Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

01/28/2008 (8:27 pm)

Can the Press Tell the Truth About Gays?

A storm has been raging over the past week regarding a new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, regarding the emergence of an antibiotic-resistant strain of staphylococcus that occurs disproportionately in men who have sex with men. The storm illustrates the difficulty we in the public have if we want accurate information about homosexuality, namely, the press refuses to tell us the truth.

It began straightforwardly enough two Mondays past, when Reuters published a brief, punchy article about the study by one Amanda Beck. Entitled “Drug-resistant staph found to be passed in gay sex,” the article furnished sparse details about the study, and about MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, the staph infection that’s scaring so many people these days). Included was this exchange from one of the study’s authors:

“Once this reaches the general population, it will be truly unstoppable,” said Binh Diep, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco who led the study. “That’s why we’re trying to spread the message of prevention.”

According to chemical analyses, bacteria are spreading among the gay communities of San Francisco and Boston, the researchers said.

“We think that it’s spread through sexual activity,” Diep said.

Next, several anti-gay activists jumped on the report as a means to bolster their claim that homosexuality, rather than being a legitimate lifestyle choice, is dangerous. Joe Farrah at Worldnet Daily touted the inherent dangers of anal sex (he’s correct, it’s more lethal than smoking,) Americans for Truth About Homosexuality asked a number of questions concerning public policy, and Matt Barber from Concerned Women for America complained about the risk that the gay lifestyle exposes the rest of us to.

Spurred by conservative reactions, the University of California at San Fransisco, from which the researchers performed the study, issued an apology for publishing a report that could be misleading. It’s pretty bland stuff, basically saying “We didn’t mean to target gays.”

What happened next is what’s troubling to me. A number of well-known sources jumped on the issue with the express intent of “correcting” the public exposure. Newsweek said “a lot of the media got it wrong.” The New York Times reported “the University scrambling to clarify.” And the Columbia Journalism Review took numerous articles to task for allegedly misleading headlines and reports.

The problem is, hardly anybody got it wrong. What most of these sources are objecting to is any suggestion that gays are uniquely responsible for spreading the disease. But the fact is, gays engaged in male-to-male sex are spreading the disease faster than other sources. That’s an accurate representation of what the study found, and none of the anti-gay activists claimed it said anything beyond that.

The most common argument in these “rebuttals” and “retractions” is that lots of other groups have trouble with MRSA. This is true; one study actually pointed out a serious infection risk among pro football players. A gay support site called “Box Turtle Bulletin” cites numerous groups that have reported Community-Associated MRSA outbreaks.

But the fact that there are lots of non-gay activities where you can catch an MRSA infection, doesn’t change the clear fact that gay sex increases the risk dramatically, and spreads the disease faster than other activities (except maybe playing pro linebacker.) The impulse to make an excuse by saying “He’s doing it too, Ma,” is common to humans, but ultimately means nothing other than “I don’t want too much attention paid to my behavior.” It’s an infantile reaction, not a rebuttal.

Matt Barber of CWA wrote a decent column outlining the whitewash. It’s not all that different from the whitewash that’s occurred regarding all things gay.

Let’s state some facts before we go on:

  • MRSA is serious stuff. Some 95,000 infections from antibiotic-resistant staph infections resulted in 19,000 deaths in 2005 in America alone, according to estimates produced by the Centers for Disease Control in 2007.
  • Hospitals and clinics account for roughly 86% of known cases of MRSA. The weaker strains attack patients with compromised immune systems.
  • The roughly 14% of MRSA cases occurring outside hospitals, so-called Community-Associated MRSA, are a more resilient species of bacterium that attack healthy individuals. The study in question addressed these, a clone of the original MRSA called USA300 by researchers. This is what Dr. Diep said might be “unstoppable.”
  • You can catch an MRSA infection by poor hygiene, wrestling, playing organized football, or just plain bad luck. If you’re not gay, you’re still at risk.
  • You can catch an MRSA infection a lot faster by engaging in anal sex in San Fransisco.

