Commentary Media

Virgin Diaries: TLC’s Latest Cringe-Worthy Program on Sex

Martha Kempner

In its latest entry into the circus freakshow form of reality television, TLC invites viewers to gawk at five not-so-young people who have never had sex. 

TLC’s early forays into reality television included entries like A Baby Story, A Wedding Story, and A Dating Story.  These half-hour shows introduced viewers to a couple about to embark on a big moment (or in the case of the dating show a pretty minor moment except for the cameras) through a series of earnest interviews and clips of preparatory events like wedding dress fittings and baby showers.  Though some of these scenes seemed staged or at least exaggerated for television, for the most part the shows read as real and the people were likable enough to make you (or at least me) root for them during their ceremonies or c-sections.

But in the post-Paris Hilton age of the Kardashians, such sweet fare must seem tired and dull to viewers or at least schedulers. So, the network is now home to a new brand of reality television. It’s current line-up includes weekly check-ins with 19 Kids and Counting (featuring Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar and their quiverfull of children which is scheduled to reach 20 early next year); Toddlers in Tiaras (an inside look at the pint-size pageant circuit focusing on toothless moms and their heavily made up 4-year-olds); and Sister Wives (a peek at the lives of a polygamist and his multiple families). And of course, we can’t forget the recently cancelled Kate + 8, the show that started out being about a loving couple raising two six-year-olds and six two-year-olds and ended up being about Kate Gosselin’s 15-minutes of fame. There’s also the freak-of-the-week shows such as Extreme Couponing, My Strange Addiction, and the now-casting Strange Sex.

While we are meant to care about these “real” families who put their stories out there for us each week, I think these shows share a little bit in common with the circus freak shows of yesteryear. We can’t help but look. Seeing preschoolers in $4,000 dresses and blue eye-shadow makes us cringe, but we look. The heartfelt discussions between two blond women “married” to the same man make us cringe, but we look. Michelle Duggar telling us in her baby-girl voice that all children are a gift from God even if this latest pregnancy is super risky for both her and Dugger-number-20 makes us cringe, but we look.  And in looking, we can’t help but feel a little superior to the main characters.  As my husband reminded me last night; the purpose of nearly all reality television is to congratulate the viewer on being smarter than the subjects. 

He said this while we were cleaning the kitchen after putting the kids to bed and I was begging him to watch the premier TLC’s latest cringe-worthy program, Virgin Diaries.  He agreed to watch the first ten minutes but like any good train-wreck he got hooked and sat through the entire hour (though he spent part of it with his head behind a pillow hiding from the painful awkwardness on screen and another part of it hitting me with the same pillow for forcing him to watch said painful awkwardness in the first place).  This first episode was devoted to three stories:  Shanna and Ryan (31-year olds who were saving their first kiss for their fast-approaching wedding day); Carey (a geeky 35-year-old man who said he was more than ready to lose his virginity); and the roommates (a threesome of 30-something virgins who were desperately searching for Mr. Right).

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Shanna and Ryan’s story is the one that I most expected. They met in a Christian Halloween party and were saving sex for marriage for religious reasons. The show paid a lot of attention to the fact that the couple (who seem to have been together for a while) had never kissed though it did not ask them to explain why they had taken their vows of pre-marital abstinence quite so far. Comments by her father (cut together in such a way as to make them as creepy as possible) suggest that this was not a family value with which she was raised.  

In the interviews leading up to their wedding day, the couple stand close to each other and talk about what they expect their first kiss and their wedding night to be like.  As they walk around the backyard in which they will get married they admit to being nervous but describe the upcoming event—the sex not the wedding—in detail. 

“I think that you should take a shower first,” Shanna tells Ryan “and then I’ll take a shower and then I will put on my lingerie and I will come into the room.”  Ryan interrupts, “and I’ll have a surprise for you.”  “Yeah, but I’ll have a surprise for you,” Shanna says launching back into her vision: “And we’ll both have our robes on and we’ll slowly take our robes off and then do foreplay and then have sex.”  The producers, having a little fun with this, use that last bit as a voice over to a scene shot later in which the couple is on a see-saw and Shanna yells “ouch” at being dropped suddenly to the ground. 

The actual first kiss has been making the rounds on the Internet since last week, no doubt leaked in advance because of its memorably clumsy nature. He lifts her veil, they tilt their heads toward each other, and then start basically pecking at each other mouths open, tongues out, looking more like hungry ducks than a loving couple.  The producers clearly knew that they had struck reality show gold at that moment—they replayed the kiss at least three times and dedicated quite a bit of air time to the couples’ subsequent dance-floor make-out sessions. Obviously, it’s not fair to make fun of this couple for being inexperienced kissers.  Kissing is an art that takes know-how (my best friend and I bought a how-to guide out of the back of Seventeen Magazine so we’d be prepared) and practice, and I’m sure most first-time kissers are comically inept.  Of course, most of us do not invite television cameras to record the moment for the masses.

