The Senator's Guide To Safe Sex

This was Sen. Tom Coburn's seventh lecture on the subject for young congressional staff.
This was Sen. Tom Coburn's seventh lecture on the subject for young congressional staff. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Hanna Rosin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 27, 2005

It's not every day that a U.S. senator gives a lecture and slide show about risky sexual activities -- complete with gross pictures of the naughty bits.

This was Sen. Tom Coburn's lecture on sexually transmitted diseases, held yesterday for the young congressional staff in the place where such things are talked about: the basement -- in this case, of the Capitol. It is no small thing to ask an intern who is trying his best to mimic a working adult to come to a lecture like this in the middle of a workday, considering the danger of being transported back to the blushing days of high school sex ed.

Coburn, a conservative, Bible-quoting Republican from Oklahoma, tried his best to put the newbies at ease; his staffers called the lecture "Revenge of the STDs" after the "Star Wars" movie, gave out fliers featuring Yoda and C-3PO saying "Oh, how dreadful!" and played campy horror music from "The Phantom Menace" as people filed in. In the back they served pizza and sodas.

For the first few minutes, it worked, as Coburn flipped through slides showing dry facts and figures about STDs, that 2 of every 3 new cases occur in people younger than 25, that most occur in people with multiple sexual partners. Then Coburn got serious. He flipped to his next slide. It showed a part of the male anatomy but not as a science textbook drawing; this was the real thing, and a particularly sorry example; it looked like it had been left outside by mistake and then rusted in some unnatural way, with scaly dry spots, and warts on an angry red background.

This image was now projected up on a wall of the U.S. Capitol, and the mood shifted instantly. None of the 160 or so audience members shrieked, or giggled, or ran out of the room. They're not 15 anymore, and this is a professional environment. The chatter stopped; everyone looked straight ahead, or down at their BlackBerries. A large number of women crossed their arms over their chests. Most everyone seemed encapsulated in the bit of air around them, afraid to move or touch the person sitting next to them. The half-eaten slices of pizza, now cooling on laps, seemed deeply unappetizing.

This is the seventh year that Coburn, who is a family doctor in Muskogee, has presented his slide show; he showed it for six years when he was in the House, and totes it around Oklahoma, and always he begins it the way he did yesterday: "I'm going to try not to give you my opinion," he says. "I'm just going to give you scientific facts." But the combination of Coburn, sex and the U.S. Capitol does not get away without controversy.

"His unwitting patients should get a second opinion," says Bill Smith, vice president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. "What Dr. Coburn did was resort to typical scare tactics, showing pictures of genital warts that have gone untreated for decades, even though genital warts are highly treatable."

However, even Smith admitted, after hearing a report from staff members who attended, that this was a "different Sen. Coburn. In a lot of cases he did set his ideology aside."

Conservative Christian leaders and STDs are in many ways a natural match. Seen from a biblical mind-set, the growing prevalence of STDs looks like the wages of sin, the price American society pays for the sexual revolution. And even medical experts agree that delaying sex until age 19 or 20 lowers the risk, and the only sure way to avoid ever contracting an STD is to be in a relationship where neither person has ever had another sexual partner.

During his 40-minute slideshow, Coburn avoided any spiritual overtones and spoke in his usual brisk clinical way. Still, Smith detected bias, taking issue, for example, with Coburn's contention that condoms are only 69 percent effective in preventing HIV; Smith says the latest studies show condoms to be 99 percent effective.

But Smith did give Coburn credit for saying during the question-and-answer portion, "Condoms do reduce the risk of transmission, and they work very well against HIV. If you decide to do any risky sexual behavior, use a condom." Being a family doctor adds a dose of realism to his view; Coburn mentioned that he recently delivered a baby to a 12-year-old.

Coburn always offers to see people in private after the lecture, and his staff say 10 or so people always take him up on it and many more ask follow-up questions after his lectures. No doubt at the very least he's filling in basic gaps in knowledge.

"You keep mentioning the word 'monogamy'," a staffer named Roland Foster recalls one young woman asking after a lecture. "What is that?"

"That's when you have sex with only one partner," Coburn responded.

"You mean at a time?"

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