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AIDS Action issues response to 63 legislators who signed letter calling MariaTalks.com into question

Posted May 02 2011 4:15pm

Note: Due to the high volume of visits to MariaTalks.com, the site is occasionally going offline. If you experience delays when trying to view the site, please be patient and try again at a later time.
 
It’s been nearly two weeks since the Boston Herald ran a cover story calling into question the nature and purpose of MariaTalks.com , a website operated by AIDS Action Committee with funding from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Since then, we’ve hoped that those who visited the site would see what we know to be true, that MariaTalks.com is a great resource for Massachusetts teens, providing comprehensive, medically accurate, and developmentally appropriate information about sexual health in a non-judgmental, easily-accessible format.
 
That has largely happened. ACLU of Massachusetts Executive Director Carol Rose , the editorial board for the Metrowest Daily News , and Salon.com’s Tracy Clark-Flory all describe having visited MariaTalks.com expecting one thing based on the sensational rhetoric about the site, but finding something else altogether: “The writing is simple, clear and non-judgmental. It’s not racy or provocative, nor is it a “how to” manual. The tone is supportive throughout, urging teens to make their own decisions about their bodies,” as the May 1 Metrowest Daily News editorial put it.
 
Still, the site continues to be attacked. Last week, the four Catholic bishops in Massachusetts called on the state to eliminate funding for MariaTalks.com . And over the weekend, this insert  was included in bulletins handed out to parishioners.
 
On Friday, April 29, 63 Massachusetts legislators signed a letter to Governor Deval Patrick urging him to either “make substantive changes” or “eliminate funding” for MariaTalks.com, based on what some lawmakers said is the site’s “insensitive” description of abortion and “graphic and inappropriate language” to describe sex ( more on the letter here ).
 
Today, we sent a letter in response to these 63 legislators, the media, and others responding to these charges. See below for the full text of our letter.
 
We stand behind MariaTalks.com, and we want to take a moment to thank the many people who have spoken out in favor of the site in the last several days, including:

Billy Rainsford, Columnist for The Daily Collegian of the University of Massachusetts: “Save MariaTalks,” The Daily Collegian, April 26, 2011
 
Alex Pratt, Local High School Student: “Students want guidance, not political bickering,” Boston Globe (Letter to the Editor), April 30, 2011

Jessica Wakeman, Columnist for The Frisky: “Teen Sex Ed Web Site Needs To Stop! Why? Because It Talks To Teens About Sex,” The Frisky, April 26, 2011

@SaveMariaTalks, Grassroots Twitter Response to MariaTalks.com Controversy: www.twitter.com/SaveMariaTalks

Last, if you have not already, please take a moment to contact your lawmakers to let them know that you think that preventing unintended teen pregnancy and the transmission of HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases is a worthy public policy goal. You can find your legislators information at www.wheredoivotema.com .

Letter to Legislators

Dear Legislator,

I am writing in response to the letter you sent Friday, April 29 to Governor Patrick asking him to either make “substantive content changes” to the website MariaTalks.com or to “eliminate funding” for the site. As you know, AIDS Action Committee hosts and maintains MariaTalks.com with a contract from the Department of Public Health.

What you may not know, particularly if your familiarity with MariaTalks.com is based on the sensational Boston Herald article referenced in your letter, is that the primary message on the site to young people is that they seek advice about sexual health matters—in person—from a trusted adult. Hopefully that adult is a parent, but not all young people have parents who are equipped to talk with them about sexual health issues, and not all young people are able to approach a trusted adult. MariaTalks.com is designed specifically to fill that gap.

MariaTalks.com was developed to address the public health crisis of unintended teen pregnancy, the rising rates of sexually-transmitted diseases among young people, and to reduce HIV infection rates. The evidence supporting the need is overwhelming:

  1. Approximately 10,000 public high school students in Massachusetts drop out of school annually. Data show that approximately 26% of those who fail to finish their high school education fail to do so because of unintended teen pregnancy. Teen pregnancy and motherhood are the leading reasons why teenage girls drop out of school.
  2. Significant numbers of Massachusetts high school students are sexually active and not making safe choices. According to the 2009 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey, 48 percent of high school students in Massachusetts (grades 9-12) are sexually active, with 66 percent of all high school seniors reporting that they were sexually active. Only 43 percent of sexually active high school students and 50 percent of sexually active high school seniors reported using a condom the last time they had sex.
  3. The most recent HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control finds that more than half (53.4%) of all newly reported HIV/AIDS cases occurred among persons in their twenties (29%) or thirties (24.4%). An astounding 5.2% of cases occurred among people under age 20, with the vast majority of those in the 15-to-19 age group.

It is abundantly clear that our young people need information about how to avoid unintended pregnancies and how to keep themselves safe from sexually-transmitted diseases and infections (such as HIV, gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and syphilis). The public health costs associated with unintended teen pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases are high. These costs come in the form of health care dollars spent to care for high-risk teen pregnancies and births; abortions; lifetime treatment for HIV; and the costs of treating gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and syphilis. The costs in terms of lost educational and employment opportunities and spiritual and emotional damage to individuals and families are, of course, incalculable. Children whose mothers gave birth to them as teenagers have a 27% chance of growing up in poverty; that rate increases to 42% if the child’s mother fails to finish high school or complete her GED.

