Sunday, November 16, 2014

On Gold Mountain by Lisa See

Source of book: I own this.

This is hardly a book I would have just picked up off a library shelf. I discovered it through an interesting series of events. First, our family went with some friends to the Autry Museum for a field trip. For those not from the Los Angeles area (my hometown), the Autry is a museum of “Western Heritage,” which means that it has rotating exhibitions on a variety of topics related to the American west, from the Native Americans to the golden age of the Western movie. (One of the coolest permanent exhibits is Gene Autry’s fantastic collection of classic guns.) 

A couple of Colt single actions from the collection.
The top one belonged to Theodore Roosevelt. The bottom one to Doc Holliday.

When we visited, one exhibit (sadly now being replaced with a new one after 14 years) was an interactive exhibit on the See family, a Chinese American family that rose to prominence in Los Angeles in the early 20th Century. The exhibit had its genesis in Lisa See’s book, On Gold Mountain. My wife noted the title, and picked it up when it appeared at Costco last year.

 My two oldest kids at the See Family exhibit, 2012.

Lisa See was already a reasonably successful author before writing this book. She is also the daughter of novelist Carolyn See, and the two shared a pseudonym for a series they wrote. However, it was On Gold Mountain that brought Lisa to prominence.

On Gold Mountain is the story of See’s family, centering on the story of her great-grandparents. Fong See came to the United States in the 1800s and built a life and a business. He married Lettice Pruett, a young woman of Swedish descent, and the two of them founded a family. The Sees became fixtures in LA’s Chinatown, and their children and grandchildren would likewise make their marks.

The central story in the book is that of Fong See and Lettice Pruett. Their meeting, romance, success, and the eventual destruction of their marriage and its fallout are the makings of a great story, full of tenderness and tragedy. But the story doesn’t begin or end there. Lisa tells of five generations of the family, from her great-great grandfather to her own generation, and all the good and bad that happens throughout a 100 year time frame. In addition to the stories of her family, she also tells of others who were close, from the actress Anna May Wong to her grandfather Eddie See’s fellow artists and their families. Their stories are fully human. See doesn’t pull any punches, but portrays the events and people in an objective, unflinching manner. The result is a thoroughly engrossing tale, and unforgettable characters.

It was hard to decide what to include in this review, because there are so many interesting themes and quotes. It would be tempting to try to give a summary of the plot, but that would take many words, and I couldn’t do it justice anyway.

I at least want to share the story of Fong See and Ticie. Fong See came to the United States seeking his fortune. He set up shop in Sacramento and was experiencing moderate success, when I red haired young woman walked into his store and insisted that he hire her. He was reluctant, but she eventually won out. She had recently arrived from Oregon, where she had left from an unpleasant family situation. She had hoped to find a new life in California, one way or the other.

Eventually, Fong and Ticie fell in love. This gave rise to a problem, because interracial marriage was not legal in California (or much of anywhere else in the United States) in 1897. At that time, a Mexican marriage wasn’t really available, so they did what they could. They hired a local lawyer to draw up a contract, essentially the equivalent of a marriage. They then lived as husband and wife for the next couple of decades in open defiance of the law.

Twenty years and five children later, they had moved to Los Angeles and established a booming retail business. Fong’s knowledge of China and his sources of goods combined with Ticie’s command of English and her inherent “trustworthiness” to white Californians to make a perfect partnership.

Things went wrong on a trip to China. Fong became increasingly aware of his wealth and status among his fellow Chinese, and also of the fact that his wife failed to meet the standards of submissiveness that Chinese culture expected. Ticie, frustratingly, refused to be seen as an inferior subordinate, and expected nothing less than equality. Things came to a head when Fong tried to leave one of their young sons with relatives in China. Ticie, who had carefully brought some of her own money along, left for California, taking the children with her. Fong retaliated by finding a much younger wife to replace Ticie. This, predictably, did not sit will with Ticie, and the two separated. Fong would have a second family with his other wife, and Ticie would pine after him for the rest of her life, even as she held the family together and continued her half of the business without him. 

Fong and Ticie See with their children in 1914.

The tale is one of a clash of cultures and expectations - and also of a clash of eras. None of the See’s sons would marry Chinese women, although their daughter married a traditional Chinese man against his mother’s wishes. (The See boys would have to marry in Tijuana. It wasn’t until the third generation - 1948 - that interracial marriages would be legalized in California.) Ticie would, in many ways, adopt a Chinese identity, from dress to cuisine. She would remain in Chinatown, and run the store and a restaurant, and continue to be a part of that world, rather than the white world. However, she could never bring herself to be the submissive, subordinate, and servant wife she was expected to be. Fong’s other wife would be that woman, prematurely stooped and aged from long hours of menial service and backbreaking labor, rarely leaving the house, and devoting herself completely to serving Fong.

