The Rise of Social Media Sex Ed
It’s easy to dismiss social media as an endless stream of cat videos and brunch photos – but could it also hold the key to improved knowledge around sex, fertility, and reproductive health? Coni Longden-Jefferson investigates the rise of social media sex education.
Sex Education was 'old school'
Back in the late 90s, sex education was certainly not comprehensive. It pretty much boiled down to an awkward video of nudists in a swimming pool, followed by a very awkward demonstration involving a condom and a poor, unsuspecting banana. The key messages were clear – sex is between a man and a woman (untrue), you’re going to get your period every 28 days (not always true), and everything between your legs is called ‘your vagina’ (not exactly true). Topics around pleasure, fertility, consent, and PCOS just didn’t seem to feature, and everything was taught to us in the binary, with no mention of the broad spectrum of sexual experiences that are possible to desire and enjoy.
While this might sound like an archaic tale from yesteryear, it’s a worryingly common – and modern one at that. It was only in September 2020 that the new and improved relationships and sex education (RSE) curriculum was introduced into schools in the UK. This is the first time in decades that this curriculum has been updated, and will now finally address the menopause, LGBTQIA+ themes, and the internet’s impact on sexual development. This progress is exciting, and it hopefully means that future generations will leave school feeling more informed and prepared for the world of sex. Unfortunately, it also highlights just how the old curriculum may have let the rest of us down.
Instagram for information
It’s concerning to think that many of us leave school knowing more about the Pythagorean theorem than we do about healthy sexual relationships. However, we all know that learning doesn’t stop when class is dismissed. Social media is becoming a powerful tool in helping us understand our bodies, sexual relationships, and fertility. A growing number of online educators and community builders are helping to fill in the knowledge gaps that an inadequate sexual education curriculum may have left – and Instagram is at the heart of this learning experience.
One of these educators is Roisin Glasgow-Collins, a 24-year-old student living in Perth, Australia and currently completing her Master's degree in Sexology. She started her Instagram account Sexsational Education in July this year, so she could share everything she is learning about sexual health to a wider audience.
“Most young people have some form of social media account and if they aren’t receiving the proper sex-ed at school, they use websites, social media, and porn to educate themselves," Roisin explains. “The great thing about Instagram accounts, when run by trusted people, is that they can provide accurate information in an easy to understand manner.”
It’s not simply the facts and figures that are drawing people to sex-positive Instagram accounts. Roisin believes that community and a sense of being seen and understood is another big driver. “There are numerous accounts exploring different issues, some are dedicated to sharing someone’s experiences with herpes, or there are dedicated accounts focusing on what it’s like to have vaginismus,” says Roisin. “These accounts can be amazing resources for letting people know they are not alone if they are experiencing the same thing.”
Sexually studious students
It's not just Instagram that's joining the sex-ed revolution. For Gen Z, TikTok has become their equivalent of Encyclopedia Britannica. While it might be easy to dismiss it as ‘the lockdown dance app', it actually has a wealth of educational content – often created by experts. Whether you want to learn how to perfectly boil an egg or want to understand the history of imperialism – there’s a TikTok for that. So, it’s unsurprising that it is also a treasure trove of information about sex and reproductive health. The platform is becoming an increasingly popular place for young people to ask the big questions around sexual health, and get them answered in an engaging, relatable way. One of TikTok's most revered sexperts – Dr Tessa Commers (@askdrt) – amassed 1.4 million followers in just nine months, thanks to her fun videos on topics like the clitoris and contraception.
Another way that young people are bridging the sexual knowledge gap is through anonymous University confession pages. While these Facebook pages – like the 30,000-strong Leedsfess and hugely popular Sheffessions – were ostensibly created to share sweet library crushes or gossip from halls, they have now become a hive mind for sexual education. Students are using these forums to broach topics that they feel uncomfortable discussing with friends and family, anything from gender dysphoria to unexpected bodily fluids. Much like social media, this sense of community can be just as important as education when it comes to young people feeling better equipped to navigate their sexual experiences.
However, it’s not just teens and students that are looking for answers about sex and their own bodies online. Millennials and Gen Xers who are trying to become parents are also benefiting from the explosion of social media content around the subject of fertility.
Kate Davies is a registered fertility nurse and coach and co-host of The Fertility Podcast. Working in this space for the past two decades, Kate has seen the changing landscape of fertility education. She believes that social media has a huge role in improving access to information that can help people on their road to parenthood.
“The rise of social media use has given men and women access to fertility information like never before,” Kate explains. “Empowering individuals to take ownership of their fertility starts with education and giving access to good quality information means that men and women can make informed decisions to help them successfully navigate their fertility journey.”
Much like Roisin, Kate also sees social media as a great way of nurturing a sense of community – especially for those trying for a baby. Many people who are TTC (Trying To Conceive) turn to their phone when looking for advice, support, or inspiration – a quick search of #TTCCommunity on Instagram reveals a whopping 722,000 posts. “Social media is providing a safe space for people to discuss difficult topics when it comes to starting a family,” Kate says when asked about this phenomenon. “Social media has also had a huge part to play in starting to break down the taboos associated with infertility and baby loss. More men and women are feeling confident about opening up conversations around this difficult topic and the power of this can never be underestimated.”
Social Sex-Ed Dillema
As with all elements of our (increasingly dependent relationship) with technology, there are negatives as well as positives to using social media as a source for education. For Kate, the concern is around the validity of the advice that is being given – often given from uncredited sources.
“While social media is a wealth of information it’s important to access the right information,” she explains. “People can choose to access fertility education from multiple sources like fertility patient influencers, clinics, and health care professionals. While all this can be beneficial, I would always recommend seeking out research based information that you can trust.”
Many people find support and encouragement through these online communities, which can be hugely beneficial. However, the public and opinionated nature of social media mean you can sometimes come across less positive interactions.
“Some posts of a sexual nature on social media can attract some negative attention from people who may have different views. It is very likely people will come across transphobic and homophobic comments whilst using social media to educate themselves, which can affect both the self-esteem of LGBTQIA+ people and influence attitudes,” says Rosin. "It’s one of the reasons it’s so important that these accounts, not only provide factual information but are also inclusive of the LGBTQIA+ community.”
Ultimately, it’s clear that social media sex education is here to stay. And while progress is being made, it’s possible that the school curriculum will never be able to keep up with our fast-paced, ever-evolving understanding of sexuality. It is a broad, diverse, and hugely personal topic – and social media allows us to curate a personalized learning experience that gives us the support, advice, and information we need.