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Lithium Can TikTok save sex ed?

Sep. 10, 2020
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From Judy Blume novels to Cosmo’s “Cosmo Confessions” to the social media “sexperts” we rely on today, I think we can all agree that sex education in the U.S. comes from everywhere but the classroom. At first mine consisted only of tampons dipped in red Kool-Aid, a vague, animated video, and an “STI prevention” PowerPoint presentation which encouraged abstinence and offered graphic images of disfigured genitalia. I wouldn’t learn until years later that period blood isn’t always bright red, that real boobs look nothing like cartoon boobs, and that many STIs have no signs or symptoms.

Thank god my mom quietly slipped me a copy of American Girl’s The Care and Keeping of You one Christmas—otherwise, I never would’ve gotten through puberty. Even so, those adorable illustrations depicting how breasts develop could only help so much. Everything I learned about sex and sexual wellness after closing that paperback, I learned on my own. I didn’t feel comfortable talking to my very creepy, very male pediatrician about it and I didn’t have a wiser, older sister to ask for advice. All I had, really, was the internet.

YouTube creator Hannah Witton became my go-to gal for everything sex and relationships. Hannah drew me in to what felt like honest, intimate conversations with an older sister about everything from sex toys and birth control to monogamy and feminism. After discovering her channel around the age of 16, I finally felt like I was learning something worthwhile about sex. 

Now, online sex education has found a new platform: TikTok. Doctors are getting creative with how they disseminate information about sexual and reproductive health by using the viral app to create short, educational videos. The idea is to make this information more accessible by combining expert knowledge of sex with the casual culture of social media.

Take Dr. Jennifer Lincoln (@drjenniferlincoln), an OB/GYN with 791K followers and 11M likes on TikTok. Just as her bio promises, her profile is definitely “the health class you wish you had in HS.”  Her videos cover everything you never learned about in school, from skipping your period on birth control to removing your pubic hair to treating yeast infections, and usually include popular songs, sounds, stickers, and filters.

Dr. Lincoln also specializes in myth-busting. She’ll often post duets with other TikTokers who are unknowingly spreading misinformation about sexual health. She dueted one TikTok that suggested antibiotics and melatonin can “cancel out” birth control, reacting to the video with head-shaking and finger-wagging while urging viewers to watch the rest of her videos for the real facts. With one 13-second TikTok, Dr. Lincoln shattered a misconception I’ve heard passed around for years.

Beyond the TikToks themselves, I’ve learned a lot from the comments sections, where users ask questions and actually get answers from reliable adult doctors. Considering how my teachers in high school ignored most of the sex-related questions we wrote anonymously on slips of paper and instead instructed us to read the human sexuality chapter of our textbook silently to ourselves, Dr. Lincoln’s TikTok really does feel like the health class I wish I had in high school. 

If you’re feeling skeptical about “TikDocs” lacking professionalism—can you really take a dancing, lip-syncing doctor seriously?—let me just say, I think that’s the whole point. When it comes to sex education, the awkward barrier that exists between adults and young people makes transparency and comfort pretty much impossible for both parties. By using TikTok as a platform for sex ed, doctors create a much more comfortable space for conversation, which is something I and most other teens never had. 

I grew up with the notion that sex is shameful. Then I got online and found sexual imagery around every corner—I was introduced to a world that’s ashamed of sex and yet totally obsessed with it. Understanding this confusing dichotomy becomes one of the main obstacles of young adulthood for those navigating love and sex who are unsure about what’s realistic and what’s sensationalized, what’s healthy and what’s abusive, what’s fact and what’s just plain fiction. I would’ve liked to have had access to Dr. Lincoln’s comment section from my bedroom when I came home from school on STI PowerPoint day, paralyzed by the fear that if I ever had sex, my vagina would either fall off or be plagued by warts or sores or bugs for the rest of my life. Seriously.

But even if TikDocs have serious potential to spread useful information about sexual health, we also have to ask whether TikTok users are actually finding this information easily enough. TikTok is infamous for its censorshipissues. There have been many instances of sex-ed videos suddenly disappearing from the app because they don’t comply with the “community guidelines.”

How do we ensure that sex ed TikToks by reliable doctors don’t slip through the cracks? For starters, you can follow a couple to stay updated with their content. I’ll send you off with a list of a few TikTok docs who are doing an excellent job spreading informative, sex-positive content. Give them a follow if you want to learn a thing or two. 

8 TikTok Docs to Follow

Graphic by Jennifer Adams for USC Annenberg