how gen z are rejecting sex ed stereotypes by teaching themselves instead
It only takes a cursory glance at Twitter, Tumblr or YouTube to understand exactly how much the sexual education landscape has changed.
John Tucker Must Die, She’s All That, Never Been Kissed, Bring It On, American Pie, Gossip Girl, Cosmopolitan, Sex and The City and Mean Girls -- if you were a millennial lucky enough to grow up in the sticky haze of saddle bags, Juicy Couture tracksuits and Sean Paul bops that were the noughties, these pop culture cornerstones made up the bible with which you would navigate the murky world of love, sex and relationships. The messages that they gave out were simple and completely useless.
The media wasn’t much better than the cinema, there were body-shaming tabloids and women’s magazines actually suggesting we eat donuts off our boyfriends’ dicks. But it only takes a cursory glance at Twitter, Tumblr or YouTube to see that the sex ed landscape has changed. LGBTQ, sex positive and feminist bloggers like Arielle Scarcella, Hannah Witton and Laci Green are open and honest about their sexuality and are helping to educate a younger generation. Things are different on TV too, from the #MeToo movement to teen shows like 13 Reasons Why, Riverdale and OITNB, which have all together sparked an international conversation about consent, rape culture and sexual harassment. What all this means, then, is that Gen Z have a vastly different experience to millennials when it comes to discovering themselves, and navigating the murky world of relationships.
Shan ‘Boody’ Boodram, part of the huge community of sex ed vloggers on YouTube, tells me the core message of her channel -- rather than focusing on looks or how to please a man -- is to “not to leave your sex or love life up to chance”. Shan got started in sex education vlogging after writing her book, LAID, nine years ago. Now, with over 20 million views, she markets herself as a “professional big sister”.
She says: “My audience is definitely young, although it’s not all teens. I find the youth insanely inspiring and forward thinking, I learn a tonne from them about the power of curiosity.” From her work on the digital front lines of sex ed, Shan tells i-D it’s obvious there’s been a huge cultural shift in the way we talked about sex in the noughties, to today. “I think it’s changed the same way it’s changed everywhere else -- we now live in an easy-access culture where we literally have a world of possibilities at our fingertips,” she explains.
“YouTubers are much more accessible than TV or film,” Isobel, a 19-year-old from Bristol, confirmed. “I feel like most things from the noughties won’t hold up for much longer with the #MeToo movement. Some of the locker room talk in shows and films from the 00s, it's just not perceived as funny or entertaining anymore. YouTube was the first place I could see people openly talking about sexuality as existing on a spectrum. That’s what Gen Z values: tolerance, honesty and authenticity.”
“The internet is where the conversation about sexuality, gender, LGBT and relationships is taking place now,” Isobel continues. “My generation, who have grown up with it as an infinite source of information, gravitate towards it to learn more and explore those topics for ourselves.
To find out if it’s true that we’d finally realised how archaic mainstream media portrayals of sex were, and logged on instead, I turned to more actual real life Gen Z teens, who confirmed that they’d ditched the women’s mags and turned to Instagram and Tumblr instead. “The first form of media I really got into was Instagram”, says Lane Murdock, the 16-year-old Texan student activist behind the National School Walkout that happened last month.
“When I started questioning my sexual identity the people I followed online became a beacon of hope,” she says. “I got to see fantastic LGBTQ+ people living in the ‘it gets better’ world in real time. On the other hand, I don’t even go near ‘girls’ mags. They’re completely outdated, and a lot of girls I know not to read them because they’re seen as toxic, especially on things like consent and progressive feminist issues.”
"As cheesy as it sounds, the internet made me feel less alone when I felt like no one else could possibly understand what I was going through."
For Lane, while millennials were the ones who breached the conversation on sex and relationship, they also brought with them a deluge of stereotypes and harmful cliches, which Gen Z, with the help of the internet, are taking it upon themselves to break down. “For us, online escapism has become something real” Lane explains. “Hopefully what Gen Z is doing is using that influence to enrich our lives, not destroy them.”
18-year-old Sydney tells me she first turned to the internet after receiving “horrible abstinence-based sex ed” in school, which failed to touch properly on topics like consent, birth control, or the LGBTQ community. “It was complete fear-mongering”, she says. “Unfortunately sex ed still sucks, but we’re so so lucky to grow up with the internet. Other generations didn’t have this kind of access to information about sex. Do your own research! There are so many fantastic, unbiased sources of information out there which aren’t trying to stop you having sex! Take responsibility for your own learning.”
Let down by her school sex ed, struggling to understand her sexuality and unable to talk to her family or friends about it, Sydney, like so many other Gen Z’ers, relied on the internet for answers. “I would use Yahoo answers -- so embarrassing -- for advice”, she tells me, before she found YouTube channels run by LGBTQ vloggers. “I would watch them religiously and I think that really helped me understand my own feelings. As cheesy as it sounds, the internet made me feel less alone when I felt like no one else could possibly understand what I was going through.”
This all sounds like pretty encouraging stuff, but that’s not to say the new wave Gen Z media revolution isn’t without its problems. We’ve already progressed to the point of AI influencers, and the authenticity problems that millennials faced in over the top shows and wink-wink-nudge-nudge magazines are lurking online. “In the age of social media it isn’t the big outlets that hold the bulk of people’s attention, it’s celebrities and social influencers,” Shan tells me. “That can be good because there’s a more equal distribution of power and people have more options to choose what and who they consume. The danger comes in the illusion that because you’re following real people, everything you see on social media is also real.”
And while LGBTQ+ issues are spoken about more openly than ever, some parts of the community are more equally represented than others. Roman, an artist, is an 18-year-old trans man living in Columbus Ohio. He says: “Where I see myself represented is on Instagram or Twitter where I can follow other trans people. But there’s hardly anything out there for trans men, and I feel like whenever trans people do get talked about it’s MTF not FTM. The media doesn’t ever represent trans men.”
No movement is without problems, but that doesn’t mean that the way Gen Z is learning about sex, relationships, consent and body positivity isn’t miles ahead of the guffawing, giggling, exaggerated representations millennials had to deal with. Where 00s and 90s films, media and TV were obsessed with the quest to get someone to love you, shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race preach the Gen Z gospel: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love someone else?”
Shan tells me if she had one piece of advice for teenagers today (URL and IRL) it would be to give themselves the space to be wrong, which fits into the ethos of “fuck it, find your own way and make mistakes as you do it, so long as you’re happy” that today’s sex education, both online and offline, seems to follow. “Overall, I make sure that I just live my life”, echoes Lane. “And be whatever I want to be, when I want to be it. Simple as that.”
Okay, why didn’t anyone just tell me that when I was 16?