Thea Eigo is the exact kind of teen who could have benefited from comprehensive, evidence-based sex education at her Phoenix high school. In the months leading up to the class, the 16-year-old was questioning her sexuality. She was curious about hooking up with both girls and boys. And she was desperate for information. But when she finally found herself sitting in a sex ed classroom, the teacher not only failed to accurately educate her about her sexual health—she made her feel ashamed for being interested in sex at all.
“The teacher used scare tactics and showed us the worst possible case scenarios for STIs, and then didn’t tell us how to prevent any of them. The young people in my class felt like we didn’t get the education we deserved,” said Eigo, who now identifies as bisexual. Worse, “it wasn’t LGBT inclusive whatsoever. One person asked, ‘If two girls are having sex, how do they protect themselves?’ And [the teacher] said, ‘Oh, I can’t answer that,’ and moved on.”
Unfortunately, Eigo’s experience is common in this country. Twenty years after public schools first started receiving federal funding for abstinence-only instruction, sex ed tends to be a hit or miss experience. In the right state, in right school, with the right teacher, it can be transformative, providing young people with the tools they need to make healthy decisions about sex and relationships. But in many cases, the experience falls short. Too often, sex ed curricula are fear-based, they fail to provide contraception instruction, and they’re largely heteronormative—not to mention void of any mention of sexual pleasure.
Against this backdrop, a growing number of online sex ed resources have popped up, providing frank, accurate information and going places most school-based sex ed classes wouldn’t touch with a ten-inch dildo. The latest and perhaps most inventive yet is AMAZE, an online library of short, funny sex education videos geared toward teaching middle schoolers about puberty, gender identity, sexual orientation, and healthy relationships. Launched last month, AMAZE is produced in partnership with the advocacy and educational groups Youth + Tech + Health, Advocates for Youth, and Answer. The site strives to be engaging, non-judgmental, and supportive of young people of all gender identities and sexual orientations.
Scrolling through the videos, which touch on topics from breast development to erections to the complexities of gender identity, it’s immediately clear that AMAZE is something incredibly different from most school-based sex education classes. And it’s tempting to argue that what AMAZE offers young people is vastly superior to the dated VHS videos about puberty screened by many sex ed teachers as they awkwardly mumble through a lecture on nocturnal emissions.
As I attended a launch party for AMAZE, where an enthusiastic audience watched screenings of the videos and listened to a panel of educators discuss the challenges of providing smart sex ed in a school environment, I couldn’t help but wonder: Are online platforms like this one the future of sex education in this country? And if so, will they one day replace school-based sex education altogether?
To many people, the idea of learning about sex on the internet means one thing, and one thing only: porn. Yet thoughtful, honest sex education has lived online for about as long as raunchy sex entertainment has—in some cases even forming a symbiotic relationship with its naughtier counterpart.
In the early 1990s, Youth + Tech + Health founder Deb Levine was working at Alice!, Columbia University’s student health education program. Feeling unsatisfied with the attendance at the workshops she was leading, she started to wonder if there might be a better way to connect with students and get them the answers they needed to the questions they were afraid to ask. And so, with a little assistance from the Columbia IT department, Go Ask Alice!—a pioneering site where students could anonymously submit questions about any manner of health topics—was born. Initially only available to the Columbia community, Go Ask Alice! made its way onto the internet in 1994, becoming the first major health Q&A website in the process. Though the site’s always covered a variety of health topics—including nutrition, stress reduction, drugs and alcohol, and other topics related to wellness—much of its popularity has stemmed from its frank approach to questions about sex (an attitude that greatly impacted me when I worked at Alice! as a work-study student at the turn of the century, inspiring me to pursue a career in sex education).
A few years after Go Ask Alice! hit the world wide web, kindergarten teacher Heather Corinna launched Scarlet Letters, an adult-oriented erotica project that wound up attracting a number of sex advice questions from teens. Unsure where to send young people for thoughtful answers, Corinna started tackling the questions herself, eventually launching Scarleteen, a respected sex education site that’s still going strong several decades later, with Corinna running the project full-time (which has enabled her to expand Scarleteen to Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and even offline in book form). Fittingly for a sex education site borne from an erotica project, Scarleteen derived much of its early traffic from porn sites: In the days when every adult site had a splash page requiring users to confirm they were 18+ before entering, Scarleteen was the site many XXX sites directed minors to if they didn’t make the cut.
Over the decades, a number of other projects have joined the ranks of Go Ask Alice! and Scarleteen: There’s Sex, Etc, a by-teens-for-teens magazine and website put out by Rutgers, and Answer, a 35-year-old New Jersey-based organization dedicated to providing sex education resources to young people (and one of the founders of AMAZE). Planned Parenthood has built out its website to include an extensive educational section. Apps like Sex Positive and JuiceBox promise fun, bite-sized sex education for the swipe left generation. And, of course, there’s AMAZE, which is primarily distinguished by its focus on middle school age students, a group largely ignored by online sex education resources.
Online sex education comes with a number of obvious benefits. For starters, sex education websites are able to take on any topics they choose, a freedom rarely afforded to school-based sex education, which are often hampered by restrictions placed by school boards, PTAs, and public funding. During the latter half of the 1990s, and through the Bush years, many programs were required to promote abstinence-only education, presenting young people with a limited view of sexuality that stressed dangers and risks, shamed anyone engaging in sexual activity, and refused to discuss methods of harm reduction outside of not having any sex at all.
