A new kind of "sexting"

A North Carolina program answers teens' candid questions via text message

By Judy Berman
Published May 4, 2009 1:57PM (EDT)

In the past six months, media panic over the latest teen scandal -- "sexting" -- has reached fever pitch. (Here's today's edition.) As writers debate whether high schoolers should be charged as sex offenders for sharing naked photos of themselves, parents worry that their own children could be ruining their reputations -- or, worse, their futures.

So far, the trend hasn't yielded much besides excessively harsh kiddie-porn sentences and ambient angst. But now, as a piece in Sunday's New York Times suggests, sex educators are starting to wise up to teens' intimate relationships with their cellphones and are planning new programs accordingly. The article profiles the Birds and Bees Text Line, a project of the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina. Launched in February, the program (which advertises on MySpace) invites teens ages 14-19 to submit anonymous sex questions via text message. Each week, a different on-duty staff member provides a candid, nonjudgmental response to the often difficult queries.

One staff member, James Martin, agonized over how to answer this heartbreaking, late-night message: "If I was raped when I was little and just had sex was it technically my first time when I was raped or when I recently had sex?" After three drafts he responded:

Your first time is whatever you make it. There is no 'right' answer: I believe your first time can be many things (good, bad, fun, embarrassing, wonderful) but it should never be nonconsensual. Your first time is the first time you choose to have sex, not when some horrible person forces you.

The Birds and Bees has taken steps to ensure that it provides empathetic messages filled with reliable information: All staff members who respond to teens' questions have either a graduate degree in public health or social work or "years of experience working with teenagers." And the text line will never advocate abortion or give medical advice; in cases where medical attention may be necessary, the service directs questioners to "local clinics, Web sites or emergency hot lines." 

As the article discusses, the Birds and Bees (along with several similar programs in major cities across the country) isn't free of critics or limitations. Bill Brooks of the conservative North Carolina Family Policy Council complains that parents won't be able to monitor their children's use of the service. (But isn't the anonymity kind of the point? Won't the Birds and Bees be most useful for teens who don't feel comfortable asking their parents tough questions?) And professor Sheana Bull of the University of Colorado School of Public Health, while a supporter of the program, feels that the text line is most effective for "referrals and short answers to quick questions" -- not more complicated quandaries.

But in a state like North Carolina, where schools are required to teach abstinence-only sex education, the service seems to fill a knowledge gap that may be seriously harming teenagers. (As the Times notes, the state boasts the nation's ninth highest teen pregnancy rate.) While nothing can substitute for comprehensive sex ed in the classroom, the Birds and Bees is a daring step in the right direction.

Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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