The online world is a brilliant tool with its extensive wealth of knowledge that can be accessed with just a few taps of a screen. While books, articles, and journals are available to read, there is also an influx of live educational content to be discovered on apps, particularly Instagram, YouTube and TikTok. On these platforms, a vibrant community of independent sex educators spread awareness about the topic of sex with the intention to provide answers for young people and fill in the gaps left by their formal school education.
Sex is such an extensive subject that it’s difficult to cover all the bases, but the fast-paced environment of social media functions as a useful way for educators to jump from one topic to another with each post, so the potential for learning about new ideas is great. While reading a single post isn't as thorough as reading a book, this style of education is more accessible to a wider audience who can discover a topic they may not have heard of. However, every so often, I stumble upon a caption to one of these posts and think, ‘What am I reading?’ Surprisingly, this isn’t in response to the concept, but to the words themselves. The steady flow of reading is stunted by unfamiliar terms like ‘seggs’, ‘cl1t’, ‘p3n!s’, and my brain has to work harder to decode the unusual language which, translated, describe sexual acts and reproductive anatomy.
Censorship on social media also restricts visual depictions of sexual anatomy and, after the deletion of their post, educator @cliterallythebest decided to cover an illustrated diagram of a vulva with the caption ‘Instagram hates me’ to censor it. Evidently, many sex educators are frustrated by these restrictions posed upon them. After all, their purpose is to teach others the knowledge of how to have healthier sexual experiences, but this censorship can create confusion and obscure useful information that could make a difference.
The thought of an adult writing ‘b00b’ seems hilarious and rouses a memory of young children squealing in delight as they type rude words into a calculator, but this censorship is sometimes the only option for sincere educators, because if the words aren't changed like this then the post can be removed for violating community guidelines. But who are these guidelines protecting?
The minimum age required to join these social media platforms is thirteen, so it’s understandable that the guidelines may intend to protect the children on the platforms from inappropriate content. However, in UK schools, sex and relationship education is compulsory from the age of eleven and in primary schools all children are taught correct human anatomy and encouraged to use correct biological terminology like ‘vagina’ and ‘penis’. By banishing taboos around genitalia, children know the correct vocabulary to express themselves clearly, which is an essential practice. For example, a child may have a urinary infection, or, in more serious instances, a safeguarding issue may be highlighted if a child has genital pain. When contrasting primary school’s informative attitude to the restrictive guidelines on social media, it is interesting to question why sex educators’ accounts are in some cases removed for the same words that children are encouraged to use. This makes me question, are the guidelines in place to protect children, or to restrict adults who talk openly about sex?
Obviously, primary school level sex education is limited compared to the resources online. It would be harmful to allow children to view content about sex on social media, as conversations about how to use a vibrator or about sexual assault are inappropriate. But a fundamental problem is the disproportionate age ratio online. According to data on the website ‘Hootsuite’, in 2020 the percentage of Instagram users aged 13-17 was 7.1 percent compared to the 92.9 percent of users aged 18 and above. Perhaps a more suitable solution for protecting children online should be to create a separate, age-appropriate platform where censorship would function as a positive implementation. However, these statistics could be unreliable if children lie when entering their age, so the responsibility of protection also extends to parents.
Unless intentionally aimed at younger audiences, sex educators on Instagram create their work for 18+ audiences and should have the freedom to communicate without censoring their speech. Fortunately, many sex ed posts are available to view on social media that use the correct vocabulary, but with the threat of deletion looming over creator’s heads, will we reach a point where censored words become the standard on these accounts and create a new language born from obscurity and loopholes? Social media platforms need restrictions to protect from harmful content, but in the sex education sector specifically, context needs to be considered so that valuable education isn’t lost.