"Isn't she a little young?"

A new public service ad campaign in Virginia uses billboards and bar coasters to remind men that sex with a minor is against the law. But will it work?

Published July 26, 2004 9:37PM (EDT)

The Rock Falls Tavern in Richmond, Va., is a typical neighborhood bar: There's pizza, a pool table and a regular after-work crowd. It's comfortable in its predictability -- which is why, when strange new postcards appeared in racks last week, patrons took notice.

"So when I saw my buddy going after this young girl," the postcards read in black type, printed above the address for the statutory rape section of the Virginia Department of Health's Web site, "I knew I couldn't just sit there. Isn't she a little young?"

The Tavern has allowed advertisers to offer postcards in the past -- but to sell a product, not dissuade men from pursuing underage girls. Chip Dell, the Tavern's general manager, who says he "doesn't allow people under the age of 21 into the bar area after 9 p.m.," has mixed feelings about the cards. "I agree with the sentiment behind them, but I don't know how effective they're going to be," he says. He just put out the cards about a week ago, but he's already received feedback from the regulars: "They mostly joke -- say things like, 'I need to send this to my buddy and make sure his wife gets it!' -- to get their buddy in trouble."

The postcards are part of a public awareness campaign sponsored by the Virginia Department of Health. Similar "Isn't she a little young?" messages will appear on 225,000 coasters, postcards and napkins in nearly 150 bars and retail stores in northern Virginia, Richmond and Roanoke. People who don't frequent bars like the Rock Falls Tavern or SJ's Lakeside Tavern on Lakeside Avenue will still have a chance to see the messages -- in giant type, on outdoor billboards in central and northern Virginia. The billboards -- which include the warning "Sex with a minor. Don't go there" -- will be up until the end of July; the bars will keep materials on hand until they run out.

Under Virginia's statutory rape laws it's illegal for an adult 18 or older to have sex with someone age 15 to 17 -- but the Virginia Department of Health isn't targeting the high school senior and her college boyfriend (although, for obvious reasons, the department can't actually say this). Nor is this campaign targeted at the other extreme of the spectrum: pedophiles or disturbed adults with sexual fetishes for young children. "We agreed that people who are going after children 12 and under are not going to be fazed by a billboard campaign," says Rebecca Odor, the Department of Health's director for violence prevention. (In Virginia, it's a felony for an adult to have a sexual relationship with a 13- or 14-year-old child.)

Rather, says Robert Franklin, the department's male-outreach coordinator for sexual violence prevention, who helped initiate the $85,000 campaign, "Our goal is to bring awareness to the issues of statutory rape and sexual coercion."

What really worries the Virginia Department of Health is teen pregnancy and how it relates to sex with minors, technically called statutory rape. "The push for the campaign came from seeing the numbers of teens becoming pregnant by older men," Franklin says. "The campaign is aimed at reducing the number of young girls who have had children fathered by older men."

"Statutory rape is a significant public health problem nationwide," says Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. "A large percentage of births from young women can be from older men." He cites several studies, including a 1997 study that indicated that at least half of all babies born nationally to minor women were fathered by adult men. "The fact that Virginia is trying to do something about this is commendable," Benjamin says.

It is estimated that in 2000 the state of Virginia "had a total of 104 births to 14- and 15-year-olds that the age of the fathers would have made their engaging in sex a felony," Franklin says. (The number can only be estimated because just 28 percent of mothers age 14 to 15 reported the age of the baby's father.)

"A girl at 13 or 14 doesn't have the same decision-making skills, self-confidence, maturity or experience as an older woman and is thus more susceptible to bribery and intimidation," says Michelle Oberman, a law professor at Chicago's DePaul University who has written extensively about statutory rape laws. "This makes her prey to a guy who doesn't consciously want to violently rape a woman, but wants sexual intimacy."

All states have laws against sex with a minor, but those laws vary from state to state -- and few states vigorously enforce them. "Numerous studies tell us that a good number of teens under 15 are sexually active -- and it's something we just know [from anecdotal evidence]," Oberman says. "If we really had a vigorous enforcement of statutory rape laws, we'd have no room in our jails."

When dealing with teen pregnancy and sex with minors, state departments of health tend to focus their energy and finances on raising young girls' awareness and teaching them ways to protect themselves; a male-focused campaign is a new approach. "In the past, a 13-year-old girl was being asked to stand up to an adult," says Franklin. "We said to ourselves, 'Why aren't we talking to the men?' Not that we don't need to do education for young women on victimization, but we need to start talking to the men as well."