While I question their decision to make their first kiss and wedding night the subject of public broadcast, I promise I am not making fun of them for their decision to wait.  Everyone has the right to make their own decisions when it comes to sexual behavior and if abstinence is the decision that best fits with their values and convictions, they were right to stick to it despite it being an uncommon choice in this day and age.  What disturbed me about this couple’s story, however, was the heightened importance that they seemed to be placing on the first kiss and their first night together. They were about to commit to spending every night together. Marriage is about so much more than the wedding night; for the next 60 or so years, they will have to be each other’s friend, therapist, partner, and nurse. They will have to work together to make big decisions and tiny ones; to fold laundry, do dishes, buy cars, choose paint colors, and raise children.  Sex is an important part of any relationship but it’s only one part. Yet it was the only thing that the two of them talked about on screen. 

Every conversation—whether it was an on-camera interview or a talk with a friend—started with “I can’t believe that I’m getting married tomorrow” and turned into “I can’t believe I’m really going to have sex tomorrow.”  And every guest at the wedding was discussing not the start of their life together but the start of their sex life.  I’m willing to believe that some of this was a result of being the subject of this particular reality show—the producers’ unheard questions were likely all about sex and any discussions of other parts of marriage may have ended up on the cutting room floor.  Still, I fear that in not having sex Shanna and Ryan actually elevated its importance in a way that couples who make it part of their early relationship do not. 

That exaggerated sense of the importance of sex is what I worry about for the other individuals portrayed in this “documentary” as well.  Particularly for Carey who claims that his status as a 35-year-old virgin is “not entirely by choice.”  He is an awkward man though no more so than many men I know. He has a shaved head, hip enough black glasses, a beard, and just a slight double chin.  He is neither thin nor fat but says he recently lost 17 pounds and started jogging because he thinks this will help him with his sex drive.

“Running helps me get in shape with my heart and lungs and hopefully from what I understand sex involves a lot of cardiac and cardiopulmonary exercise. So I recently stepped up the jogging,” he explains breathlessly while the cameras follow him on a loop around his townhouse development.

And there-in lies the problem.  His entire identity seems wrapped up in the fact that he has not yet had sex. 

In clearly staged-for-television events, he makes his mother dinner to ask for her advice on the matter (she pretty much suggests he hire a prostitute but then looks at the camera and says that’s not what she meant); goes out with a gang of friends seeking advice about how to handle an upcoming date, his first in eight years (his inexperience seems to be a common topic of conversation among the friendly gang); and goes on that blind date with a nice enough woman who, upon hearing about his virginity over desert, suggests that he needs to just get hammered with a girl and get it over with (she does not offer to be that girl).  In a follow-up scene, Carey’s friends take him to a bar on a mission to get him laid.  He becomes an instant celebrity—the cameras following him around no doubt help—and at least one woman makes him an offer. 

We later learn that he said no—not inadvisably, she was extremely aggressive and extremely inebriated. He explains that he is not waiting for the perfect opportunity but for a good one and he’s right to think this would not been very good. But, one has to wonder if this is the first time he has turned down such an offer and what is really preventing him from being intimate with a woman. There are some self-esteem issues that are very clear but I fear there is something deeper going on that would benefit from talking to a therapist rather than a TV camera. (And he should do it soon as I’m sure that TLC’s offices are being inundated today with women who want the honor of being his first.)

As for final story of the three roommates, I admit they are the least interesting to me.  They are very wrapped up in the romantic notion of a man coming to sweep them off their feet (they call him their Rock Star) and saving sex for marriage is all part of that fairytale. They are shown primping, going on dates, and singing silly songs about love.  In one odd and clearly staged scene, they are sitting on a bed giving each other massages while discussing their experiences/inexperience with sex.

Their stories would be more interesting if we learned why they had decided to save themselves for marriage—a sign on their front door declaring their home “a blessing” suggests a religious background but this is not explored.  And, it would have been particularly interesting if we had learned why one of them calls herself a reclaimed virgin. She admits to having sex with all of her past boyfriends (at least seven guys) but says she feels like a different person now and has made a commitment to save sex for marriage.  I would have liked to know why she changed her behavior and why she considers herself a reclaimed virgin rather than say a non-virgin who is now practicing abstinence (even her roommates seem skeptical of her label).  But instead we just see them on a triple blind date with three male virgins (no doubt unearthed by a team of producers) and further explore their fantasies of having Prince Charming ride in on a white horse so they can hurry up, get married, and have babies. 

