This past July, New York City Health and Hospitals announced that they were launching a digital initiative to educate teens on sexual and reproductive health. Their secret weapon? Emojis.
Basically, they planned to run a campaign in which eggplant and peach emojis would pop up on teens' Facebook and Instagram feeds, alongside the words: "Need to talk to someone about 'it'?" Clicking on these ads would lead social media users to the Health and Hospitals website. Similarly, a monkey emoji with its hands over its mouth—presumably referencing those things that are most unspeakable—would direct curious users toward resources on STDs, birth control, and emergency contraception.
The whole thing seems a bit gimmicky, but theoretically, the eggplant emoji is to sexting what animated gifs are to list posts: concise, essential, and of the moment. Why not harness that at a time when school-based sexuality education continues to be so lackluster?
Texas public schools, notorious for their abstinence-based sex ed, are considering curricula that send questionable messages to students—like the one that likens the use of contraception to underwater tap dancing squirrels, calling it "absurd and unnatural." Also available for teen consumption: a video promoting abstinence that compares sexually active women to old, dirty, worn-out shoes. Still other advocates use analogies that compare such women to trampled-upon rose petals or chewed up pieces of gum.
In response to these sorry offerings, social change-minded entrepreneurs have been stepping up in droves, creating smartphone apps and online campaigns that fill a necessary hole in an educational system that continues to fail its students. They've been able to address students' complaints that sex ed programs are outdated in that they fail to acknowledge sexually active students, non-heterosexual relationships, or even the fact that sex can be pleasurable.
Elise Racine and Mia Davis, for example—former college roommates at Stanford University—created Tabu, a social media app that contains articles from sexperts, basic information about birth control, body image, consent, and other topics. A Q&A tab allows users to ask everything from what it means that they enjoy being choked during sex to how to use a condom properly. And while general community members can respond to users' queries, a separate tab shows that professionals from San Francisco Sex Information, Bedsider, Sexability, and the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) are also standing by to provide judgment-free support.
Another community-oriented app is Brianna Rader's Juicebox, which prompts users to anonymously "Snoop" or "Spill." On the "Snoop" tab, users can ask AASECT-certified sex therapists and sexuality educators any of their sex-related questions. On the "Spill" tab, users share fantasies, embarrassing stories, confessions and conundrums. The feed is a priceless indicator of the type of information users either didn't get in the classroom or aren't privy to (anatomy is hard sometimes).
While several sex ed apps target a broader age range, teen-centric sites like Scarleteen, which fosters a healthy balance of sex and relationship content, has been dominating the sex education arena since 1998. Project Consent, a non-profit campaign that aims to combat and deconstruct rape culture, has a similar audience. It gained visibility (over a million combined views) when it released an online video campaign in February featuring animated butts, nipples, and vulvas to teach people that "Consent is simple. If it's not a yes, it's no." And Sex Ed Plus releases a new, sexually empowering graphic on their website and through their various social media accounts every Friday.
For a more playful approach, there are a number of talented graphic artists spreading the message of healthy sexuality through their webcomics. Oh Joy Sex Toy, by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan, covers a variety of sex-related issues, such as sexual orientation, the sex industry, toys, workshops, and birth control. Author Danielle Sepulveres and illustrator Maritza Lugo have collaborated on two series that spotlight the importance of sexual health for both men and women.
YouTubers are getting in on the action, too. Laci Green of Sex Plus tackles a different topic almost every other week, with video content ranging from "the truth about herpes" to how you can't actually "pop" your cherry. In the realm of actual web series, Y Films released a five-part series called Sex Chat with Pappu & Papa, a charming/hilarious show out of India about a father negotiating the minefield of sex-related questions posed to him by his young son. And more recently, Advocates for Youth, Answer, and Youth Tech Health collaborated on AMAZE, a series of videos for ten- to 14-year-olds that tackles puberty, gender identity and relationships.
In an ideal world, young adults would get the lowdown on everything down-there related from both parents and teachers over the course of their journey toward adulthood—given that someone who goes searching for real information is just as likely to get buried under the blowies of amateur RedTube videos as they are to stumble upon an infographic that lays out the logistics of consent.
But in a system that seems irreparably broken, it's a relief that resources like these exist. Amidst the finger-wagging, values-driven controversy and funding issues, sexuality educators are still reaching the students who need them.