Sept. 3, 2008 -- With online videos titled "Horse Penis Virus" and "I Didn't Spew," a Planned Parenthood group in Oregon has taken the battle over sex education to brand new turf.
The Web site "Take Care Down There" features video vignettes of young adults in pink and blue T-shirts enacting teenage sexual dilemmas. At crucial moments, a mustachioed middle-aged man interrupts the "teens" and offers sex education words of wisdom.
The site, run by Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette in Portland, Ore., is just one of several launched by local and national Planned Parenthood organizations that aim to bring sex education beyond classrooms and libraries and into media young adults use most.
Following the April debut of "Take Care Down There," Planned Parenthood of Southwestern Ohio launched "The A-Word" this summer, and the National Planned Parenthood league has maintained a long-standing sexual education resource called teenwire.org.
Aside from the ongoing abstinence-only versus contraception sex education debate, the marketing approach of these online videos has ignited a divisive response across the political and academic spectrum.
New Media, New Voice
"They're moving into a brave new world with lots of online content," said Katie Walker, director of communications at the American Life League, a Roman Catholic anti-abortion rights and abstinence-only advocacy group.
Representatives of Planned Parenthood agreed, but for different reasons.
"They're meant to be funny, and they use slang because we need to communicate this message to the intended audience," said Liz Delapoer, marketing director of Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette, where the videos were produced.
"The titles of some of the videos are meant to grab your attention and make you wonder what they are all about," she said.
Indeed, the movable click and drag cutouts of hearts, a share feature to e-mail the videos and a song were the products of a joint effort between Planned Parenthood and a hired advertising firm. But the new approach has delighted, confused and appalled various groups.
Abstinence and Teen Sex
"I noticed a similarity in the audience. They are all geared to preteen or younger," Walker said. "But the content is inappropriate at any age, oh my goodness."
Even when the topic supported abstinence, Walker said she thought the new message and new media were misguided. In one of the videos titled "Let Me Do Me," the older male character encourages young women to support their friend's decision to stay home and masturbate instead of going out for fun.
"TakeCareDownThere.com is yet another example of Planned Parenthood's attempt to sexualize even the youngest children," Walker said in a statement she had prepared. "The disgustingly explicit site is obviously geared toward preteens. It promotes masturbation and calls it abstinence. It promotes teenage sex, homosexuality and exploitation in the most vile terms."
Experts in educating teenagers about sex didn't react with words like "vile," but many agreed with Walker's take on the age group of the intended audience.
Hokey, Crude or On the Mark
"I think the educational part was very good. I just I think the kids will find it hokey. That was my concern," said Elaine Leader, executive director of Teen Line at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Nadine Kaslow, professor and chief psychologist at the Emory School of Medicine and Grady Hospital in Atlanta, had a similar concern.
"I think it's too simplistic for young adults. It's sort of like sex 101," said Kaslow. "It was the kind of the stuff I got in junior high."
"That's definitely not the case," said Delapoer, who said focus groups responded positively to the design and the humor of using the stereotypically awkward male teacher role. "Everything from the script to the site to the colors, everything was designed in mind to reach an audience in their teens and early 20s."
Despite the dispute over the intended audience, though, Kaslow recognized the power of putting sex education videos online.
"People learn in different ways, and maybe they're embarrassed to ask questions in class," Kaslow said. "Or they had the STD lecture in September and then in March they have questions and are wondering if they're infected but forgot what they learned."
Planned Parenthood and Sex Education
"My general thought is certainly in this day and age, sex education is a good thing, and some kids aren't even getting it at schools."
By "this day and age," Kaslow was referring to the undeniably sad statistics of sexually transmitted diseases in the United States.
In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that likely one in four teenage girls have a sexually transmitted infection and that neither abstinence-only (25 percent of classrooms) nor comprehensive sex education (66 percent of classrooms) has been effective in reducing these numbers.
Where's the Problem
"We have a sort of preventable health crises in this country," said Delapoer, who added that the focus groups and research used to develop the Take Care Down There site also found current sex education to be ineffective in some areas.
"They're often not confused but turned off by a lot of the medical technical terms," said Delapoer. Others in social health education agreed.
"I think that so much of what we do has a medical bent and it doesn't really address the way people really talk about this topic," said Deborah Arrindell, vice president for health policy at the American Social Health Association.
"It's very fresh, it's exciting and it's a new way of trying to reach young people," she said. "It's not for everybody, but they can click off and find this information in ways that work better for them."