Most people in this country have sex as teenagers but that does not make it the right choice for everyone.  And we all know how hard it is to make choices that go against popular culture.  A look at well-adjusted individuals who are choosing to save sex for later in their lives (be it marriage or a better relationship) could have been interesting and maybe even helped viewers make critical decisions about their own sexual behavior.

But Virgin Diaries did not do that— nor was it meant to.  Instead, as promised, it gave us an hour to point and stare at some pretty awkward people from the comfort (or in some moments, discomfort) of our own high horses, I mean couches.    

Analysis Law and Policy

Do Counselors-in-Training Have the Right to Discriminate Against LGBTQ People?

Greg Lipper

Doctors can't treat their patients with leeches; counselors can't impose their beliefs on patients or harm them using discredited methods. Whatever their views, medical professionals have to treat their clients competently.

Whether they’re bakers, florists, or government clerks, those claiming the right to discriminate against LGBTQ people have repeatedly sought to transform professional services into constitutionally protected religious speech. They have grabbed headlines for refusing, for example, to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples or to make cakes for same-sex couples’ weddings-all in the name of “religious freedom.”

A bit more quietly, however, a handful of counseling students at public universities have challenged their schools’ nondiscrimination and treatment requirements governing clinical placements. In some cases, they have sought a constitutional right to withhold treatment from LGBTQ clients; in others, they have argued for the right to directly impose their religious and anti-gay views on their clients.

There has been some state legislative maneuvering on this front: Tennessee, for instance, recently enacted a thinly veiled anti-LGBTQ measure that would allow counselors to deny service on account of their “sincerely held principles.” But when it comes to the federal Constitution, providing medical treatment—whether bypass surgery, root canal, or mental-health counseling—isn’t advocacy (religious or otherwise) protected by the First Amendment. Counselors are medical professionals; they are hired to help their clients, no matter their race, religion, or sexual orientation, and no matter the counselors’ beliefs. The government, moreover, may lawfully prevent counselors from harming their clients, and universities in particular have an interest, recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, in preventing discrimination in school activities and in training their students to work with diverse populations.

The plaintiffs in these cases have nonetheless argued that their schools are unfairly and unconstitutionally targeting them for their religious beliefs. But these students are not being targeted, any more than are business owners who must comply with civil rights laws. Instead, their universities, informed by the rules of the American Counseling Association (ACA)—the leading organization of American professional counselors—merely ask that all students learn to treat diverse populations and to do so in accordance with the standard of care. These plaintiffs, as a result, have yet to win a constitutional right to discriminate against or impose anti-LGBTQ views on actual or prospective clients. But cases persist, and the possibility of conflicting court decisions looms.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley

The first major challenge to university counseling requirements came from Jennifer Keeton, who hoped to receive a master’s degree in school counseling from Augusta State University. As detailed in the 2011 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision considering her case, Keeton entered her professional training believing that (1) “sexual behavior is the result of personal choice for which individuals are accountable, not inevitable deterministic forces”; (2) “gender is fixed and binary (i.e., male or female), not a social construct or personal choice subject to individual change”; and “homosexuality is a ‘lifestyle,’ not a ‘state of being.'”

It wasn’t those views alone, however, that sunk her educational plans. The problem, rather, was that Keeton wanted to impose her views on her patients. Keeton had told both her classmates and professors about her clinical approach at a university-run clinic, and it wasn’t pretty:

  • She would try to change the sexual orientation of gay clients;
  • If she were counseling a sophomore student in crisis questioning his sexual orientation, she would respond by telling the student that it was not OK to be gay.
  • If a client disclosed that he was gay, she would tell him that his behavior was wrong and try to change it; if she were unsuccessful, she would refer the client to someone who practices “conversion therapy.”

Unsurprisingly, Keeton also told school officials that it would be difficult for her to work with LGBTQ clients.

Keeton’s approach to counseling not only would have flouted the university’s curricular guidelines, but also would have violated the ACA’s Code of Ethics.

Her conduct would have harmed her patients as well. As a school counselor, Keeton would inevitably have to counsel LGBTQ clients: 57 percent of LGBTQ students have sought help from a school professional and 42 percent have sought help from a school counselor. Suicide is the leading cause of death for LGBTQ adolescents; that’s twice or three times the suicide rate afflicting their heterosexual counterparts. And Keeton’s preferred approach to counseling LGBTQ students would harm them: LGBTQ students rejected by trusted authority figures are even more likely to attempt suicide, and anti-gay “conversion therapy” at best doesn’t work and at worst harms patients too.

