The blunt message will be pasted on billboards and barroom coasters across Virginia: "Isn't she a little young?" it will ask in bold pink and white lettering against a black backdrop. "Sex with a minor," the wording will continue. "Don't go there."
The Virginia Department of Health is launching a campaign in Northern Virginia, Richmond and Roanoke to stop men from engaging in sex with underage girls. Health officials say they hope their program will reduce the number of pregnancies that result from such illegal conduct.
The campaign, to begin this month with the distribution of hundreds of thousands of coasters, cocktail napkins and postcard-size messages in Arlington, Alexandria and Falls Church, is one of the few such programs in the nation, public health officials and consultants said.
"We are concerned about minors who are coerced into sexual relationships with adult men and the resulting health and social problems, which include pregnancy, fatherless children, sexually transmitted diseases and mental health problems," state Health Commissioner Robert B. Stroube said.
Virginia health officials said they became alarmed when they reviewed state studies showing that in 1999 and 2000, 219 babies born to 13- and 14-year-old girls were fathered by men over age 18. They also cited nationwide statistics that show that men older than 21 are three times as likely to father children with junior high school girls than are junior high school boys.
While uncommon in its specific goals, the Virginia campaign is among many programs nationwide that focus on men's behavior to reduce the incidence of sexual abuse, health consultants and experts said.
"There are programs across the country that are doing this in bits and pieces, but the Virginia Health Department's campaign is unusual," said Alan Berkowitz, a psychologist and consultant based in Trumansburg, N.Y., who helps colleges, universities and communities design public health programs.
Indeed, several groups that traditionally have worked at informing women on issues involving sexual conduct will begin their own campaigns targeting men. For instance, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, an advocacy organization in the District, will focus on college campuses to encourage men to police themselves and their friends.
"The onus can't be just on a woman to keep herself safe," said Sarah Graham Miller, a spokeswoman for the organization. "The other 50 percent of the population has to have a role as well in reducing sexual abuse."
The Virginia campaign, which targets men 18 to 29, will cost about $85,000 over its first several months, officials said. Its messages will appear on 255,000 cards, posters, coasters and napkins distributed to nearly 150 bars, restaurants and stores in the three areas as well as on nine billboards in Richmond and Roanoke.
The billboards will be up until the end of the summer; the printed material will be distributed to bars, stores and restaurants until the supply is exhausted.
The effort is a follow-up to a pilot project the Health Department conducted in Tidewater last year.
Young adult men can learn patterns of behavior from such media campaigns, said David Landry, senior research associate for the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based nonprofit organization that studies public health issues.
"There's a lot of evidence that men, particularly those who have just left high school, get their understanding about STDs [sexually transmitted diseases] and condom use, for example, from these types of media," Landry said.
State officials said they hope to reach not only men engaged in such conduct, but also their male friends, who could talk them out of it. They likened the effort to drunken driving campaigns that implore friends to monitor each other's drinking.
"What we're hoping is that men will start to check each other and basically say, 'Dude, she's 16 -- you shouldn't be with her,' " said Robert Franklin, male outreach coordinator for sexual violence prevention at the Virginia Department of Health. Franklin helped initiate the campaign.
Researchers and consultants on sex education hailed such efforts but added they should be done along with other public health programs to be effective.
"It's hard to see a direct impact with many of these public health campaigns," said Adrienne Verrilli spokeswoman for the Sexual Information and Education Council of the United States, a research group in New York. "But clearly they don't hurt, particularly when they are linked with support services."
Virginia officials said they are designing a curriculum and videotape to train caseworkers in the technicalities of state law and in understanding the dynamics of this type of sexual relationship. Health care providers have also been trained, and a curriculum has been designed for law enforcement officers.
Virginia law makes it a felony for an adult to engage in a sexual relationship with a 13- or 14-year-old. It is a Class 1 misdemeanor for anyone 18 or older to engage in consensual sexual intercourse with a child age 15 to 17.