The state of sexual education in the United States is dire: Children in U.S. schools are not learning enough about basic subjects like STI prevention, pregnancy, and reproductive health. For this, we can blame social conservatives, who appear convinced that any hint of sexuality wandering through the halls of schools will turn children into sex-crazed maniacs. Conservatives dictate the state of sexual education in the U.S., push abstinence-only programs, and routinely complain about more explicit and detailed sex ed options. While parents in a California school district throw a “pearl-clutching hissy fit” over their local sex ed curriculum, it’s no wonder kids are turning to the Internet. After all, this happens all the time.
While Avenue Q may tell us that “The Internet Is for Porn,” it’s actually for a whole lot more than that. The Internet provides a veritable sea of resources for meeting the gap between sexual education in schools, and the reality of human sexuality. The question is: How do we get information about using online sex ed materials effectively and safely to the kids who need it most?
1) Clear, yet discreet, advertising
If you don’t know where to look, you’re not going to find it. Children raised in conservative households, living in conservative communities, or dealing with conservative sexual education programs aren’t going to be aware of the knowledge they don’t have, and they won’t know where to look for it. For someone operating with negative information, it’s hard to create a push to reach positive resources like sites with accurate and useful information on sexual health topics like making informed decisions about when and where to have sex.
While online advertising is usually the bane of pretty much everyone who uses the Internet, it can be used for the power of good. Carefully worded and presented ads for sex-ed sites could reach intended audiences; which requires a campaign of meticulous ad design and placement. Ideally, such ads could be seeded through conservative sites. It would be a particular victory to use an ad distribution network to plant ads on sites promoting abstinence-only subjects, purity balls, and other damaging aspects of conservative culture.
A classic activist tool, Googlebombing could be turned to good for sexual education, too, although Google’s made it a bit tougher. Anyone with Safe Search off has probably noticed that returns for common sexual health terms returns in some rather creative and anatomically unlikely results that aren’t going to budge even with a targeted SEO campaign. (Though Google might be persuaded to include links to sexual health resources in sidebars as they do with some potentially controversial results.)
However, results with Safe Search on could be gameable, with the right level of dedication. Young adults, no matter what they’ve been taught in school, are often curious about sexuality, and they should be pulling up useful results when they search for information, rather than just porn. A targeted, structured campaign to direct users to resources like Scarleteen would help youth find helpful resources about STIs, teen sexuality, gender, and related subjects.
3) Teacher and physician outreach
Teachers and physicians have a profound influence on teens and young adults, and in conservative schools and environments, they may be officially hamstrung, but that doesn’t mean they have to be. Instructors chafing at a limited sexual education curriculum can’t expand their subject matter or directly refer students to better resources without running the risk of losing their jobs, but that doesn’t mean they can’t obliquely mention resources that students might be able to access. Likewise, physicians meeting with patients in private have an opportunity to direct them to tools they might find useful.
4) Comprehensive education on sex-ed sites
Not all sexual education sites are created equal. Aside from obvious conservative plants filled with misleading information about sexuality, sometimes even well-meaning sites have outdated, incomplete, or dubious information. It’s important for the sexual health community to review and update such sites to ensure that when teens land on them, the results they uncover are solid and useful.
In addition to providing basic reproductive health information and referrals to local resources, larger discussions about sexuality, gender, and affirmative consent should be integrated firmly into online sex ed. Many teens struggle with their gender and sexual identity and have few places to turn for mentoring and advice, especially those in far-flung and conservative areas. Furthermore, open discussions about pleasure should be centered as well. The creation of online hubs for information and support helps teens find support in a safe environment.
5) Better support for online sex ed from members of the community
Members of the reproductive justice, teen health, and LGBT communities need to be aggressively supporting improved sexual education resources for young adults. Contributions don’t necessarily have to take financial forms, though given that many sites run as nonprofits, this is definitely a start. Community members can, for example, offer to review and update content for accuracy, and to produce articles that may be helpful for gender and sexual minorities. Some may act as moderators or agony aunts for bulletin boards and columns about teen sexuality and gender.
Without internal support from members of these communities, the reproductive justice community will struggle online. Teens looking for resources can’t find them if those resources are not supported, and such work is often difficult and thankless. While individuals cannot do everything, combined communities can make a huge difference.
6) Open and frequent conversations about consent culture and sexuality
The Internet is already on this, with a vengeance, which is good, because parents are flipping out about it on the local level. Affirmative consent and consent culture have taken over the Internet, with conversations on the subject cropping up routinely on reproductive health sites, women’s sites, and feminist sites. These conversations are starting to spill over into the real world, creating a feedback effect; for example, the Bay Area has an active consent culture “scene” which in turn translates back to the Internet as people discuss the community and the projects it’s involved with.
By increasing the availability and openness of such conversations, and encouraging teens to get involved, adults can break down barriers between poor offline sexual education and online resources. Teens looking for opportunities to learn more about sexuality and empower themselves can learn through such conversations that they have the right to make decisions about when, where, and how they have sex, with whom, and under what conditions. They can also learn about negotiating sexuality and balancing risks in the pursuit of pleasure.
7) Challenges to bans on sexual education sites instituted through online filtering programs
The suppression of sexual health resources from filtering programs is a recurring problem. Such sites are often blocked because they include content like terminology for genitalia, the word “sex,” or other basic language needed to talk about sexual health. This does an injustice to teens searching for resources, especially if they are looking at schools and libraries because they’d be barred from looking for sexual education tools at home. If sites can’t use a broad assortment of important terminology, they can’t provide effective education; imagine a sex ed site filled with euphemisms readers are supposed to decode.
Individual sex ed organizations often challenge ban lists, and they need support from the reproductive health community. It’s also important for librarians, teachers, and other officials working in environments where such filtering software is used to whitelist it, ensuring that students can access it when they need to. When whitelisting turns into a fight, it’s time for PTA members to speak up—in favor of their students, not censorship.