Want to Talk About Sex? Send a Text

Controversial text hotline in N.C. allows teens to ask sex questions.

May 7, 2009 — -- For some teens, cell phones aren't just for gossip with friends, checking in with their parents or texting with their crushes.

Now some are using the coveted devices to get answers to their most embarrassing, confusing and sometimes crude sex questions.

The Birds & Bees Text Line, organized by The Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina, will answer any and all sex questions submitted anonymously via text message by teens in the state.

"The phone has not stopped buzzing," said Sally Swanson, the campaign's community programs manager and one of the eight trained adults who answers teens' texts from their Durham, N.C., office.

But not all parents in the state are comfortable with their teens receiving sexual information over their cell phones from anonymous strangers.

Charlotte, N.C., mom Susan Vaughn says she's not in favor of her kids going to strangers for sex ed, online or off.

In fact, the thought of her kids' cell phone buzzing with a new a message about sex -- and not one from a friend -- horrifies her.

"I think they ought to go to their parents about sex," said Vaughn. "I don't agree with this text line at all."

More than 1,000 sex questions have been fielded by the text line since the program was launched in February, Swanson estimates.

While the service is currently only available in North Carolina, organizations in several states -- and even one in Germany -- have reached out to Swanson to inquire about expanding the service or developing their own similar programs.

Swanson said that eight staff members rotate being on duty to answer the text messages that come into the organization's cell phone. Those texts range from the serious to the silly to the overtly sexual.

"I think I may be pregnant but I don't think I have any signs," one girl texted, according to transcripts provided by the group. "I took a cheap pregnancy test like a couple days after we had sex. It said no. Is it possible that I'm pregnant?"

The response the teen got, and all responses are promised within 24 hours of the question being sent, was just as frank.

"Tests can be wrong, both with false positives or false negatives," an equally anonymous APPCNC staffer texted back. "Your best course of action is to visit your doctor as soon as possible for an exam."

Another teen wanted to know, quite simply, "Is sex good?"

"Like anything else in life it can be good or bad," the response from APPCNC read. "It all depends on your mood, who you're with and whether you're mature enough to deal with the consequences."

Swanson said the idea for the text line was born out of the desire to use technology -- especially the kind so coveted by teens -- in a "responsible way."

Advertising the service on social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook as well as on fliers throughout the state, Swanson said the program so far has been a success in reaching teens who otherwise might learn about sex from less reliable sources.

"A lot of what we do is validation that what they're going through is normal and a lot of it is correcting myths," said Swanson. "They'll ask if they can still get pregnant if they take a shower before having sex or if you get pregnant from anal sex."

But Vaughn, who said that she's talked to both her teenage children about sex and is promoting abstinence, hopes her kids don't use the service.

"I would be upset if they texted the service," she said. "I'd be disappointed that they felt they had to go to this service rather than come to us."

Asked whether she thought there may be questions her kids have that are too embarrassing to ask her, Vaughn said "yes" but that she hopes they'd ask her or her husband anyway.

David Greenfield, the director of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and an expert on sexual behavior, said that while some parents may cringe at the text line, they must come to terms with the fact that kids today are looking for information, and fast.

"Texts and instant messaging is the predominant mode of communication for kids," said Greenfield. "If you don't want to work within the modality that's their primary source for information, then you're going to miss them."

"Almost every kid has got one of those things, a cell phone, in their hands," he said. "So if you want to reach them, reach them where they live."

Valerie Huber, the executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, holds many of the same beliefs as Vaughn, and said that while she agrees embracing technology is a good step toward communicating with teens about sex, she is not sure this system is the best way to do it.

"It looks to me as though [the text line] is actually putting teens at increased risk by kind of giving them a green light for sexual experimentation," said Huber.

Huber's also concerned that the space limitations of a text message won't do justice to a serious question.

"My concern is that in a 20-word text message, how effective a message can be given?" she asked.

How this text line may inhibit a parent's relationship with their teen is also a concern of Huber's.

"We know from survey after survey that parents are the people teens really want to talk to about sex," said Huber. "Is this text line really encouraging that?"

APPCNC's Swanson says it is.

"A lot of the teens are texting us to ask how to talk to their parents about certain subjects," said Swanson.

For example, one teen recently texted, "What's the best way to tell your mother you had sex?"

"This may depend on the relationship you have with your mom currently," read the response to the teen. "Most parents really want their children to be honest with them and to depend on them. I commend you for wanting to have open and honest communication with your mom."

Swanson adds that the more difficult questions, such as issues concerning abortion or rape are always responded to with information about local clinics, counselors or help hotlines.

Addressing criticism from parents like Vaughn, Swanson said that she, too, would want her own kids to come to her first for advice but adds that the text line isn't trying to overtake the role of the parent but, rather, act as a complimentary tool for teens.

"I want my kids to talk to me, too, if they have a burning question," she said.

"But if there's something they want to know and they're not going to come to me, having a place to go for a clear, medically accurate and non-hyped up answer isn't a bad idea."