Your phone may be the next step in sex education for teens

There's, like, so totally sex ed on your phone now.


S.E. Smith

Internet Culture

Published Apr 30, 2015   Updated May 28, 2021, 11:00 pm CDT

In 1998, a little website called Scarleteen revolutionized sexual education, empowering teens by putting resources directly in their hands. Today, the website remains the preeminent resource for all things sex and gender, from questions about abortion and transition services to disability issues.

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But the face of the Web is changing, and more teens are buried in their phones. It’s time for a sexual education app to supplement the work of sites like Scarleteen by continuing to reach teens where they are, and that’s what the inventor of Hookup is aiming to do.

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“Sex ed sucks,” goes the tagline. “Try us.”

They’re not wrong. Sexual education in the United States is in a state of woeful disarray, with a growing number of students being denied access to comprehensive sexual education. Numerous studies indicate that abstinence only curricula are ineffective, exposing teens to an increased risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

School districts that care about their students are trying to meet sexual education needs, but they’re falling short. A generation of young people who don’t have access to these services are struggling to find resources, and many turn to the Internet. While Professor Google can be highly reliable about some things, sex ed isn’t one of them; unless teens stumble upon sites like Scarleteen, finding science and fact-based sexual health information is difficult.

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Sexual education in the United States is in a state of woeful disarray.

An app approaches the problem from a new perspective, proactively reaching out to teens to connect them with resources. In 2013, Los Angeles Unified got in ahead of the curve when they integrated into their curriculum, using the STI app to encourage students to get tested and share their testing status with partners. Users of the app could use it to locate a clinic, schedule a test, and receive their results via text—medicine for the mobile age.

Hookup, which is still in development, plans to offer “sexpert” advice to teens with anonymous questions in addition to sex ed-oriented games and a space to share stories with other teens. In the future, it intends to connect users with local clinics, share fun educational videos, and allow people to engage in a sort of sex trivia to test their knowledge against each other.

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It’s the accessible sexual education teacher of the Internet’s dreams—no more awkward box for anonymous questions at the back of the classroom, no more disguising your voice when calling the clinic for information, and no more having to fight your mom and dad over permission to attend sex ed in the first place. Instead, users are able to take their sexual health into their own hands.

Research indicates that teens using Hookup, developed by Brianna Rader, experience significantly better sexual health outcomes than those who do not. Of beta users who responded to a survey, 90 percent reported that they had taken proactive steps to protect their health in response to mobile-based messaging. The study illustrates the potential applications, and importance, of apps like Hookup.

The benefits of the app are obvious. Teens rely on their phones to instantly access a variety of resources and limiting barriers to information makes it much more likely that teens will actually use it. By situating it on an app, it’s a swipe away, and for teens who spend a growing amount of time on their phones, it doesn’t distract from activities like texting, photo sharing, and engaging on social media.

That quick access comes with the added feature of anonymity. Teens using the app don’t have to use their real identities and they can ask frank, honest, and accurate questions of the organization’s experts and volunteers. Those experts can provide nonjudgmental information to help teens make empowered choices about sexuality, whether they’re demystifying the process of HIV testing or helping teens find resources about how to handle a pregnancy.

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Users are able to take their sexual health into their own hands.

In a nation and an era where we’re saturated in cultural messaging about sex, teens struggle with sexuality. Teen girls are prudes if they don’t have sex and sluts if they do, while boys are emasculated and weak if they’re not having sex—and studs if they’re sexually active. Navigating that conflicting and frustrating thicket of social attitudes is challenging, making unbiased third parties with factually correct information a key component of protecting teens.

However, there are some potentially serious problems with Hookup. At  Bustle, Lea Rose Emery points out the obvious issue with sharing stories:

There is also an issue of truthfulness—while on the one hand having a place to share embarrassing stories could take some of the confusion and shame out of clumsy sexual encounters, I imagine an anonymous message board for stories could have the same potential as a playground for misinformation, tall tales, and teasing that can mislead or intimidate the sexually inexperienced.

Since tall tales are the stuff of which teen exploits are made, especially when it comes to sex, any successful iteration of forums and message boards must include tight moderation without making teens feel like they’re suffocating. Smart, well-balanced moderation needs to weigh concerns about stories that could endanger or confuse other users against the desire to let teens speak authentically about their experiences.

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Moderators also need to consider when intervention is necessary—as, for example, when it’s clear that a teen is in an abusive relationship, or when evidence of rape, incest, or molestation is present. In these situations, a system for sensitively and appropriately reaching out to victims must be in place and thoroughly vetted so that the organization is ready to respond to needy users, rather than having to scramble to address a problem.

Hookup represents the next generation of sexual education.

Controlling parents are also a concern. The stereotype of the teen constantly hunched over a phone is paired with the stereotype of the parent snooping through that very phone, taking it away as punishment, and monitoring what a child is using. A teen with a strict parent might be exactly the sort of person the app most needs to reach, which means that Hookup needs a stealth version usable by teens with parents who will not take kindly to an app called “Hookup” on the home screen.

Hookup represents the next generation of sexual education, a game-changing leap along the lines of Scarleteen’s. The constantly evolving website offers “sex ed for the real world,” and Hookup is taking that philosophy and running with it. If it can back its offerings with the same culturally sensitive, smart, savvy approach to sex ed that Scarleteen offers its users, it could be a winner for a generation of teens desperately in need of information about their own bodies.

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S.E. Smith is a writer, editor, and agitator with numerous publication credits, including the Guardian, AlterNet, and Salon, along with several anthologies. Smith also serves as the Social Justice Editor for xoJane and will be co-chairing Wiscon 40—the preeminent feminist science-fiction conference—in 2016.

Photo via Picture Youth/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

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*First Published: Apr 30, 2015, 11:25 am CDT