Even as the Obama Administration has made a push toward comprehensive sex education, and cut funding for abstinence-only education, the taboos around talking about sex still affect what information gets shared in schools. “Controversial” topics like queer sexuality, trans and non-binary identities, and even something as basic as the pleasurable aspects of sex are often left out of school sex education; what information gets shared, and how, exactly, it’s communicated, is entirely up to whatever teacher happens to have been assigned to sex education that year.
Because online sex education can reach millions of young people with just one dedicated core team, there’s no need to worry that its curriculum might get warped or changed by educators who aren’t quite comfortable with some of the included messages.
Deb Hauser, who spent seven years working as a sex educator in the Atlantic City public school system—helping New Jersey middle and high school students navigate the transition to adulthood and learn the basics of healthy, respectful relationships—now serves as president of Advocates For Youth, one of the founders of AMAZE. In a recent phone conversation she told me about Rights, Respect, and Responsibility, a K-12 sex education curriculum produced by the organization that meets national standards for sex education, is fully inclusive of LGBT youth, and, best of all, is free for schools to download and use. Yet even with this free curriculum, Hauser notes that “there will still be places where they will drop the condom demonstration, or they will decide not to talk about gender equity, or role model gender equity, because they think it’s either not important or too controversial, or they just don’t have time”—or, potentially, because the teachers assigned to the curriculum just aren’t particularly comfortable engaging their students in honest, open conversations about sex.
At the launch for AMAZE, the team proudly screened its video on gender identity, which discussed terms like cisgender, transgender, and gender non-conforming and encouraged viewers to embrace whatever identity feels most comfortable; a similar video on sexual orientation is currently live on the site. Other upcoming videos declare that masturbation is perfectly normal and tackle the topic of deciding when to have sex, messages that are all the more impressive when you remember that the target audience for AMAZE is 9-to-14 year-olds.
Scarleteen, which targets an older age group, is able to take things even further. The site’s pleasure-focused guide to sexual anatomy includes the anus and prostate gland as well as the genitals—and the site does not shy away from tricky topics like abuse and assault, abortion, or even (gasp!) orgasm. Teens coming to Scarleteen never get told they’re too young to ask a question, or that they’re not ready for an answer to a question about sex: If there’s something a teenager wants to know about sex, Scarleteen is there to offer a shame-free, thoughtful answer—and to provide ongoing community and support through message boards, live chat, and even text messaging.
But for all benefits of online sex education, in some important ways, it falls short. Most notably, there’s the issue of access: While school-based sex education literally meets kids where they are, online sex education requires young people to actively seek it out—and to be able to differentiate trustworthy sources from the vast swath of questionable information that also exists online.
Pointing to a 2011 report on youth sexual health and digital behavior released by Youth + Tech + Health, Levine notes that “The vast majority of [respondents] did not know about all of the internet sex ed sites… We love Scarleteen, it is the banner of online sex education, and these kids did not know about it. They thought Planned Parenthood online was a place where you went when you were going to be a baby daddy. They did not know where to turn when they had one of those really difficult questions.”
While Corinna maintains that Scarleteen’s reach is impressive, citing five million visitors annually (and that’s with limited funding and no advertising), she agrees that access is a huge stumbling block for online sex ed. Even young people who know about sites like Scarleteen and AMAZE aren’t necessarily able to get to them: Online sex education requires internet access, and if you don’t have a computer or a smartphone, you’re pretty much out of luck. (And sometimes you’re out of luck even with a computer or smartphone: Corinna notes that, likely due to its willingness to acknowledge pleasure, Scarleteen is blocked by a number of porn filtering platforms, making it that much harder for teens relying on free, public internet to get access to the site.)
And that may be why none of the experts I spoke with seemed quite ready to throw in the towel on school-based sex education, advocating instead for a combination of online and school-based efforts. “Sometimes you need somebody to look you in the face and say, ‘That’s completely normal, you’re really fine,’” says Hauser. “I would hate to give up that personal interaction” that’s often only accessible through in school sex education.
In Hauser’s view, online and school-based sex education programs can work in concert, with schools providing “positive, supportive messages that say sex and sexuality are not something outside yourself, they’re actually something inside of you—and they’re natural, normal, and healthy.” Even if schools don’t get into the nitty gritty of what tabs go into which slots and how to achieve the best possible orgasm, they can still play an important role in teaching young people to love their bodies, accept themselves as normal, and show respect for the desires, safety, and well being of everyone around them—messaging that puts people on the path toward having healthy, happy, and fulfilling sex lives.
But Hauser recognizes that getting to that point is going to take continued effort, not just from schools and online resources, but from everyone. “What we’re asking the schools to do is not going to work unless we also concurrently are shifting the culture,” she says, noting that many schools shy away from positive, honest messaging around sexuality out of a fear of creating controversy or backlash. “In my ideal world we would have a culture that embraces sex and sexuality as normal and healthy, and helps young people to learn the information and skills that they need … prior to hitting these sexual development milestones, so that they’re prepared and they feel comfortable and that they can embrace sense of sexuality in a way that brings them pleasure and happiness as opposed to fear, shame, and denial.”
Hauser’s vision of the future of sex education isn’t that different from what Corinna would like to see. “I want [sex ed] everywhere,” she tells me, describing a world where, instead of separate sex education classes, sexuality is holistically integrated into other school subjects: reproduction and contraception in science class, discussion of healthy relationships mediated through talks about literature, historical views of sexuality included in the social studies curriculum. It’s a compelling view of an alternative take on sex ed in schools—and if we ever achieve it, we’ll likely have the pioneers of online sex education to thank.