Tim O'Brien
stated on February 25, 2020 in a CNN interview:
Says Bernie Sanders has said “things like women get cancer from having too many orgasms, or toddlers should run around naked and touch each others' genitals to insulate themselves from porn … He's written about women's rape fantasies."
true half-true
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks with members of the media after the Democratic primary debate on Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C. (AP/Rourke) Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks with members of the media after the Democratic primary debate on Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C. (AP/Rourke)

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks with members of the media after the Democratic primary debate on Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C. (AP/Rourke)

Bill McCarthy
By Bill McCarthy February 26, 2020

Bloomberg adviser slams Bernie Sanders’ decades-old writings about sex, cancer

If Your Time is short

  • O’Brien was referring to essays Sanders contributed to a left-leaning alternative newspaper called the Vermont Freeman almost 50 years ago.

  • In 1969, Sanders wrote one essay that cited studies purporting to link cervical cancer to women having too few orgasms, not too many, and another essay that criticized rules against toddlers being naked on beaches. 

  • In 1972, Sanders wrote about women’s sexual fantasies as part of an essay commenting on gender stereotypes. He’s since called it “bad fiction.”

Editors’ note: This fact-check contains graphic content and content related to sexual assault.

Bloomberg campaign adviser Tim O’Brien ripped Democratic frontrunner Sen. Bernie Sanders in a CNN interview ahead of the South Carolina primary, accusing the Vermont senator of saying "loopy stuff" about orgasms and cervical cancer, children’s nudity and women’s rape fantasies.

Yes, you read that right. Not your typical morning on CNN.

"Bernie has all of this loopy stuff in his background, saying things like women get cancer from having too many orgasms, or toddlers should run around naked and touch each others' genitals to insulate themselves from porn," O’Brien told CNN "New Day" anchor Alisyn Camerota. 

"Why has this stuff not been more surfaced?" O’Brien said. "He's written about women's rape fantasies. That hasn’t been surfaced. That’s the loony side of Bernie."

O’Brien’s claim caught our attention and generated a number of headlines, so we decided to check it out.

Galia Slayen, a spokesperson for former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s campaign, said O’Brien "misspoke" with regard to the claim about cancer and orgasms.

"He meant that Sanders believes it was a lack of orgasms that leads to cancer," she said.

Now that that’s cleared up, here’s what we found: The Bloomberg adviser was drawing from essays Sanders contributed to a left-leaning alternative newspaper about 50 years ago. Not everything O’Brien said needs a correction.

Background on Sanders’ writings for the Vermont Freeman

Bloomberg’s campaign cited 2015 articles in the New York Times and Mother Jones that examined Sanders’ writings for the Vermont Freeman in the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

According to the New York Times, Sanders wrote roughly a dozen pieces when he was in his late 20s and early 30s, before his political career took off.

The writings became a source of controversy for Sanders during his presidential campaign in 2016. We fact-checked a claim related to his essay on women’s fantasies of rape. At the time, Sanders campaign spokesman told CNN the 1972 essay was a "dumb attempt at dark satire in an alternative publication" that "in no way reflects his views or record on women."

Sanders downplayed the writings as "bad fiction" and told late-night host Seth Meyers that he "learned my lesson."

He said the "poorly written" article mentioning rape was meant to confront "gender stereotypes of the period," according to the New York Times. (The Sanders campaign pointed us to his remarks during the 2016 campaign when we asked about his writings.)

Below, we’ll compare what Sanders wrote with O’Brien’s descriptions on CNN.

On women, cancer and orgasms

O’Brien’s description: "Women get cancer from having too many orgasms."

Sanders’ 1969 article: Sanders’ point in an essay titled "Cancer, Disease and Society" was that lack of sex — rather than too much sex — could lead to poor health or, specifically, cancer. 

"In another article in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine ... it is stated that ‘sexual adjustment seemed to be very poor in those with cancer of the cervix (who) were found to have a lower incidence of orgasm during sexual intercourse,’" Sanders wrote, quoting a 1954 study.

"The manner in which you bring up your daughter with regard to sexual attitudes may very well determine whether or not she will develop breast cancer, among other things," he wrote.

Throughout the essay, Sanders quoted freely from various studies and from a book by Austrian psychologist Wilhelm Reich, who believed in connections not only between sexual energy and good health but also between sexual repression and fascism. 

For the record, the American Cancer Society has said "there’s no reason to believe that emotions can cause cancer or help it grow."

