A new pitch to wait for sex

By Nicole Foy
San Antonio Express News
June 1, 2005

Amid San Antonio's giant roadside displays of buxom women hawking beer and cowboys wrangling little blue Viagra pills, the message is clear: Sex sells. But there's a new pitch coming soon to billboards around town.

Sex can wait.

The campaign, sponsored by the University of Texas Health Science Center, encourages young people to abstain from sex and outlines the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases. Organizers said they hope the billboards spark conversations between parents and their kids about sex and its place in committed, mature relationships.

The public service effort is a part of a larger abstinence program headed by the health science center reaching into schools with a sex education curriculum for grades 6 through 9. The initiative, known as Worth the Wait, is used locally in nine public school districts and six private schools.

"Young people should know they have choices," said Dr. Kristen Plastino, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology who coordinates the health science center program. "They are not locked into risky behaviors."

Worth the Wait, designed by Dr. Patricia Sulak, a Temple obstetrician-gynecologist, discusses contraception but promotes sexual abstinence as the healthiest choice for adolescents. Developed in 1996, it now reaches more than 100,000 students in more than 50 school districts in Texas and other states.

Abstinence-only messages have been gaining ground in public education programs during recent years and netting a significant portion of state and federal funding. However, not all experts agree they are the most effective in preventing teen sex, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Too many abstinence programs, including Worth the Wait, are lean on scientific facts and heavy on exaggerating health risks and possible contraception failure in trying to prevent young people from engaging in sex, said Yvonne Gutierrez, communications manager of the local Planned Parenthood.

"Healthwise, it's irresponsible not to have a balanced sex education program" emphasizing abstinence but realizing sexually active young people need medically sound information, she said. "It's putting a negative spin on contraception and discouraging kids with scare tactics."

But Plastino said Worth the Wait is comprehensive and focused on giving young people information so they can make decisions to avoid risks associated with sex.

"We believe young people are smart and want a safe and healthy future," she said. "Facts about their health and their bodies will encourage them to delay sexual activity and will help them understand that premarital sex can detract from a strong relationship and a future great sex life."

The health science center's sex education program is funded by a $246,000 grant from the state's health department. Clear Channel Communications' outdoor division is donating the billboards for the public service campaign.

Clear Channel officials did not return calls for comment, but according to current average billboard advertising rates, the gift is possibly worth upward of $270,000. The 12-week summer run will entail a total 45 billboards around the city with sex education messages in both English and Spanish.

"Respect yourself — Save sex for marriage," one says. "1 in 4 people diagnosed with HIV are under 22," another reads.

nfoy@express-news.net