Monday, May 4, 2009

Sex education via cellphone?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

All of our readers are going to have to forgive us for the next week or so; it's reading period here at Princeton, and most of us (especially me) are up to our ears in papers. But I do want to try to stay somewhat updated, and this article from yesterday's New York Times was too good not to share. Are you a teenager? Got questions about sex? Well now you can text them, anonymously, to the Birds and Bees Text Line, which opened on February 1. Your questions will be answered in a "cautious, nonjudgmental" way by adult at the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina, within 24 hours.

I think this is a fantastic use of texting, because it completely reduces embarrassment. Teenagers often feel that their questions about sex are silly, or that they shouldn't be talking about sex at all - and the anonymity of the cellphone means that the other person doesn't even have to hear their voice. Professor Sheana Bull, an expert on sexually transmitted disease infection and technology at the University of Colorado School of Public Health put it beautifully when she said, “The technology can be used to connect young people to trusted, competent adults who have competent information.” All of the adults who answer the text line have graduate degrees in public health or social work, or years of experience with teenagers.

The NYT reports that "girls and boys alike ask about anal intercourse: Will it prevent pregnancy? Let a girl remain a virgin? 'If ur partner has aids,' one teenager asks, 'and u have sex without a condom do u get aids the first time or not?'"

Advocates of abstinence-only sex education say that this kind of engagement with teenagers circumvents the sex education they receive in schools. But look at the questions that teens are asking - and think about what happens if they can't get straight answers.


At May 5, 2009 at 3:46 PM , Anonymous Dan said...

Here is a different point of view:

At May 5, 2009 at 4:54 PM , Blogger LSG said...

I think that link makes a valuable point, Dan -- answers that are limited to the length of a text (though the original article does describe some longer exchanges) can be impersonal and not provide enough information even when those answering are trying to be as informative and compassionate as possible. (The linked author doesn't give them credit for that, but still...) I was uncomfortable with this hotline too, because it makes me cringe to think of a teenage rape victim feeling like her best, perhaps only, option is to text a hotline questions about the meaning of her "first time". It would be infinitely better if a teenager who has been raped or has a question about HIV or thinks anal sex eliminates all chance of pregnancy could have an honest, loving, respectful, supportive, shame-free conversation with a parent, teacher, or other trusted adult. However, that's not the fault of the hotline -- I think it's responding to a need, that 'chasm of ignorance' dismissed by the linked author, not trying to supplant parents and teachers.

As far as I can tell this hotline is in no way intended to be a primary source of information about sex or to present a position on sexual morality, it's intended to fill in gaps where for whatever reason teenagers aren't getting the information they need. Since in the absence of a reliable hotline like this teens will probably resort to google and become mired in misinformation, I don't see how this is a bad thing. A much less good thing than having comprehensive sex education, honest holistic parent-child conversations about sex, and a few good books to answer any just too embarrassing questions, but a much better thing than abstinence-only education, shame, and dependence on the wiles of the Internet for information.

At May 5, 2009 at 7:54 PM , Anonymous Dan said...


I appreciate your comments, and I agree with much of what you say. However, I think it is a serious mistake to teach teens about sex without a system of values. Teens need serious guidance, not merely technical information about sex.

Whose value system, you ask? Well, that would have to come from the parents. This means parents absolutely *must* be involved as the primary educators. In a public school system, there is little else one can lean on. Sex ed in this context, to the extent that it teaches any value system at all, is somebody else's value system.

It seems to me that the texting hotline disconnects sex from values to an even greater degree, and perpetuates the notion that such a disconnect is normal and desirable.

At May 8, 2009 at 10:48 AM , Blogger LSG said...

I think we're on almost the same page here, Dan. (shocking, huh? :)) I think its inexcusable for parents not to teach their children about sex (and/or facilitating their learning by giving them books and other resources), in no small part because I do think sex should be taught along with a system of values. While I think the values we would prioritize are different, I doubt we're far apart on our opinion about a parents' responsibility.

