Compared to one a few decades ago, young people had surprisingly little access to high-quality, informative sex education. Typically, human sexuality programs are the responsibility of middle or high schools, but like many things, sex is political and sex education has fallen prey to the influences of religious statements, fundamentalist morals, and a family values agenda. As a result, STDs have been at an all-time high over the past six years, including among older adults, who are often ignored because people think they’re sexually inactive (they’re not). But thanks to the internet, sex education is making a comeback, not only for teens or young children, but also for seniors.
While the majority of Americans are in favor of sex education, schools have been remiss in providing comprehensive evidence-based curricula. Florida’s recently passed “Don’t Say Gay” law denies students in past grades the opportunity to learn about gender identity and sexual orientation. And comprehensive sex education curricula have come under attack for prematurely sexualizing children, called “grooming” — an unsubstantiated claim that sex education “grooms” youth into becoming sexual victims.
In addition, a recent report from the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization that advocates for sexual health and reproductive rights, indicates that only 25 states require both sex education and HIV education, or age-appropriate instruction. And only 17 states require course content to be medically correct, which could particularly affect those whose sexual orientation and gender identity do not meet heteronormative definitions. At the national level, at least 30 pieces of legislation aim to exclude the representation of LGBTQ+. According to Guttmacher, “just say no” and abstinence messages still dominate curricula, with nearly twice as many states providing abstinence-only information, compared to condoms and other birth control. “Just say no” education is unrealistic and simplifies — even sidesteps — the question of consent, which is much more than yes or no, and a topic only 11 states cover as part of their syllabus.
When offered, comprehensive sex education works. Apart from reducing unwanted pregnancies and STDs, domestic violence is decreasing, as is homophobic bullying and child sexual abuse. That’s where a number of sex educators and websites step in to fill the gap, especially important now in a post-Roe America. Here are a few resources worth checking out.
Scarleteen was founded in 1998 by Heather Corinna, who is still the director. The site features articles, fact sheets, resource lists, and more, all written by educators for adults, near-adults, and teens, and the content is consistent with the proposed guidelines for comprehensive adolescent sexuality education by SIECUS, UNESCO, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s National Health Education Standards, and the UK National Health Service’s Sex and Relationship Education. They also meet the new National Sexuality Education Standards of the American School Health Association. Message boards are staffed with experts and volunteers to answer user questions, provide emotional support, and participate in safe, respectful peer-to-peer discussions. The site also provides references to other sexual and reproductive health services, such as STI testing, prenatal or abortion care, mental health services, LGBTQIA+ support, and more.
Sex, etc. started as a print newsletter in 1994 and launched on the web on Valentine’s Day 1999. The content comes directly from young adults who want to fill the gaps in their own knowledge and share what they’ve learned. In keeping with that theme, the site’s writers are only allowed to contribute to Sex, Etc. until they are 20 years old. “Nothing about them, without them,” describes Tazmine Weisgerber, who provides sex education and training for Sex, Etc., the site. “The national and international calls are what our teens talk about,” she says. “Awareness of LGBTQ+ rights and reproductive justice” are all topics of interest to the site’s visitors, she explained.
To ensure accuracy, student employees participate in a three-day training with professionals, as well as an orientation and monthly meetings. They then work with the site’s editorial content developer, Erica Pass, who guides them through pitching a story until it’s ready for publication. Vivian Welch, now a freshman at the University of Arizona, has written extensively for Sex, Etc., and says one of her favorite pieces she wrote was about sensuality. “Of all the areas that encompass sex education, one thing people never want to talk about is sensuality, the actual pleasure aspect of sex education. They try to limit it to make you afraid to have sex. Which is not the goal. The goal is to provide people with the right ways to stay safe. And not only physically safe, but also emotionally safe.”
Looking to the future, Pass says they plan to produce more videos, more TikToks, and more Instagram reels because that’s where teens are. “I think the great thing about Sex, Etc. is that it’s written by teens, for teens,” says Welch. “Sex education is not a way to entice teens into lots of sex… sex education is a good thing. It’s not here to scare anyone.”
AMAZE is a site that creates educational videos on difficult sex and reproductive health topics. The site was launched in 2016 and Rachael Gibson, a psychologist and sex educator, is the site’s senior project manager. “We are expanding globally,” says Gibson. “We have translated more than 200 videos into different languages. We have specific videos for different countries and their needs, so our global partnerships are very important to us. And here at home, a grand vision in a perfect world is for AMAZE to be used in all schools and for all young people to receive comprehensive, inclusive sex education.
AMAZE videos are one to three minute videos based on questions received by the team from viewers through their YouTube channel and social media platforms, especially Instagram and TikTok. “Our puberty videos are among our top videos,” continues Gibson. “There are a lot of questions about gender identity, what it means to go through puberty as a transgender or non-binary or gender non-conforming person. This is one of the biggest changes.” While the audience is largely young people, the website is used by a growing audience of parents, carers and medical professionals. And in response to legislation such as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, the platform is experimenting with geotargeting its videos. “We know the kids are going for the information, but we want them to get the stuff that’s medically accurate, inclusive, and scientifically informed,” says Gibson.
Pornography as an Educational Tool
Traditionally, most people do not consider pornography a source of reliable sex education; the typical goal is to excite rather than educate. However, there are individuals in the adult entertainment industry who have played—and continue to play—an important role in modeling a paradigm for diversity, acceptance, and ethical sex. Erika Lust, director and producer of arthouse adult films, is the co-founder of The Porn Conversation, a website designed to educate families and educators about sex. “Porn is an industry and as a media it sends messages to adults, but also to all these young people who use porn as information,” she says. By age 12, Lust explains, most kids have seen some form of porn because they naturally look forward to it. “Even if porn was never supposed to be sex education, it has become sex education. There is a risk that they will just look at it,” explains Lust. “It’s so important to have this conversation.” Lust is working with other sex educators and researchers, youth organizations and universities to counter the hypersexualized messages of so much porn – messages that are racist, aggressive towards women and reflect unrealistic body types.
But Lust’s curriculum isn’t just for young people. She educates parents to learn about sex themselves, because they often had no access to sex education in their youth. Lust also directed a movie called soul sex, a documentary starring sex educators Annie Campbell and her husband, John Campbell, discussing and demonstrating their approach to pleasure and lovemaking at any age. The Campbells are expanding their efforts on their website, where they offer coaching sessions and webinars to help couples embrace their sexuality.
Other educators also target older adults, especially seniors, with educational videos designed for their needs. Jessica Drake is an adult actor and sex educator aimed at seniors who, with her series, Bad Sex Guide, directs adult-oriented instructional videos. Joan Price, an author and sex educator, teamed up with Drake to develop a Bad Sex Guide specifically aimed at seniors. The film is educational and explicit – Price’s informational segments are demonstrated by two elderly couples. As Price told me, “Sex can change as we get older, but sex has no expiration date.”
Regardless of your age, evidence-based and high-quality sex education is becoming increasingly difficult to find offline. As a result, the Internet has become a primary source for inclusive sex education for young and old. Information about the essentials – our biology and how it works, and the social, psychological and behavioral aspects of sexual experiences – is readily available. As with everything else, the rest is up to us to be smart consumers and defend free access to such information.