Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Oral Sex Story Stirs Debate : Post Article Meant as a Wake-Up Call for Parents

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Oral Sex Story Stirs Debate : Post Article Meant as a Wake-Up Call for Parents

Article excerpt

Afront-page story about middle-school students having oral sex was meant by The Washington Post to be a wake-up call for parents about the kinds of sexual activities kids are getting involved in these days.

But the article did more than simply set off alarm bells among parents about younger teens engaging in sexual experimentation: It also led to the paper receiving a number of e-mail messages and telephone calls both criticizing and praising the story. The detractors raised questions about the need for the story, objected to the headline, asked whether there was any real news in the article and why it appeared on the front page.

The headline "Parents Are Alarmed by an Unsettling New Fad in Middle Schools: Oral Sex" was sure to be an attention-grabber.

Tucked below the fold in the July 8 issue of the Post, reporter Laura Sessions Stepp told about girls and boys at the Willamsburg Middle School in Arlington, Va., who are engaging in off-campus oral sex at friends' homes and elsewhere as kind of a halfway measure between going all the way and abstinence.

"I frankly see this as a good thing because I think there is a lot of superstition, myth, and just a lack of knowledge on the part of most people about sexual behaviors. And who are the most vulnerable? Our children. In the research that I did, I learned [things] about the transmission of viruses that I didn't know, and I have a 15-year-old. We need to have a discussion about these behaviors, just as we did with AIDS, so that we have the right information and can give our kids the right information," says Stepp.

And Bob Steele, who teaches media ethics at the Poynter Institute, based in St. Petersburg, Fla., lauded the Post for running the story.

"I think when we're talking about a societal issue dealing with health and we're dealing with issues of values, that that's very important information and very appropriate for newspapers to write about. Journalism's job is to shine the light of scrutiny on important topics and issues, and that seems to me to be an appropriate focus here," says Steele.

Before the story ran, Post editors debated the tone, words, and placement of the story. For the Post, as for all papers, Page One is prime real estate, and some editors say the story was akin to a "public service" in letting parents know what their kids may be doing.

The article quotes school officials, counselors, nurses, and authors, as well as unnamed teens describing what happens at parties. A sidebar also appeared in the "Style Plus" section about why there are no studies on this issue and where to find additional information on teen sexuality. …

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