Back in September, I attended a launch party for a groundbreaking sex ed website. Geared towards middle schoolers, Amaze.org serves up a collection of short videos tackling the standard puberty topics (acne, wet dreams, boobs, periods, and the like) alongside edgier material like masturbation, sexual orientation, and even gender identity. It's never too early to learn what cisgender means!
At the time, Amaze felt pioneering, but ultimately on trend. A few months prior, Obama had cut funding for abstinence-only sex education, strengthening America's support for comprehensive, fact-based sex ed. Being queer in the public eye seemed more trendy than treacherous. And even as states passed bills legalizing discrimination against trans people, trans kids were popping up on magazine covers, reality shows, and evenModern Family. Sure, it was clear we had a ways to go, but America finally felt like it was on the right track when it came to sex education and sexual freedom.
And then, of course, Trump got elected.
As 2016 gave way to 2017, I found myself thinking about Amaze again. What is the future of progressive sex education in a country with a vice president who considers condoms to be "poor protection against [STIs]," a healthcare policy advisor who thinks birth control causes abortions, a potential Health and Human Services Secretary who doesn't believe in women's reproductive freedom, and an Education Secretary who'd just like to scrap this whole public school experiment entirely?
When it comes to school-based or government funded sex education, we're likely looking at a return to the abstinence-obsessed Bush era–or possibly something worse. "Under the Bush administration, I would worry about whether they'd get rid of sex ed. Under this administration I'm worried they're going to get rid of public school," said Deb Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth, one of the organizations that helped create Amaze.
But even as school based sexual health initiatives find themselves on rocky footing, there's still reason to hold out hope for the success of programs like Amaze. Whatever slings and arrows the Trump Administration may throw at comprehensive sex education, the public school system, and even our very notions of basic human decency, the programs of today are much better positioned to connect with young people than they were in the Bush years.
Internet-based sex ed isn't anything new: the late 1990s saw the launch of Scarleteen and Go Ask Alice!, and many sites have joined their ranks since. But widespread access to the internet—especially the relatively private access offered by a smartphone or tablet—is a fairly recent development, and it's made it much easier for online sex education programs to expand their reach.
Amaze also debuted in a much different digital environment than Bush era sex education sites, one where YouTube and Instagram stars have a direct line to the young internet users, and offer a much more effective promotional strategy than SEO strategizing, online marketing, and word of mouth.
The stigma around sharing sex info is starting to subside.
The Amaze team has happily taken advantage, coupling its outreach to schools and other institutional forces with partnerships with digital influencers. YouTubers Brendan Jordan, Haley Pham, Damon and Jo, and Conan Gray have pitched in to help promote the project online. So far, the strategy seems to be working: three months post launch, Amaze has over 4000 YouTube followers, with most videos getting viewed several thousand times (the most popular one has over 200k views). (For comparison, the 19-year-old Scarleteen gets about 5 million visitors per year.)
Of course, reaching thousands of teens means far less if Amaze is merely duplicating the solid sex education they're already receiving through school. But there's reason to believe the project's found followers in some of America's sex education deserts. According to Hauser, the Amaze web site is most popular in Alaska, Virginia, Montana, Oklahoma, and Delaware, an encouraging finding given that Alaska and Oklahoma do not require their schools to provide sex education, and Delaware, Montana, and Virginia don't require their in school sex ed to be medically accurate.
And it's not just YouTube stars who've helped expand Amaze's reach. Online sex education has long been hampered by the taboo of talking about sex in public. Being present on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr doesn't mean much if no one's comfortable sharing your content, or even following your account.
But the stigma around sharing sex info is starting to subside. "I think the conversation about sex has opened up quite a bit," said Thea Eigo, a Phoenix-based teen who's worked with Amaze.
Eigo cites fights against slut shaming as just one of the signs that young people are more comfortable embracing their sexuality and talking openly about sex. In her opinion, her peers have taken their cues from our increasingly sex positive culture and begun to open up about sexual health and gender identities in ways that past generations didn't get to. If she's right, that cultural shift, combined with robust online communities, could do a great deal to strengthen the fight for progressive, honest communication about sexuality in America.
It's easy to feel pessimistic about the future of American sexual freedom. I've certainly done my fair share of doomsaying over the past few months. But in chatting with the Amaze team, I found myself feeling, well, at least a little bit of hope. The internet's distribution networks aren't going to disappear overnight, and the cultural shift that originally made Amaze's thoughtful, queer and trans inclusive messaging feel on trend won't subside simply because Trump's now in office.
There's no question that the job of progressive sex educators will be a great deal harder than it would have been under a President Clinton. But knowing that, at least in some ways, it stands to be substantially easier than it was under President Bush is a rare bit of comfort during some pretty trying times.