Seeking to protect the university’s clinical patients and train her to be a licensed mental health professional, university officials asked Keeton to complete a remediation plan before she counseled students in her required clinical practicum. She refused; the university expelled her. In response, the Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom sued on her behalf, claiming that the university violated her First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion.

The courts disagreed. The trial court ruled against Keeton, and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit unanimously upheld the trial court’s ruling. The 11th Circuit explained that Keeton was expelled not because of her religious beliefs, but rather because of her “own statements that she intended to impose her personal religious beliefs on clients and refer clients to conversion therapy, and her own admissions that it would be difficult for her to work with the GLBTQ population and separate her own views from those of the client.” It was Keeton, not the university, who could not separate her personal beliefs from the professional counseling that she provided: “[F]ar from compelling Keeton to profess a belief or change her own beliefs about the morality of homosexuality, [the university] instructs her not to express her personal beliefs regarding the client’s moral values.”

Keeton, in other words, crossed the line between beliefs and conduct. She may believe whatever she likes, but she may not ignore academic and professional requirements designed to protect her clients—especially when serving clients at a university-run clinic.

As the court explained, the First Amendment would not prohibit a medical school from requiring students to perform blood transfusions in their clinical placements, nor would it prohibit a law school from requiring extra ethics training for a student who “expressed an intent to indiscriminately disclose her client’s secrets or violate another of the state bar’s rules.” Doctors can’t treat their patients with leeches; counselors can’t impose their beliefs on patients or harm them using discredited methods. Whatever their views, medical professionals have to treat their clients competently.

Ward v. Polite

The Alliance Defending Freedom’s follow-up case, Ward v. Polite, sought to give counseling students the right to withhold service from LGBTQ patients and also to practice anti-gay “conversion therapy” on those patients. The case’s facts were a bit murkier, and this led the appeals court to send it to trial; as a result, the student ultimately extracted only a modest settlement from the university. But as in Keeton’s case, the court rejected in a 2012 decision the attempt to give counseling students the right to impose their religious views on their clients.

Julea Ward studied counseling at Eastern Michigan University; like Keeton, she was training to be a school counselor. When she reviewed the file for her third client in the required clinical practicum, she realized that he was seeking counseling about a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex. As the Court of Appeals recounted, Ward did not want to counsel the client about this topic, and asked her faculty supervisor “(1) whether she should meet with the client and refer him [to a different counselor] only if it became necessary—only if the counseling session required Ward to affirm the client’s same-sex relationship—or (2) whether the school should reassign the client from the outset.” Although her supervisor reassigned the client, it was the first time in 20 years that one of her students had made such a request. So Ward’s supervisor scheduled a meeting with her.

Then things went off the rails. Ward, explained the court, “reiterated her religious objection to affirming same-sex relationships.” She told university officials that while she had “no problem counseling gay and lesbian clients,” she would counsel them only if “the university did not require her to affirm their sexual orientation.” She also refused to counsel “heterosexual clients about extra-marital sex and adultery in a values-affirming way.” As for the professional rules governing counselors, Ward said, “who’s the [American Counseling Association] to tell me what to do. I answer to a higher power and I’m not selling out God.”

All this led the university to expel Ward, and she sued. She claimed that the university violated her free speech and free exercise rights, and that she had a constitutional right to withhold affirming therapy relating to any same-sex relationships or different-sex relationships outside of marriage. Like Keeton, Ward also argued that the First Amendment prohibited the university from requiring “gay-affirmative therapy” while prohibiting “reparative therapy.” After factual discovery, the trial court dismissed her case.

On appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Ward eked out a narrow and temporary win: The court held that the case should go to a jury. Because the university did not have a written policy prohibiting referrals, and based on a few troubling faculty statements during Ward’s review, the court ruled that a reasonable jury could potentially find that the university invoked a no-referrals policy “as a pretext for punishing Ward’s religious views and speech.” At the same time, the court recognized that a jury could view the facts less favorably to Ward and rule for the university.

And although the decision appeared to sympathize with Ward’s desire to withhold service from certain types of clients, the court flatly rejected Ward’s sweeping arguments that she had the right to stray from the school curriculum, refuse to counsel LGBTQ clients, or practice anti-gay “conversion therapy.” For one, it said, “Curriculum choices are a form of school speech, giving schools considerable flexibility in designing courses and policies and in enforcing them so long as they amount to reasonable means of furthering legitimate educational ends.” Thus, the problem was “not the adoption of this anti-discrimination policy, the existence of the practicum class or even the values-affirming message the school wants students to understand and practice.” On the contrary, the court emphasized “the [legal] latitude educational institutions—at any level—must have to further legitimate curricular objectives.”

