Last spring, Mary Jo Podgurski taught her usual sex education course to sixth-graders in Washington, Pa. — usual, except one thing: It was over Zoom. Because the kids took the class from home, many of their parents participated as well, so Podgurski decided to include exercises to help parents and children communicate about sex.
“Mary Jo helped me build trust with my mom and classmates so if I have any questions in the future, I feel safe asking,” says 13-year-old Cicely Sunseri, one of the students.
Sunseri is one of many students to take sex education courses online in 2020. With the coronavirus pandemic making in-person classes logistically difficult or canceling them altogether, these limitations have had a silver lining within the sex ed space, educators say. When schools offer sex ed remotely, the options for curriculums, discussion formats and who has access to the classes expand. What’s more, new kinds of classes outside school settings have gained traction, from online sex ed for adults to porn literacy to programs combating the stigma of sexually transmitted infections.
With fewer than half of U.S. states requiring accurate sex education in schools, alternatives to school curriculums can make a huge difference, both for adolescents and for adults who never got proper sex education, according to advocates. A 2019 analysis of government data found that adolescents in conservative states with abstinence-only sex ed experienced higher pregnancy rates. On the flip side, students who receive comprehensive sex ed are less likely to experience pregnancy and STIs, and are also less susceptible to intimate partner violence and more able to appreciate sexual diversity, according to a meta-analysis published earlier this month in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Emily Rose McDowell, who gives sex education presentations in middle and high school classrooms in Minnesota as senior health educator for myHealth for Teens and Young Adults, says her reach as a teacher has expanded during stay-at-home orders. She usually makes her rounds at cities in the Twin Cities metro area, but in the past nine months, she’s been able to reach rural schools that would have been too far a drive otherwise. Her organization’s annual LGBTQ conference also went online, which allowed students from schools that couldn’t afford a bus for a field trip to attend. It also meant students who weren’t out to their parents or caretakers could log online more easily, McDowell says.
Tatyana Dyachenko, who teaches sex ed to U.K. teens ages 13 to 17, also says her students are no longer at the mercy of their parents’ views, now that she’s transitioned from going into schools around London to doing online presentations. Previously, some religious parents would make their kids skip her sex ed classes, she says, but now that they can join the meetings from their bedrooms, she’s noticed an increase in students from strict religious backgrounds.
“A lot of students were missing out on vital information that would significantly help them not only inform their life choices but know their rights and the laws when it came to sex, which is the basic right of anyone in a democratic society,” Dyachenko says.
Anne Hodder-Shipp, a sex educator who teaches home-schooled teens, youths in treatment settings and other sex educators via her Los Angeles-based organization Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, took her operations completely online during the pandemic. This was especially helpful for students with limited time, money and mobility, according to Hodder-Shipp. “Some people would never be able to make their way to L.A. due to child-care issues, no time off work, financial limitations and more,” she says. “My cost for hosting events decreases without rental fees, which means I can charge lower rates for my workshops.”
Along with the format of sex ed courses, curriculums have shifted in response to the age of isolation. In addition to more traditional topics such as pregnancy and STIs, Dyachenko has been teaching students about sexual frustration, masturbation, dating apps and sex toys, both because self-quarantine has sparked interest in these topics and because the anonymous online format reduces embarrassment around them, she says. Zeenat Haji — an educator focused on a cluster of New York City public middle schools for Day One, which provides sexual assault and domestic violence prevention workshops to young people — says her classes have evolved to include more information on mental health and self-care since the pandemic began.
Such curriculums represent a departure from the type of sex ed students typically receive from their schools directly. In the United States, only 15 states require education about birth control, and nine require discussion of LGBTQ issues. Meanwhile, seven others explicitly prohibit conversations around LGBTQ identities, according to Planned Parenthood.
Jenelle Marie Pierce, executive director of TheSTIProject.com and a sexual health educator, teaches both through schools and independently — a more “flexible” and “accessible” approach, she says. She believes that “the vast majority of traditional education systems do not provide for comprehensive, inclusive, empathetic, medically accurate and body positive sexual health education.”
