Deb Levine revolutionizes sex ed

Deb Levine is a Pop!Tech social innovation fellow. (Here’s a list of the 2009 cohort.) “Deb is doing extraordinary things using mobile devices…to help drive access to information in an area that impacts everyone in the room,” Andrew Zolli explains.

Deb Levine, photo by Kris Krüg

Levine founded ISIS – Internet Sexuality Information Services – in 2001 to build better tools to promote sexual health and prevent disease. (Levine’s bio on the social innovation fellows page explains that “[u]sing the web, mobile phones and mash-ups, ISIS gives people private, convenient and accurate access to information on today’s major health issues, from HIV prevention to unplanned pregnancies to access to healthcare.”)

Raise your hands, she asks us, if you’ve ever been a teenager. “Now raise your hands if you know a teenager! Raise your hands if you know a teenager with an STD?” (Most of us raise our hands for questions one and two; very few for question three.)

By the age of 25, one in two young people will get an STD. Young black women are twice as likely to be affected as young white women. One in five people in the US with HIV do not know they have the disease.

Levine was hired as a sex educator at Columbia University, “to teach young people how to put condoms on bananas. They didn’t care.” So she closed the door and said, “I know you have burning questions about sexual health. I’m not accountable to your dean or to your parents; let’s go at it.” The first question was, “I’m on Prozac, I take ecstasy — how will that affect my erection?”

“I didn’t know the answer, but I knew I could do some research and get back to that young person with information that could affect his lifestyle.” But she didn’t have a confidential way to get back to him, and he’d just disclosed both a mental illness and recreational drug use. The college was putting T1 lines everywhere. “I thought, hm… there’s something about the screen and the distance it creates that allows intimate conversation about sensitive issues in safe ways.”

That spawned “Go Ask Alice,” the first anonymous health Q-and-A service online. In 2001 she founded ISIS, a nonprofit designed to increase sexual communication around sexual issues and decrase STDs.

All of their projects involve 1) the right people, 2) the right message and 3) the right channels. “The right people” means using epidemiological data. “Right messages” means going out and talking to people, whether virtually or in person. And “Right channels” means looking at what’s popular: e-vites? text messaging? They use any means necessary to reach those communities and engage them in critical health services.

One of their projects is InSpot. Men said that when they got syphilis, they wanted to tell their partners but couldn’t. Now they can send anonymous e-cards saying that they may have been exposed to an STD and offering links to ways to get tested.

Another project: the underwear contest, InBrief. 15 years of abstinence education in this country means teachers are afraid to say ‘sex’ in the classroom. Kids want information from experts but also gossip from friends. So they asked young people to design a message of safer sex for a pair of underwear, since that’s the last thing you see before you get naked. They had overwhelming response.

ISIS is a team of 8 talented people. “I started with provocative questions,” Levine explains. “To show you that we’re uncomfortable talking around sexual health and STDs. But now I want to ask you to go to the young people in your lives, to spread the word about ISIS projects, and to impose upon them the importance of honest discussion around sex and sexuality issues.”

They also need help, she said, around creating unconventional partnerships. They want to spread their message and increase sexual communication around the world.

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