Indeed, the university had good reason to require counseling students—especially those studying to be school counselors—to treat diverse populations. A school counselor who refuses to counsel anyone with regard to nonmarital, nonheterosexual relationships will struggle to find clients: Nearly four in five Americans have had sex by age 21; more than half have done so by the time they turn 18, while only 6 percent of women and 2 percent of men are married by that age.

In any event, withholding service from entire classes of people violates professional ethical rules even for nonschool counselors. Although the ACA permits client referrals in certain circumstances, the agency’s brief in Ward’s case emphasized that counselors may not refuse to treat entire groups. Ward, in sum, “violated the ACA Code of Ethics by refusing to counsel clients who may wish to discuss homosexual relationships, as well as others who fail to comport with her religious teachings, e.g., persons who engage in ‘fornication.'”

But Ward’s approach would have been unethical even if, in theory, she were permitted to withhold service from each and every client seeking counseling related to nonmarital sex (or even marital sex by same-sex couples). Because in many cases, the need for referral would arise well into the counseling relationship. And as the trial court explained, “a client may seek counseling for depression, or issues with their parents, and end up discussing a homosexual relationship.” No matter what the reason, mid-counseling referrals harm clients, and such referrals are even more harmful if they happen because the counselor disapproves of the client.

Fortunately, Ward did not win the sweeping right to harm her clients or otherwise upend professional counseling standards. Rather, the court explained that “the even-handed enforcement of a neutral policy”—such as the ACA’s ethical rules—”is likely to steer clear of the First Amendment’s free-speech and free-exercise protections.” (Full disclosure: I worked on an amicus brief in support of the university when at Americans United.)

Ward’s lawyers pretended that she won the case, but she ended up settling it for relatively little. She received only $75,000; and although the expulsion was removed from her record, she was not reinstated. Without a graduate counseling degree, she cannot become a licensed counselor.

Cash v. Hofherr

The latest anti-gay counseling salvo comes from Andrew Cash, whose April 2016 lawsuit against Missouri State University attempts to rely on yet murkier facts and could wind up, on appeal, in front of the more conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. In addition to his range of constitutional claims (freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, equal protection of law), he has added a claim under the Missouri Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The complaint describes Cash as “a Christian with sincerely-held beliefs”—as opposed to insincere ones, apparently—”on issues of morality.” Cash started his graduate counseling program at Missouri State University in September 2007. The program requires a clinical internship, which includes 240 hours of in-person client contact. Cash decided to do his clinical internship at Springfield Marriage and Family Institute, which appeared on the counseling department’s list of approved sites. Far from holding anti-Christian bias, Cash’s instructor agreed that his proposed class presentation on “Christian counseling and its unique approach and value to the Counseling profession” was an “excellent” idea.

But the presentation itself revealed that Cash intended to discriminate against LGBTQ patients. In response to a question during the presentation, the head of the Marriage and Family Institute stated that “he would counsel gay persons as individuals, but not as couples, because of his religious beliefs,” and that he would “refer the couple for counseling to other counselors he knew who did not share his religious views.” Because discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation violates ACA guidelines, the university determined that Cash should not continue counseling at the Marriage and Family Institute and that it would be removed from the approved list of placements. Cash suggested, however, that he should be able to withhold treatment from same-sex couples.

All this took place in 2011. The complaint (both the original and amended versions) evades precisely what happened between 2012 and 2014, when Cash was finally expelled. You get the sense that Cash’s lawyers at the Thomas More Society are trying to yadda-yadda-yadda the most important facts of the case.

In any event, the complaint does acknowledge that when Cash applied for a new internship, he both ignored the university’s instructions that the previous hours were not supposed to count toward his requirement, and appeared to be “still very much defend[ing] his previous internship stating that there was nothing wrong with it”—thus suggesting that he would continue to refuse to counsel same-sex couples. He continued to defend his position in later meetings with school officials; by November 2014, the university removed him from the program.

Yet in challenging this expulsion, Cash’s complaint says that he was merely “expressing his Christian worldview regarding a hypothetical situation concerning whether he would provide counseling services to a gay/homosexual couple.”

That’s more than just a worldview, though. It also reflects his intent to discriminate against a class of people—in a manner that violates his program’s requirements and the ACA guidelines. Whether hypothetically or otherwise, Cash stated and reiterated that he would withhold treatment from same-sex couples. A law student who stated, as part of his clinic, that he would refuse to represent Christian clients would be announcing his intent to violate the rules of professional responsibility, and the law school could and would remove him from the school’s legal clinic. And they could and would do so even if a Christian client had yet to walk in the door.

But maybe this was just a big misunderstanding, and Cash would, in practice, be willing and able to counsel same-sex couples? Not so, said Cash’s lawyer from the Thomas More Society, speaking about the case to Christian news outlet WORLD: “I think Christians have to go on the offensive, or it’s going to be a situation like Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible, where you aren’t safe to have a guest in your home, with the demands of the gay mob.” Yikes.

