Backtalk

Send your letters to backtalk@motherjones.com.

Our Jan./Feb. cover package on the "teen sex wars" drew a variety of responses, including some lively discussion of an Atlantic Monthly article critiqued in our pages. Heated words were also exchanged regarding our Outfront column that reported that tax dollars are helping market guns to schoolkids. Plus: Ntozake Shange, unwitting spies, lefties on the air, and congressmen who go to the mats over mining.

SEX IS A BATTLEFIELD

Mother Jones' unsigned and off-base account of my Atlantic Monthly article, "The Failure of Sex Education," ("Sex Miseducation," Jan./Feb.) bears almost no resemblance to my original piece. Equally mischievous is its representation of Susan Wilson and Douglas Kirby as the main sources for an article that drew broadly upon a range of research opinion as well as reporting. Readers who are interested in what I actually said should consult the October 1994 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Nonetheless, a couple of comments are required here.

Nowhere do I say that all sex education has failed, as Mother Jones claims. Indeed, I cite several well-designed curricula, including one published by Douglas Kirby's employer, ETR Associates, that seem to be modestly effective in helping younger teens postpone sex and in encouraging older teens to use contraceptives (here, though, the effectiveness is very modest).

My point, conveniently ignored, is that there is a significant gap between the ideal and the real, between the high-minded rhetoric spouted by advocates like Susan Wilson and the half-baked programs they promote. Also overlooked is my larger argument that sex education, based on information, reason, and skills, is increasingly helpless to deal with the harsher realities of teenage sex: the age disparity between teenage girls and their male partners, with post-school-age men fathering 71 percent of the births among schoolgirls, according to one study of California teens; the relationship between early sexual activity and traumatic sexualization of children; the sexual gamesmanship between boys and girls; the peculiar combination of precocity and innocence in teenagers' attitudes about sex; and the fact that some girls elect to become mothers "as soon as possible," as one young teenage mother told me.

Interestingly, the accompanying articles by Nell Bernstein and Kathy Dobie ("Learning to Love," "Hellbent on Redemption," respectively) illustrate why even the best-designed sex education programs may offer frail defenses against the hazards of sex.

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead
Amherst, Mass.

The Editors respond: No, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's Atlantic Monthly article did not claim that all sex education had failed. Douglas Kirby, whose response, "Sex Miseducation," was, in fact, signed, wrote that Whitehead's article incorrectly claimed sex education in general had failed. (The title of Whitehead's article, "The Failure of Sex Education," makes explicit her thesis.)

Whitehead attacked sex educators for designing programs based on ideological faith, rather than scientific finding. However, the primary scientific source she cited for her conclusions was Kirby's work. Kirby says that she used his research where it supported her thesis, but ignored it where it didn't. In addition to his response in our pages, Kirby wrote a similar critique in a letter to the Atlantic Monthly. Interestingly, the magazine did not include it in an exchange on the article published in January.

MORE FROM THE FRONT LINES

Thanks, "mom," for assuming one responsibility that most social parents shirk--honest discussion of teen sexuality. When a surgeon general is fired for deeming masturbation a legitimate topic for sex education, we sorely need to disrupt the polarized platitudes that dominate public discussion of this subject.

I was disappointed, however, at a lapse of judgment in your fine expose of Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's latest Atlantic Monthly salvo. You misguidedly applaud Whitehead's earlier, "well-argued cover story puncturing the conventional liberal wisdom that parental choices such as divorce, single parenthood, and two working parents don't affect children's well-being," before describing her more recent attack on sex education as flawed. This false contrast plays into the troublesome family values ideology that Whitehead and the Institute for American Values (of which she is vice president) aggressively promote.

Both of Whitehead's essays promote a centrist campaign for family values that pretends to prod liberals to address the costs of rampant individualism, but unfortunately she advocates a reductionist, and ultimately individualistic, remedy for our social maladies--restoring the privileged status of heterosexual marriage. Alas, marriage is too puny an institution to bear such weight, and exalting it, as Whitehead does, provides sanction for the current mean season on single mothers, particularly teen single mothers.

