NIH grants $2 million to study effectiveness of cell phone sex-ed soap operas

Nurse Rachel Jones / Actors from one of the cell phone soaps
Nurse Rachel Jones / Actors from one of the cell phone soaps


A $2 million, four-year National Institutes of Health grant is funding a study on the effectiveness of cell phone soap operas which promote condom use.

Nurse educator Rachel Jones, who teaches at Rutgers University's College of Nursing in Newark, New Jersey, developed the campaign using professional actors and scripts based on focus groups of women in Newark and Jersey City.

The soap opera features a girlfriend, “Toni,” and her boyfriend “Mike” after his involvement with another woman.

In the soap opera, Mike attempts to kiss Toni, but she pushes him back.

“Just because I've decided to take you back, it doesn't erase the fact that you cheated on me,” she says in the video.

"Look, we're going to be using condoms from now on… And tomorrow, we're getting tested. And that's that," she continues, kissing him.

Rachel Jones reported the focus groups’ reaction to the soap opera.

"Women who watched the first pilot were getting upset, angry, exacerbated," she said. “Women really saw themselves in that video. We're really resonating with urban contemporary themes that we believe are relevant to women.”

The series of 12 20-minute episodes was funded by a Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey grant.

A $2 million National Institutes of Health grant will test the campaign’s effectiveness. Women in the study will watch the episodes on their cell phones and have their “risk-reduction behavior” measured in comparison with a control group of women who will receive only text messages urging condom use.

In total, 250 women will participate in the study, Fox News reports.

"What we believe will happen is that knowledge alone is not effective at changing behaviors," Jones said. "We believe that women in the community will so identify with heroines in the story their own behaviors will change as well."

Jones reported that in her experience, women would come to her with sexually transmitted infections and understood they were being exposed to HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, and pregnancy. However, they still avoided condom use even when they knew they were not in exclusive relationships.

She claimed that 82 percent of HIV/AIDS infections affecting 18- to 29-year olds are transmitted through heterosexual sex with an infected sexual partner.

"We have to normalize condom use," she added, according to Fox News, claiming that women’s sexual partners consider insistence on using a condom a sign of distrust.

On Wednesday CNA spoke about the soap opera study with Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association.

Huber said the program sounds like “safe-sex ads” which “recommend, or at least do not discourage, high-risk sexual behavior, as long as a condom is used.”

“I think that sends a very dangerous message to youth, by minimizing the risk associated with casual sex.”

This approach, Huber claimed, reduces sex “solely to the physical consequences.” She also accused the approach of being disingenuous in its claims.

She told CNA that even with 100 percent condom use, CDC studies show that two of the four most transmitted STDs are still transmitted by skin to skin contact.

“These messages increase the risk of STDs, not to mention the risk of emotional and other consequences.”

Huber said that abstinence education is “absolutely” more effective than “safe sex” programs. She explained to CNA her view that the so-called safe-sex educational approach “oversimplifies the risks associated with casual sex, sending the inaccurate message that sex can be had without consequences as long as a condom is used, and that’s not true.”

“Abstinence education, on the other hand, eliminates all that risk,” she commented.

CNA asked how abstinence education advocates would respond to Nurse Jones’ claims that her program resonates with “urban contemporary themes” and is “relevant to women” with its “nitty gritty stories of risk and risk reduction.”

“By underlining ‘resonating with inner city youth,’ to me, she really is promoting the soft bigotry of low expectations,” Huber answered. “She is basically saying that a message that still puts youth at risk is good enough for certain youth, and we strongly disagree.

“We think that all youth should be afforded the opportunities and the skills necessary to make the best decisions for their life, regardless of socioeconomic or geographic background.

“Abstinence education resonates with students regardless of their sexual history,” she continued, stating that students who come into an abstinence program being sexually active are more likely to discontinue that activity.

“If they don’t discontinue that activity, or if others become sexually active later, they have fewer partners and are no less likely to use a condom than anyone else,” she added, acknowledging such action was still not ideal.

“Those who are virgins are more likely to remain so as a result of the [abstinence] program, about twice as likely. And this is a message that doesn’t put them at risk at all.”

“If people don’t want to see their tax dollars used for this sort of project, they can certainly register their complaint with the head of NIH,” Huber pointed out.

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