Although Cash seems to want a maximalist decision allowing counselors and counseling students to withhold service from LGBTQ couples, it remains to be seen how the case will turn out. The complaint appears to elide two years’ worth of key facts in order to present Cash’s claims as sympathetically as possible; even if the trial court were to rule in favor of the university after more factual development, Cash would have the opportunity to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, one of the country’s most conservative federal appeals courts.

More generally, we’re still early in the legal battles over attempts to use religious freedom rights as grounds to discriminate; only a few courts across the country have weighed in. So no matter how extreme Cash or his lawyers may seem, it’s too early to count them out.

* * *

The cases brought by Keeton, Ward, and Cash not only attempt to undermine anti-discrimination policies. They also seek to change the nature of the counselor-client relationship. Current norms provide that a counselor is a professional who provides a service to a client. But the plaintiffs in these cases seem to think that counseling a patient is no different than lecturing a passerby in the town square, in that counseling a patient necessarily involves expressing the counselor’s personal and religious beliefs. Courts have thus far rejected these attempts to redefine the counselor-patient relationship, just as they have turned away attempts to challenge bans on “reparative therapy.”

The principles underlying the courts’ decisions protect more than just LGBTQ clients. As the 11th Circuit explained in Keeton, the university trains students to “be competent to work with all populations, and that all students not impose their personal religious values on their clients, whether, for instance, they believe that persons ought to be Christians rather than Muslims, Jews or atheists, or that homosexuality is moral or immoral.” Licensed professionals are supposed to help their clients, not treat them as prospective converts.

Culture & Conversation Maternity and Birthing

On ‘Commonsense Childbirth’: A Q&A With Midwife Jennie Joseph

Elizabeth Dawes Gay

Joseph founded a nonprofit, Commonsense Childbirth, in 1998 to inspire change in maternity care to better serve people of color. As a licensed midwife, Joseph seeks to transform how care is provided in a clinical setting.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

Jennie Joseph’s philosophy is simple: Treat patients like the people they are. The British native has found this goes a long way when it comes to her midwifery practice and the health of Black mothers and babies.

In the United States, Black women are disproportionately affected by poor maternal and infant health outcomes. Black women are more likely to experience maternal and infant death, pregnancy-related illness, premature birth, low birth weight, and stillbirth. Beyond the data, personal accounts of Black women’s birthing experiences detail discrimination, mistreatment, and violation of basic human rights. Media like the new film, The American Dream, share the maternity experiences of Black women in their own voices.

A new generation of activists, advocates, and concerned medical professionals have mobilized across the country to improve Black maternal and infant health, including through the birth justice and reproductive justice movements.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Joseph founded a nonprofit, Commonsense Childbirth, in 1998 to inspire change in maternity care to better serve people of color. As a licensed midwife, Joseph seeks to transform how care is provided in a clinical setting.

At her clinics, which are located in central Florida, a welcoming smile and a conversation mark the start of each patient visit. Having a dialogue with patients about their unique needs, desires, and circumstances is a practice Joseph said has contributed to her patients having “chunky,” healthy, full-term babies. Dialogue and care that centers the patient costs nothing, Joseph told Rewire in an interview earlier this summer.

Joseph also offers training to midwives, doulas, community health workers, and other professionals in culturally competent, patient-centered care through her Commonsense Childbirth School of Midwifery, which launched in 2009. And in 2015, Joseph launched the National Perinatal Task Force, a network of perinatal health-care and service providers who are committed to working in underserved communities in order to transform maternal health outcomes in the United States.

Rewire spoke with Joseph about her tireless work to improve maternal and perinatal health in the Black community.

Rewire: What motivates and drives you each day?

Jennie Joseph: I moved to the United States in 1989 [from the United Kingdom], and each year it becomes more and more apparent that to address the issues I care deeply about, I have to put action behind all the talk.

I’m particularly concerned about maternal and infant morbidity and mortality that plague communities of color and specifically African Americans. Most people don’t know that three to four times as many Black women die during pregnancy and childbirth in the United States than their white counterparts.

When I arrived in the United States, I had to start a home birth practice to be able to practice at all, and it was during that time that I realized very few people of color were accessing care that way. I learned about the disparities in maternal health around the same time, and I felt compelled to do something about it.

My motivation is based on the fact that what we do [at my clinic] works so well it’s almost unconscionable not to continue doing it. I feel driven and personally responsible because I’ve figured out that there are some very simple things that anyone can do to make an impact. It’s such a win-win. Everybody wins: patients, staff, communities, health-care agencies.

