Maria Talks, a website with frank sexual health information for young people, has become quite controversial in its home state of Massachusetts since a Boston Herald article in April questioned whether its contents were appropriate. After the article, a number of state legislators announced they were outraged by the site. Some noted that the information about sex was too graphic—Representative Elizabeth Poirier (R-North Attleborough) went so far as to say “the language used on the site is disgusting. There are words that I would find difficult to speak…” Others, possibly spurred on by complaints from Massachusetts Citizens for Life, took issue with the website’s description of abortion and, in particular, its explanation of the process by which young women in the state can obtain an abortion without their parents’ permission if necessary.
The website, which is maintained by the non-profit AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, receives an annual grant of $100,000 from the state Department of Public Health. Some critics have been putting pressure on the Department to change the content of the site while others, including the state’s four Catholic Bishops, have been focusing on getting Governor Deval Patrick to cut funding for it all together.
Today I spoke to Sophie Godley, a clinical assistant professor in the Community Health Sciences Department at Boston University’s School of Public Health, to get her take on the controversy. Sophie formerly served as the Deputy Director of AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts and was responsible for creating and launching Maria Talks in 2007.
RHRC: What was the impetus for creating the site?
Godley: It actually started as a way to provide information about emergency contraception (EC). We knew from some of the data collected at the state level that there was a real lack of knowledge about the existence of EC. So, we went out and did focus groups in key high risk communities (communities with high STIs, low high school graduation, and high teen birth rates). When we talked to these young people, we found out very quickly that if we hung out a shingle that said "learn about emergency contraception" they would not access the site. They reported that they didn't like the term emergency contraception (they found it alarming).
More importantly, however, they had much more fundamental questions: How do I say no to someone who is pressuring me? How do I know if I'm ready to have sex? Who can I talk to about these issues? We also heard again and again that what these young people sought most of all was a trusted person they could talk to—someone like an older sister. Hence, Maria was born.
RHRC: Why a Website?
Godley: We knew from national literature just how many teens point to the Internet as a source of information, especially about sex. And we also knew that some of this information is dubious at best. We wanted to be a place where youth could connect in a manner that was interesting to them, appealing to them, and resonated with their lives. It's private and it's personal. But we also created a lot of opportunities to connect further —young people can email questions and get personal answers, they can call the hot line, or they can use the site to find clinics and other resources in their area.
The site answers a lot of questions and provides a lot of referrals. Every call or email includes the most important message to young people: you are not alone, there are trusted adults out there, let us help you connect to them in your community.
RHRC: How did you come up with the characters of Maria and Aunt Lucia?
Godley: Again, this was the result of our work with young people and hearing from them what they wanted and needed. We wanted Maria to symbolize a trusted, older, young person; someone who knew a lot and also knew where to get help. Once we hit upon this concept (the brainchild of our completely brilliant social marketing firm) suddenly the whole thing took off for us. We realized Maria could have friends and relatives who would also resonate with young people: she could have an auntie who was an OBGYN, she could have a gay friend, a sexually abstinent friend, a sexually active friend, etc.
RHRC: You set out to discuss emergency contraception but the site includes so much more. How did you decide on the scope of the information that you would include?
Godley: This took many, many hours of discussion, review of the literature about risk and protective factors, and constant discussion with our partners in the public health community. We wanted to cover as much as we could and we made sure to include topics that we had heard most repeatedly and loudly that youth wanted to hear about (including protection methods and basic biology). Some of our decisions, honestly, were made as result of funding—we could only do so much. So we had to decide what was urgent and what was better done elsewhere.
RHRC: I read the site and it sounds a lot like a sexuality education pamphlet to me. Still some people are calling it graphic and disgusting. What do you say to critics who call the language on the site too explicit?
Godley: I find this criticism absolutely absurd. Go watch an Eminem video—that’s what young children watch. Go watch Rihanna’s newest video on S&M. Our predominant, relentless images of sexuality in this country are sexist, homophobic, glamorizing the very worst of behaviors, and at times blatantly pornographic. These are the message young people get on their phones, on their TVs, on their laptops, on the radio. They spend more time interacting with social media, watching TV, and being online than they do sleeping. How are we ever going to change things in this country if we can't at least have one safe haven where young people can get honest, unflinching information about their bodies and how to stay safe?
Sure we occasionally use nonclinical terms and colloquialisms on the site to describe sexual acts. If it’s “graphic,” it’s because it needs to be graphic—it’s not gratuitous and it’s not thoughtless. It’s been carefully considered and tested with young people to ensure that they get the information they need. The fact that nearly 5,000 babies were born to young women under the age of 19 in our state last year makes me much more uncomfortable than the fact that the site uses the terms hand job and blow job.
RHRC: The thing that seems to be sparking the most controversy is the section on abortion. Does this surprise you? What do you say to critics who claim the site is trying to help young women have abortions without their parents’ knowledge?
Godley: This does not surprise me at all. The recent attacks on Planned Parenthood and the ongoing assault on women’s reproductive health is fair warning to all of us involved in sexual health. We will be attacked if we so much as mention abortion.
Last time I checked, abortion is legal in Massachusetts. There are specific steps young people can take to obtain an abortion. Hopefully, they have parents who are actively involved in their lives—who eat dinner with them, who watch them play soccer, or sing in the school musical. Hopefully, they have parents who know their friends’ names. Hopefully, they have parents who can name what subjects they are taking in high school and what they got on their last English quiz. That's a world I would love to live in. That's a world I strive for every day—that's the kind of parent I aspire to be with my own child.
But you know what? Lots of children are being raised in this state and all over the country who don't have families like that. Some of them are in foster care. Some of them have parents who are unable, for a multitude of reasons, to be engaged in the lives of their children. This is terrible, but it’s true. And for those young people we have a public health obligation to assist them in getting the legal medical care they need. Period.
RHRC: Are you concerned that a controversy like this could end the funding for this site?
Godley: Yes, I am deeply concerned. Most enraging of all for me is that this site is for youth who don’t have trusted adults in their lives—it’s to try to fill that gap for our most vulnerable youth. The “outraged legislators” who take offense are probably parents. It stuns me how much people want teen sexuality to go away, and how much wishful thinking they are willing to engage in to pretend it’s not real, not happening, and not a threat to the health and well-being of our young people.