Could Instagram Provide Young People with the Sex Ed they Don’t Get in School?
If you were to visit the Instagram page Giving The Talk (@givingthetalk), you will find a plethora of posts advising you on how to give and receive consent, how to end sex without faking an orgasm, and how to ask for consent in ways that are ‘sexy’. Other posts will tell you that sex isn’t ‘all about penetration’, explain to you that ‘your partner doesn’t define your sexuality’, assure you that ‘hair in your bootie is normal’ and encourage you to see sex as ‘an experience not a performance’, focusing on pleasure rather than how ‘good’ you look. This is a far cry from the limited sex education most of us recieve in school.
While many worry about the impact social media might be having on young people, we often overlook the fact that sites like Instagram can serve a valuable educational function. When it comes to sex – a topic that many find awkward to ask questions about and that doesn’t lend itself to classroom discussion – social media can play a vital role in filling gaps in our knowledge.
For a long time, sexual pleasure was entirely excluded from formal sex education due to concerns that teaching young people about pleasure may encourage riskier sexual behaviour and therefore leave them vulnerable. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Studies have linked sex-positive Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) to increased sexual assertiveness in young people; it firmly establishes sex as something that should always be enjoyable for both parties and never used in manipulative or harmful ways. This not only enhances our ability to consent to or ask for wanted sexual activity, but increases feelings of confidence and vindication when declining pressure to engage in unwanted sexual activity.
Despite this, school-based SRE continues to be criticised for neglecting to explore the positive and emotional elements of sexuality, placing excessive focus on the risks of sexual activity, and for perpetuating the heteronormative erasure of LGBTQ+ experiences. Curriculum aside, awkwardness about the public discussion of sexuality often leads to disruptive behaviour, a reluctance to ask questions, and ineffective teaching, acting as a further barriers to receiving high quality SRE. Thus, there is a clear need for alternative, privately accessible sources of information about sex – a need that could be filled by the many Instagram pages now dedicated to delivering sex education in a way that centres pleasure, emotion and equality, and, crucially, can be accessed from the privacy of your own bedroom.
While schools often use STIs as a scare tactic to warn teens off having sex, Emily Depasse (@sexelducation) works to dismantle STI stigma, providing her followers with practical advice about how to discuss screenings with your partner(s) and enjoy sex safely no matter your status. Shrimp Teeth (@shrimpteeth) offers up tips for setting healthy boundaries and navigating emotions such as jealousy and self-consciousness within polyamourous relationships, catering for a group typically overlooked by mainstream SRE. Educating her followers on how to have sex that is good rather than merely safe, Ruby Rare (@rubyrare) gives advice on how to achieve pleasure, explaining that placing less focus on penetration, using more lube and encorporating sex toys are all things that can help you to have better sex.
When I spoke to a group of young women about their responses to some of the sex-positive content currently popular on Instagram, Zahra*, 21, told me ‘I only really just started enjoying sex once I saw that it wasn’t just, you know, p in v, its so much more. I feel like if I’d seen these posts before I came to that realisation that would have been really helpful’. Kathy*, 23, explained that she felt this content would have prevented her from feeling pressured into sexual activity, telling me ‘if I’d seen something like this when I was younger I would have been like ‘oh yeah, you can just do kissing all night and that’s fine too, and that’s a form of sex. Or you can just do foreplay, and that’s all-of-the time play, and that’s fine too. We have such a script in our heads of how we think sex is supposed to go’.
With internet access now so ubiquitous, pornography websites have previously been reocginised as the main source young people turn to when our questions about sex are left unanswered by schools. While research suggests porn isn’t quite as harmful as it has long been feared to be, it is usually unrealistic, and studies suggest young people lack the skills to differentiate between portrayals of sexual activity in porn and real-life sexual relationships. Because of this, social media may be a better educational tool – it is equally private and equally accessible, yet the vast majority of those producing sex education content go out of their way to represent the funny, awkward, emotional and practical elements of sex – not just those that are ‘sexy’.
Ruby Rare’s posts contain a number of reminders that sex ‘rarely looks like the stuff you see in porn’, and advises us to check in frequently with our partners. One of the most popular posts on the page of Illustrator Hazel Mead (@hazel.mead) is an image containing a collection of naked figures displayed under the heading ‘things you don’t see in mainstream porn’. Mead’s annotations point out that some of the figures are feeling ticklish, some can’t get in the mood; others are experiencing queefs or erectile dysfunction; some have pimply bums, stretch marks, or scars; some are taking water breaks, undergoing awkward position changes or finding a hair in their mouth.
These depictions of sexual experience undermine the realism of pornographic media and could relieve the pressure many young people feel to emulate idealised representations of sex. As Lola*, 22, told me after seeing this post: ‘it gives you a sigh of relief, because sex is sometimes awkward and you can sometimes leave a sexual experience where something very normal happens and feel very embarrassed about it. It’s nice to look through these and go ‘oh, all those things are normal!’’.
While efforts to improve the quality of SRE can (and should) be tackled within the classroom, it seems that the unashamed discussion of sex and sexuality brought about by these Instagram accounts could be equipping young people with knowledge that is vital to informing our decision making and protecting our well being.
* All names have been changed to protect the identity of the young women I spoke to.
Writen by Connie Lawfull