There was an extensive planning process involving public health and pediatric experts, parents, and young people in the development of MariaTalks.com. The process included conducting hundreds of interviews with family planning providers, teen pregnancy prevention providers, disease intervention specialists, nurses trained to work with victims of sexual assault, and health care providers who work with children in residential settings. We also conducted focus groups with young people age 14 to 20 in communities with high rates of unintended teen pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases: Brockton, Fall River, Jamaica Plain, Holyoke, Lynn, and Worcester. All of the young people who participated in the focus groups did so with parental consent, and many of the providers whom we interviewed were the parents themselves of teenagers and brought that perspective into the planning process.

We learned that many young people and adults have erroneous misconceptions about sexual health, how to access health care and contraception, and how to talk with a trusted adult about these issues.
Through our focus groups with teenagers from diverse backgrounds, we learned that they were already accessing information about sex from the Internet, including pornographic websites utilizing graphic, explicit, and inappropriate language and images. The teens who participated in these focus groups told us over and over that a youth-friendly, easily accessible website with information about sexual health would be invaluable to them.

Finally, we learned that we needed to address a wide range of topics likely to come up in conversations with teenagers about sexual intercourse: sexual anatomy and physiology, HIV, viral hepatitis, sexually-transmitted diseases and infections, substance abuse related to sexual risk, sexual violence, adoption, teen motherhood, abortion, and issues related to coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. One of the key messages delivered to us by teens in our focus groups was that they wanted adults to communicate openly and honestly with them about their questions and concerns around sex.

MariaTalks.com is narrated by 18-year-old Maria who dispenses information about sexual health, teen relationships, avoiding pregnancy, HIV, and sexually-transmitted diseases and infections based on information she gets from her Aunt Lucia, who is an obstetrician-gynecologist. Her friends include 17-year-old Thomas who has decided to wait before having sex; 17-year-old Bethany who’s concerned about the amount of alcohol her friends drink; Josh and Kimberly, a teen couple who don’t always use birth control and are worried about unwanted pregnancy; 17-year-old Aimee, who has just come out and joined her high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance; and Maria’s cousin Oscar who is a college student, gay, and dating another man.

Once the content on MariaTalks.com was developed, it was reviewed by public health and pediatric experts and adolescent pediatricians who work with teens at high risk for pregnancy, HIV, and other sexually transmitted infections. The sexual health information on the site is comprehensive, medically accurate, and developmentally appropriate. It is conveyed in language that is non-judgmental and easily-accessible. Throughout MariaTalks.com young people are encouraged to talk with their parents, or another trusted adult, about the decisions they are making, and to see a medical provider for contraception and STD testing if they are sexually active.

I want to directly address your two concerns about MariaTalks.com as raised in your letter. The first is that MariaTalks.com “describes abortion in an insensitive manner and advises how to circumvent
parental notification requirements.” The site has six pages on pregnancy and parenting (which follow 30 pages of comprehensive information focused on delaying sex or making decisions to prevent unintended pregnancy and contractions of sexually-transmitted diseases and infections). The one page on abortion simply describes the state law that permits teenagers under age 18 to obtain an abortion if they do not feel safe approaching their parents for consent and a judge finds either that the teen is mature enough to make the decision herself or that it is in her best interest to have an abortion. Whenever abortion is described on MariaTalks.com, it is described in developmentally appropriate language that avoids entirely the politicized terms that have entered our public discourse.

Your letter also references “graphic and inappropriate language” to describe sex on MariaTalks.com. It is not entirely clear what language you are referring to. Eight of the 50 pages on MariaTalks.com deal directly with sex. These pages address sex with medically accurate and developmentally appropriate language. On the page titled “What Is Sex,” MariaTalks.com provides colloquial definitions and descriptions of clinical language (i.e. “going down on her” for “cunnilingus”). These more casual descriptions capture the language actually employed by the teenagers and young adults who participated in our focus groups.

You may be offended by the colloquial language used on MariaTalks.com. You may be offended by the idea that a teenager in crisis may go to an adult other than her parent for help. However, when making decisions about public health, risks and benefits must be weighed. We believe that the risk of offending adults is outweighed by the benefits of preventing unintended teen pregnancies and the transmission of HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases.

Over the past 30 years the HIV/AIDS crisis has taught us many things. One of the most critical lessons is that it takes courage to talk openly about challenging subjects that make many of us uncomfortable. It takes courage to confront the reality of public health data that reveals risky behaviors, especially among young people. We believe that MariaTalks.com provides a vital support for young people in Massachusetts.

I would welcome the opportunity to personally discuss any of these issues with you.

Sincerely,
Rebecca Haag
President & CEO
AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts

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