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Speaking on the record
I was surprised to read, browsing through an Independent, that I had "declined to be interviewed" by Karen Houppert for her article, "Freudian Fear and Cooked Statistics" [Dec. 8], which you reprinted from the online magazine Salon.

Neither the reader nor your paper could know that I live right here in the Triangle, since Houppert provided no title for me, even though my study was the genesis for much of her article. Had she talked to me, she might not have had some factual errors in her article. She would also have learned that we share the same concerns, though she seems to have gotten science, culture and the vagaries of the media confused.

Since my study on the age of onset of puberty in girls was published in Pediatrics in 1997, I have been interviewed by numerous journalists worldwide. I have consistently made the following points:

(1) The average white girl in the United States now begins breast development or pubic-hair growth or both at 9 years, eight months, and the average African-American girl at 8 years, one month.

(2) The average age for the onset of menses has not changed for 45 years for white girls, and has dropped about three months in the past 30 years for African-American girls.

(3) Studies have shown that the earlier the onset of puberty, the longer until its completion (i.e., the beginning of menstrual periods).

(4) Because the age of menses has not changed for a half-century, there is no biological reason girls will become sexually active at a younger age, nor could they get pregnant at a younger age.

(5) The age of onset of puberty (not to be confused with the near-end of puberty, i.e. menses) in girls has dropped six months to a year in white girls over the past 30 to 45 years when the current study's data are compared to older studies. No comparison can be made for African-American girls, because comparable data exist for them for the age of menses only, and not for the age of onset.

(6) The age of onset of puberty, whenever it is, brings with it the need for psychological preparation of the girl and her peers, physiological effects, behavioral effects and the need for sex education in the schools. Because many girls are now beginning puberty in the third grade, this demands changes in the way parents and schools have been responding.

Just as I have no way of controlling the contents of news articles based on my study, I had no way of keeping Houppert from writing that I refused an interview when I did not. If she had talked to me, we could have discussed the aspect she is rightly upset about. The problem is that our culture is titillated by and obsessed with young girls' sexuality, not with the science.

Editor's note: We contacted Karen Houppert and gave her the opportunity to respond, but she didn't. Our usual limit on the length of letters was waived to permit Dr. Herman-Giddens a fuller response.

Another perspective on Nyerere
As a regular reader of The Independent who shares virtually none of its ideology, I have long since resigned myself to looking for other reasons to enjoy the paper's offerings. I have frequently found myself reading eagerly your profiles of local left-leaning political activists. Courage, determination and commitment to principles are laudable on their own terms, even if the cause being advanced is questionable, in my humble opinion.

Your recent profile of Ajamu and Rukiyah Dillahunt ["A Couple of Troublemakers," Jan. 12] provided a similar story of hard work and commitment. But it also contained a short passage that really set me off. The Dillahunts, the story relates, spent some time in Africa, not just to take in "African landscapes" but to get "a close-up look at Tanzania's experiments in African socialism under Julius Nyerere, particularly its attempts at building a collective economy that would be self-reliant, rather than dependent on foreign aid." This is like describing Gen. Auguste Pinochet's atrocity-marred rule in Chile as "experiments in free-market economics and Social Security privatization," or the Taliban thugs in Afghanistan as conducting "experiments in family preservation and female modesty."

I presume that the Dillahunts, viewing Nyerere's brutal, totalitarian regime up close, would have some interesting reflections about it. The dictator created a police state that denied basic human rights to its citizens and targeted the Masai and natives of Asian descent for persecution. He organized families into "cells," encouraged children to spy on their parents, and exhorted cell leaders to watch for "strangers" and inform the police of "suspicious" activity. Youth leagues were encouraged to manhandle and strip Tanzanian girls wearing miniskirts, wigs or tight slacks. In a disturbing parallel, Nyerere's party militia actually learned to goose-step.

Nyerere's "socialism," nothing more than an excuse for central state control of the freedom of citizens to engage in voluntary commerce, squandered Tanzania's considerable commercial potential and resulted in famine. While he later seemed to repudiate some of these excesses, his recent death resulted in few condemnations of his legacy from those previously in his thrall.

How about a little perspective and balance in these situations? Couldn't hurt.

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