Ticie was a strong woman, competent, hard working, and sure of her own value and worth. She also made sure that she retained enough power to protect herself and her children when necessary. As she advised her daughter-in-law when she was engaged to Lisa’s grandfather, “I don’t know, Stella. I love my son very much, but you should always keep a little money for yourself.” This is advice I fully intend to give to my own daughters.

In this sense, the book has a very feminist flavor. Since the children all continued to be closer to Ticie than Fong, they and their descendents grew up around her rather than him. Their stories show more of her point of view than his. Also, Lisa sourced much of the book from the women of the family, who were eager to tell their stories.

Another major theme of the book is the discrimination and outright persecution that the Chinese faced when they came to the United States. It is all too easy to forget what the Chinese immigrants have done for our country. They largely built the western half of the transcontinental railroad. They built most of the levees that keep the flooding at bay in the Sacramento and American River delta. They did the laundry and cooked the food for decades. As any California can tell you, the high-quality take-out restaurant was practically invented by Chinese Americans. Today, we can take for granted the availability of excellent and inexpensive food from all over the world because they first brought foreign food to the mainstream in California.

I could quote pages and pages from this book about the discriminatory - and indeed cruel - laws enacted to keep the Chinese out, and send the ones here back to China post haste. Even worse, though, are the things that were said about them. In fact, they parallel so much of what continues to be said about Mexican immigrants today, it is uncanny. The words used are dehumanizing. Diseased. Lazy. Of low morals. Dirty. The “weaker races.” Nothing really changes. Just the group to which fear and loathing is directed. This book would be worth it just for the history.

Lisa See’s experience as a novelist shines through in this book. She has an eye for detail, an ear for dialogue, and a knack for bringing family stories to life. This is no mere memoir or vanity project. Lisa’s family requested that she write the family story, and many from all sides of her family - even the children of Fong’s other wife - fully embraced the book as an authentic tale of the Chinese-American experience.

If one of the benefits of reading is the building of empathy - and I believe it is - this book is an excellent opportunity. It is both exotic and unfamiliar and yet universal and human. There are no perfect characters. Everyone has flaws. And yet, all are portrayed in a sympathetic and charitable light. Life happens. Good and bad happen. Mistakes are made by everyone. And yet, life goes on, and love happens. It is messy and heartwarming and frustrating and real.

Note on names:

Technically, Fong is the last name, not the first name. However, the Sees ended up going with the mistake on the immigration papers, and used See as the last name. I have used “Fong” to describe Fong See, to distinguish him from the rest of the See family. Fong’s second family would use Fong as the last name.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This is my 2014 selection for Banned Books Week. Technically, that was back in late September, but I was delayed by a few factors. First, I got busy and let the event sneak up on me. Second, Palace Walk had to be ordered, and took a couple of weeks to come in. Finally, because the book is nearly 500 pages long, it took me a while to read it.

Just a reminder of my rules for book selection (which you can read about here):

I distinguish between banned books and challenged books. A banned book is one that is made illegal to publish or to possess by a government. A challenged book, in contrast, is one that either is sought to be kept out of a library or school, but is not illegal to publish, buy, or own. I believe there is a significant difference, although the reasons for banning and challenging are often the same.

Here are the reviews for previous Banned Books Weeks:

The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf (2013)


Palace Walk is the first book in the Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz. Written in Arabic in the 1950s, it wasn’t translated into English until 1990, after Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature. (He remains the only Arab to win it.) As an interesting tidbit, the translation was overseen by Jackie Kennedy Onassis, back when she was an editor for Doubleday.

Mahfouz grew up in Cairo in the 1910s and 20s, in a devout - and strict - Muslim family. To a degree, Palace Walk and the later books of the trilogy reflect facets of his life from childhood to middle age, although they are not autobiographical. He has admitted that the youngest son, Kamil, is based on himself, but the events (at least the non-historical ones) do not directly mirror his experiences.

Mahfouz was a prolific author, writing dozens of novels and plays, hundreds of short stories, and various other works over his 70 year career. His work didn’t really break through to the Western world, however, until relatively late in life, after he won the Nobel Prize.

This book was suggested to me by a frequent and well-read commenter on my blog. After doing a little research, I realized that Mahfouz was an ideal choice for Banned Books Week.

The Cairo Trilogy was banned throughout most of the Arabic world - except Lebanon - which makes it fit my criteria.

However, it is the personal life of Mahfouz that really seals the deal. Before Salman Rushdie made headlines by being the subject of a fatwah calling for his assasination, Mahfouz was on the Islamic Fundamentalist “death list.” After Rushdie fell afoul of the extremists for his novel, The Satanic Verses, Mahfouz defended him, which reminded the extremists that they already hated him. In 1994, despite police protection, the 82 year old Mahfouz was seriously injured in an assassination attempt outside his Cairo home. (Rushdie was apparently wise to have fled to England…) So, Mahfouz can truly be claimed as a hero in the fight for free speech - and received honorable wounds.