We need much more than a Husband in Every Home to save our wayward social soul. So, please, Mother, don't let enthusiasm for challenging liberal dogma lead you to embrace the false messiah of "family values." He will lead us closer to hell than to redemption.

Judith Stacey
Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies
University of California at Davis

As a writer on teen issues, I've found that most commentators who take a look at adolescent sexual behavior mainly favor two themes. One is AIDS. (The have-sex-and-you-die approach.) The other is the teen-slut-single-mom syndrome. (Not only is she bankrupt morally, she's bankrupting the nation financially.) Hats off to journalists Bernstein, Dobie, and Kirby for offering a solid report on what's really happening in kids' love lives, while also hitting the mark in the adult turf wars on how best to micromanage youthful virginity and condom distribution.

Today's adolescents are worried and optimistic. Too many of them have already buried friends, gone into debt, held several jobs, entered 12-step programs, and considered their own mortality. In the next breath, though, they spin these amazing romantic fantasies of home, hearth, and their own kids. They are our future. We should take the time to learn more about them.

Janet Bode
Author of "Heartbreak and Roses: Real Life Stories of Troubled Love"
New York, N.Y.

Near-complete 1993 California state records of births among girls 18 and younger show that 71 percent were fathered by adult post-high school men averaging over 22 years of age--not by "boys." National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention records show that sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS levels among teenage girls are two to four times higher than could be predicted from rates among teenage boys--meaning large majorities of girls are infected by adult men.

If there is a "crisis" of teenage motherhood, its foundation lies in the mistreatment of younger females (and the irresponsible behavior examples set for young boys) by grown men. We need to redefine the issue as primarily one of "adult-teen" sex and pregnancy and, most of all, to understand why the media and so many interest groups, right and left, are so willing to blame teenage girls (and, occasionally, teenage boys) while exempting adult men from responsibility for their sexual conduct with adolescents.

Mike Males
School of Social Ecology
University of California at Irvine

Being a teenager myself, I want to point out an issue that I think is at the core of the "teen sex wars." First of all, your cover does an excellent job of illustrating what adults think about teen sex. The boy is a faceless, but physically strong individual, who is responsible for pulling the girl into sex. The worried-looking girl sees the boy, because of his tough, experienced manner, as a bulwark of stability for her. What gets lost here (in addition to the whole issue of gay teens) is the fact that boys have feelings, too.

Society still impresses on young men that they must be the strong, experienced ones in a heterosexual relationship. Conversely, girls are encouraged to be meek and mild. When girls submit to boys, they are alternately sluts and victims and the boys are alternately studs and aggressors. Both the victim/aggressor mentality and the slut/stud double standard contribute to the confusion about sex among teens.

Nik Trendowski
Los Angeles, Calif.

Shocking, stunning to finally hear a real human voice on teen sexuality and what it's really all about. I've taught at-risk teens for 10 years and can relate.

After I read your piece, I picked up an issue of Adolescence magazine. Pathetic. I am so sick of parent-patronizing, "just say no" ideology. It is no help at all. We need to cut through the crap and put the real issues on the table: isolation, abuse, and the refusal of relevant individuals to create meaningful dialogue with teens.

Camilla Keating
Keating@acfcluster.nyu.edu

EXCHANGING SHOTS

A recent article in Mother Jones ("Why Johnny Can Shoot," Jan./Feb.), charging that conservation education videos distributed to schools by the National Shooting Sports Foundation are actually a thinly veiled attempt to sell guns to young people, may be the most misleading and inaccurate information your magazine has ever published.

These educational programs were created by the National Shooting Sports Foundation in 1980 to familiarize school-age youngsters with the success of wildlife management in North America. Not to sell guns to kids. We've been involved with this program for 15 years. The content of the videos has been approved--and praised--by scores of conservation and education groups.

The article, authored by representatives of the Violence Policy Center, also took issue with the fact that "federal tax dollars" were used to fund the program. We were proud to receive a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1993, but the funds did not come from general tax revenues. They came from an earmarked excise tax on sporting firearms and ammunition. Our educational programs in schools report on the success of wildlife management programs paid for with these tax revenues. We think it is totally appropriate to use excise tax proceeds to report on the success of a program funded by excise taxes and suspect that's why Congress provided for it in the law.

