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Maria Talks and Suddenly Lawmakers are Listening: The Controversy Over A Website Providing Sex Information for Teens

Written by Martha Kempner for News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.

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 articlein 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.

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