Working around parents
Texting hotlines usurp sexual education
Many parents in Virginia learned for the first time about a government-funded text hotline offering their teenagers anonymous sex advice when postcards appeared in their mailboxes.
The brightly colored notice, sent to more than 95,000 Virginia households in September, featured animated teens holding cellphones and discussing an anonymous text hotline in which a “certified health educator” answered their questions within 24 hours on “relationships, contraception, sex, pregnancy, [sexually transmitted infections], sexuality + more.”
The questions are fielded by “BrdsNBz,” a hotline adopted by departments of health in Virginia and New Mexico and run by the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA), a North Carolina–based, private nonprofit. It calls itself “America’s authority on sexual health information” on its website.
Parents who want to maintain their authority over what their children learn about sex sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar on Nov. 19. The pro-family groups from Virginia and eight other states requested an investigation into the use of federal funds for BrdsNBz and other similar text hotlines. Title V Sexual Risk Avoidance Education Grants administered by HHS are intended to “enable the state or other entity to implement education exclusively on sexual risk avoidance (meaning voluntarily refraining from sexual activity).”
In Virginia, the state Department of Health allots $1,500 per month in Title V money for ASHA to fund BrdsNBz, said Maria Reppas, the department’s director of communications. Since 2019, the federal government has spent a total of $56,314.88 to fund the hotline, including the cost of the postcard campaign.
“The idea that the state would solicit children for the purpose of responding to a sex text line is appalling,” said Victoria Cobb, a mother of four and president of The Family Foundation of Virginia.
Parents teach children not to talk to or give their phone number to strangers and to discuss sexual topics with a trusted adult, not an outside party, Cobb said, adding, “Parents were shocked to find an animated postcard in their mailboxes encouraging children to text their questions to an anonymous stranger through an anonymous hotline.
The hotline also appears to encourage sexual activity and deviancy for minors. In one text exchange, an anonymous person from ASHA responded to the question, “How old should I be to have sex?” with, “It’s not about the age and all about when you feel ready,” according to screenshots collected by the Family Foundation. In another question about gender identity, the hotline answered, “Exploring and discovering who you are and what you are attracted to is a part of figuring out your identity in the world.” When a user asked, “What is sex?” the hotline responded with, “People define sex differently,” and proceeded to list multiple sexual acts.
In each case, the sender’s age was not verified. The program assumes it is speaking to teenagers, but has no way of obtaining that information yet, said Fred Wyand, communications director for ASHA. He said BrdsNBz is designed to provide teens with vetted and reliable information and gentle encouragement to turn to trusted adults including parents, teachers, and school nurses. Health educators undergo background checks, he said.
In Pennsylvania, “health counselors” from Planned Parenthood staff a similar government-funded text hotline introduced in June.
Access Matters, one of the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s four regional family health councils, said “Thrive,” its anonymous text hotline for 13- to 19-year-olds, will “inform students of vital sexual and reproductive resources available to them.” The nonprofit is marketing its text hotline on Instagram, TikTok, and other popular teen social media platforms. Teenagers are directed to Planned Parenthood facilities, not their parents.
“The government should not be funding a texting line that refers teens to the largest abortion provider in our state,” said Dan Bartkowiak, communications director for the Pennsylvania Family Institute.
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