[Side note: I read The Satanic Verses a few years before I started my blog. I highly recommend it as an example of Magical Realism, and as a clear case of how fundamentalists cannot stand any questioning of their dogma. Great book.]

Mahfouz spoke one of the most insightful comments about how censorship reflects poorly on the censors.

“No blasphemy harms Islam and Muslims so much as the call for murdering a writer.”

Palace Walk is set in the Cairo of Mahfouz’s childhood, at the end of World War One through the Egyptian Revolution of 1919. The book follows the family of Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, the tyrannical and hypocritical father.

Ahmad has two sides to his personality. To his family, he is harsh, controlling, devout, and aloof. To his friends, he is jovial, personable, and free. He loves “wine, women, and song.”  (Let’s just say that “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” isn’t new by any stretch…) Although he confines his wife to the house at all times, and demands absolute, unquestioning obedience from his children; he himself stays out all hours of the night, drinking and singing, and having a series of affairs with courtesans.

His eldest son, from a prior marriage, is much like him - but without the discretion to stay out of obvious trouble. His second son is a serious and politically passionate student. The youngest (the stand-in for Mahfouz) is a young boy. The elder daughter is jealous of the younger for her beauty and desirability. The mother is in repressed denial about her husband’s dalliances, and submerges her own personality in her obedience and submission to his every whim.

While the political turmoil rages around them, the family itself experiences dramatic change. Both girls marry, which changes the dynamic of the family. The second son rebels - not out of a desire to cast of the yoke - but because of his idealism in support of Egyptian nationalism. The elder son, unable to control his sexual desires, attempts to rape a servant, so his father marries him off. This ends badly as the son becomes bored with what he has as a matter of property and seeks new thrills, causing embarrassment to his family. In a number of different ways, the author portrays the changing of society and the gradual erosion of the father’s absolute control of his family.

The turmoil in society is two-fold. First, there is the political upheaval as Egypt seeks independence from England. Mahfouz does an excellent job of creating in the reader sympathy for the Egyptians, while retaining the humanity of the British. There is no simple good/evil dichotomy here, but it is a change from the often jingoistic British perspective of colonialism. Mahfouz writes it well because he lived it. Even though he was only seven years old, he felt that the events had a profound effect on him, and he writes accordingly.

The second societal change is from a traditional, patriarchal society to one in which women are viewed as having some rights of their own. Education, for example - or even the right to walk the streets unaccompanied by a man. It is profoundly sad that this change, which started in Egypt 100 years ago, should have met such absolute reversals throughout the Arab world in the last several decades.

The portrayal of Ahmad is excellent. On the one hand, he is easy to hate, despicable in his lust and drunkenness, and unbearable in his hypocrisy. On the other, he is relatable in a weird way. He is able to justify his own lapses and retain his good opinion of himself. He (correctly) notes that the Koran appears to permit dalliances with courtesans and concubines (as does the Old Testament, incidentally), and he makes up for his abuse of alcohol (in his mind) by his strictness with his family. His efforts to raise them right mitigate his own lapses. It is in so many ways a familiar hypocrisy. Goodness in one area excuses lapses in another. From the Pharisees on down, this is an unfortunate human tendency. (It is perhaps most visible when religious leaders fail…)

And Ahmad is certainly a narcissist. The greater world revolves around him because of his scintillating personality. His family revolves around him because of his place of authority and power. And he must be the center. As he puts it, regarding the potential marriage of his daughter, “No daughter of mine will marry a man until I am satisfied that his primary motive for marrying her is a sincere desire to be related to” At one time, I might have blown this off as an exaggeration, but my experience with John Thompson [insert link] speaks otherwise, as he seemed to think that my family should consider it a great honor to be pursued by such a luminary as him.

Ahmad isn’t just a hypocrite, either. He is a product and a member of the society in which he lives. Many of the men cheat habitually. The Greek tavern is a regular haunt of Muslim men. There is an entire subculture of entitlement that is fed by the societal beliefs about women. Because men regain near absolute power over the women, they themselves are the only checks on their behavior. Thus, a truly moral man may avoid the culture of philandering, but there is no consequence for those who indulge. After all, the women must obey and shut up. After all, what are their options? Return to their parents’ home is about it.

Mahfouz is brutally honest about the attitudes toward women. The eldest son, Yasin, has nothing but contempt for his mother, who had multiple marriages and affairs after being divorced by his father. “Every woman is a filthy curse. A woman doesn’t know what virtue is, unless she’s denied all opportunities for adultery.” This from a young man who squanders his income on wine and prostitutes. Because the double standard is the standard in societies that denigrate the equality of women. He can sleep around at will, but she must remain pure.

It was quite painful to read the passages dealing with Amina, Ahmad’s wife. She was married to him at 14, and has buried her very self in her service of him. She knows he stumbles home drunk every night, and that he has had a string of affairs, but she refuses to acknowledge this to herself. Instead, she represses everything, never having an opinion or need of her own. As she says to him after he rather violently rejects her extremely subtle attempts to relate a marriage proposal regarding her younger daughter, “My opinion is the same as yours, sir. I have no opinion of my own.”

