How Technology Can Facilitate Better Sexual Education.

This box might look familiar. I was reminded of it this week as I reflected on the experience of the sexual education I received in school featuring the elusive yet intimidating question box. Ask any question about sex that you want, but your teacher has to answer it assuming they are a beacon of sexual knowledge, and you definitely have to wait for a time when nobody can see you dropping in your question… Awkward right? I’d say so.

During a design challenge, our team was tasked to design a product that acts as a service. We wanted to design something that would help ease the burden of selecting an appropriate method of contraception while eliminating the inconvenience and awkwardness of getting them in the typical doctor/pharmacy way. However, what we failed to identify was why women are still getting pregnant when they don’t want to. As I examined the topic further, I realized that the solution to the problem is not a simple one, and it certainly is not solved with convenient delivery service. Despite access to contraception, women in the US and across the world are still getting pregnant when they don’t want to. A lot of women actually.

There are 61 million U.S. women in their childbearing years . About 43 million of them (70%) are at risk of unintended pregnancy — that is, they are sexually active and do not want to become pregnant, but could become pregnant if they and their partners fail to use a contraceptive method correctly and consistently. (Guttmacher Institute, 2017)

We Don’t Know What We’re Doing

While that statistic is surprising, it was further supported in that the 11 grown adults critiquing our design exercise were still unclear about how methods of contraception were both acquired and used. So basically, when it comes to knowing how not to get pregnant, we don’t know what the heck we are doing.

Education Enables Us to Make Choices About Sex

When trying to identify what is getting in the way of preventing unwanted pregnancy, there are many layers and roadblocks that limit access to sexual education and the contraception itself. These include but are not limited to affordability, access to proper healthcare, the realities of living in a patriarchal society, religious considerations, socio-economic status and the list goes on. I chose to focus primarily on education itself, as it is the first entry point and the gateway to how we make choices about sex.

Re-Thinking the Conversation

Why is sex education not working?

Is it irrelevant?

Is it not happening at the right time?

While I can’t definitively answer those questions, one thing we know is that young people’s preferred way to learn about sex and contraception is via the internet. This in part due to a lack of anonymity when asking a question face-to-face, and the instantaneous nature of getting an answer when you actually might need it. The internet also poses issues about accuracy of the information being found in the same way that consulting a group of friends may not provide accurate answers.

Sex is still hard to talk about despite efforts to open up the dialogue and eliminate the stigma. While organizations and schools themselves are re-thinking how that education is being presented — technology gives us a fantastic opportunity to re-think how and where that conversation is happening and how those questions are being answered. Gone are the days of the question box that your 50 year old teacher answered while you and your classmates all sat uncomfortably at your desks wishing to melt into the floor…hopefully.

Technology Can Help Fill the Gaps

Schools and organizations committed to helping young people empower themselves when it comes to sexual health need to meet their users where they already go to get their information — on their phones. By doing this, three key areas that effect sexual education can be addressed.

  1. Accuracy

The rise of AI and machine-learning presents a rich territory to explore, particularly with the idea of chatbots that can provide factual information that is unbiased, equipping one to make informed decisions about sex. When thinking about the broad spectrum of sexual education related questions — age, gender, sexual orientation all play a part in the specific type of information that a person needs. The diversity of questions that can be answered is promising. When related to contraception, some examples that come to mind include, “Does my mom have to come?”, “How much does it cost?” Or for an older user like myself, “can the pill can really make my migraines worse?”

2. Relevancy

Currently, formal setting based sexual education occurs only a few times in our lives. However, the need to continue learning about it remains prevalent as our questions can change as our needs evolve. As young people use the internet as their go-to for questions about sex, the phone provides a constant access point to the preferred avenue for that information. Not to say that face-to-face discussion is not important — however, people are not always comfortable asking the questions they need to in order to make informed choices about sex.

3. Anonymity

We are noticing a shift in the way society views sex and talks about it, however many topics regarding sex are still considered taboo. Issues of shame, judgement, and embarrassment surface. It is a reality that no matter how good ones doctor is, or how close someone is with their parent, there are just some things that we perceive to be no-go zones. Our phones act as extensions of ourselves and as a neutral, safe space to ask questions and access information that we do not want to discuss out loud.

Maybe Not the End of Humanity, But a Decrease in Pregnancy

People often talk about how AI and machine-learning are going to end the world, but what if they also just taught us how to take our birth control properly and where we could get it for the best price? Or that the pull out method might not be as effective as our best friend told us it was? Instead of replacing and eliminating us as species, maybe it could work to reduce the rate of both unplanned pregnancies and births for women in the United States and across the world.