Montreal

Montreal non-profit seeks to demystify sex for teens — using text messaging

When workers at a Montreal non-profit organization wanted to offer teens tools and information on sexual health, their first goal was to make it accessible to a younger generation.

Texting hotline 'SextEd' receives about 1,000 texts per year

Dorothy Apedaile, the coordinator of SextEd, said the service gets about 1,000 texts per year. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

When workers at a Montreal non-profit organization wanted to offer teens tools and information on sexual health, their first goal was to make it accessible to a younger generation.

And what is more accessible to teenagers than texting?

"We wanted to create a program that would really use technology, use technology the youth were familiar with, to reach them where they're at," said Dorothy Apedaile, a staff member of AIDS Community Care Montreal.

So staff members at ACCM set up SextEd, a text line to help young people navigate sex and sexual health.

The premise is simple: text any questions about sex or sexual health and receive an accessible, non-judgmental answer in the next 24 hours.

Since it started a few years ago, SextEd has grown in popularity. This year alone, the program has received more than 1,000 anonymous texts.

"They don't know us, we don't know them. We're not judging. We're just here to help," said Apedaile, who is currently coordinating SextEd.

A team of about 10 volunteers receives the texts, which are anonymous, and carefully constructs answers meant to give people as much information as possible so that the texters can make the right decisions for them.

Accessible to all

Not knowing anything about the person texting is a challenge, says Apedaile, because it's difficult to take into account all of the variables that might prevent someone from seeking professional help.

"Is the clinic too far away? Is the clinic trans and queer friendly? Will the clinic shame them for the kind of sex they're having? … These are the kinds of things we're thinking about and we try to incorporate as much as possible into the texts we send," said Apedaile.

A team of about 10 volunteers receives the texts, which are anonymous, and carefully constructs answers meant to give the texter as much information as possible. (CBC)

The texts they get range in subject.

Some of them ask about pregnancy — whether they could be pregnant and what to do if they are.

Although everyone receives an answer via text, volunteers have a list of FAQ responses that they also send in response to the most common questions.

Others ask more contemporary questions.

Apedaile says if something is in the news, they're more likely to field questions on that subject. For example, when the abortion pill was legalized last year, they saw an uptick in texts asking about that.

She also says they receive questions about sending intimate images.

"That's a tricky one," she said. "At SextEd, our line is that we don't judge consensual behaviour. So if people want to send nudes, we're not going to judge that."

But she added they will talk about ways to minimize risk, such as not including faces in the pictures.

They'll also write about how it's illegal to share explicit images without consent, and how it's not OK to pressure someone to send nude photos.

"The technology and the ease of passing things around, that is new, and that's sort of what's important to focus on… the consent aspect and not pressuring people to do things they don't want to do," she said.

Making their service known

Apedaile and her co-workers go into schools to promote SextEd. They also attach the phone number to lollipops and hand them out to teenagers.

They're also constantly trying to improve the text line.

After they respond to a text, they ask for the recipient to rate their response out of five.

Usually, they score well.

Apedaile said the text line is a valuable tool for parents.

"Lots of parents are great about talking about sex with their kids," she said. "But still, there are going to be questions you don't want to ask your parents. We're a really reliable, accurate and helpful resource for those kinds of situations."

Looking for answers yourself? Text SextEd at any time at 514-700-4411.

The SextEd text line was created as a way to help young people get answers to their questions about sex and sexual health. (CBC)

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