It would be easy to dismiss this as either an exaggeration or as something limited to extreme Islam. However, this is exactly what leaders of Christian Patriarchy like Bill Gothard taught should be the attitude of those “under authority.” Po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to. It is the concept of absolute obedience to authority by those under it. Namely, women and children.

The problem with Ahmad isn’t strictly a religious one. Many of his friends are far less strict. Indeed, the society as a whole was transitioning toward one where women had freedom, and children were to be nurtured rather than controlled. Ahmad is an unusual specimen even in his time and culture. However, the culture also supports the structure that allows his abuse. His friends may question his strictness, but they cannot and will not question the hierarchy of power that enables it. He may not use his rights wisely, but they are certainly his right.

Thus, Ahmad is able to inflict his abuse on his family, and there is no real recourse for them. Palace Walk is thus a powerful story of how structural power imbalances enable and feed the abuse of narcissists like Ahmad.  

One final thought on this book. I was struck by some significant similarities between this book and The Cypresses Believe in God. [An outstanding book. Highly recommended.]  Both are set during times of civil unrest, both follow a close family, both have an eldest son tempted by sex and a second son idealistically following a vision, both chronicle the weakening of religious and political ties. The plots are in a number of ways parallel, although I cannot find evidence that they were aware of the others’ work. The differences are fascinating, however. In Cypresses, the parents are admirable, salt of the earth types. In Palace Walk, they are highly dysfunctional and of little help to their children. In Cypresses, the whole world goes crazy. (This is the most terrifying part of the book.) In Palace Walk, the revolution is logical and justified to a large extent. Neither the British nor the Egyptians are stark raving mad like the various parties to the Spanish Civil War. In Cypresses, religion and family ultimately draw toward moral, compassionate behavior, while in Palace Walk, both fail to offer truly moral guidance. Thus, in Cypresses, in a world gone mad, family and faith offer the refuge from the maelstrom. In Palace Walk, the insanity comes from within, and only escape from the tyranny of the family structure as excused by religious teaching can lead to a better way.

Perhaps, in the end, the contrast of the two books might best be seen in the characters of the two fathers. Matías Alvear is full of integrity in his public and private life, and full of genuine love and compassion for others. When all goes to hell, his family knows his heart, and responds accordingly. For Ahmad, once his power to abuse and control starts to slip, he has nothing left to his relationships with his children. They are free to disregard him and his directives, because there is no underlying relationship of love and mutual respect.

The book itself seems to anticipate a sequel, as it ends after a catastrophe, but without tying up the loose ends. However, I looked up some information on the sequels, and it appears that there is a significant time gap before the next book. Mahfouz appears to expect the reader to fill in the fallout of the final events. I shall have to find the other books in this series, as I am curious to see how it ends. In general, the writing is compelling. If anything, I found myself wishing the book was a little longer so that more information about certain events could be included. The characters are memorable and believable, and the psychological aspects of the relationships are compelling.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why My Daughters - And Sons - Are Getting the HPV Vaccine

It seems like time has really flown. My eldest daughter is in 6th grade this year, and will be entering Jr. High next fall. Which means she has started her Jr. High vaccinations. (Cue ominous music…)

My daughters - and my sons as well - will be getting the HPV vaccine. Here’s why.

First, let me explain that I am a proponent of vaccines in general. It has been immensely frustrating to see the panic over the last couple of decades that continues to grow, despite overwhelming evidence that vaccines are safe and effective. Even more frustrating is the fact that the panic all stems from a fraudulent “research study” published by a man named Andrew Wakefield back in 1998 claiming to find a link between vaccines and autism. Without getting into the entire issue, I will simply point out that Wakefield had a clear conflict of interest (his plan to market, along with a personal injury attorney, a supposed medical “treatment” for autism), cherry picked his 12 case studies, and in general, didn’t follow basic accepted techniques for a meaningful study. I will repeat in case anyone missed it, this was all based on 12 - a mere dozen - patients, who were cherry picked by Wakefield to support his theory. In most circles, we call this fraud, but apparently there is a significant contingent that remains willfully blind to it. Whatever the case is, there were a good number of larger studies, with the correct control groups, that were conducted that showed no statistically significant correlation (let alone causation) between vaccination and autism. This is all readily available information, but the conspiracy theories and fears remain. 

One of my favorite science authors, Phil Plait (see my review of Death From the Skies), has referred to vaccine panic as the Young Earth Creationism of the left. Now, I agree with him that it is an equally irrational position, believed in the teeth of the evidence as is YEC, and that it does infect a certain contingent of leftists. However, in my experience, it is equally popular on the right. I also believe that a certain amount of the panic on the right can be attributed to another factor that doesn’t play out in leftist circles.

