This fall, the Florida Department of Health sent out a survey to 4,000 young women in the hopes of improving the state’s reproductive health services. The questions concerned, you know, reproduction: Women ages 18 to 24 were asked to volunteer information like, “Last time you had sex with a man, did you do anything to keep from getting pregnant?” and “How did you feel emotionally when you had unprotected sex?” and “Has a sexual partner ever physically forced you to have sex?” State health reps said that “the survey will help them understand women’s need for and approach to family-planning services” and better “understand gaps and disparities in women’s use of the services.”
Cue the media outrage! The South Florida Sun-Sentinel branded the “state sex survey” as “offensive.” The AP, Huffington Post, and New York Daily News picked up the scent. As a former local reporter, I’m familiar with this angle: A government-commissioned public health survey is booo-ring, but when the survey concerns the sexual health of young women, it’s easy for reporters to find a few Concerned Local Citizens to clutch their pearls and stir the pot.
The twist in Florida is that all of those concerned citizens appear to be progressive men. The Sun-Sentinel didn’t actually speak to any of the young women surveyed by the state, or the women who conducted the survey—Betsy Wood, acting director of Florida’s Division of Community Health Promotion, and Anika Foster, a Florida A&M University researcher. Instead, the paper turned to David Brown, a Florida political consultant who worked with several state Democrats in this month’s election, to speak for the state’s women. “Some of the questions are incredibly offensive and invasive,” Brown told the paper. He said that “a woman who got the survey and was offended by it” gave it to him, and that a male friend was “beside himself” because his daughter had received the (voluntary and private) survey in the mail. Brown called the survey an invasion of privacy and asked, “how does this information in any way help?” The Daily News summed up the local reporting by saying that “some females are offended by frank questions.” Actually, it was one dude.
And then there were two: The paper’s liberal editorial cartoonist, Chan Lowe, advanced the game. He asserted that asking Florida women if they have been raped or pressured into unprotected sex is actually part of some misogynist conservative plot to control women. He called the questions “jaw-dropping” and “offensive” and compared them to Republican obsessions with transvaginal probes. “One thing about this survey is crystal clear. It involves a topic that inordinately fascinates conservatives: the ‘s’ word—sex,” Lowe wrote. “We know from the recent campaigns that there is a prurient obsession within social conservative circles about rape, contraception, women’s plumbing in general, and the perpetuation of the quaint notion that women are incapable of making important decisions on their own behalf.”
According to these male commentators, simply asking young women if they have been raped or pressured into having unprotected sex furthers the “quaint notion” that they are “incapable of making important decisions on their own behalf.” And somehow, seeking better information to improve women’s health care is tantamount to promoting misinformation like the unique biological effects of “legitimate rape.” Or at least it is if Rick Scott is your governor.
But these progressive dudes can rest easy. Thanks to the Sun-Sentinel’s dogged reporting, the state’s male Republican leadership has come around. Scott’s office has disowned the survey, saying, “we do not think it was necessary, we are glad to hear the department has stopped using it.” Victory.