R.T. Delfay, President
National Shooting Sports Foundation
Newtown, Conn.

I have no affiliation with, nor any particular affinity for, the firearms industry. I even have long hair and it is rumored that I inhaled once while in college. I do, on the other hand, have an affinity for truth and fair play.

My company, CRT Productions, produced all three of the educational video programs mentioned in the article, and I am, therefore, somewhat familiar with the content and purpose of these programs. Anyone who believes these videos are intended to sell firearms or to reduce support for gun control has never viewed the programs--or has inhaled a few too many times.

These educational programs were written to help familiarize young people with the success of wildlife management in North America, and the sportsman's role in that success. That's all. There is no attempt whatsoever to suggest to the viewing students that the purchase of a firearm might be a good idea or a vote for gun control might be a bad one.

Mike Baluzy
President, CRT Productions
Danbury, Conn.

It is no secret that Mother Jones has taken a decidedly anti-gun position in its editorial coverage of firearms-related topics. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, on both sides of these issues, and we won't all ever agree. Shielding its readers from the truth is another matter entirely.

A simple inquiry would have shown the errors in "Why Johnny Can Shoot," and helped readers understand the real story about the programs offered by the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Yet the editors, so convinced that they are right about gun control, have failed in their responsibility to Mother Jones readers, who deserve an honest opportunity to hear all sides of any issue.

William A. Wohl Sr., Manager
Press Relations, Remington Arms Co., Inc.
Wilmington, Del.

Susan Glick and Josh Sugarmann respond: If the NSSF videos are solely about "wildlife management," then Joe Camel is merely a charismatic dromedary. Bob Delfay seems to forget that we didn't make up the quotes regarding the NSSF's goal of using the schools to sell guns to kids, but took them from his organization's own magazine, S.H.O.T. Business.

Contrary to his assertions, the federal excise tax on firearms is not only on sporting weapons and was not originally earmarked for the Interior Department program. The excise tax was one of many enacted in 1932 in the wake of the Depression. And while the tax on long guns and ammo soon was earmarked for conservation activities, from 1932 to 1970 the hundreds of millions of dollars of excise tax revenue collected on handgun manufacture went into the general treasury--for the benefit of all Americans. In 1970 the NSSF teamed up with the National Rifle Association and, over the strong objections of both the Department of the Treasury and the Department of the Interior, bulldozed Congress into earmarking the handgun tax revenue for "wildlife management" activities. To imply that this money somehow belongs to organizations like the NSSF is akin to arguing that the federal excise tax on gasoline should go to Ford to help them sell more cars.

As for Mr. Baluzy's comments, he seems to have a rather short memory. In the letter of agreement between NSSF and CRT obtained by the Violence Policy Center under the Freedom of Information Act, Mr. Baluzy promises Mr. Delfay that his company is "adept at video production and willing to exploit that medium to its fullest...to create new interest in the outdoor sports."

Finally, we would have been happy to address any errors alleged in the letter from NSSF board member Remington if the author had taken the time to cite any.

RETURN FIRE

Every day, guns claim the lives of 15 American children aged 19 and under. And yet the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry's leading trade association, continues to market their deadly product to kids.

Appalling? Yes. Surprising? Not in the least. Appealing to kids is a common tactic used among pro-gun groups to cultivate their next generation of gun owners. For years, the NRA has encouraged members to sign their kids up for Junior Life Memberships. For a small fee, junior members receive their own "kiddie" gun magazine and membership card.

The gun industry and friends continue to justify these programs with the gun lobby's "guns make us safer" mythology. As Sonny Jones, former editor of Women & Guns magazine, wrote, "We must all work to instill in our young an appreciation for the equalizing power of the gun." These are dangerous words, considering that firearm injury is the second leading cause of death for young people.

Sarah Brady, Chair
Center to Prevent Handgun Violence and Handgun Control, Inc.
Washington, D.C.

NTOZAKE ANTAGONISTS

Your interview with Ntozake Shange ("Back at You," Jan./Feb.) was great, but I wanted to hear more! Now, I know Sistah Shange can be terse, but damn!