But will men listen? After all, the campaign is competing against a media culture saturated with images fetishizing young (and youthful-looking) women. MTV even titled its "satirical" movie about a high school football star who is accused of the statutory rape of his 16-year-old girlfriend "Jailbait," while teen queen Hillary Duff's 18th birthday is eagerly awaited by online fans (the first online "legality countdown" was, of course, the Olsen twins').

One of the goals of the campaign is to urge men to start talking to each other about the reality of statutory rape -- to remind each other that dating underage girls is against the law. "If he hears it from enough of his friends, hopefully he'll change his behavior," Odor says. Billboards and bar props seemed like the best way to reach groups of men when they might be meeting up with friends or going out for the night.

Dr. Rev. Darius Beechaum, who runs a men's support group (and provides individual counseling for men) in Richmond thinks Virginia's statutory rape campaign is a positive effort, but questions the heavy focus on male responsibility. Sex with a minor is a topic that occasionally comes up in his groups, he says. "You have these younger ladies that look older, act older, say that they're older. The attitude expressed by men in my group is, if she looks the age, then I guess she is."

And Beechaum isn't sure that men involved with a minor will be open to discussing their personal life with friends. "If a man is engaged in a sexual activity with someone younger, no one knows about it. He won't really take that person out in public -- he'll visit her at home, keep their relationship a secret."

Currently, a special provision in federal law requires states to take active measures against statutory rape. Any state that accepts welfare funds from the Administration for Children and Families (and all 50 states do) must submit a plan that establishes numerical goals to reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies and births. The "Isn't she a little young?" campaign is part of Virginia's federally mandated plan to tackle the statutory rape issue.

The blueprint for this campaign was a pilot project conducted by the health department last year in the Tidewater region on the eastern edge of Virginia. (Tidewater is home to numerous military bases, including the world's largest naval base, in Norfolk.) According to Franklin, 46 percent of men interviewed after the campaign ran remembered seeing the campaign slogan ("Isn't she a little young?") somewhere.

For a campaign intended to catch the attention of libidinous men in their 20s, the images in the billboards and bar materials are noticeably chaste -- as likely to be advertising insurance services as notions of propriety. Odor says this wasn't always the case. In fact, the original ideas proposed by the American Institutes for Research, the agency that created the campaign, were much spicier and featured pictures of seductive young women. "Sex sells, so that was the first thing that came out of American Institutes for Research," Odor says. (The AIR is prohibited by contract from talking publicly about the campaign.)

But the Virginia Department of Health felt such ads would be perpetuating the objectification of women. "We had to put a stop to that from a philosophical perspective," Odor says. Plus, when prototypes of the ads with women's faces were tested in focus groups, the men often ended up debating "whether or not she looks old enough to consent," Odor says. Instead, the agency decided to go with the simple lettering and shadowy silhouettes that crop up alongside Virginia highways today.

"It's a very innovative take on this issue," says Kristina Vadas, the sexual assault outreach counselor at Richmond's YWCA. "Most statutory rape programs target young girls, and say, 'Here are ways to protect yourself.' They put the responsibility on young people to resist adults. I think that going to the root of the problem -- adults who are preying on young teens-- is a much more appropriate way to go about it."

Not everyone believes in the campaign as much as Vadas. "The overall message over this campaign is that sex with a minor is against the law, and I'm not sure that's what drives men to be or not to be with women," says Adrienne Verrilli, director of communications at SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. "There are a lot of other factors that contribute to a relationship between an underage woman and an older man."

Jamie Shuttleworth, a director of account planning at advertising agency Foote Cone Belding -- who has extensive experience with male-targeted campaigns for brands like Coors and John Deere -- worries that using a threatening tone in an ad (like the one taken by the "Don't go there" campaign) might be alienating. "The logical human reaction is to say, 'That doesn't apply to me.' It may get the point across, but it may also be easy to dismiss," Shuttleworth says.

And the "Don't go there" creators are already fighting an uphill battle, says Benjamin. "People's behaviors don't change very easily," he says. "The biggest problem with public health campaigns is that they aren't usually adequately financed. You can't get these kinds of ads into prime time. It is difficult to be competitive with the consumer advertising community because of the amount of money they have compared to the amount of money we have."

They're still going to try, Franklin says. "Sure, one billboard isn't gonna work -- people see something like 30,000 sexually explicit images a day or a week, and here I am throwing up one message to counter that. But we've got to start somewhere."

By Corrie Pikul

Corrie Pikul writes about women's issues and pop culture. She lives in Brooklyn.

MORE FROM Corrie Pikul

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Advertising Virginia