From whom should kids learn about sex? If you read the New York Times, which recently tackled the subject, the answer would seem to be: online amateurs who make YouTube videos, not parents.
That’s right. Hannah Witton—a British sex-ed YouTube star—avers that her amateurism is an asset rather than a deficit. “You don’t have to be a doctor to be involved in sex education,” Witton explained to the Times reporter. “It’s sex. It should be accessible to everyone. There shouldn’t be any barriers to talking about it.”
This outlook is supposed to sound liberated and much more fun than the previous generation of popular sex advice-givers like Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Dr. Laura Schlesinger. And truly, these videos are meant to be bubbly and joyous. But so was Dr. Ruth in talking about sex, and she somehow managed to include an endorsement of the virtues of honesty and information. The old-timers’ advice was served up with a host of value-judgments, chief among them that monogamous, committed relationships between consenting adults was going to lead to better sex than casual consensual sex.
Value judgments are prevalent in the new amateur videos as well, but they trend liberal and politically correct rather than traditional. Consider the so-called experts’ take on children. In 10 Secret Vagina Facts, one of a series of her Sex+ (get it? Sex positive) videos, host Laci Green explains in a jolly sing-song voice that the cervix can let out blood and “the hole can get big to let fetuses out.” Wait, fetuses? I pushed out four babies through my cervix, thank you very much. Green, like many of her amateur sex advice-givers, is quick to embrace liberal pro-choice pieties.
As well, the advice givers make no distinction about the quality of relationships in which people are sexually active. In her video on squirting (no subject is off limits to these gals), Green advises her audience to “talk to your partner” in order to feel more comfortable about what might bring you pleasure and how your body may react. But having such a conversation with a casual sexual partner—perhaps one you just met after right-swiping on Tinder—is a completely different situation than having that conversation with a trusted husband or boyfriend with whom you are involved in a committed and loving relationship.
Or consider the videos of Shan Boody (real name Shannon Boodram). In her video “Why Women don’t buy condoms: Myth vs Reality,” Boody offers several scenarios for why women might feel (unnecessarily) ashamed of making sure they always have a full supply of condoms on hand, and urges her viewers to discard any lingering embarrassment. Boody’s operating assumption is that contraception isn’t part of a healthy sexual relationship, but simply something women should always have on hand so they are prepared whenever (and with whomever) the sexual mood strikes.
Other amateur sex education sites tackle supposedly oppressive “gender roles” with the vigor of a women’s studies major. “Gender expression is about how you express or show your gender,” relates a pop music-inflected video from Amaze Org. The video defines gender roles vaguely as “how society expect guys or girls to look or act.” The solution: “It’s ok to express your gender any way you choose!”
Such advice might not seem unusual until you realize that these videos are geared not toward college students, but towards ten-fourteen year olds. Their intent is to take “the awkward out of sex ed,” and they are marketed as “real info in fun, animated videos that give you all the answers you actually want to know about sex, your body and relationships.” So gender is what you make it? Fine, except that these videos are talking to youngsters who mostly don’t have the emotional maturity to accept or understand the consequences of “choosing” to “express” their “gender” anyway they see fit, or enough understanding of the consequences, both physical and emotional, of early sexual promiscuity.
In the race to remove any hint of value judgments in their advice videos, these self-appointed sexperts end up missing an opportunity to talk about sex in the context of how many people do (or want to) experience it: in relationships built on trust, mutual respect, and shared values that leads to conversation about what each person wants out of being together.
To be sure, Dr. Laura and Dr. Ruth weren’t perfect advice-givers. But whatever they lacked was more than made up for in the sensible advice they proffered about the importance of love, respect, and commitment in sexual relationships. They also did it with a sense of humor rather than a desperation to become Internet-famous.
To wit: When visiting Israel in the 1990s, Dr. Ruth was interviewed for a Friday evening talk show. At one point, Dr. Ruth, with her thick Yiddish accent and ever present smile, interrupted the host, turned to the camera, and urged viewers to turn off their television sets. The startled host asked why. Simple, Dr. Ruth replied. It’s Friday night – the Sabbath – and as she went on to explain, according to Jewish tradition, couples are supposed to have sex on the Sabbath; it’s a mitzvah (a good deed). Dr. Ruth then waved her hands in a shooing motion and said, “Get away from the TV and get to bed!” Today’s amateur YouTube sex experts are unlikely to urge their viewers to have sex because God commanded it. Nor are they likely to talk about sex in the context of important things such as love and trust. Let’s hope their advice will prove as ephemeral as the popularity of any YouTube star.