Online platforms have also allowed sex educators to experiment with new ways of holding discussions. Rather than ask a question such as, “Why do you think it is important that we talk about consent?” and allow one person to respond, McDowell now uses the Web app PearDeck and asks everyone to type their answer in a text box. Afterward, she’ll read some of them and discuss the range of responses.
“I’ve actually found that more students are actively engaging with the content when it is delivered this way, and I’m finding that the answers tend to be more thoughtful and reflective,” she says. “Especially when talking about subjects like sexual health, having that anonymity can help young folks respond candidly without having their answers tied to their name.”
According to Jack Skelton, a coordinator for Day One, a similar phenomenon has been playing out in the organization’s practice. In questionnaires handed out to Day One’s ninth- and 10th-graders, students said they liked being able to take sex ed without anyone else in the room with them, and they benefited from the visuals in online presentations.
Jacob Reid, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, took a human sexuality course last semester. He says the online format helped him open up in class. “One aspect which I did not expect was how liberating the online discussions felt,” he says. “Divulging such lived experiences may always leave us feeling slightly uncomfortable or anxious, but being able to do so from the security of one’s home does lend itself to a feeling of safety.”
When students can turn off their cameras, they may feel more comfortable opening up during discussions and class activities, says Eva Goldfarb, a professor of public health at Montclair State University. In addition, she adds, “using breakout rooms for smaller group discussions, providing opportunities for students to ask questions privately through the chat window, offering the chance for students to share anonymously through virtual polls and brainstorming, as well as to ask anonymous questions, all promote a sense of safety and confidentiality.”
Some completely new online sex education programs have popped up in response to the coronavirus, too, including those geared toward adults. The pandemic inspired Katie Tandy and July Westhale, co-founders of the online sexuality publication Pulp Magazine, to create its educational branch Pulp Public School, which includes courses on everything from sex-positive parenting to erotic embroidery. Most of the classes are for people over 18.
Tandy and Westhale say they see the online format as a way to prioritize marginalized teachers and students. They give a wide range of people (including those who are not formal sex educators) the chance to teach sex-related topics and let people sign up for just $25. “I think one of the most potent aspects of the Internet is its ability to bypass the mainstays of current power and democratize information to a huge degree,” Tandy says.
People with mobility issues, for example, may have increased access to education when the classes don’t require physically going anywhere. “I think one of the really marvelous things we’re seeing during pandemic Zoom life is the fact that folks with disabilities have been right this entire time (I mean, obviously): education, work, socializing, everything can be made accessible,” Westhale says.
As new options for sex ed arise, previously existing online programs are experiencing a surge of interest, too. Culture Reframed, an online porn literacy program, saw an uptick in visitors in 2020, as well as an increase in requests for presentations all over the world, according to the organization’s president and chief executive Gail Dines.
Meg, a 49-year-old teacher in the Pacific Northwest, discovered her son watching porn during quarantine and, concerned about the increased time he was spending in front of screens, took Culture Reframed’s parent program, which includes scripts for parents to talk about porn with their kids. This led her to initiate conversations with her son about the way porn depicts men, women and sex, and she’s even shown him a few of the video lessons. “The program has also helped foster valuable and much-needed conversations about healthy relationships and toxic masculinity,” says Meg, who asked to be identified by her first name only to protect the privacy of her family.
Aside from formal courses, the growing role of remote learning has inspired sex educators to spread their knowledge on social media. “I think more now than ever, colleagues are using social media posts to engage young people,” says Alethea Best, a coordinator for Day One. “Most of the information circulating has been around how to engage safely in sex activities, self-pleasure, access to STI testing and staying safe during covid-19.”
Even after the pandemic, sex educators view online sex ed as something that’s here to stay. “I think everyone will have gotten so used to digital communications that, hopefully, sex ed programs and events will remain online — or at least with online options — so that people with disabilities, chronic illness, financial limitations and other constraints can continue to access this important information,” Hodder-Shipp says.
Pierce agrees: “Not only did the pandemic make my work more accessible to the populations I serve, but it also made other educators’, counselors’ and therapists’ work more accessible in a time where it’s imperative we uplift marginalized voices and create a diverse array of tools, services and resources that can reach underserved and underrepresented communities.”