I know this is just anecdotal evidence, but I strongly suspect it plays out on a broad scale. With the exception of those right-leaning friends and acquaintances who have been into alternative medicine snake oil for decades (which means they have a lot in common with leftist anti-vaxers), the anti-vaccine panic in right-leaning circles really gained traction starting in 2006.

What happened in 2006?

The HPV vaccine Gardasil was approved in the United States. The rise of the internet - and Facebook in particular - contributed as well, but I believe this one vaccine sent many parents looking for reasons to skip the vaccine, and fell right into the clutches of the quacks peddling anti-vax lunacy.

If my lifelong experience in Conservative Christian circles has taught me anything, it is that the one topic which brings out the most irrationality and damaging panics is that of sex.

Sex may sell, but fear sells better, and fear of sex sells better than anything else in Christian circles.

My experience has been that, with the crunchy hippie exception, the vaccine panic took off once a vaccine for a sexually transmitted infection was released.

As Professor Harold Hill put it, “Mass-staria!”

Obviously [sarcasm font], this vaccine was a leftist conspiracy to get our young people to have more sex!

I’ll do my best to rebut that in a bit, but first, what are the actual facts?

Facts about the Human Papilloma Virus

I’d probably skip this segment, except that I am willing to wager (from my own experience) that many who are passionate anti-vaxxers don’t really know much about HPV beyond the name.

First of all, let’s call it what it is: warts. In really awkward places. That’s not pleasant.

And worse than that, some strains have a bad habit of turning into cancer. In really awkward places. That can kill you.

If you are a woman, HPV can also cause infertility. Also not a really great outcome, at least if you want kids.

So, you generally do not want to get this disease. At best, you get warts in awkward places.

It’s not difficult to get either. The best estimates for the United States indicate that 80% percent of women will contract at least one strain by age 50, with men close behind.

Worldwide, the mortality number is estimated to be 275,000 yearly. (By contrast, the yearly worldwide death toll from war is estimated at 55,000.) No matter how you slice it, that’s a large number.

I have had a couple of clients who had cervical cancer, and my wife has some co-workers and acquaintances who either have had it, or currently have it - and the prognosis isn't good for some of them. This isn’t surprising. It is out there, and it kills.

And that isn’t counting the other cancers associated with HPV. Recently, actor Michael Douglas reported that he was suffering from oral cancer, most likely caused by an HPV infection.

I suspect many of my Evangelical friends, particularly the older ones, will clutch their pearls, and dismiss this as just something that happens to those vile Hollywood types, who presumably sleep around all the time. (And have oral sex. The horror!) Of course, this is a rather dismissive attitude to have, but beyond that, it is foolish. It isn’t that hard to catch HPV, and many people have it. One exposure, and you could end up with cancer.

So much for the reasons to want to avoid said disease. What about the vaccine?

Facts about the vaccine

All vaccines have some incidence of adverse effects. So do all drugs, herbs, and pretty much everything else we might possibly contact, ingest, or do. Of the most common activities, use of an automobile is probably the most risky, but most of us do it anyway. So the question is not, “could there possibly be a risk,” but “is the risk high enough to outweigh the benefit.” I would have thought this was common sense, but research shows that humans tend to overestimate risk, while underestimating benefits in many cases. This is why people can get in a car despite a high risk, but get freaked out about extremely unlikely events like shark bites. Another example would be the way people can be paralyzed about the possibility of a stranger abduction, even though most sexual assault comes from someone the victim knows well. The unusual is more frightening than the mundane.

In general, vaccines carry an extremely small risk, both numerically and in terms of likely harm in the more serious cases. In fact, the risk from the disease itself is far greater than from the vaccine. (Um, that’s why we use them, right?) Again, the risks associated with any vaccine are extremely low.

However, even as far as vaccines go, the HPV vaccine is safe. In fact, it has fewer adverse reactions than the average vaccine. Perhaps this is because it is newer, and the science is better? Perhaps.

Let’s look at actual numbers. In the eight years it has been licensed, there have been about 12,000 reported adverse events. (Out of more than 23 million vaccinated.) That’s just a few more reactions in eight years than there are cervical cancer diagnoses in every year. What qualifies as an adverse event? It’s not a hard bar to clear. The most common ones were...wait for it...redness and swelling at the vaccine site. Also common was fainting, dizziness, and vomiting.


This should come as no surprise. These are all common symptoms of a common item: the needle.

I am a regular blood donor, working on my 10th gallon. That’s 80 donations. I have had two “adverse events” myself. The first time I donated, I stupidly reopened my puncture, and bled all over. (Don't ask. It was stupid and embarrassing...) My then girlfriend (now wife) had to catch me. Another time, someone else fainted after donating, and it got to me. I had to be given a cold pack before I fainted. It’s natural. Blood or needles.

These are the “adverse effects” we are talking about in the vast majority of the cases.

