YouTube Sex Education is Under Attack
Surprise! Another out-of-touch traditional media outlet has published a sloppy hot-take at the expense of educators.
This weekend, the New York Times featured me in an article about sex education on YouTube. It was written by Amanda Hess, a feminist journalist. As such, one might hope for acknowledgment of the new wave of young people challenging oppressive status quos around sexuality and gender, or perhaps a salute to the youth-driven activism blossoming on YouTube. Instead, the article promotes a degrading narrative about the YouTube sex education community — and does so with saccharine condescension.
From where I’m sitting, the article is emblematic of a broader pattern of dismissing the importance of sex education, of dismissing YouTube as a legitimate platform, and of dismissing the work of young activists who find their voices online.
…And you know what? I’m tired of it.
Here are the main claims of the article, and why they are [mostly] wrong.
Sex education on YouTube is amateur, unlike Dr. Ruth and Dr. Drew.
“The sex and relationships commentators who arose in the self-help boom of the 1980s emphasized their expert status. But while Dr. Ruth, Dr. Laura and Dr. Drew telegraphed their academic credentials in their names, modern sex-ed stars make an asset of their amateurism.”
With a passive-aggressive headline (The Sex-Ed Queens of YouTube Don’t Need a Ph.D) and repeated references to our alleged lack of degrees, you might come away from the article thinking that the YouTube sex education community is run by a bunch of drunk, latex-clad loons.
As proof, Hess offers factual inaccuracies from the channels of YouTubers who talk about sex, conflating them with the community of trained sex educators. With a dollop of sensationalism, the YouTube sex education community is cast as a concerning, if not amusing, case of “the blind leading the blind.”
This characterization is unfair. I run the largest sex education channel on YouTube. I teach at universities and high schools across the continent. I don’t have a Ph.D (yet — it’s certainly a possibility in the future). I do hold an honors degree from UC Berkeley and a certification in sexual violence prevention from the state of California. Belittling the thousands of hours I’ve spent teaching & researching because I don’t hold a Ph.D is a fallacious appeal to authority. Shannon Boodram, another sex educator featured, is also certified.
Notably, there’s no mention of another popular sex education channel on YouTube, and a treasured presence to boot: Dr. Lindsey Doe. Dr. Doe is a sexologist and holds a Ph.D in Human Sexuality. Why wasn’t Dr. Doe included? I suppose that to do so would challenge the manufactured spectacle of “silly sex girls on YouTube who aren’t doctors.”
Sex education videos are like regular YouTube, but with more nudity.
“The exhibitionism endemic to social media stardom comes in handy here. Sex-ed YouTube borrows from the same tropes that dominate personality-driven videos across the network; these ones just have more naked people. (The relevant bits are censored, as nudity runs afoul of YouTube rules.)”
Yeah…..no. YouTube doesn’t allow nudity and nobody is teaching naked. This is even noted in the article. So why would one choose to characterize YouTube sex educators, a community that is almost entirely made up of women, this way? It’s irrelevant and, in the context of the article, comes off as petty slut-shaming. Even better, Hess implies that the success of our videos is helped along by our supposed nudity.
Sex education on YouTube consists of “stunts” like party games, drunk videos, and social experiments.
“A lot of the videos are styled as party games, light ‘social experiments,’ or crossover collaborations with other web stars…The educational component kicks in when the hosts tie the stunt to a broader lesson about self-esteem, sexual health, tolerance, whatever.”
Being a successful YouTuber requires the ability to entertain people. Being a successful educational YouTuber adds a new element to that task: make it substantive. Getting people to watch educational content in their free time is a challenge, and the proliferation of experimental strategies to reach people is a response to that challenge. These video formats are a form of marketing, which is a survival skill in the competitive YouTube economy. Even then, the most common format for sex education videos on YouTube is straight-to-camera discussions.
Sex education on YouTube is not fact checked.
“This new breed’s desire to entertain, however, can allow room for myths to slip in. Some sexual stunts seem better at capturing clicks than making points.
Ms. Green, who sees her video archive as a virtual “sex-ed library,” takes care to quote sound medical resources and publishes links to references alongside her videos.”
I appreciate the brief acknowledgement that on Sex Plus, I do fact check. My sex education videos are reviewed twice, once by myself and once by a peer or professional. Links to all my sources are accessible in the description. This review process is a time consuming but necessary part of making my videos.
In my opinion, this bit unearths the only nugget of honesty and insight in the article. It’s true that there are YouTubers talking about sex, and perhaps even marketing the videos as educational, that are accidentally spreading misinformation. To be fair, these things happen. Everybody, even doctors, make mistakes. But misinformation has a negative impact, and it needs to be curbed as much as possible. In a world so fraught with sexuality misinformation, stereotypes, and shame —this brand of laziness is especially damaging. I strongly encourage any YouTuber who is sharing educational information in their videos to:
- Double check all claims with reliable sources
- Ask an informed peer or professional to look over the information
- Link all sources in the description of the video
- Post a retraction/correction in the case of a mistake
These are some best practices for the YouTube education community as a whole. The millions of young people who watch our videos are hungry for clear, concise and accurate information.
Sex education personalities will eventually become old and useless.
“The very thing that makes their work so compelling also risks limiting their careers. For the internet’s sex-ed personalities, getting older may be the only taboo.”
This final sentence is what strikes the sourest note with me. Is there even one non-sexist way to interpret this statement?
The most compelling thing about our work is…our youth? Women are constantly told that as we get older, we become useless to society. Our youth and beauty will wither, our vaginas will dry up, and our careers will suffer. Good thing the New York Times is here to remind women on the internet of the dismal future that lay ahead.
Here’s the bottom line.
I’ll be frank. As a sex educator and a feminist, I get blasted daily from pretty much every corner of the internet. And for the most part, I’ve come to accept it. I continue to do this work because I know that access to sex education on YouTube changes lives. I have emails, comments, tweets, Facebook posts, reblogs, and handwritten letters to prove it. But I do take issue with a respected news outlet falsely characterizing the movement for comprehensive sex education as an un-educated, nudity-fueled gimmick that will burn out when we get wrinkles.
Why? Because sex education, and positive discussions about sexuality, are critical for the health and wellbeing of our youth — and the youth are on YouTube. I fiercely believe that they deserve medically accurate, accessible, LGBT inclusive sex education. As it currently stands in much of the world, young people are left to choose between porn or abstinence-only “education” to learn about their sexuality. This isn’t even close to adequate. Our society has let young people down en masse.
The open internet has given us the power to change that. This floodgate is not without flaws. It is not without growing pains. But let me be clear: YouTube sex educators and their base of supporters aim to make real change in how our society addresses issues in sexuality. While nobody else will, we want to talk about how to ask for consent, how to properly use condoms, what a healthy relationship looks like, why loving your body is okay, why it’s okay to be LGBT, how to prevent sexual assault, why your body does that one weird thing, how to take care of your vagina, how birth control works, what STIs are, and so many more things. We want to make the world a safer, healthier place.
And that’s exactly what we are doing.