This is not strictly a gay-related disease, and anybody who reported the original report as “New Gay Plague, Like AIDS” got it wrong. The study does not say that it is, nor do any of the anti-gay activists. The study says, however, that gay sex is almost certainly spreading the disease a lot faster than other types of conduct. It doesn’t say which type of gay sexual behavior specifically, but it’s very clear in identifying male-to-male sexual contact. It even specifies that mobile gays with sex partners in multiple cities have probably spread the disease from San Fransisco to Boston, Los Angeles, and New York.

I was completely outraged by the Columbia Journalism Review article. The writer of that article, Curtis Brainard, lies outright in his eagerness to defend homosexual conduct. In objecting specifically to the Reuters headline, “Drug-resistant staph passed in gay sex – U.S. study,” Brainard says this:

This is not what the study found. It found that USA300 is “spreading rapidly” and is more common among gay men than other populations. That it is spreading sexually is presumed because staph bacteria tend to collect around the groin, as well as in armpits and other bodily crevices-but it is only presumed. The study clearly stated (and some reporters did as well) that:

“Specific sexual behaviors were not assessed or documented in clinic charts; we therefore cannot comment on the association between multidrug-resistant USA300 infection and specific male-male sexual practices.”

To peg “gay sex” as the culprit in a headline is completely misleading and journalistically irresponsible.

The problem is, the headline is completely accurate, and Brainard quoted the study out of context. Brainard was quoting a section of limitations acknowledging that the study cannot pinpoint which of several possible specific behaviors are at fault. That gay sex generally was implicated was clear and unmistakable, however. From the same section of the study Brainard quotes, the researchers tell us this:

Data from this study suggest that multidrug-resistant USA300 has spread rapidly among men who have sex with men in San Fransisco and Boston, and that having male-male sex seems to be a risk factor for multidrug-resistant USA300 infection independent of HIV infection.

The researchers continue in the next paragraph:

Our findings that 27% (32 of 118) of men who have sex with men from the SFGH HIV clinic and 39% (47 of 121) of men who have sex with men from Fenway Community Health had infections involving buttocks, genitals, or perineum are consistent with sexual transmission of USA300 in this population.

In other words, the study found precisely what Mr. Brainard says the study did not find. The headline about which Brainard complains is, in fact, accurate.

It gets worse. Again, from the discussion section of the findings (same section Brainard quotes):

It is not clear whether the behavior potentiating these infections among men who have sex with men is anal sex …, skin-abrading sexual practices, or increased frequency of intimate skin-to-skin contact; prevention messages may therefore need to suggest caution in each of these practices.

In other words, the limitation on the study’s specificity, which Brainard represents as absolving gay sex as the culprit, the researchers themselves claim is a reason to include all possibly implicated types of gay sex in their warnings!

The caveat Brainard quotes occurs at the end of the “Discussion” section of the report, after the sections I quote; it seems highly unlikely that he found his quote without reading the rest of the section. The most likely cause of his error is that he is lying outright — that he wants to obscure the clear findings of the report. The only other plausible explanation is that he wants so badly for the report to say other than what it says that he’s simply incapable of reading accurately. In either case, Mr. Brainard should be severely chastised.

If the public knew the truth about the genuine public health risks of homosexuality, there would be no general approval of the gay lifestyle; it would be evident to the average Joe that homosexuality is pathological and dangerous. The activists were not trying to make the report say anything other than what it said: here’s one more reason, among dozens of others, why it’s truly dangerous to engage in gay sex, and why gay sex can increase the risk to the rest of us. If the press isn’t permitted to say this, even though it’s supported clearly by sound research, how can we trust the press?

Update: I believe I was a bit too rough on Curtis Brainard. Rereading the various quotes, it appears to me that he simply misread the sentence he quoted, and took “cannot comment on… specific male–male sexual practices” to mean “cannot comment on homosexuality as a cause.” He clearly misread it, but I doubt that he was lying.

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March 11, 2008 @ 5:42 pm #

[...] anything remotely like a negative view of the gay lifestyle will normally make it past the editor. We watched this happen just this January, as major news outlets hurriedly backpedaled over alleged “inaccurate” headlines that [...]

August 1, 2009 @ 2:50 am #

Plumb, level, square.


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