My wife, who is not only a nurse, but worked in a pediatrician’s office during nursing school, has a theory about this. The HPV vaccine is primarily given to middle school kids. When she assisted with vaccines, the worst, by far, were 12 year olds. Particularly 12 year old boys, who sometimes had to be physically restrained for shots. (I would have been embarrassed at age 7, let alone age 12, but whatever.) So, the idea that there was plenty of fainting and complaints of pain from humanity’s most theatrical age should come as no surprise.

I won’t go through it all, but you can read the CDC fact sheet on all this. I’ll merely note that in all the cases where deaths were reported subsequent to an HPV vaccination, the autopsy revealed a cause of death unrelated to the vaccine.
I’ll add my own bit to this, from the mouth of my own 11 year old. She got four shots, the last of which was (intentionally) the HPV shot. She said the others weren’t bad, but the HPV one hurt. She’s tough, so that meant it hurt. (This is the girl who fell off a wall, cutting her leg down to the viscera, and still had the presence of mind to notice that the viscera was interesting. I think she was 8 or 9 at the time.) She didn’t faint after the vaccination, and she did her gymnastics class without incident the next day. No big deal.

Is the vaccine effective?

That’s the truth about the vaccine. So why is it such a huge controversy in Evangelical circles?


I’ve noted this before several times in connection with other topics, but for some reason, Evangelicals absolutely freak out and do batshit crazy things whenever fear of sex is involved. It’s how you get the courtship/betrothal movement, the perpetuation of Rape Culture through slut shaming, and how you get fanatical opposition to a useful vaccine.

I remember when the vaccine first started trials. Predictably, Evangelicals everywhere started saying that if you gave your daughter this vaccine, she would have less incentive to avoid sex before marriage.


I remember hearing this argument from my youth, and I never bought it. I mean, really. There are a variety of situations where one might have sex, and I don’t think any of us would calculate, “Let’s see, I could catch, say, 22 diseases. Oh, wait, it’s only 21. I’m good!” This is to say nothing of the risk of pregnancy, for that matter. But even then, for the very most rational of us (the Spocks of sex…), the difference between herpes and herpes plus HPV is unlikely to change behavior one iota. For the more normal situation, the decision to have sex, or to use protection, is likely made without reference to any particular disease. It is made from hormones and desire. The more prepared and rational use at least some protection. The others don’t.

So, does the HPV vaccine make a difference in sexual behavior?

Absolutely freaking not.

Here is the relevant study. (There are others too. I just link one of several.) Guess what? No difference. 

I’m not surprised.

The Evangelical Obsession with (Female) Virginity

I’ve been thinking about this a good bit, in connection with my Modesty Culture series, and also in connection with my observation of Evangelicalism during my life of experience.

I believe that there is a bit of a sadistic side to our tribe, that really, really, wants to see sexual sinners punished severely for their sins.

We want to see blood, death, abject misery.

This is why we resist AIDS research. At least as long as it was associated primarily with homosexual men. Because we really wanted to see them die. 

We were Jonah sitting outside the gates of Nineveh, waiting eagerly for the smiting.

And so it is with (women) who fail to meet our standards of purity. We really, really want to see them punished to the utmost for their sins. (We can’t stone them anymore, at least in the Western world.)

I believe that this is a significant reason for the resistance to this vaccine, and why I also believe that it would have been a different story if the consequences of the disease fell primarily on men, rather than women.

After all, it is mostly women who suffer the infertility, cancer, and death. They are (presumably) sluts who weren’t careful who they screwed, and now they pay the penalty. If the primary result of HPV was that penises fell off, I strongly suspect the discussion would be completely different.

Even for those who lack the true inner sadism, I believe there is a deadly fear of young people, particularly women, having sex. Thus, losing even one potential deterrent is terrifying. If the primary goal is to deter sex before marriage (which is, after all, the worst sin except for homosexuality), then all extreme measures are justified. The saving of the soul is more important than the prevention of death of the body.

Likewise for birth control. While my parents did a fantastic job of educating me about sex, birth control, and STIs, many Evangelical parents believe that to explain birth control and disease prevention is tantamount to giving permission and encouragement to have wanton random sex. (Again, the evidence is contrary, but that is a subject for a future post.)

But the bottom line is, that there is a widespread belief that having sex before marriage is a much worse event than the possible preventable consequences. If a girl (let’s be honest, this is primarily about women and sex) has sex, she might as well (and probably should) get pregnant and die young as an example to other girls to avoid her fate.

And hence the hostility.

I have a number of problems with this. Theologically, it is problematic to tie a woman’s worth to her virginity, although it sure is a cultural constant over the course of recorded history. But we seem eager to dismiss the worth of those who have failed to follow the rules.

I believe, however, that this is not only lacking in empathy and compassion, it also flies in the face of the actual real-world risks.

It’s possible to catch HPV without being a slut

I know this will come as a terrible surprise to many older Evangelicals - although it shouldn’t. Even within the most conservative circles, very few people - even Christians -  are virgins on their wedding night.

I know. Terribly shocking.

