are now the leading cause of death among black women between the ages of 25 and 34?

Marvelyn, as scrappy as she is beautiful, eventually made her way to New York City and became a spokesperson for AIDS awareness. She has been on BET, MTV, and even sat on the all holy couch of Oprah. She told me, "The weird thing is that if I hadn't gotten HIV, I think I would have ended up like so many of the girls in my hometown -- pining for a man and raising babies on welfare."

In fact, the networks are OK with playing a role in preventing fates like Marvelyn's, but not those of thousands of teen girls pregnant with babies instead of their own potential. According to The New York Times, FOX's decision was based on their policy that condom ads "must stress health-related issues rather than the prevention of pregnancy." In other words, TV execs feel entitled to glorify sex, but not educate viewers about the realities of it.

This is not just about network skittishness over abortion politics. It's not even about reproductive choices and education more broadly. This is about the battle over who controls women's lives.

When women have the power to choose when they conceive, they also have the power to lead healthier, more effective and ethical lives. They have an essential tool to be contentious about where they put their energy, how they forward their causes and careers, and when, if they are so inclined, they bring a very wanted and valued baby into the world. Birth control is nothing less than the key to composing a fulfilling, female life in the 21st century.

Take Marvelyn. HIV positive and only 23-years-old, she is discovering who she is away from home for the first time. She is making connections with the AIDS education community all over the world. She'll spend much of September on a fully-funded speaking tour in South Africa. Marvelyn may have the misfortune of having contracted HIV, but she is managing it with the help of dedicated doctors and advanced pharmaceutical therapies. And importantly, she is fulfilling what she sees as her divine purpose on earth -- to educate people about HIV and AIDS. Were she raising a young child, she would have never been able to follow this demanding path.

Marvelyn remembers being judged by women at home, women with babies born from unintended pregnancies, and she remembers thinking, "We reached in the same grab bag and pulled out different fates. I'm no worse than you." In fact, in some ways, I believe Marvelyn has it better. She hopes to one day have a child, but today, right now, she is free to discover more about herself and the world, and in the process, make it a better place.

Imagine the energies that are thwarted, the potential that is squandered, by teen girls who aren't educated about preventing unwanted pregnancy.

Approximately 750,000 American women between the ages of 15 and 19 get pregnant each year. Of course some of these young women come to adore and enjoy their roles as mothers, but they had the rest of their lives for that. The opportunity to be independent, focused on self-improvement and intellectual discovery, and career-driven without complications, has been lost.

It is inexcusable that television networks, one of the best public sites for widespread education about safer sex, is acting coy at the cost of these young women's fullest lives. Until all women understand their reproductive choices, none of us can be sure that we are benefiting from the full range of gifts -- intellectual, spiritual, and otherwise -- that one half of the population has to offer.
Courtney E. Martin is a writer, teacher and filmmaker living in Brooklyn. She is currently working on a book on her generation's obsession with food and fitness, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, which will be published by Free Press in spring of 2007. You can read more about her work at
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