WTF is TikTok Teaching Teens About Sex?
With only 60 percent of U.S. states requiring public schools to teach sex ed, and with in-person classes becoming even sparser than before due to the pandemic, online platforms such as TikTok have become popular hubs for teens to learn about sex. While some of the content isn't exactly trustworthy—including popular accounts recommending vaginal melts to make you taste and smell better down there—users like OB-GYN Jennifer Lincoln, who has more 1.8 million followers, answer common sex questions from a professional perspective.
With 689 million monthly active users worldwide, how is TikTok going to affect modern teens' views of sexuality? Primarily for the better, experts believe.
"While there is rampant and dangerous misinformation on TikTok, there are also dozens of incredibly gifted and talented educators who spend hours and hours of their day, every day, educating compassionately and ethically within the often frustrating limits of community guidelines," said educator Catie Osborn, who talks about sex and neurodiversity on her TikTok @catieosaurus, where she has more than 450,000 followers.
#stitch with @theredmahdi Don't be like this. #communication #kinktok #k1nktok #k1nktokeducation #catieadhd #adhdrelationships #relationshipadvice♬ original sound - Catieosaurus
The age of enlightenment
The topics covered on TikTok run the gamut from setting boundaries and practicing enthusiastic consent to dismantling toxic masculinity, understanding anatomy and other basic sex ed topics.
"The age of my audience ranges from 16 to 60," Osborn said. "I hear constantly from adults that there was no one having these conversations when they were growing up, that they lived in shame and embarrassment for years, they lacked resources and education, and now, because of apps like TikTok, educators have an incredible gift to be that resource."
Emily Deaton, writer and relationship expert at Women's Health Interactive and The Roots of Loneliness Project, explained that as a 25-year-old queer woman, she's found the social platform—best known for viral dances and short comedy videos—to be a useful resource to learn about relationships outside society's norms.
"TikTok often offers realistic, honest advice about what sex looks like for all people, not just able-bodied and straight people," she said.
One other advantage to TikTok is that unlike a more standard video platform like YouTube, it shows you videos based on your interests without you having to search for them, so sex ed content may pop up on people's feeds even if they're not actively seeking it, said Tatyana Dyachenko, sex therapist and relationship expert at Peaches and Screams, an online adult shop based in the United Kingdom.
"Most teens are keen to learn about sex but wouldn't necessarily make time to do research online," Dyachenko said. "TikTok is a platform that they use regularly, so it makes sense to provide factual content on there for them."
Sex educator Katie Haan discusses how she uses TikTok to teach an audience of young people about sex and their bodies. Watch the full interview here.
Spreading the word in a viral way
Some organizations focused on sex education have expanded onto TikTok to spread their message to more people. Advocates for Youth, an organization working to increase young people's access to condoms and sexual health knowledge, created a TikTok campaign called #DoGoodFeelGood, which has reached more than 6 million people, to spread awareness about the importance of wearing condoms and masks during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Medical Herstory, a not-for-profit organization advocating health equity, similarly posts content on TikTok such as informative videos tackling the importance of consent and funny videos about the importance of peeing after sex. Since it started in January, the account has gained more than 3,000 followers and 137,000 likes.
"The advantage of TikTok is that it has such a concentrated audience of teens, and it's much easier for posts to go viral quickly compared to other platforms," said Tori Ford, the organization's founder. "The response has been great and very positive—young people and teens are loving it, and they've been really engaged with our content by liking, commenting, and sharing."
Proceed with caution
Despite the rich potential for TikTok as a platform for sex education, some educators have faced backlash from the app due to videos with sexual content getting flagged. Osborn's account was banned for two days, and she believes it was reinstated only because her followers started a viral hashtag campaign and flooded the community manager with requests to bring her back. Many sex educators will gain an audience on TikTok and then use it to expand onto larger platforms such as YouTube and Twitch, she said.
Another issue, obviously, is that anyone can put content on TikTok and make whatever claims they want. The platform has been called out for allowing problematic content like rape jokes, as well as biased advice, and one popular user known as Nurse Holly was criticized for saying the best way to prevent sexually transmitted infections is to wait until marriage to have sex. Dyachenko recommended that users follow certified sexual health experts and doctors and fact-check any sexual content they view.
In other words, TikTok has the potential to help many people learn about sex who wouldn't have access to that information otherwise—but as with anything, it all depends on how you use it.