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A Sexier Way to Educate Teen-Agers

Times Staff Writer

In a state with a population of just 700,000, about 47,000 in-state telephone calls--many of them presumably from young men--have flooded a Delaware number that offers frank talk about sex.

But state officials aren’t in an uproar, and, in fact, are pleased by the heavy traffic on the toll-free “In Touch” line, which offers advice on such topics as “How to Score.”

That’s because it is part of an innovative program by the Delaware Division of Public Health to educate what has been the toughest to reach and most poorly informed group on human sexuality: teen-age males.

With posters and brochures, health officials have tried to entice teens to call “In Touch” to listen to 50 tapes with such titles as “How to Score,” “How to Say ‘No,’ ” “Big Muscles and Manhood,” and “What She Would Tell You If She Could.”

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So just what do callers hear?

After punching in a code for “How to Score,” for example, a man’s voice tells them: “You want to get lucky, right? You want to get what you want. If you’re a man, you want to get a little . . . from whomever OK? You know what that means. . . .

“We interviewed some incredible studs on this one and here’s what they said: One said he held off (having sex) because he learned--correctly, by the way--that, if you try to make love under pressure and you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s usually not very satisfactory.

“Another said he took care of his urges by himself. Not a bad idea, by the way. And he kept on having great fantasies and really enjoying them, without acting on them.”

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That message might not have been exactly what some callers might have expected, especially based on the tape’s title.

But “if we came up with very clinical titles, the kids wouldn’t be interested,” said Lucille Siegel, director of Delaware’s Office of Adolescent Health Services. “What we tried to do is come up with titles to the messages that would encourage kids to call up and listen.

“They think it’s going to tell them how to go find a boyfriend or a girlfriend. In fact, it gets into things related to peer pressure and issues like whether you have to have a lover or a sex partner to be cool and accepted.”

That the “In Touch” line has become so popular since it began in 1986--it now receives nine calls an hour on weekdays in the peak period from just after school ends until dinner time--has attracted national attention.

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Siegel, who recently published a brief essay describing the program in the American Journal of Public Health, said her agency has received inquiries about it from agencies across the country.

Why? Siegel and Planned Parenthood chapter officials nationwide said it is frustrating trying to educate teen-age males, because the American ethic requires them to pretend to friends and peers that they know about sex, and that they are experienced with it.

The privacy of the call-in service--which can be reached only by callers in Delaware--allows teen-agers to maintain appearances for their peers while still providing them accurate information they can relate to, Siegel said.

Federal Funds

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The program--funded by a federal grant that pays for the phone machinery, production of tapes and a statewide advertising and promotion campaign linked to high school sex education courses--had its genesis in a similar service once run by the Los Angeles Planned Parenthood chapter, Siegel said.

That program, which a Planned Parenthood spokeswoman said went out of existence six years ago, was less extensive. Baltimore’s Planned Parenthood--as well as chapters in San Diego and Marin County and at least one county health department in Virginia--have run similar programs, though none as explicit as Delaware’s.

Though the Delaware tapes are explicit, they are carefully crafted. They are reviewed by a panel of several dozen representatives of church and community groups.

None of the 50 tapes focuses on abortion--a recognition that that topic, especially for a public agency, is too controversial for the call-in format.

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Because of its format, statistical records can’t determine the sex of the callers. But 42% of the callers, who push buttons to ask for specific tapes, requested selections designed for a male audience; 35% of the callers requested tapes on female-oriented topics; and 23% heard tapes considered “gender neutral.”

Despite extensive local media publicity about the program, there have been no complaints about it from any group, said Barbara Ryan, director of education for Planned Parenthood of Delaware, the agency which houses the “In Touch” answering machine.

The service, Ryan said, must be filling a large, unmet need because the machine “is going all the time.”

Public Health Messages

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“How to Score” is the most popular selection, and it, like the other messages, contains a carefully structured, classical series of public health messages.

In addition to thinly veiled references to sex, seduction and masturbation, “How to Score,” for example, also advises about: effective birth control; religious and other concerns about sex, masturbation and sex among unmarried teens; and the importance of caring, communicative relationships over sexual flings.

It closes with a quiz on responsible sex and ends with the male voice observing: “So how did you score? Or, how important is scoring to you? Unless you scored well on this little quiz, you may need some work before you get lucky. If not, you may be just very unlucky and your partner may be, too.”


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