Tuning In How a New Generation is Schooling Itself on Sexuality

Positive Affirmation: Trans advocate and wizard activist Jackson Bird in his coming-out video.

This article appears in our 2016 Fall issue, Kids These DaysSubscribe today!

“I’ve been writing this over and over and saying it in my head for years, and it might kind of be the most important video that I’ve ever made.”

At age 25, Jackson Bird was already an accomplished video creator—his day job is in communications at a nonprofit called the Harry Potter Alliance, which is just as awesome as it sounds. But this video, running 12 minutes long (Lord of the Rings–length in YouTube world), was special. After showing pictures of a childhood spent being forced into dresses and girly hairstyles, Bird said, “Figuring out how to continue the balancing act of who I feel I am and who society tells me I should be has become harder and harder…I am transgender. Yep, okay, said it on the internet now, so that’s that. Can’t put that smoke back in the jar.”

In turning his coming-out process into a public video—which has now been seen 77,000 times—Bird is part of a movement of young people who are using YouTube as a platform for positive, inclusive sex ed. Whereas previous generations resorted to surreptitiously looking up unfamiliar words in the dictionary, today if you type “What is transgender?” into YouTube, in less than a second you’ll have a page of in-depth information: television documentaries about the lives of trans children, a national magazine’s rundown on “transgender 101,” and a 14-year-old trans kid from Chino Hills, California, explaining on film why being transgender is not a choice.

In a society where the quality of sex education in schools is hodgepodge at best and shifts depending on political whims, YouTube is a dynamic, democratic space for discussions of gender and sexuality. Since only 24 states require sex ed in schools, YouTube serves a crucial role for young people wanting to find out about everything from condoms to consent.

This article appears in our 2016 Fall issue, Kids These Days. Subscribe today!

“A lot of people still have trouble talking about these issues in our country, and seeing someone else talk about them on YouTube is really powerful, it’s very affirming,” says Lawrence Swiader, vice president of digital media at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which runs Bedsider.org, an online birth-control support network geared toward millennial women. On YouTube, Bedsider publishes a “Real Stories” series where people talk about the pros and cons of their birth-control methods. “It makes a big difference for people to see actual humans telling stories about their lives rather than just reading about birth control on a page,” says Swiader. “In a split second, you decide whether that person’s relatable and whether you’re going to take advice from them. That’s what makes videos really great, accessible, and powerful.” It’s not just that YouTube provides information, it’s that the information comes from people who viewers can identify with and trust.

The morphing media landscape of the past 20 years has splintered audiences—instead of just tuning into MTV, for example, young people now seek out the media they want to watch on all sorts of platforms. That’s good because it helps support more voices, but it makes it hard to reach a majority of the populace. So when Bedsider, for example, wants to get the word out about birth control, they partner with mainstream tv shows—they recently got a plug on Teen Mom 2—but they also make YouTube videos targeted at specific demographics. On YouTube, Bedsider has the ability to make their own media centering on people who don’t often show up on tv, like people of color and nonbinary teens. “YouTube is an unprecedented way to reach audiences that are unrepresented on tv and in mainstream media,” says Swiader.

The key to crafting an effective YouTube sex-ed video is to combine extreme brevity with accuracy, nuanced personal insight, and humor. Laci Green, a 26-year-old YouTuber, is arguably the world’s most popular sex educator. She’s gained a following by approaching sex ed like a friend would, addressing her camera in an upbeat, bubbly way, even when taking on tricky topics. She begins a video about consent with the convivial greeting “Oh hi, babes!” before launching into some serious stuff: “Consent isn’t just hot, it’s also mandatory. Sexual contact without consent is assault.” These aren’t videos with big budgets—most of them are filmed in her living room—but they have a big impact. Her YouTube channel, where she posts videos grappling with issues such as sexual assault, female orgasm, and how to put on a condom, has more than 1.5 million subscribers.

As the host of the podcast and YouTube show Stuff Mom Never Told You, Cristen Conger, 31, hears from a lot of young people who usually have one big question: Am I normal? There’s not a lot of easily accessible, medically accurate information out there about genitalia, so Conger says she fields lots of questions from teens who are worried about whether their clitorises, labia, and penises are too small, too big, or just too “weird.” “When I’m thinking about what kind of sex-ed–related videos to make, I think about what kind of videos I wish existed when I was 13, so I would have different answers when dudes in high school complained about blue balls, etc.,” says Conger. “That’s why I made videos like ‘Seven Reasons Why Your Nipples Are Normal’ and ‘Things You Didn’t Know About Your Clitoris.’”

YouTube fills in a lot of gaps that our pop culture leaves wide open, but that doesn’t mean it’s a replacement for school-based sex education. While hundreds of videos on niche topics are available, you still have to know what to look for. YouTube originally launched when Jackson Bird was a high schooler in rural Texas, but the wealth of information on the site wasn’t much help to him then—his exposure to transgender identities had been limited to “half an Oprah special.” “I didn’t have enough correct terminology to even know what to google about my gender and my sexuality,” says Bird, who is now 26. Now he often meets tweens who have worldly vocabularies. “I’ll meet 12-year-olds who are like, ‘Yeah, I’m nonbinary aromantic,’ and I’m like, ‘How do you even know these words?!’” Bird often stresses taking it slow when figuring out one’s own identity—it’s okay not to know exactly how to identify in terms of gender and sexuality, and when teens jump to attach themselves to a label, it can actually wind up boxing them in. 

It’s also important to note that information delivered in school sex-ed classes comes from a place of authority—a teacher and a textbook—which carries a different weight than one person making a video in their bedroom. A healthy foundation of sex ed from a teacher or parent goes a long way to easing the lifelong process of building one’s sexual identity.

While YouTube’s take-all-kinds approach is its strength, allowing videos from individual teens to share equal space with those created by companies and big nonprofits, that also means bigoted or misleading information can rise to the top. For example, on the first page of search results for “What is transgender?” amid the positive and scientific videos are videos like one headlined “Why Transgender Is Wrong” and a salacious one promising sexy photos of “10 beautiful women who were born as males” that drools over the details of each person’s surgeries in a scandalized, gossip-mag tone. And as uplifting as many YouTube sex educators’ videos are, their comment sections are often dispiriting, full of the usual slurs and trolls. Some YouTubers turn off comments entirely, but this also nixes positive community interactions. Others actively moderate their comments, deleting all the pond scum, but reading through strangers’ tirades takes an emotional toll.

Through all the nasty negativity, YouTube provides a lifeline for a lot of teens and tweens, and it feels like a direct point of contact between teenagers and adults who are up for being frank with them on topics lots of people refuse to discuss. That connection builds community, even if there’s no one irl they can talk to honestly. “A lot of kids these days speak with a vocabulary that I didn’t have growing up,” says Conger. “They are finding each other online, engaging in these communities, and creating entirely new terms that precisely fit what they feel in that moment.” 

by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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1 Comment Has Been Posted

Video sure is the

Video sure is the communication medium of the future! I think it's amazing that teens have so many different ways to learn about sex ed and consent, and even feminism to be more general. As a teacher myself, I hope that teachers who do care about these issues share good YouTube resources with these kids. I try to take opportunities to talk about these topics when they present themselves, but it's true that there's something different about learning about it on YouTube. Kids relate better to it, and since there is a lot of misinformation out there, starting them off with a few good resources like Laci Green and Stuff Mom Never Told You would be awesome. I wonder if they could even partner with school boards?

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