I like her idea of "deslaveryizing" language. Many of us are doubly confined: trapped both by the reality of our oppression and by the painful generational memories of our oppression. It seems that the sistah has become free of the latter of these demons and is seriously grappling with the first. She, indeed, is a role model--not just for girls--but for generations of boys as well.

Jesse N. Alexander
East Orange, N.J.

White people are not afraid of today's urban black culture because "blacks refuse to eat potatoes and cabbage." They are afraid because today's culture of the streets, pioneered in the nation's black urban ghettos, apparently places a higher value on a pair of Air Jordans or a Raiders cap than it does on a human life. Ntozake Shange's efforts to excuse the self-destructive behavior of the urban black culture (especially that of young black males) does nothing to solve the problem and does very much to further the I-can't-do-nothing-about-it-so-screw-it attitude that has already doomed two generations of black Americans to abject poverty and relentless violence. Attitudes like hers, I fear, will doom yet a third generation to the same misery.

Rodney Proctor
sooner@gate.net

There are many reactions to the "Bell Curve" assertion that average intelligence varies from one race to another. A common reaction is to deny the validity of the methods by which intelligence is measured and/or point to cultural bias. I am less bothered by this reaction than I am by Shange's statement: "Well of course [whites] are [smarter]--we fed them! They took all the land, all the food--we ate chitlins and they ate beef! But who carried that nice food to them?"

This is a racist statement which continues the "Us vs. Them" shouting match that leads nowhere. Racist, because it considers all white Americans to be guilty, responsible for any and all evils that have befallen black Americans. The "they" she refers to does not include any of my father's ancestors; none of them set foot in North America until the 1880s. Nor does "they" refer to my mother's ancestors, who at the time of the Civil War were either still in England or were Yankees who farmed in New England and the Great Lakes region without slave labor.

I'd like to live in a country where all of us can realize our full individual potential. Playing the blame game does not help anyone improve his or her situation.

Tom Johnson
tjohnson@interaccess.com

THIS LAND IS MINED LAND

Jessica Speart is way off-base in her assessment of Congressional efforts to reform the U.S. mining law ("A Lust for Gold," Jan./Feb.). Attempts to change the law were scuttled not by a bipartisan coalition of Western senators, but by anti-mining activists who pursued a radical and misguided agenda.

Many of us in the Senate worked diligently throughout 1994 to produce sound legislation that would strike a balance between economic and environmental concerns. Unfortunately, the proposal was rejected by members of Congress under pressure from mining industry critics. Consequently, House and Senate negotiators were unable to reach an agreement before the clock ran out. Mining law reform failed in the 103rd Congress because of the self-serving "all or nothing" posture of mining opponents. Congress owes it to all Americans to reform the law; however, it should be reformed without driving up mining costs so much that it eliminates U.S. mines and U.S. jobs.

Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska)
Chair, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

The mining industry and their allies in the Senate refused to negotiate in good faith on mining reform from the outset. They began with a bill that had a ridiculously low 2 percent net royalty, and refused to accept any meaningful environmental standards as part of the new legislation. The House, by contrast, passed comprehensive mining reform legislation by an overwhelming bipartisan majority.

The mining industry decided that having no bill would be better than any compromise between the House and Senate. They preferred to take their chances with a new Republican Congress, deciding that lobbyists would be cheaper than royalties.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.)
Former Chair, House Natural Resources Committee

While it is true that a new "gold rush" has taken place in large part due to improvement in the processes that use cyanide to extract gold from low-grade ore deposits, it is not true that cyanide leaching creates pools that poison thousands of migratory birds and that leak into nearby streams and groundwater.

Prior to the adoption in 1989 of Nevada's mining regulations, about 10 cases of groundwater contamination had occurred, mostly resulting from cyanide releases from tailings ponds. Each case is currently under a legally enforceable action requiring remediation and restoration of groundwater quality.

Although Ms. Speart quotes one General Accounting Office report to make her case against mining, she conveniently neglects to report that the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, also issued a study praising the mining industry's efforts to protect wildlife and the environment where cyanide is used. The 1991 report concluded that the industry's use of cyanide has "resulted in minimal environmental damage."

