Dicey Issues: Anonymity and Virginity

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, July 30, 2006

Virginity (and the loss thereof) and anonymity (and the loss thereof) brought interesting mail last week.

Several readers complained about Laura Sessions Stepp's July 22 story on how women lost their virginity. And Dana Milbank's Tuesday Washington Sketch on an "unnamed" Republican Senate candidate criticizing President Bush caused Maryland's Lt. Gov. Michael Steele to lose his political virginity about being an anonymous source.

Tom Slinkard of Silver Spring wrote: "After a long dialogue about the inadvisability of using anonymous sources, The Post nevertheless prints on Page A2 the profile of a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate critical of the administration. One small catch. We don't know who he is. Hello? We are now leaving Planet Earth."

The column illustrated beautifully not just Republican problems this year but also how politicians try to play the blame game without taking responsibility. And, for my taste, how reporters too easily agree to shield them.

Readers know my view of the gratuitous use of anonymous sources, but it's not too smart for a GOP candidate to call together nine journalists for lunch, including the clever Page 2 columnist for The Post, bash the administration and then expect that he's going to remain unnamed. Slinkard didn't buy that. "Unfortunately, the point was made at the expense of the credibility of The Washington Post."

Ed Brown of Odenton wrote, "I expect Dana Milbank . . . to refute Steele's comments concerning the conversation being off the record, or I expect Milbank to face censure by The Post." The session was a "backgrounder," which means that reporters agreed that quotations could be attributed only to "a Republican Senate candidate." Afterward, Milbank asked Steele spokesman Doug Heye to put some of the comments on the record. It appeared that might happen, so Milbank wrote the story using Steele's name. At 6 p.m., Heye said no, so Milbank scrubbed it of Steele's identity. (I read the e-mail exchange.)

But it was obvious that the candidate would be outed by the end of the day; political junkies everywhere were dying to know. In a few hours, ABC News reported it was Steele, who unhappily copped to the plea.

Ryan Holeywell, a George Washington University senior majoring in politics and journalism, wrote: "I've always been taught to be cautious of people who wish to heap on the criticism while remaining anonymous and free from any of the repercussions." Ryan, always be cautious of politicians bearing negative quotes under a cloak of anonymity.

On the virginity story, Janet R. Clarke of Prince Frederick posted this comment on washingtonpost.com: "Are you out of your minds?!! I am the mother of two teenagers who read the Style and Sports sections of your paper most days. The content of this article is really inappropriate for the section of your paper that most kids read. I will deal with this topic at a time of my choosing." A woman in her twenties said that she thought the piece was too "fluffy" regarding "a serious decision."

Stepp, a 55-year-old mother and stepmother, is a 24-year veteran of The Post who specializes in writing about adolescents, which sometimes means writing about sex. "My feeling is that sex is the one thing we don't talk to young people about. They get their ideas by what they see on MTV, in R-rated movies and what they hear from each other. I want to bring out these issues and to engage the public in a discussion. What people are really saying is that we don't want to talk about it and we don't want to read about it," Stepp said.

Stepp has written two books on adolescence, one of which will come out in February: "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both." Stepp interviewed hundreds of women for the book, which informed her reporting for the Style piece.

Readers asked why Stepp didn't interview young men or experts. "The experience is different for women, it's pivotal," she said. "Many more things are riding on it -- for one thing, pregnancy. It is so much more historically and culturally weighted for a woman." If the story had been a news story, she said she would have quoted experts, but she called it more of an essay.

"I wanted to write for young and older readers; I didn't want to come across as a nag or a scold. The piece was about good memories, bad memories. I was careful to work in cautionary elements."

Karen Nelson of Silver Spring was positive about the story. "It sparked a wonderful conversation with my daughter, who is exactly this age. These issues are always difficult to talk about, so the article and its detailed scenarios were very helpful. I know many parents don't want their children 'exposed' to such articles -- but I suspect many of them would be surprised at what their kids already know or think they know. It is better to have information in the open where at least it can be discussed, than kids finding snippets here and there in the dark, so to speak (or maybe literally!) . . . I also thought the article was presented in a fairly neutral way."

My reaction: First, I didn't realize the story was about virginity because the headline -- "Hot Fun (or Not Fun) in the Summertime" -- and the illustration didn't tell me, so it was not sensationalized. I respect Stepp's work; the stories were told with sensitivity, and there were plenty of cautionary notes, especially about the woman who got pregnant the first time she had sex.

But expert analysis would have added to the gravity of the piece and, at the risk of sounding like an old fogy, I would have liked one reflection by a woman who waited until she got engaged or married to have sex to represent that point of view. (Yes, they're still around.)

One interesting note: Everyone in Stepp's story was on the record.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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