The question on which I think we differ is this -- if parents don't provide information about sex, or at what point is it appropriate for other adults to step in? Sometimes there seems to me to be a clear abdication of responsibility -- silence, merely declaring "Don't have sex, you slut!", or even parental abuse. Some situations I think we would differ on -- if a parent has had a loving and respectful conversation with his/her child about abstinence till marriage but provided no other information about sex, is it acceptable for another adult to provide supplementary information when asked? I would say yes, my guess from your other comments (and please forgive me if I'm making unwarranted assumptions) is that you would object to this.

My belief that adults can and should provide this supplementary information is based on a couple of things. On a basic practical level, I want teens to be asking knowledgeable adults rather than google or yahoo answers. I also think that the hotline responders can and should base their answers on certain uncontroversial but important values, like respecting oneself and others and taking responsibility for one's actions. For instance, it's not acceptable to physically or emotionally coerce someone into sexual activity of any kind, and I think responders should frame this not only as "it's illegal" but "it's wrong," and explain. Likewise, unprotected sex fundamentally disregards both partners' wellbeing, and I think responders should be comfortable saying not only "You can get HIV from unprotected sex" but also "It's reckless and uncaring not to use protection." (I recognize that some people on both sides of things might disagree with this, seeing it as a slippery slope to those who are supposed to be giving information imposing their own values on impressionable teenagers, or creating the potential for other problems I haven't forseen. I haven't teased out all the implications of this as a general policy yet, let along as regards texting, so no one should hesitate to disagree. I'd like to discuss.)

I'm having a hard time articulating my final point, but to say it baldly, at times I think a teen's wellbeing trumps their parents' right to instill values. Here, Dan, we might differ sharply, because I am admittedly saying that my values are more important than those of the parents. For instance, if a teen writes in saying he's afraid he might be gay, I feel incredibly strongly that the responder should say that sexual orientation is not a choice, and that while attraction to persons of the same sex does not necessarily mean a person is gay, if he is gay there's nothing to be ashamed of and that homosexuality is morally neutral. On a more question that begins on an informational level, if a teenage girl asks where to get birth control and says her parents don't want her to be on it but that she's having sex, I think an adult has the right to tell her where to go -- and also encourage her to discuss this further with her parents and doctor, explain that it's not 100% foolproof, and try to talk to her as much as possible to ensure that she's responsible and mature enough to handle taking bc regularly.

Of course, that takes us back to the limitations of texting and the importance that parents be involved in the first place so their children aren't having to text strangers in shame or fear.

This isn't a well-crafted response, I'm writing as I think through this tangled issue -- sorry about that! I would still be really interested in your response, Dan, especially as regards the most basic question: what should the rest of the 'village' do when the parents aren't raising their child?

At May 8, 2009 at 7:28 PM , Anonymous Dan said...


I don't think it is shocking that we agree on many things, and I appreciate your thoughtful comment (even if it is not as well crafted as you would like). Unfortunately, my own comment is going to have to be brief, because I am running short of time.

Your question is a good one: what should we do when parents don't take responsibility? It's a much bigger issue than just sex.

I guess I was expressing the opinion that a texting hotline is a poor replacement for parenting, but I didn't offer any better suggestions. Someone who has a personal relationship with the teenager would be best, but every situation will be different. This requires a great deal more thought than I have time for right now... sorry!

I don't have any particular objection to information, but it needs to be age-appropriate and presented in the right context (ie. system of values).

Regarding the internet, kids are pretty savvy and soon learn how to get reliable information from known sources. However, there is no way to ensure age- appropriateness or context. It's much better to deal with it in person so that they do not have to rely on the internet!

Would it be acceptable for another adult to provide supplementary information? Maybe. I would say yes, if you can reflect the parents' value system in the process of presenting the information. I would say no if you are going to outright contradict the parents' value system. And of course, the vast majority of cases are going to land somewhere in between...

Yes, I think we differ on the issue of whether your values ought to take precedence over the parents, although I do appreciate your candid admission that you think your values are more important than those of the parents (and by extension, more important than mine). I also think you aren't being entirely serious with that statement.


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