Keith R. Knoblock
National Mining Association
Washington, D.C.

Your article, "A Lust for Gold," focuses on problems involved with mining. Unfortunately, some of the information in the article is no longer current or needs clarification.

The use of cyanide in mining is closely regulated. All cyanide ponds and tailing impoundments must now be neutralized or netted. Since strict requirements were implemented, there has been a 93 percent drop in wildlife mortality associated with cyanide used in mining.

It is true that early liners for mill tailing ponds, like the one at Independence Mine, had flaws. However, due to federal and state concerns, facilities are now designed to prevent ground or surface water contamination. The Independence Mine today has wells that pump out contaminants, and leakage is down to 240 to 480 gallons per minute, rather than the 2,800 gpm you reported.

We agree that the impact of dewatering is a concern. That's why the Bureau of Land Management is funding a study that will determine the cumulative impact of dewatering in the Humboldt Basin area. We also agree that patenting, as allowed in the Mining Law of 1872, must be re-examined. The Department of the Interior supports mining law reform to change past abuses.

Ann J. Morgan, State Director
Nevada Bureau of Land Management
Carson City, Nev.

The Editors respond: It's true that over the last several years, Nevada has tightened its regulations governing the mining industry, and we applaud this effort (although as the following letters argue, there are still problems). Our story, on the other hand, concerned national mining policy. Also, regarding Ms. Morgan's assertion that the Independence Mine leak is smaller than we reported: According to a highly placed source in Morgan's own organization (the Nevada BLM), the leak was approximately 2,800 gallons per minute as recently as November 1994.

MORE ON MINING

We thank Mother Jones for focusing on the issue of mining. We feel, however, that the article was too forgiving.

Independence Mining Co. continues to contaminate groundwater supplies with cyanide. Neither the state nor the federal government has plans for the in-perpetuity contamination, which will eventually reach the Humboldt River, northern Nevada's only major source of surface water.

Currently, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Nevada uses state standards for allowable levels of cyanide in water on public lands, standards meant to keep the mines from killing migratory birds. Unfortunately, the state subscribes to the school of thought that if it doesn't die on your property, you're off the hook. Chris Pritsos, a biochemist at the University of Nevada at Reno, has made available findings that cyanide at the current state standard severely endangers waterfowl and "affects the long-term viability of the species." Birds may not die on-site, but they are not likely to live long after drinking this toxic water.

Never before has an arid ecosystem in our country been subjected to this level of lost groundwater, hundreds of millions of tons of contaminated heaps and tailings impoundments, and tainted pit lakes. But this is the legacy that the mining industry, too often with the support of state and federal agencies, will leave for Nevada.

Elyssa Rosen
Sierra Club, Nevada/Eastern Sierra Office
and Great Basin Mine Watch

Thank you for shining the spotlight on modern mining technology and its environmental impacts. Dewatering, wildlife deaths, and acid mine drainage are all major environmental concerns for which no comprehensive solutions have been developed; indeed, in the case of dewatering along the Carlin Trend, the Bureau of Land Management has not even prepared a full analysis of the environmental impacts, let alone published such an analysis.

As your article amply shows, revision of the Mining Law of 1872 is urgently needed to address today's technology and the resultant problems. Unless and until it is revised, mining companies will add to the legacy of problems that future generations will have to confront.

Johanna H. Wald
Director, Land Program
Natural Resources Defense Council
Washington, D.C.

SPIES LIKE US

Thanks for the excellent article regarding the use of NOC (nonofficial cover) agents to spy on economic competitors ("THE CIA Crosses Over," Jan./Feb.). You may be interested to know that the intelligence community is turning to the private sector for espionage purposes in other ways.

The Fiscal Year 1995 Intelligence Authorization Act provides Defense Department personnel with a limited exemption to the Privacy Act of 1974 when they solicit the assistance of U.S. citizens overseas for the purpose of collecting military intelligence.

The Privacy Act provides that when soliciting information, federal agencies must advise individuals of the authority by which they seek the information, whether or not a response is mandatory, the routine uses to which the information may be put, and the effect on the individual of not providing all or any part of the requested information. This assures that the consent of an individual to provide solicited information is, in fact, voluntary. Granting an exemption to that warning compromises the individual's freedom of choice.

