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Sex education goes mobile

Eric Buhi, a professor in the College of Public Health, has advice on safe sex that may be hard to ignore.

Buhi’s mobile phone campaign, Beyond the Condom, sends students text messages containing sexual health information and birth control options at the most crucial time – during sexual intercourse.

Using their smart phones, students can text “BtC” to “99222” to receive information on contraceptives and other health measures. Seconds later, they will be confronted with the question, “Are you having sex RIGHT NOW?”

If “yes” is texted back, the system automatically responds, “OK, we know things are getting hot and heavy now, but take a quick break to answer a few questions,” and provides information about effective methods of birth control.

If “no” is texted back, the system lets users know they’re appreciated and proceeds to inquire about their sexual experience.

“Good!” it texts. “That makes it MUCH easier to text.”

Buhi said he wanted the campaign to be casual and conversational.

“That is the goal of the project, to get students to text in,” he said. “The whole purpose of the project is to raise awareness of long-acting, reversible contraceptives (LARC) methods.”

Within the first 10 days after the campaign’s launch, 359 people had texted in.

Campaign members advertise the service at Bull Market by handing out T-shirts and encouraging women to text in on the spot. They also write chalk messages on sidewalks, and post fliers on campus and in Bull Runner buses to raise awareness of the campaign.

The campaign was funded by a grant Buhi received from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which offers advice targeted toward young female college students, Buhi said.

Kristen Harsch, a graduate student in public health and a member of the team developing the campaign, said she found 5 percent of sexually active USF students reported unplanned pregnancies last year in a study she conducted.

Harsch was one of six females and one male who helped develop ideas, questions and formats for how the sexual health information would be delivered. The idea to send texts was spurred from the demographic they were targeting.

“Women aged 18-24 have the highest rate of unplanned pregnancies,” she said. “With the age that we are looking at, they are always on their phones.”

The texts, she said, offer a private way for students to receive information often considered taboo.

“There are women who are uncomfortable talking about it,” Harsch said. “Most people go online, and some things are reliable and some are not, and most people don’t know the difference … It is something you don’t want to do in the computer lab because it is something more private.”

Buhi said the campaign seeks to inform students of alternative methods that may be more convenient, efficient or cost-effective than the traditional birth control pill.

“There are a lot of great methods out there that are long-acting and highly effective, much more effective than the pill, largely because they don’t involve user interaction on a daily basis,” Buhi said. “With these methods, you basically get it and forget it.”

When students first text in, after answering a series of questions, they are directed to a website where they can view multiple informational videos on LARC methods, as well as access a database of providers of LARC birth control methods in Hillsborough County.

Buhi said the campaign is a pilot program at the USF Tampa campus and, after this semester, it could be expanded to other universities or schools.

“We like that this project is mobile-based,” Harsch said. “If it works for USF undergraduate women, it could work for undergraduates in India.”