A friend told me the other day that her younger sister got pregnant at age 14 because she’d never been taught anything about condoms or contraceptive.
I really shouldn’t be surprised. I’m well aware of the dismal state of sex education…but truthfully I was shocked. It can be easy for me, as a well-educated sex nerd, to forget that information I think of as common knowledge is information someone else has never learned or had access to.
I see education as part of how we care for other people. I’m a bit of a geek, so it probably doesn’t surprise anyone that I truly believe knowledge is power. We teach kids to look both ways before crossing the street and to wear helmets on bikes. We teach children not to touch a hot stove, to call 911 in the case of an emergency, and to not talk to strangers. However, when it comes to sexual health, we leave people completely unprepared.
When I tell someone I’m a sex educator, they almost always ask what grade I teach, because, despite the lack of sex education offered to students, there’s still this belief that the need for sex education ends when you graduate from school. Sex education is a lifelong thing.
The information you need about what’s going on with your body at age 14 and age 65 is going to be vastly different. People develop chronic conditions (about 45% of those in the US) that will likely affect your sex life, either directly or indirectly (i.e. medication side effects, etc.), and people need new information about how to enjoy sex within their “new normal.” Sex drives change, circumstances change, bodies change, and most likely what you want to try sexually will change—and all of that requires new information. It’s information that people get from the internet, and social media can be a great resource for finding it.
Social media has become an integral part of our culture. So much so that it’s easy to forget that the platforms we use are private corporations that can ban, hide, or restrict content in any way they see fit. They can change terms and conditions to suit their needs without prior notice if they choose to.
Globally, companies spent $31 billion advertising on social media in 2016, and they’re continually spending more each year, and social media companies have to keep their advertisers happy. “It’s not personal, it’s just good business,” right?
Except it’s not because, for users, social media has become so much more than just a business. It’s become a lifeline for many. It allows people to connect with others and lets them build a community they may not have offline. Social media platforms allow silenced voices to be heard, and it’s a source of information and education, especially on topics that are aren’t being taught elsewhere, like sex education.
Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple because social media policies often see sex ed content as explicit material to be banned… something I was reminded of recently when after a few days away from the internet last week, I returned to find out that “shadowbanning” is an actual thing—and that my @hedonish twitter account is shadowbanned.
What is shadowbanning? The general consensus is that a “shadowban” is a partial ban to limit someone’s influence, however, to the shadowbanned user, everything appears fine. You don’t even know if you’re affected until you check it or log out of your account and search for your profile (I only thought to check my account after seeing that JoEllen Notte was also shadowbanned). Unfortunately, as long as I’m being shadowbanned, anyone who doesn’t already follow me won’t be able to see my tweets and I don’t come up when you search my username. (Funny enough, when you search @hedonish someone with a similar username, whose only tweets are hardcore porn gifs, comes up instead.Oh the irony…)
It’s frustrating. I recently left a well-paid job as a graphic designer for many reasons, but primarily because I love sex education and I want to build a career as a sex educator—something I’ve struggled to do while juggling a full-time job, chronic illness, and the rest of my life. Any ban that limits who my content can reach will make the nearly impossible task of building a business related to sexuality, even from an educational perspective, that much more challenging because social media policies often make sex education difficult to find.
Like any business, in order to be successful, people have to know you exist and what services your business provides. For most companies, this is solved through advertising, but when your business is sexual health and education it can be a bit more tricky.
Advertising sexual health information is tough and what’s allowed varies by platform and there’s often a lot of room for interpretation. On Twitter, it’s allowed, but only under specific conditions. For example, Twitter says it doesn’t generally prohibit advertising safer sex education, but it can not contain or link to any sexual content, which is vague terminology at best. The Atlantic discussed this issue with Bedsider, an educational resource for birth control, whose advertisements promoting condom use and safer sex practices were rejected by Twitter.
As The Atlantic’s article points out, “An approved condom tweet might read: ‘A condom can actually fit over your entire head! #Themoreyouknow,’ whereas an offending tweet would be ‘If you think condoms aren’t for you, you just haven’t found the right one yet. See how good safer sex can feel’.” This violated Twitter’s advertising policies because despite being educational, it still framed sex in a positive, pleasure-focused way. Bedsider faced similar issues when trying to advertise the same campaign on Facebook, even though Facebook advertising allows you to specify what ages should be able to view your ads.
Other sexual health organizations have run into the same roadblocks. The American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) tried to run a Facebook campaign to increase awareness for vaginismus, a painful condition where the vaginal muscles involuntarily or persistently contract when attempting vaginal penetration, and the campaign was turned down because it promoted a “sexually explicit product.” Another sexual health organization, Advocates for Youth, was rejected as well for a campaign promoting condom use.
YouTube has also updated their advertising policies multiple times in the last year reducing what content is eligible for advertisements; often the main source of revenue for content creators. While YouTube’s policy states that they make exceptions for “non-graphic sexual education videos,” any videos that show sex toys, sexual devices, contain explicit conversations about sex, use inappropriate language, or that discuss controversial issues and sensitive events are not eligible for advertising. That doesn’t leave much room for real, down-to-earth conversations around sexuality.
More recently, YouTube has been using their policy on controversial issues to demonetize LGBTQ content, which will likely result in less LGBTQ content being available because the creators have to find other sources of income to pay their bills.
Social media companies often extend their content restrictions past the limits of advertising too. While Instagram is well known for their conservative anti-nipple and nudity policies, there have been reports that content is more heavily censored when it shows larger bodied people, and they have even removed images showing period blood (although eventually, the community outrage led them to reverse that decision).
No one thinks that kids should have access to material that isn’t age-appropriate, but there are ways to limit children from seeing the material they shouldn’t without compromising access to educational material for adults. Sex, sexuality, condoms, clitoris, bisexual (which was “accidentally” banned this past weekend), etc.—aren’t dirty words, and we need to stop treating them like they are.
Sex, sexuality, condoms, clitoris, bisexual, etc.—aren’t dirty words, and we need to stop treating them like they are.
Here’s what the US has achieved through abstinence-only sex ed, social media censorship of sexual health content, and a general air of shame regarding anything sexual:
• People are uncomfortable talking to their healthcare professionals about sexual health issues (and their providers aren’t comfortable discussing it either)
And all of the rhetoric about protecting children’s delicate minds was for naught since nearly 90% of kids will see hardcore porn by the age of 11 anyways (and they think it’s sex ed rather than entertainment because they aren’t being taught otherwise).
Clearly, what our society is doing isn’t working, and it’s time for a change.