How YouTubers Could Save Sex Ed
Channels like Queer Kid Stuff offer much-needed resources for young people
Even back in college, Lindsay Amer knew what their calling in life was. They wanted to use theater and storytelling to help kids understand the basics of queer issues and better understand what words like “gay” actually mean, while giving young people a space to see themselves and feel more comfortable with their identities.
As a queer person with a background in creating and directing theater for young audiences, as well as a degree in gender studies, Amer felt like this kind of work was the perfect fit for their skill set. But as they set off on their path, they ran into a few stumbling blocks. Theater spaces and schools were anxious about booking a performance that some might deem controversial. Even when Amer did manage to get a gig, their message was naturally limited to the audience in the room.
Feeling frustrated, Amer started wondering if there might be another way to get their message out into the world. And then inspiration struck. “I was off in London, feeling homesick, watching a lot of American queer YouTubers,” Amer says. “And I realized YouTube was this free, publicly accessible space that kids were in.”
Most conversations around kids, sex, and the internet focus on the potential negatives. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the way pornography supposedly warps young minds. Meanwhile, even supposedly youth-friendly apps like YouTube Kids have been accused of exposing children to explicit content, to say nothing of the bizarre, algorithmically generated junk that floats around there or the disturbing conspiracy theories that bubble up on the larger platform.
Still, the proliferation of harmful content arguably underscores the need to balance these incredibly popular platforms with high-quality material. For educators hoping to pioneer a new kind of youth sex education, one that challenges our ideas of what topics are age appropriate and safe for kids, the internet feels more like a land of opportunity.
Because the internet makes it easy to ask embarrassing questions with the utmost discretion, it has offered awkward young people a nonjudgmental way to get the answers they need. And because the internet doesn’t require the permission of gatekeepers, it has made it far easier to publish and share information that might be deemed scandalous by the school boards, publishing houses, and TV stations that have traditionally been the gatekeepers around sex education content.
Until recently, the internet’s liberalizing effect has been largely limited to media aimed at people who are past puberty. Sites like Scarleteen and Columbia University’s Go Ask Alice! have been facilitating difficult discussions since the earliest days of the web, providing guidance to young people who aren’t receiving good sex ed at home or at school, and serving as a resource for parents who need a trusted source for their questioning kids. But parents looking for the same open-minded, shame-free vibe for the younger set have been out of luck.
“They need to know what their body is and not feel that it’s furtive or shameful to have an anus, to have a urethra, to have a penis”
As more and more young kids have gone online, turning to YouTube instead of the TV in search of their afternoon entertainment, that dynamic has begun to change. Amer’s epiphany ultimately led to the creation of Queer Kid Stuff, a YouTube series that’s currently in its fourth season and has more than 14,000 subscribers. Alongside independent creators like Amer, advocacy groups that have long worked to transform America’s youth sex education are capitalizing on the opportunity provided by the internet.
Earlier this year, Amaze.org — a youth sex ed project jointly created by nonprofits Answer, Advocates for Youth, and Youth Tech Health — launched Amaze Jr., a resource full of age-appropriate videos for kids ages four to nine to watch with their parents (as well as some videos for parents to watch alone). Though it’s not quite as boundary-pushing as Queer Kid Stuff, which tackles topics like transitioning and asexuality, Amaze Jr. is still far more expansive than what many of us remember from our own youth sex ed, addressing subjects like consent and gender identity.
And it’s not just video content that’s being transformed by the internet. In 2011, award-winning author and sex educator Cory Silverberg had an idea for a book about how babies are made. It would be one that would expand beyond the traditional “Mommy and Daddy loved each other and made you” narrative to be inclusive of trans families, queer families, families who used IVF or surrogates, adoptive families, and more. Publishers saw his idea as too niche, with an audience that’d be far too limited to be worth their time, so Silverberg decided to take the self-publication route. He turned to Kickstarter in search of $9,500, a goal he blew past in the first day, ultimately raising more than $65,000 for the project.
“I would have never known that there was such a big audience [for the book] were it not for the internet,” says Silverberg, explaining that Kickstarter gave him the freedom to share his message exactly how he wanted to, without modifying it to appease more traditional audiences. It also gave people who were eager to share Silverberg’s complicated, messy, and celebratory view of sexuality and gender with their kids an easy way to find him and promote his work to their friends.
Some adults might worry that exposing kids to information about sex, gender, and queer identity at a young age might be confusing or somehow harmful. Indeed, a search for “queer kid stuff” on YouTube surfaces a number of videos recorded by trolls that tear Amer down for teaching kids about topics like transitioning. But Alice Sterling Honig, professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University’s Falk College, sees a lot of positive benefits to exposing young children to thoughtful discussions of sexuality and gender identity at a young age.
“They need to know what their body is and not feel that it’s furtive or shameful to have an anus, to have a urethra, to have a penis,” Honig tells me, explaining that shutting down conversations is more likely to generate shame than keep kids safe.
When it comes to discussions of sexuality and gender, Honig sees additional benefits to content that encourages kids to be open-minded and embrace diversity. “We need to respect how different we all are,” she says. “If your child is being mercilessly hounded in school because he or she is different, wouldn’t you like to know that your child feels more comfortable and at ease with her body feelings and more accepted among her peers?”
Going online is an instant fix when it comes to youth sex education. “The internet isn’t the answer to everything, and it isn’t this great equalizing space,” says Silverberg, pointing out that there are still gatekeepers online who amplify the voices of the mainstream over their more “out there” or marginalized peers. And projects that have institutional support, like Amaze.org, will always get more attention online than scrappy upstarts.
But there’s no question that the internet is helping to prove that there’s an audience for kids’ media that offers age-appropriate takes on supposedly “adult” topics like queerness, gender identity, consent, and other discussions that help lay the foundation for a healthy attitude toward sex, bodies, and relationships.
There’s also no question that these efforts are helping shift youth sex education offline as well. In the wake of his successful Kickstarter, Silverberg was approached by publishers and ultimately signed a four-book deal with Seven Stories Press, the publisher behind works like Noam Chomsky’s 9-11 and the annual world report from Human Rights Watch. Amer, too, has been able to break into spaces that once turned them away: Thanks to the popularity of their YouTube channel, they’ve found their way into educational spaces that once considered their work too edgy, booking live performances at libraries, museums, and schools.
Of course, with notoriety comes backlash. “The very first video I did got some press and immediately got picked up by a neo-Nazi publication,” Amer tells me, noting that that attention has generated a lot of bullying from the anti-feminist and alt-right contingent.
Clearly there are major problems with YouTube and other platforms that serve content to young people: The very idea that a kid looking for Queer Kid Stuff could instead stumble onto a rant about Amer’s episode on drag queens proves the point. But it’s clear that by giving diverse voices a way to be heard and find an audience, the internet has helped prove that there’s an appetite for comprehensive, inclusive sex education even for the youngest of audiences. It has helped ensure that the next generation will grow up less confused and more open-minded about topics that far too many of us have been raised to think of as taboo.