Statistically speaking, most are not. And probably even more rare is the couple where both are virgins. Sure, it happens. But it is far from universal. Also, this is nothing new. Rates of premarital sex have been north of 85% since the 1940s. (Yes, the “greatest generation.” Many of whom probably continued the age-old tradition of having a little fun with the local whores while on deployment...the double standard sure rocks.)

Beyond the statistics, however, let’s examine the implications. If the only people who are “acceptable” are those who are virgins on the wedding night, what does that say about Christianity? Are the only people we care about the few that lack a sexual history? Should everyone else be dismissed?

What about someone who comes to the faith later in life? Do we still wish for them to be punished as much as possible for their past failings? (Don’t answer that. I suspect I know the answer.)

As someone who works on the legal areas of Family Law and Estate Planning, I get to know a bit of information about people. Nothing like comparing marriage dates and birth dates of the children to reveal something about many wonderful, religious people. It is a common human event, shall we say. And believe me, you don’t know by looking at people. Many of them make it 50+ years and are some of the best people you have ever met…

But let me make this more personal. And yes, if you are a high profile pastor and author, you are fair game. Particularly if you made your reputation preaching “purity culture.”

Josh Harris Didn’t Marry a Virgin

Veterans of the homeschool movement all know about Josh Harris. Son of Gregg Harris, one of the luminaries of the early movement (and probably the least nutty of the Reconstructionists.) Josh wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye, probably the most influential piece of work in the history of the Courtship movement. It took the idea mainstream, beyond the environs of Bill Gothard’s cult movement.

The point of “courtship,” if it wasn’t obvious, is to prevent young people from entering romantic relationships in any way that might lead to sex before marriage. In the most extreme (betrothal) cases, the couple was not allowed to develop feelings of any nature, before they were irrevocably committed.

My wife attended a few homeschool conferences at which Josh spoke, and she can attest that all the good Patriarchy girls were mooning over the outrageously hunky Josh, and dreaming of the day when they could marry him - or at least someone like him.

So what happened?

Josh not only didn’t follow his own courtship prescription - he dated just like anyone else from the secular culture - he married a girl with a sexual past! He admits as much in his book, Boy Meets Girl.

Now, let me say at the outset that I have zero problem with this. He met a girl and fell in love. I would imagine she is a decent sort. Love is unpredictable sometimes, and I find no shame in unexpected love. Hey, I don’t believe in “love at first sight,” but… 

But think of the poor Patriarchy girls that kept themselves pure - without even a hint of romantic involvement with anyone - until the time that a young man approached their fathers. They were promised, explicitly or implicitly, that the Josh Harrises of the world were available only to the pure, and that they would receive the reward of their purity. (And, I might add, many of these girls were not permitted to attend college, because their destiny was to be a wife and mother. Oh, and did I mention that Josh met his wife at their mutual place of work? Hmm.)

Okay, so that happened. How does this relate to the HPV vaccine? Well, because his wife has a history, she might (potentially) have HPV. In the Fundie worldview, she would richly deserve to become ill as punishment for having sex. But what about Josh? He might catch the disease from her and become ill. Should he be punished for not marrying a virgin? (Again, don’t answer that…)

But what if you flipped the script? Even Fundies tend to - in practice - support a sexual double standard. A man can reform after a wild youth, unlike the forever-tainted woman. What about the D-Day soldier, American hero, who had one night with a local girl, but returned and married the wholesome Donna Reed sort? He could be infected, and not know it. She then marries him, not knowing his past, gets sick, and pays the penalty for his past indiscretions. Do we punish her? She couldn’t guarantee she knew his history?

Or what about the woman whose spouse cheats on her, eventually infecting her. Do we wish cancer on her as well?

Or what about the worst case scenario that we hate to even contemplate? What if the woman was raped as a teen? Surely she didn’t choose her partner in that case! Unless we consider her responsible for her rape. (Wait! Don’t answer that one either!)

This reaches a lot further than just the person who initially caught the infection. It can have negative effects on down the line, from the “innocent” spouse to the children who may have an ill or dead parent.

Sexual Sin is the one we care about punishing

Did you know that the direct costs (medical expenses) of diabetes in the United States was around $176 billion in 2013? That’s close to double the annual budget of the State of California (my home state). If it were a country, California would have the 6th largest economy in the world. And its budget is significantly lower than the cost of diabetes in the United States.

I know there are exceptions, but a significant percentage of the diabetes in Western nations - particularly the US - is caused by obesity. In traditional Christian terms, we might say “gluttony.” (Again, I am oversimplifying. Obviously, overeating is a factor, but not the only factor. Just like promiscuity is a factor in the transmission of HPV, but not the only factor.) So, one could arguably attribute this disease to sin.

We are spending a lot of money on mitigating the effects of that sin.

Why are we okay with trying to mitigate the effects of gluttony, but not sex? Is it just because we can’t think logically when sex is involved? Or is it because of the need to control young people? Do the sins of older people not really count? I don’t get it.