On toddlers, nudity and porn

O’Brien’s description: "Toddlers should run around naked and touch each others' genitals to insulate themselves from porn."

Sanders’ 1969 article: "In Vermont, at a state beach, a mother is reprimanded by Authority for allowing her 6-month-old daughter to go about without her diapers on. Now, if children go around naked, they are liable to see each others sexual organs, and maybe even touch them. Terrible thing! If we (raise) children up like this it will probably ruin the whole pornography business, not to mention the large segment of the general economy which makes its money by playing on peoples sexual frustrations."

Sanders writings often criticized cultural oppression, according to Mother Jones. In one piece, Sanders wrote that a function of schools was to "set up in children patterns of docility and conformity." 

In the essay in question, which was titled "The Revolution is Life Versus Death," Sanders wrote about the monotony of life, his frustrations with the status quo, and a nonviolent revolution that he believed was on the horizon in the United States. 

"The revolution comes when two strangers smile at each other, when a father refuses to send his child to school because schools destroy children, when a commune is started and people begin to trust each other, when a young man refuses to go to war, and when a girl pushes aside all that her mother has ‘taught’ her and accepts her boyfriend’s love," he said.

On women’s sexual fantasies

O’Brien’s description: "He's written about women's rape fantasies."

Sanders’ 1972 article: "A man goes home and masturbates his typical fantasy. A woman on her knees. A woman tied up. A woman abused. A woman enjoys intercourse with her man — as she fantasizes being raped by three men simultaneously … Do you know why the newspapers with the articles like ‘Girl, 12, raped by 14 men’ sell so well? To what in us are they appealing?’’

The column, "Man and Woman," was about changing gender stereotypes and roles. Later in the essay, Sanders suggested men and women should reconsider how they relate to each other.

Our ruling

O’Brien said Sanders has said "things like women get cancer from having too many orgasms, or toddlers should run around naked and touch each others' genitals to insulate themselves from porn … He's written about women's rape fantasies."

O’Brien got the first detail backwards. Nearly five decades ago, Sanders wrote about the possibility that women could get cancer from having too few orgasms, not too many.

Sanders also wrote about a revolutionary order in which toddlers would not be chastised for public nudity, noting that such a world could have negative consequences for the porn industry.

Finally, Sanders wrote about women’s rape fantasies in an essay on gender stereotypes.

We rate O'Brien's statement Half True.

Our Sources

John Berman on Twitter, Feb. 25, 2020

The Vermont Freeman via Mother Jones on DocumentClud, "Cancer, Disease and Society," accessed Feb. 25, 2020

The Vermont Freeman via Mother Jones on DocumentClud, "The Revolution is Life Versus Death," accessed Feb. 25, 2020

Snopes, "Bernie Sanders’ 1972 Essay on Rape," Sept. 22, 2015

Mother Jones, "‘You Might Very Well Be the Cause of Cancer’: Read Bernie Sanders’ 1970s-Era Essays," July 6, 2015

The New York Times, "Bernie Sanders’s Revolutionary Roots Were Nurtured in ’60s Vermont," July 3, 2015

People, "Bernie Sanders Talks 1972 'Rape Fantasy' Essay: 'I Learned My Lesson,’" June 2, 2015

Late Night with Seth Meyers on YouTube, "Senator Bernie Sanders Plans to Vote Against the USA Freedom Act - Late Night with Seth Meyers," June 1, 2015

NBC News, "Meet the Candidates: Bernie Sanders," May 31, 2015

The New York Times, "Bernie Sanders Recants 1972 Article on Women’s Fantasies of Rape," May 29, 2015

CNN, "Bernie Sanders distances himself from 'dumb' 1972 essay on rape," May 28, 2015

Mother Jones, "How Bernie Sanders Learned to Be a Real Politician," May 26, 2015

American Cancer Society, "Attitudes and Cancer," Feb. 28, 2014

National Cancer Institute, "Psychological Stress and Cancer," Dec. 10, 2012

PolitiFact, "Did Bernie Sanders make a rape comment similar to one by Wisconsin Justice Rebecca Bradley?" May 17, 2016

Email interview with Galia Slayen, national traveling press secretary for Mike Bloomberg for President, Feb. 25, 2020

Email correspondence with the Bernie Sanders campaign, Feb. 26, 2020

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Bloomberg adviser slams Bernie Sanders’ decades-old writings about sex, cancer

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