Is YouTube the solution to the sex ed controversy?
Every minute 100 hours of video footage are uploaded to YouTube. A likely majority of these videos are sneezing pandas and laughing babies, but a new trend is also emerging: using YouTube as a platform for sex education. Video genres on the site range from music videos to makeup tutorials, and recently YouTube has seen a rise in educational channels about history, literature, science, and now sex education. This educational content is a blessing and a curse: sex ed channels are a source of both useful material to fill gaps in a student’s understanding and a source of potential problems.
No Standards is Standard
Traditional school-based sex education can be problematic because it varies greatly across the U.S., from abstinence-only instruction to classrooms that distribute condoms openly.
“There is not a set of universal standards about how to talk about human sexuality where there might be a set of…standards for what 14-year-olds learning earth science should learn,” explains Rebecca Plante, associate professor of sociology at IC. And it doesn’t surprise her that primary and secondary sex education is complex, given that it mixes “misguided ideas about religion, people’s fears, homophobia, [and] parents’ desire to micromanage or control what their children learn,” Plante describes.
How Can YouTube Help?
For students receiving incomplete and inadequate sex education, the Internet can be an excellent source of information. “There are no boundaries and you can learn unashamedly,” notes Hannah Witton, a British YouTuber whose video topics range from the Kama Sutra to masturbation. She creates videos with an open, conversational approach that makes her relatable to her audience of primarily teenaged girls. Along with Witton’s self-titled channel, two other dominant YouTube programs focus on sex education. The most popular is Sex+, a biweekly video series about gender/sexuality, relationships, and body image started in 2010 by 24-year-old peer sex educator Laci Green. Her YouTube channel has over 165 videos and reaches an audience of nearly 750,000 subscribers.
In June of 2013, Dr. Lindsay Doe, a clinical sexologist based in Montana, decided to follow suit and make sex-positive videos with a silly yet informational approach. While Green uses a lively tone and fast-paced editing to make her videos fun, Doe makes sex-related topics feel accessible by using tongue-in-cheek humor. For example, in a recent video Doe demonstrates uncommon uses of condoms, such as to keep sand out of a gun barrel, before she explains how to best use them for contraception. She has created over 60 videos and has attracted an audience of 90,000+ subscribers. “[These channels] provide an educational and entertaining way to anonymously learn about something that can be a very personal, private thing,” praises Lauren Marie Fleming, author, YouTuber, and sex blogger at QueerieBradshaw.com.
Add, Don’t Replace
Even with the rise of online sex education, traditional classroom-based sex ed isn’t disappearing anytime soon. YouTube sex education channels should be seen as a resource for teachers rather than a replacement for them.
“Often children and teenagers think their teachers are too old and find sex education awkward but by bringing in external material from someone closer to their age, it relaxes that tension,” explains Witton. One of the advantages to classrooms is that it is live and unmediated by the barriers of technology, so students can ask questions, receive instant feedback, and follow up when they don’t understand an issue. Yet for many students, this interaction can be daunting. Fleming cites the anonymity of YouTube-based sex education as an advantage. “Anonymity online can be a glorious thing when it comes to sexual education. Yes, that means we get our fair share of people trolling for trouble, but it also means that people can interact without fear of repercussions, stigma, or shame,” she observes.
Plante takes a more critical view of the potential interaction dynamic through a medium like YouTube, since its one-way format directly contrasts the flexibility and adaptation vital to a healthy real life connection. She notes, “It could be problematic learning how to navigate those relationships [via the Internet] where we’re also learning about…Phillip Seymour Hoffman dying of a heroin overdose, what the weather looks like in Cincinnati, which music you can choose for me based on that I’ve listened to a lot of Smiths today.” She worries that young adults who use virtual education to learn about an experience that is highly interpersonal will struggle to mold that information to the backgrounds and preferences of real-life sexual partners.
Is YouTube Helping or Hurting?
As a medium for sex education, YouTube is both refreshing and troublesome. While Fleming dislikes the limitations of YouTube’s regulations (“True sexual education needs to sometimes show sex and YouTube does not allow that,” she says) and Plante recognizes the potential difficulties of translating online learning to interactive experiences, Internet-based sex ed is still a beneficial innovation. Sex education on YouTube isn’t subject to impractical school board standards or parents who opt their children out of classroom learning. It provides a medium for people of all ages to learn about their sexuality without the constraints of time, money, or concerns about privacy, and it provides a forum for anonymous questions and discussion. Despite the site’s limitations and complications, YouTube provides an accessible platform for sex education in our constantly connected world.