Isn't She a Little Young?

The message is brief, yes, and more than a little blunt, but the state of Virginia is banking on that. They need to convey the message to thousands of young men all across the Commonwealth that sex with underage girls is a bad idea, and they don't have a very loquacious medium with which to spread it. The message will be carried by billboards, coasters, cocktail napkins, and postcards in Northern Virginia, Richmond, and Roanoke throughout the summer of 2004.

The mouth behind this message is the Virginia Department of Health. Health officials working for the agency said they became alarmed by statistics from 1999 and 2000 which showed that 219 babies born to 13– and 14–year–old girls in Virginia were fathered by men over the age of 18, and that men over the age of 21 were three times more likely to father children with junior high girls than junior high boys. "We are concerned about minors who are coerced into sexual relationships with adult men and the resulting health and social problems, which include pregnancy, fatherless children, sexually transmitted diseases and mental health problems," said state Health Commissioner Robert B. Stroube.

While the state of Virginia already carries heavy penalties for this behavior (it is a felony in Virginia for an adult to engage in sexual intercourse with a 13– or 14–year–old, and a Class I misdemeanor with 15– to 17–year olds), these statistics led them to take a bold new tack toward tackling the problem. As Sarah Graham Miller, a spokeswoman for the organization, said, "The onus can't be just on a woman to keep herself safe, the other 50 percent of the population has to have a role as well in reducing sexual abuse."

Their bold new tack has as its rudder an ad campaign, aimed at Virginia men, involving the message, "Isn't she a little young?" with the tag line, "Sex with a minor, don't go there." The ensemble is black, white, and pink; a striking combination which the Department of Health hopes will catch not just the eye of would-be-offenders, but their friends as well. "What we're hoping is that men will start to check each other and basically say, 'Dude, she's 16— you shouldn't be with her,' " said Robert Franklin, male outreach coordinator for sexual violence prevention at the Virginia Department of Health. Franklin helped initiate the campaign.

The campaign takes a markedly different approach toward tackling the problem, and will likely be closely watched for results. As Alan Berkowitz, a psychologist and consultant based in Trumansburg, N.Y., who helps colleges, universities and communities design public health programs stated, "There are programs across the country that are doing this in bits and pieces, but the Virginia Health Department's campaign is unusual."

Though the approach may be new, officials and experts are confident that the state is making a smart move. "It's hard to see a direct impact with many of these public health campaigns," said Adrienne Verrilli spokeswoman for the Sexual Information and Education Council of the United States, a research group in New York. "But clearly they don't hurt, particularly when they are linked with support services." David Landry, senior research associate for the Alan Guttmacher Institute, says "There's a lot of evidence that men, particularly those who have just left high school, get their understanding about STDs and condom use, for example, from these types of media."

The campaign will set the state back approximately $85,000, a total which covers the use of billboards through the summer and the printing and distribution of 255,000 cards, posters, coasters and napkins distributed to nearly 150 bars, restaurants and stores. Only time will tell if Virginia's bold new campaign is effective in preventing sexual relations between adult men and underage girls, but it will certainly provide interesting and provocative scenery in the meantime.


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