I sometimes feel that this issue reveals the insecurities of our tribe. We are deathly afraid that we really don’t have a convincing case for some of our doctrines, so we panic when we lose any weapon, no matter how small. Losing even one STI as a threat scares us. If we were really confident that we had a solid case, I don’t think we would feel the need to make dire threats about death, disease, and hellfire. But I think the older generation in particular is terrified that the younger generations, even Purity Culture luminaries like Josh Harris, don’t find that a girl’s virginity is the most important thing about her. (For a bit more on this, check out this installment of my Modesty Culture series: it’s at the bottom in the footnote section.)\

The bottom line

I believe the science is in favor of vaccinations in general, and the HPV vaccine in particular. I strongly doubt that vaccination status will have any effect on the sexual decisions my children make. If they marry virgins, stay faithful, and only ever have one partner, then I suppose they might get a needle stick for no reason. But they can only control themselves, not their partners. Why not have the extra protection against the sins of a partner? 

Will it provide complete protection against disease and pregnancy? Of course not! But why not reduce the risks we can? 

But more than that, I don’t believe that it is my job to ensure that my children are punished for any possible future sexual sin. Life is messy. My own extended family has its own failures. Crap happens. We make mistakes. Sex happens. I don’t believe I will be thwarting divine justice by reducing the consequences of human frailty. Whether it is my child that has an encounter leading to exposure, or their eventual spouse, I would prefer that they not suffer lifelong and possibly fatal consequences for that mistake.

My approach to sex and sex education is better left to a future post. Suffice it to say that so much of our current Evangelical fixation is inextricably bound up with a view of women as property, which leads to an obsession with female purity and modesty. My approach leans toward a strong emphasis on consent, and in linking sex and love rather than sex and power.

Some links:

This is my go-to resource for actual facts regarding vaccinations. It is a wealth of primary source, and links reliable sources, not conspiracy theory artists like Joseph Mercola and Mike Adams

Another great source of information, updated regularly, about “alternative medicine” falsehoods and the actual research is this site.

My own post from last year on cancer, pseudoscience, and victim-blaming. 

Late addition: An excellent take on the "mitigating the effects of sin" debate from the Christian Medical Fellowship (UK)

Just a bit on

I considered doing a separate post on this one, and I might reproduce and expand this bit in the future.

Before I figured out how to block links from specific sites in my Facebook news feed, I noticed that a number of my friends - both liberal and conservative - were posting links from this site. Many of these people were otherwise intelligent and well read sorts, who I would not have suspected of being gullible.

Still, the headlines seemed so obviously out there that I did a little poking around. It turns out that Natural News is a site run by a certain Mike Adams. In many ways, it is pretty typical for alternative medicine snake oil. It has the usual canards: vaccines cause autism (no), fluoride is the cause of most heart disease (no), everything can be cured with diet and herbs (um, no), and recently (although the post was removed) that Ebola can be cured with herbal supplements (um, freaking no).

But, I do want to point out that he also uses his site to promote some even more out there conspiracy theories. To my friends who link this guy, you need to consider if you really want to be associated with these ideas.

For example, he is a “birther” (President Obama wasn’t born in the US, and there is a huge conspiracy to cover it up), a “truther” (9/11 was an inside job, the project of GW Bush and a Jewish cabal), and claims that the Sandy Hook shooting was a government fabrication.

Oh, and he is also an AIDS denialist, and claims that contrails from airplanes are actually “chemtrails,” intentional spraying of poison by the government. Um, yeah. That’s your go-to guy for medical information. Good luck with that.

Oh, and Mercola too:

Many of my gluten free friends like to quote this guy. (Note: celiac disease is real, and if you have been diagnosed with it, don’t eat gluten!) He is probably the most popular proponent of the idea that all humans should stop eating grains.

Guess what? He is also an anti vaccination advocate.

And an AIDS denialist. Yep.

And he has been disciplined by the FDA for making false medical claims about his lucrative supplements and selling untested supplements. (In other words, God only knows if his supplements actually contain what they claim to contain.)

Cite at your own risk.

The AIDS denialist brotherhood:

Adams and Mercola are in “distinguished” company with their AIDS denialism. The ever-entertaining-and-loathsome Douglas Wilson, he of the plagiarized pamphlet and book defending the institution of slavery, and he of the “A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants” fame.

Yes indeed, these are your AIDS denialist brothers...

Check your sources:

Seriously, the internet has made it comically easy to actually check the abstracts of studies - and in many cases, read the full reports. There is a wealth of knowledge available to help determine what studies actually say, and whether they are particularly useful. (A knowledge of the science of statistics is probably helpful too.) Only the most lazy or ideological simply link questionable stories from sources given to fabrication and conspiracy theories. 

At best, you will reveal yourself to me and others who actually do look at primary sources to be lazy and deluded. At worst, you could end up harming yourself or others with "treatments" that don't work and can cause harm.