RICHMOND, Va. – The giant black and white billboard chides young men as they motor along Interstate 95 through Virginia's capital: "Isn't she a little young?" the sign slyly asks. It continues: "Sex with a minor. Don't go there."
The billboard is one of many unveiled across Virginia this summer as part of a state health department campaign aimed at reducing statutory rape. Napkins, stickers, coasters and matchbooks bearing the same message have been scattered in bars and restaurants where young men congregate.
The campaign has drawn praise, criticism and more than a few snickers for very publicly broaching a subject that many men might be uncomfortable talking about. Regardless of how it has been received, the campaign has generated plenty of awareness.
A health department Web site dealing with statutory rape (search) in Virginia registered 5,000 hits in June, up from the normal 100 to 200 a month, said program coordinator Robert Franklin. Franklin said he also has received numerous calls from parents who are worried their teenage daughters might be involved with older men and need advice.
One even wanted to purchase the napkins and coasters for her daughter's birthday party.
Public health advocates from as far away as Alaska and Canada have called recently to ask how they can replicate the program, Franklin said.
The total cost for all this buzz: a mere $85,000. The campaign was financed by federal money earmarked for statutory rape awareness programs.
"We know that a billboard alone is not going to stop it," Franklin said. "But we first have to make people realize there's a problem and this invites men into a dialogue. This gets them talking."
It is difficult to know how widespread the crime of statutory rape is across the country, particularly among girls who willingly engage in sex with older men. Franklin said Virginia hospital records from 2001 show that in 70 percent of births to girls age 14 and 15, the father of the baby was at least three years older than the mother. That is a felony under Virginia law.
After a trial run of the program in Norfolk last year, officials conducted informal polling of men and found that 69 percent said they knew of someone having sex with a minor.
Grace Sparks, president of Planned Parenthood-Virginia (search), said studies show that the younger girls start having sex, the older their partners tend to be.
"If she starts at 11 or 12, her partner is more likely to be a decade or older," Sparks said. "It's pretty shocking."
The health department campaign is targeting men between 18 to 29 who live in urban areas, Franklin said. Not only are officials disseminating the coasters, napkins and other paraphernalia at sports bars and trendy night spots that are popular with young men, but they are also addressing men in a way they can relate to.
For instance, the campaign's Web site urges guys to speak up if "your buddy is involved with a girl and you know it's not right" and "it gets kind of weird when he brings her to parties."
But not all men have been receptive.
At Mulligan's Sports Grille in Richmond, where "Isn't she a little young?" stickers adorn the mirror in the men's bathroom, bar manager Tim Delano wondered how many of his customers would even be dating a teenage girl. Hunkered down around tables, young men in shirts and ties devoured hamburgers and watched golf.
"If someone's got a problem, I don't know if this is going to help them," said Delano, who is handing out the coasters and napkins. "Girls under 21 can't even get into a bar."
One patron, Andy Watchorn, 28, suggested that statutory rape was not a problem that "can be addressed with coasters."
"Does this raise awareness?" he asked. "I think it's more confusing than anything else. Confusing and awkward."
Other groups have been critical, as well.
Victoria Cobb, lobbyist for the conservative Family Foundation (search), said the message demonstrates the reluctance of Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner's (search) administration to take a strong stand against sex outside marriage.
"It's not a declarative statement about the law and that it victimizes young girls," she said. "It's just suggesting it might be a bad idea."
But Franklin, the program's coordinator, said that if the message is too strong, he risks losing his audience.
"You want to take the approach that might get men talking about it instead of saying, 'That's not me. I'm not going to go to jail so I'll just shut up,"' he said.