Melissa Pintor Carnagey’s puberty workshops still feature the same genital anatomy models and quizzes around body care, but these days she looks out on a virtual classroom of adolescents sitting at home alongside a parent. A few weeks ago, she took her in-person classes to Zoom, where familiar exercises have gotten a technological update: a software program allows students to text her their associations with puberty. A colorful on-screen collage of words like “pimples,” “breasts,” “hair,” “acne,” and “sex” show up on the screen, each growing in size relative to the number of students who submit it.
Since Carnagey’s puberty workshops went online, they continually sell out within 48 hours of open registration. “We’ve definitely seen an influx in families seeking out resources for sex ed,” said Carnagey, founder of the organization Sex Positive Families. “Parents are very hungry for access to these conversations, the information, and the resources.”
Many schools schedule sex ed not-so-subtly for the spring, that literal and symbolic time of regeneration and growth. Of course, this spring for young people has been more like the time-lapsed bloom of a flower played in reverse, given social distancing mandates, canceled prom, and the mass closure of schools. Now, where middle and high schoolers were so quote-unquote “lucky” as to even have it in their curriculum in the first place (only 29 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education), sex ed is similarly shutting down. And, Carnagey explains, as schools adjust to online learning, sex education is frequently treated as less essential than core areas like reading, math and history. Often, it’s being left behind entirely, which helps explain the overwhelming demand for Carnagey’s classes.
In response to the sex-ed shutdowns, some teachers and organizations are taking classes online and creating teaching resources for parents specifically designed around this unprecedented moment of domestic isolation. All the while, they’re emphasizing that this isn’t a subject that can be just put on hold until schools re-open—and that it shouldn’t be left to schools in the first place, the least of which is because of the abysmal state of sex education in this country. Late last month, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) published a list of “credible, online sex education resources,” noting that these tools make parents “better suited to serve as substitute sex educators than they might think.” Many educators argue that this pandemic makes parent-kid conversations about sex both more likely and essential, as young people hunker down with their immediate families while increasingly living their lives virtually.
Among SIECUS’s recommendations was the online sex-ed resource AMAZE.org, which has rolled out an “at-home sex ed series” on its Facebook page and last week launched a six-day newsletter program for parents. The newsletter features traditional sex-ed exercise prompts, like having parents privately practice using the correct biological terms for body parts (no “flower” or “cookie”), as well as advice tailored to this particular moment. One exercise advises parents to use social distancing as a conversation starter with kids around consent and the importance of respecting personal space by asking for permission before touching someone. The newsletter is paired with links to AMAZE’s pre-existing podcasts and animated video series for parents.
The goal isn’t to saddle over-burdened parents with yet more expectations around home-schooling, says Lincoln Mondy of Advocates for Youth, one of the organizations behind AMAZE, although he does note that in all those viral color-coded parental curricula, sex ed is conspicuously absent. Instead, the idea is to set parents up to have ongoing casual conversations with their kids around sex. “From what we know about the patchwork quilt of sex-ed laws across the country, a lot of kids are getting really harmful abstinence-only education or nothing at all,” said Mondy. “I think this provides an opportunity to really check in: Is my kid being given all the tools and resources they need to develop healthily mentally and socially—and, if not, what can I do to help them?”
Ideally, these parent-kid conversations would have already been taking place, but these particular circumstances have sparked a unique and pressing need, says Mondy. “There’s more time at home and on computers and phones,” he said. “Does that mean their kids are going to be watching porn more? Does all of their relationships moving from physical to texting come with a lot more sexting? What are the legal and consent ramifications from that?” AMAZE has launched a series of Facebook Live events to help field some of these questions. This week featured a Q&A with Carnagey about talking with kids about porn. “Porn is out there,” she said. “Porn is really not the enemy. What is problematic is parents not talking to kids about porn.”
The AMAZE newsletter similarly encourages parents to “initiate the conversation about porn with your child” and links to the organization’s animated video for teenagers, which features a casual, chatty narrator who says, “Being curious about sex and looking at pictures or films of naked bodies, or people engaging in sexual behaviors, is perfectly normal, but you have to remember that porn contains some misleading messages.”
Young people’s age-old sex questions persist as before, but now they often come with a social distancing twist, according to sex educators. Shafia Zaloom, a health educator, was teaching a recent virtual class when a student used an anonymous question form to ask, in her paraphrasing, “‘With all the sheltering in place, I am so much hornier than usual and I’m not really sure why and masturbation isn’t helping. What’s going on?’” Everything from the amped up anxiety to the no-contact rules of this moment inevitably impact young people’s sex lives. “Kids whose parents are making them shelter in place... are creating videos, sending pictures, sexting so much more, because they’re not doing it in person and they’re desperate to stay connected in that way,” says Zaloom.
Similarly, Carnagey explains that “the need for connection is high.” She adds, “Sexting is an opportunity for young people to connect and, if families are not talking about these things and are avoiding the conversation, they miss an opportunity to plug into what’s going on with a young person during this time.”
Just as with real-world sex ed, virtual sex ed has already inspired some conservative, right-wing pushback. Recently, Elizabeth Johnston of the homophobic, anti-abortion Activist Mommy blog wrote, “As children across the nation have been kept from school in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, parents may have been heaving sighs of relief that their children would not be exposed to ‘comprehensive sex education,’ if only for a short time,” she wrote. “That was, of course, until Amaze... announced to parents that they would be making resources available to give their children lessons on pornography, masturbation, and abortion.” (Earlier this year, AMAZE published a fact-based, non-stigmatizing animated educational video on abortion.) The Massachusetts Family Institute—a group opposed to abortion, same-sex marriage, and comprehensive sex ed—was similarly outraged.
Such responses only expose the disingenuousness of ongoing conservative attacks on sex ed on the grounds that such decisions should be left up to parents. Now more than ever, these decisions are up to parents—and parents alone. For sex-ed opponents, this means the traditional argument must temporarily shift. For sex-ed supporters, it introduces a need—or, more optimistically, an opportunity (the kind no one actually wants, not like this).
“Now is the time, as you’re home more, to heighten awareness around those opportunities that may arise in which you can ask a simple question or make a comment around something you notice,” said Zaloom. She suggests watching whatever show a tween or teen is binging on Netflix, either with them or separately, and then talking about it. “Ask a simple thing like, ‘What do you think of this character and how they interacted with so-and-so? Do you think they’re really into each other? How can you tell?’” She describes this as a way to prompt kids to “educate us on what they’re thinking and what their thought process is as they’re consuming media.” Parents can then offer up their own perspective and wisdom, she says, before adding, “All the professional sex educators I know believe that parents are the primary sex educators in a child’s life.”
Of course, these professionals want to help—but, as with so much right now, demand often outpaces supply. Carnagey is being inundated by parental requests for one-on-one coaching and she’s already had to expand the size of her virtual classes. Still, she says, “I can’t offer classes quick enough for the need.”
Title has been changed for accuracy.