There are only a few of us attacking this aggressively, with few resources and without support. I’ve experienced so much frustration, anger, and resignation about the situation because I feel like this is not something that people in the field don’t know about. I know there have been some efforts, but with little results. There are simple and cost-effective things that can be done. Even small interventions can make such a tremendous a difference, and I don’t understand why we can’t have more support and more interest in moving the needle in a more effective way.

I give up sometimes. I get so frustrated. Emotions vie for time and energy, but those very same emotions force me to keep going. I feel a constant drive to be in action and to be practical in achieving and getting results.

Rewire: In your opinion, what are some barriers to progress on maternal health and how can they be overcome?

JJ: The solutions that have been generated are the same, year in and year out, but are not really solutions. [Health-care professionals and the industry] keep pushing money into a broken system, without recognizing where there are gaps and barriers, and we keep doing the same thing.

One solution that has not worked is the approach of hiring practitioners without a thought to whether the practitioner is really a match for the community that they are looking to serve. Additionally, there is the fact that the practitioner alone is not going to be able make much difference. There has to be a concerted effort to have the entire health-care team be willing to support the work. If the front desk and access points are not in tune with why we need to address this issue in a specific way, what happens typically is that people do not necessarily feel welcomed or supported or respected.

The world’s best practitioner could be sitting down the hall, but never actually see the patient because the patient leaves before they get assistance or before they even get to make an appointment. People get tired of being looked down upon, shamed, ignored, or perhaps not treated well. And people know which hospitals and practitioners provide competent care and which practices are culturally safe.

I would like to convince people to try something different, for real. One of those things is an open-door triage at all OB-GYN facilities, similar to an emergency room, so that all patients seeking maternity care are seen for a first visit no matter what.

Another thing would be for practitioners to provide patient-centered care for all patients regardless of their ability to pay.  You don’t have to have cultural competency training, you just have to listen and believe what the patients are telling you—period.

Practitioners also have a role in dismantling the institutionalized racism that is causing such harm. You don’t have to speak a specific language to be kind. You just have to think a little bit and put yourself in that person’s shoes. You have to understand she might be in fear for her baby’s health or her own health. You can smile. You can touch respectfully. You can make eye contact. You can find a real translator. You can do things if you choose to. Or you can stay in place in a system you know is broken, doing business as usual, and continue to feel bad doing the work you once loved.

Rewire: You emphasize patient-centered care. Why aren’t other providers doing the same, and how can they be convinced to provide this type of care?

JJ: I think that is the crux of the matter: the convincing part. One, it’s a shame that I have to go around convincing anyone about the benefits of patient-centered care. And two, the typical response from medical staff is “Yeah, but the cost. It’s expensive. The bureaucracy, the system …” There is no disagreement that this should be the gold standard of care but providers say their setup doesn’t allow for it or that it really wouldn’t work. Keep in mind that patient-centered care also means equitable care—the kind of care we all want for ourselves and our families.

One of the things we do at my practice (and that providers have the most resistance to) is that we see everyone for that initial visit. We’ve created a triage entry point to medical care but also to social support, financial triage, actual emotional support, and recognition and understanding for the patient that yes, you have a problem, but we are here to work with you to solve it.

All of those things get to happen because we offer the first visit, regardless of their ability to pay. In the absence of that opportunity, the barrier to quality care itself is so detrimental: It’s literally a matter of life and death.

Rewire: How do you cover the cost of the first visit if someone cannot pay?

JJ: If we have a grant, we use those funds to help us pay our overhead. If we don’t, we wait until we have the women on Medicaid and try to do back-billing on those visits. If the patient doesn’t have Medicaid, we use the funds we earn from delivering babies of mothers who do have insurance and can pay the full price.

Rewire: You’ve talked about ensuring that expecting mothers have accessible, patient-centered maternity care. How exactly are you working to achieve that?

JJ: I want to empower community-based perinatal health workers (such as nurse practitioners) who are interested in providing care to communities in need, and encourage them to become entrepreneurial. As long as people have the credentials or license to provide prenatal, post-partum, and women’s health care and are interested in independent practice, then my vision is that they build a private practice for themselves. Based on the concept that to get real change in maternal health outcomes in the United States, women need access to specific kinds of health care—not just any old health care, but the kind that is humane, patient-centered, woman-centered, family-centered, and culturally-safe, and where providers believe that the patients matter. That kind of care will transform outcomes instantly.

I coined the phrase “Easy Access Clinics” to describe retail women’s health clinics like a CVS MinuteClinic that serve as a first entry point to care in a community, rather than in a big health-care system. At the Orlando Easy Access Clinic, women receive their first appointment regardless of their ability to pay. People find out about us via word of mouth; they know what we do before they get here.

