How educators are tackling the problems of bringing sex ed online

2 Sep 2021

Image: © Andrii Zastrozhnov/Stock.adobe.com

For those teaching sexual heath online, the digital world presents challenges from building connections to navigating SEO and content bans.

Whether it is because of an unwillingness to address touchy subjects such as porn or too heavy of a focus on the biological, there is a continued call to improve sexual health education.

One proposed solution for bringing better resources to teenagers far and wide is to move sexual education online.

This was how Richie Sadlier came to launch the Sexual Health Awareness and Relationship Education (SHARE) platform. The former footballer and sports pundit is also a trained psychotherapist who worked primarily with adolescents and their parents. The seed of SHARE began in his collaboration with Elaine Byrnes, a researcher at NUI Galway who looked at sexual behaviour and consent.

Together, the pair developed a six-week programme of workshops at the secondary school St Benildus College which aimed to educate teenagers on sexual health. Over the course of two and a half years, they created and tweaked content that they were satisfied could help teenagers.

While the programme initially ran at the Dublin school, they were interested in using the course with other groups. The only issue was where. As Byrnes was in Galway and Sadlier in Dublin, they were limited by time and distance.

‘You step back and go, well how would a young person engage with online material? The answer is comfortably and effectively and quite easily’
– RICHIE SADLIER

And so in January of 2020, a few months before the pandemic would launch most education online, the pair began a collaboration with Olive Group.

Internet connection

“I’ll be totally honest, I had a question mark initially,” said Sadlier. “Coming from the world of psychotherapy, where everything is about connection and rapport and being in a room with the person and really forming a connection between you and them. And on the basis of that connection, then you can get loads of work done. I was wondering, would that be lost if we went online?

Encouragingly, Sadlier found this concern was misplaced. “Actually, when we started to put the material online, we realised that this provides a form for real connection with the content in ways that sometimes you won’t get in a classroom.”

Sadlier said that the advantages of the online format really showed when a student wanted to know more about a particular point. Animated videos work particularly well for presenting scenarios. Rather than being embarrassed to ask questions, students can replay the video as many times as they need or click on links with more information.

While students always enjoyed talking through real-world hypotheticals in the classroom, Sadlier said it often took time to explain all the characters and what was going on. Videos don’t have this problem.

“If you step back and go, well how would a young person engage with online material? The answer is comfortably and effectively and quite easily, because that’s how they’re engaging with most of their media and information – they’re finding it online,” he said.

‘You are dealing with the developmental dilemmas of having first experiences in a lot of these areas’
– RICHIE SADLIER

Originally, Sadlier and Byrnes devised a sex ed programme with the young people they worked with in mind. But Sadlier soon realised the universal themes.

“If I was a psychotherapist in France, or Germany, or Belgium or England, they may have been exactly the same,” he explained. “The things that young people face, you are dealing with the developmental dilemmas of having first experiences in a lot of these areas.”

Sadlier said it was common for young people to fake expertise when it came to sexual health, but that it was still important to provide information to help them navigate their first steps into the world of relationships.

For SHARE, this meant removing any ideological thinking from the platform and focusing on fact-based, informative and inclusive information.

“The kind of people we have in mind here is just a young person that we hope will have as many safe and healthy and enjoyable experiences in this area of their life as possible. So we provide as much information and guidance as we think will support that young person to achieve that.”

Bad education

While Sadlier and Byrnes had the help of e-learning business Olive Group to provide a dedicated platform for their content, other educators lack such resources. Justin Hancock is a qualified sexual educator in the UK and runs Bish, a guide for sexual education intended for 14 year olds and older.

While Bish largely intended for a UK audience, Hancock said many of his readers also come from the US and India. He was particularly concerned about the current state of sexual education in the UK, however.

‘The way a lot of sex education is taught to young people is so dumbed down as to be useless and just something that one can put in an Instagram square’
– JUSTIN HANCOCK

“It’s all still very harm and risk-based and nothing about opportunities and benefits,” said Hancock. “It’s all pretty narrow and it’s not comprehensive enough. That’s why people come to the website. Because I can say more and they can get more content, information, advice, thoughts, resources than they’ll ever get in school.”

Bish isn’t meant for use in the classroom or designed to completely replace good education in sex and relationships. It is simply a place for adolescents who are looking for information. With a light-hearted tone, Hancock provides the resources to help teenagers think about that area of their life.

One such resource is Bad Sex Ed Bingo – a visual to help teenagers (or adults) reflect on their sex education and some of the common traits Hancock has identified which create obstacles to positive sexual health education.

A five-by-five bingo grid is shown with different common issues in sexual education shown in each square.

The Bad Sex Ed Bingo card. Image: Justin Hancock/Bish

By explaining why each of the experiences in the squares could create problems, Hancock’s accompanying article allows readers to reflect while also providing a concrete resource for asking for better sex education in schools.

Wrestling with SEO

Bish received attention on Twitter after Hancock posted that some of his instructional videos were removed from YouTube. There were flagged as inappropriate content.

This is a particular issue for educators who are relying on platforms such as YouTube to host their content. More broadly however, Hancock spotlighted search engine optimisation (SEO) as particularly troublesome when it came to sex education online.

“With the website, I’m subject to the vagaries of the Google algorithm, and doing SEO in this kind of area is just so fraught. The mediators and all the platforms don’t know how to treat content like mine,” he explained.

“Does this belong in the sex world or does this belong in the non-sex world, right? I’m constantly falling foul of, ‘Does Google think that what I’m doing is in some way spamming or pornographic?’, which means that it gets penalised.”

Hancock finds it “very, very difficult” to navigate this issue in a way that keeps Bish alive online. “Google could just close off pretty much all access to my website tomorrow, and then the project would just be dead. If they decided that everything I was doing belonged in the pornographic category, [it would be] very difficult to find [and] young people just wouldn’t find the resource.”

 

Hancock said the issue is that Google’s algorithm often wants to answer a query by providing the most relevant response. At the heart of these difficulties is determining what constitutes a good answer.

Hancock’s work focuses on the nuances of relationships, identity and sex. Oftentimes, there are no easy answers or recipes to be followed in dealing with the complicated situations life throws at young people.

“I have to have that in mind. I have to, on the one hand, write for a 14 year old and on the other hand write for Google. It’s tricky and I spend a lot of time trying to grapple with that.”

A consensual experience

Consent is a central theme of Hancock’s work – both in what he teaches and how his teaching embodies this concept. Instead of mandatory classes, he said the online format was conducive to letting young people find sex ed information when they were developmentally ready.

“They’re coming to it wanting to know this already, so it’s immediately quite consensual compared to teaching in schools where young people have different levels of maturity, but also different kinds of priorities and different wants,” he said. “People want to know things at a time that’s useful for them, so that kind of immediacy is useful.”

Bish also emphasises that it is intended for all genders and sexualities, and people with different abilities, backgrounds, beliefs and values. This means providing content for a wide variety of young people – something that hasn’t been done in the past.

But one thing Hancock is confident of is that young people are capable of parsing complex information without the need for over-simplification.

“Young people can really talk about, for example things like consent, with quite a lot of nuance and intelligence,” said Hancock.“I think the way a lot of sex education is taught to young people is so dumbed down as to be useless and just something that one can put in an Instagram square.”

Sam Cox is a journalist at Silicon Republic covering sci-tech news

editorial@siliconrepublic.com