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Saturday, Mar 25, 2023

Sex Educators On TikTok Are Trying To Empower People While Abortion Rights Are Under Attack

Sex Educators On TikTok Are Trying To Empower People While Abortion Rights Are Under Attack

“When young people don’t have access to comprehensive sex education in schools, they naturally turn to other means, like their peers or the internet.”

“‘I’m worried I’m pregnant; what do I do?’ I get that question a lot,” Dr. Allison Rodgers, who has 1.2 million followers on TikTok, told BuzzFeed News.

Rodgers, who has been an OB-GYN since 2004, began using social media to educate people on sexual health in 2019. “At the time, I had a daughter who was 13, and she would have friends over, and they would ask me all these questions they didn’t feel like asking their parents about puberty and sex,” Rodgers said. “It was very, very clear that so many of her friends had no clue about their bodies.

“So I started answering teens’ questions on TikTok.”

But as more and more states restrict abortion access following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Rodgers has seen a shift in the questions she gets asked. She and five other sexual health experts told BuzzFeed News that there’s more fear about unplanned pregnancies and a lot more questions about contraception. With the need for comprehensive sex education perhaps greater than ever, their TikTok and Instagram videos are helping hundreds of thousands of young people navigate this new reality.

Comprehensive sex education covers a variety of topics related to sex and sexuality, including sexual health, personal relationships, and human development. Not only have studies shown that teaching comprehensive sex education in schools lowers rates of youth pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, but it also improves mental health and helps build healthy decision-making skills, Michelle Slaybaugh, director of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, told BuzzFeed News.

Currently, only 17 states in the US require that the sex education taught in public schools be medically accurate, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a sexual and reproductive health research and policy organization. Twelve states don’t require sex education to be taught at all.

“When young people don't have access to comprehensive sex education in schools, they naturally turn to other means like their peers or the internet,” Slaybaugh said.

Mariah Caudillo, who has almost 400,000 followers as @sexedfiles on TikTok, began teaching sex education in California schools in 2015. A few years later, she decided to expand her teaching to social media. One of the most common questions she receives from her followers is, “Am I normal?” “I think people are hungry for this type of education,” Caudillo said, “and they really value a safe place to learn about facts where they're not judged. TikTok is an incredible platform for that.”

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe, Caudillo said she’s getting more specific questions about policies — and people seem more fearful.

“Before, I would get questions like, ‘Where can I get birth control?’” she said. “And now it’s like, ‘Are you sure birth control works? Is it 100%? What else can I do? Where can I get the morning-after pill?’”

Online sex educator Tessy Vanderhaeghe, known as @Yes.Tess on TikTok, has also noticed an increased sense of anxiety from her US followers. “I don't think I've seen such fear about unplanned pregnancy to such an extent anywhere else,” Vanderhaeghe, who is based in Vancouver, Canada, told BuzzFeed News. “I get messages through Instagram all the time like, ‘I did X, am I going to get pregnant? I haven’t had my period in two days; what should I do? I'm freaking out.’”

Too much of the messaging around unplanned pregnancies is based in fear, she added. “It’s never information on how to avoid that or what to do in that situation.”

Right now, public schools in 29 states are required by law to stress abstinence if they teach sex education, even though studies have shown that the abstinence-only approach in schools is ineffective in preventing teen pregnancy. According to the Guttmacher Institute, states that emphasize abstinence-only programs have more teen pregnancies.

Sriha Srinivasan, a 19-year-old UCLA student known on TikTok as @sexedu, hopes that her videos will inform viewers who received abstinence-only sex education about the other options they have to prevent pregnancy. “I hope that my followers become more comfortable in their bodies,” said Srinivasan, who has more than 200,000 followers.

In addition to completing a sexual health education program through the University of California, San Francisco, she’s recently been brushing up on her abortion knowledge to ensure she provides the most accurate information post-Roe.

“I am also staying in contact with friends of mine that are on the ground doing grassroots activist work within that space, particularly in those states where abortion is at risk,” she said. “I am just making sure I am educated.”

It’s critical for people who get their sexual health information from social media to check out who they’re following, New York-based health and sex educator Justine Ang Fonte told BuzzFeed News.

“There are many influencers who are credentialed and know what they are talking about. But that is not every influencer out there,” Fonte, who uses her Instagram, @imjustineaf, to discuss sexual health and education, told BuzzFeed News. “There is so much misinformation around abortion and birth control that is harmful to young people trying to get accurate information.”

To avoid this, Fonte encouraged people to verify who online sex educators are and what their actual backgrounds are. “Are they certified? Is the education comprehensive, and is it accurate?”

If the information is accurate and comes from a credentialed source, Fonte said that social media can be a great place to receive sex education. “It’s very accessible and very easy,” they said, adding that social media can provide anonymity for people asking questions that they might feel too awkward or afraid to ask in person or in front of a class.

Accessibility to information is one of the reasons that Ali Rodriguez, an Arizona-based OB-GYN who goes by @alirodmd on TikTok, began making videos.

“If I am at least helping one other person feel empowered or educated, or maybe motivate them to make an appointment with their doctor and make sure they're up to date on their screenings, and pap smears and all of that, then I have done my job,” Rodriguez said.

Over the last few months, Rodriguez, who has 1.5 million followers, has prioritized posting content about reproductive health. For example, Rodriguez has made a few videos teaching people who menstruate how to understand their menstrual cycles to help them track their periods without depending on digital period trackers, which could put sensitive information at risk. She’s also received more questions from people seeking to get their tubes tied.

Sex educator Danielle Bezalel MPH, who goes by @sexedwithdb on TikTok and runs the sex-positive podcast Sex Ed With DB, has also noticed more people following her when she posted about abortion.

“I think there was a clear trend of people being hungry for abortion content. They want abortion education,” added Bezalel, whose audience ranges in age from 18 to 35 and is 85% women.

Bezalel, who earned a master’s of public health with a focus on sexuality and reproductive health from Columbia University, told BuzzFeed News that the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision has also changed the way people perceive sex education and her job.

“Before Roe v. Wade was overturned, people saw what I do as like, Oh, that's fun, like Danielle makes like sex ed videos on the internet, that's kind of cool,” Bezalel said. “But when they realized how many people ... harmful laws impact negatively, it became this thing of like, Oh wow, this is really important work that you're doing. This is critical information that you're getting out to people.”


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