David Isenberg
Arlington, Va.

CIRCLE OF POISON

Esther Schrader's article, "A Giant Spraying Sound" (Jan./Feb.), graphically describes the growing pesticide crisis in Mexico, where pesticides inflict harm to workers, communities, and the environment on a scale unimagined in the U.S., and often return to our dinner tables as residues in what has become known as the Circle of Poison. Yet pesticide contamination of food, although a critical public concern, is actually a symptom of a much bigger problem--namely, the worldwide proliferation of unsustainable agricultural production systems.

Incredibly, sustainable agriculture is not even considered an environmental issue in the side agreement to NAFTA. This lack of regulation makes increased use of pesticides inevitable. It's all part of those expanded markets for U.S. goods we've heard so much about in recent years.

American corporations not only ship prohibited pesticides like Haloxyfop (classified as a probable carcinogen in the U.S.) to Mexico and other developing countries, but increasingly export entire production facilities, often for older, off-patent, and highly hazardous pesticides. Meanwhile, the giant food conglomerates are busy converting prime Mexican agricultural lands to produce export commodities, reducing the availability of locally affordable food in a country where 40 out of 90 million people are poor.

The fact that NAFTA threatens both food safety and security, north and south, indicates the true scope and costs of so-called free trade agreements. U.S. consumers need to realize both what's at stake and what their options are. Purchasing organically grown produce and supporting producers who employ sustainable practices is important. Changing U.S. policies to promote more ecologically rational agricultural production and trade is essential.

Erika Rosenthal
Pesticide Action Network
San Francisco, Calif.

Thanks for the incredible piece on the dangers of pesticide abuse for farmworkers, farmers, and consumers. For readers wanting more information, our institute publishes a wide range of news bulletins on NAFTA, food safety, pesticides, and sustainable agriculture. We can be reached via e-mail at iatp@igc.apc.org, by phone at (612) 379-5980, or by fax at (612) 379-5982. Our address is 1313 5th St., S.E., Suite 303, Minneapolis, MN 55414.

Mark Ritchie, Executive Director
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
Minneapolis, Minn.

LIFE IN THE WEB

I want to compliment you both on your magazine and on the [Internet-accessible] Mother Jones World Wide Web site (http://www.motherjones.com/). The magazine has helped rekindle the activist spirit that has been lying dormant in me for too many years.

I've just sent a copy of your article "A Giant Spraying Sound" to Time magazine's e-mail address demanding to know why they haven't reported on it, and why I, as a Time subscriber, didn't read it there first. I would like to do this with a few other Mother Jones articles because I'm really miffed that I wasn't informed of much of what I've seen here until now. Thank you.

Todd Sternisha
tes6@po.cwru.edu

RADIO WAVES

Congrats to Richard Reynolds for urging progressives to demand balance on local talk radio stations ( "Take Back the Airwaves!" Jan./Feb.). I hope Mother Jones readers will add The T.J. Walker Show to their list. The show is so chock-full-o-liberal bias, it is guaranteed to make conservatives' heads spin faster than their backwards-playing records.

The program has an 800 call-in line for liberals/moderates and a 900 toll line for conservatives.

The T.J. Walker Show is heard 10 p.m. to midnight (EST) Monday through Friday and is syndicated nationally on the Independent Broadcasters Network.

T.J. Walker
Host, The T.J. Walker Show
Clearwater, Fla.

Your article didn't mention The Tom Leykis Show. He's on 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Pacific Time weekdays on 710 TALK in L.A., KSFO in San Francisco, and more than 100 stations nationwide.

Greg Bauchman
Oak Park, Calif.

Richard Reynolds responds: It's true that Tom Leykis should have been included in my article, and that he is on more than 100 stations. Unfortunately, KSFO is no longer one of them. The ABC-owned-and-operated affiliate recently dumped its entire lineup, including Leykis, and substituted an all-right-wing slate.

Addition: In "Comic Threat" (Nov./ Dec., '94), we quoted from an interview with Michael Diana conducted by an "underground 'zine." The 'zine is Nuthing Sacred, published in L.A.