"No parent wants to talk to their kids about sex," John Oliver said on Last Week Tonight last year, "and no kid wants to talk about sex with their parents. That's why when you're watching a movie together, and there's a sex scene, everyone becomes motionless and silently begs for the merciful release of death."
But as his segment on the dismal state of American sexual education went on to describe, the alternative—sex ed in public schools—is a patchwork system of programs that sometimes barely provide youth with any rigorous overview of sexual health at all. As Oliver pointed out, only 22 states mandate sex ed, and only 13 require that the information presented be medically accurate. On top of that, despite the fact that abstinence-based sex ed is ineffective at preventing pregnancy and the spread of STIs, 26 state programs require information on abstinence be stressed. And according to a 2013 Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network report, only 24.9 percent of LGBTQ students surveyed reported being taught any LGBTQ topics in health classes.
It's not just an American problem: A recent global study reported that teens around the world find sex ed is delivered in awkward, technical and moralistic ways, with scant discussion of consent. And while American sex ed is often problematic, the rise of digital alternatives—a new class of YouTube sex educators, who aim to make taboo subjects fun and digestible for an audience that grew up online—often fail to deliver medically accurate information, and can sometimes emphasize style over substance.
AMAZE, a new series of sex ed videos produced by the youth health organizations Advocates for Youth, Answer, and Youth Tech Health, may provide a happy medium between accessible, engaging sex ed materials that don't deviate from the purpose of sex ed in the first place: To provide accurate, non-judgmental answers to curious questions.
Eight animated videos have already launched, including "Expressing Myself, My Way," by the animator Dee Boyd. Thirty-five more will appear at AMAZE.org throughout the year, with online supplementary learning guides. AMAZE's videos break down difficult sexual topics into digestible, quick stories with colorful animation and catchy songs without sacrificing complexity.
"I think AMAZE.org hooks kids and teaches them something they are interested in in a way that is real, engaging, entertaining, and in their space," says Brad Troeger, an AMAZE consultant and a sexual health and physical-education teacher at Janesville Craig High School in Wisconsin. "We wanted to create short videos that were entertaining and educational but didn't 'feel' like school: a Schoolhouse Rock kind of vibe. I use the videos as supplemental media in a flipped classroom. I now view my role more as a manager of the material rather than a teacher of it." It's a resource I wish I had 30 years ago, when I began working as a sexuality educator. AMAZE is designed to supplement traditional sex ed, not replace it; it could prove to be a boon for educators looking to bolster their current in-class curriculum.
The videos are available online, accessible from anywhere. Information about consent and "the ABCs of STDs" are presented with dead-on accuracy. And the video series never assumes that sex is the sole province of heterosexual or cisgender Americans. On the contrary, tweens, parents, and educators who use AMAZE as a resource learn about adolescent sexual life as it truly is: a boisterous and sometimes confusing melange of curiosity, doubt, and exploration.
In "Expressing Myself, My Way," two gender-nonconforming anthropomorphic birds try on clothes that are normally reserved only for boys or girls. A hand-clapping song in the backgrounds repeats the phrase "all girls don't wear dresses!" Given that 48 percent of teens now identify as LGBTQ, the message is more relevant than ever.
"Growing up and trying to figure out my sexuality has been a struggle because sex is hardly talked about—let alone sex between two men or two women," said Daniel Nava, a 17-year-old gay, Latino, cisgender male from Aurora, Colorado, who serves as one of AMAZE's youth consultants. "But having a website for help eliminates that stigma."
Nava also points out that AMAZE's inclusivity extends to ethnicity. From a brown-skinned, purple-haired animated narrator featured in "Talking Sexual Orientation With Jane" to a red-haired, fair-skinned, pimply boy wracked by puberty in "How the Boner Grows," characters of all skin colors, body types, and creeds populate the videos.
AMAZE's videos work best when used with "involved parenting," says Amy Lang, an independent sexuality and parenting educator. Parents, guardians, and teachers should never simply "stick their kids in front of a screen and think their children are 'sex educated,' because they are not."
But some low-income single parents struggle to guide their children's sexual discoveries while working long hours to make ends meet. According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, young people who received the least sex education tended to be low-income black youths from single parent homes. Such "non-intact parentage" is the strongest predictor for an STD diagnosis for teens.
For many of those teens, AMAZE's videos may have a hard time competing with Vine or YouTube for their attention. But the videos may certainly represent a step up from American sex ed as it exists today—and for most, an online, inclusive video series like AMAZE goes where other sex ed programs won't.
Cleis Abeni (first name rhymes with "dice") is a veteran journalist and editor dedicated to harm reduction and compassionate living.