BURLINGTON -- The Vermont Department of Health has pulled the plug on an award-winning website designed to teach young men about responsible sexual behavior. Health Commissioner Dr. Paul Jarris confirmed last week that he decided to take down the "Man Phone" website after learning it contained a link to another site featuring what he described as "absolutely inappropriate" sexual material.
"What we're trying to do is give these young men a place to go for responsible information," Jarris says. "We don't inadvertently want it to be a place where they can get to sites that perhaps promote pornographic materials or things that can be seen as predatory."
The Man Phone was created five years ago by Planned Parenthood of Northern New England as part of a federal initiative to provide sexual and reproductive information to young men ages 18 to 24. The program began as a toll-free hotline, then expanded to the Internet two years ago.
The Man Phone received widespread acclaim, including two national awards and a 2002 write-up in The New York Times, for its edgy and innovative style pitched at a typically hard-to-reach demographic. Both the website and its advertising campaign were created using focus groups that identified issues and language that speak directly to the interests and concerns of young men. The site offered no-nonsense talk about masturbation, STDs, impotence and testicular cancer, as well as instructions on how to put on a condom and improve male sexual performance. It also dispenced advice on how to be a better lover and boyfriend.
The site's popularity grew quickly, from 15,000 visitors in 2004 to more than 25,000 in 2005, due in large part to an advertising campaign on television, radio and in newspapers, including Seven Days. Questions arose recently, however, when it was discovered that TheManPhone.org included a link to Sexuality.org, an adult website created several years ago by a student group at the University of Washington. The site, which recently changed its format, doesn't feature hard-core pornography but does include information on potentially high-risk sexual behavior, such as bondage and polyamory, as well as promotional material for buying sex toys, erotic books and adult videos.
Although fewer than 1 percent of the visitors to the ManPhone.org clicked on the controversial link, Jarris said it showed that there weren't sufficient controls in place to safeguard against inappropriate material. The site was taken down on December 7. The hotline is still operational.
Planned Parenthood policy advisor Jessica Oski agrees that the risque link has no place on an educational website, but explains that the link's contents had been changed since the last time it was reviewed. "We'd like to see the link removed and the website reactivated," she says. "What this culture needs is more talk about sexual health, not less."
Though Jarris says the decision to disconnect the Man Phone website was "solely mine," the Douglas administration had received "about a dozen" phone calls and letters of complaint over a one-week period, according to Douglas' press secretary Jason Gibbs.
"When we became aware of the link, the governor made it clear that he expected the issue to be taken care of," Gibbs says. "We are going to oppose any effort to take advantage of what's supposed to be a public health message to peddle pornography." The governor would support the site going back online provided he's convinced the necessary safeguards are in place, Gibbs adds.
Lobbying against the website are anti-abortion activists -- long-time foes of Planned Parenthood. In a recent newsletter, the Vermont Right to Life Committee railed against the Man Phone and asked its members to contact the health department and the governor to complain about it.
"The Man Phone is a totally inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars," says Mary Hahn Beerworth, executive director of the Vermont Right to Life Committee. "I think you'd be hard-pressed to find another health department that weds itself so closely to Planned Parenthood, and I don't think it's a good fit for the Douglas administration." Planned Parenthood receives $125,000 per year in federal funding through the health department to support the Man Phone project.
Jarris says he recognizes that some Vermonters may be uncomfortable with the contents of the Man Phone site itself. Nevertheless, he says his department cannot simply "write off" the young men for whom this program was intended.
"We know through focus groups that you have to talk to this population in a way they can hear and is relevant to their lives," Jarris adds. "It would be unconscionable in this day and age that this message would only be delivered to young women. It takes two to tango."
Jarris won't say if, or when, the Man Phone site will be back online. He says he tried calling the Man Phone hotline recently to check that it's still operational, but couldn't get through. He kept getting a busy signal.