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[whitespace] Speak Easy

San Jose--Years ago, queasy mothers could send away to Kotex for a little pink booklet that absolved them of having to talk about s-e-x with their daughters. Now queasy mothers can simply direct their kids to any one of 10 billboards around San Jose placed by Project Action, the folks who brought us the condom vending machines downtown. The billboards cut to the chase in a way moms rarely do. "Sperm happens," they read. "Carry a condom."

The billboards continue Project Action's campaign to raise teens' comfort levels with condoms as a means of preventing teen pregnancy and STD transmission. San Jose's teen birth rate is almost 10 percent, and some studies have shown that eight out of 10 high school seniors are sexually active.

It's no mistake that the billboards are scattered throughout East and South San Jose. "From the beginning, in the way the program was structured, we focused on South and East San Jose," says project director Anthony Marek, "primarily because of the teen birth rate in those zip codes." He points out that last year, four 12-year-olds gave birth in San Jose.

Marek and Project Action supporters believe the problem of teen pregnancy begins with avoidance of the subject of sex. "For young people to make healthy choices about their reproductive futures, they need adults who are willing to talk about it," he says.

The billboards' bluntness may raise some eyebrows, but that's what works, Marek says. Bozell Worldwide, the advertising firm that designed the board, prepared a handful of ads, which Project Action then ran them past some 200 kids for approval. They voted overwhelmingly in favor of "Sperm happens."

"Young people are smarter than adults think they are," Marek says. "You can't skirt around reality. The young people in this city have consistently told us, 'Get to the facts.'"

It's been 7 1/2 months since the first two condom machines went into downtown stores. Since then Project Action, a nonprofit housed in the Bill Wilson Center, has placed 51 of the controversial gadgets, which dispense handily packaged condoms for 25 cents apiece. That's a fine success rate, but placing the machines hasn't been easy.

"People in this valley are afraid to do what's right, in my opinion," says a frustrated Marek. "A good number of people say, 'We support what you're doing, but ... you have to talk to my boss, my employees don't like it,' whatever."

But the little white machines keep popping up, and now the mighty condom has made a roadside appearance, where thousands of people will see it every day. They must be doing something right.
Traci Hukill

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