We are at the point where even the local government agencies send patients to us. They know that even while someone’s Medicaid application is in pending status, we will still see them and start their care, as well as help them access their Medicaid benefits as part of our commitment to their overall well-being.

Others are already replicating this model across the country and we are doing research as we go along. We have created a system that becomes sustainable because of the trust and loyalty of the patients and their willingness to support us in supporting them.

Photo Credit: Filmmaker Paolo Patruno

Joseph speaking with a family at her central Florida clinic. (Credit: Filmmaker Paolo Patruno)

RewireWhat are your thoughts on the decision in Florida not to expand Medicaid at this time?

JJ: I consider health care a human right. That’s what I know. That’s how I was trained. That’s what I lived all the years I was in Europe. And to be here and see this wanton disregard for health and humanity breaks my heart.

Not expanding Medicaid has such deep repercussions on patients and providers. We hold on by a very thin thread. We can’t get our claims paid. We have all kinds of hoops and confusion. There is a lack of interest and accountability from insurance payers, and we are struggling so badly. I also have a Change.org petition right now to ask for Medicaid coverage for pregnant women.

Health care is a human right: It can’t be anything else.

Rewire: You launched the National Perinatal Task Force in 2015. What do you hope to accomplish through that effort?

JJ: The main goal of the National Perinatal Task Force is to connect perinatal service providers, lift each other up, and establish community recognition of sites committed to a certain standard of care.

The facilities of task force members are identified as Perinatal Safe Spots. A Perinatal Safe Spot could be an educational or social site, a moms’ group, a breastfeeding circle, a local doula practice, or a community center. It could be anywhere, but it has got to be in a community with what I call a “materno-toxic” area—an area where you know without any doubt that mothers are in jeopardy. It is an area where social determinants of health are affecting mom’s and baby’s chances of being strong and whole and hearty. Therein, we need to put a safe spot right in the heart of that materno-toxic area so she has a better chance for survival.

The task force is a group of maternity service providers and concerned community members willing to be a safe spot for that area. Members also recognize each other across the nation; we support each other and learn from each others’ best practices.

People who are working in their communities to improve maternal and infant health come forward all the time as they are feeling alone, quietly doing the best they can for their community, with little or nothing. Don’t be discouraged. You can get a lot done with pure willpower and determination.

RewireDo you have funding to run the National Perinatal Task Force?

JJ: Not yet. We have got the task force up and running as best we can under my nonprofit Commonsense Childbirth. I have not asked for funding or donations because I wanted to see if I could get the task force off the ground first.

There are 30 Perinatal Safe Spots across the United States that are listed on the website currently. The current goal is to house and support the supporters, recognize those people working on the ground, and share information with the public. The next step will be to strengthen the task force and bring funding for stability and growth.

RewireYou’re featured in the new film The American Dream. How did that happen and what are you planning to do next?

JJ: The Italian filmmaker Paolo Patruno got on a plane on his own dime and brought his cameras to Florida. We were planning to talk about Black midwifery. Once we started filming, women were sharing so authentically that we said this is about women’s voices being heard. I would love to tease that dialogue forward and I am planning to go to four or five cities where I can show the film and host a town hall, gathering to capture what the community has to say about maternal health. I want to hear their voices. So far, the film has been screened publicly in Oakland and Kansas City, and the full documentary is already available on YouTube.

RewireThe Black Mamas Matter Toolkit was published this past June by the Center for Reproductive Rights to support human-rights based policy advocacy on maternal health. What about the toolkit or other resources do you find helpful for thinking about solutions to poor maternal health in the Black community?

JJ: The toolkit is the most succinct and comprehensive thing I’ve seen since I’ve been doing this work. It felt like, “At last!”

One of the most exciting things for me is that the toolkit seems to have covered every angle of this problem. It tells the truth about what’s happening for Black women and actually all women everywhere as far as maternity care is concerned.

There is a need for us to recognize how the system has taken agency and power away from women and placed it in the hands of large health systems where institutionalized racism is causing much harm. The toolkit, for the first time in my opinion, really addresses all of these ills and posits some very clear thoughts and solutions around them. I think it is going to go a long way to begin the change we need to see in maternal and child health in the United States.

RewireWhat do you count as one of your success stories?

JJ: One of my earlier patients was a single mom who had a lot going on and became pregnant by accident. She was very connected to us when she came to clinic. She became so empowered and wanted a home birth. But she was anemic at the end of her pregnancy and we recommended a hospital birth. She was empowered through the birth, breastfed her baby, and started a journey toward nursing. She is now about to get her master’s degree in nursing, and she wants to come back to work with me. She’s determined to come back and serve and give back. She’s not the only one. It happens over and over again.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.