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Masturbation hacks and consent advice: how YouTubers took over sex education


With UK schools increasingly falling short, vloggers such as Hannah Witton and Laci Green have stepped up to offer guidance on everything from body confidence to sexual pleasure


When Lily was at school, she remembers the boys and girls being separated for a sex education class. The boys were given one booklet; the girls another. “In the boys’ booklet, there was a section on masturbation and there wasn’t in the girls’ booklet,” she says. “A girl put her hand up and said: ‘Why don’t we have that?’ and one of the teachers said: ‘Girls don’t do that, that’s disgusting.’ It shouldn’t be a shameful thing to talk about. It can be a bit awkward and embarrassing, but we should be talking about it.”

Afterwards, Lily, who is now 19 and identifies as bisexual, went online and discovered sex education videos on YouTube, particularly those made by a young woman, Hannah Witton. “Within my friendship group it has really opened up a conversation about things you don’t normally discuss,” she says. “In schools, LGBT sex ed is just not talked about. Sex was never discussed as a pleasurable thing, especially for women.” Magazines such as Cosmopolitan filled some of her knowledge gaps, she says, but most of her sex education has come from Witton.

YouTube sex educators are increasingly popular, and for the young people I speak to, such videos are where almost all their information about sex now comes from. Witton, who is 26 and British, is incredibly popular, with 430,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel and videos racking up millions of views. Why Having Big Boobs Sucks! has received 3.5m views; 10 Masturbation Hacks has had 1.2m. In the US, Laci Green has 1.5 million subscribers and her videos on, among many topics, nudity, vaginas, foreskins and pubic hair reach millions. There are several other hugely successful sex-ed vloggers, such as Shan Boody and Dr Lindsey Doe. In Poland, where sex education was recently removed from schools, young people are turning to vloggers such as Natalia Trybus, while the model Anja Rubik and a women’s rights organisation, Dziewuchy Dziewuchom, have also launched a series of sex education videos on YouTube.

Hannah Witton talks about masturbation on YouTube.

Amy, 16, says these videos are where almost all of her sex education has come from. “I only really started being given proper sex education in year 10 or 11, when I was about to leave school.” It would have been helpful to have had it earlier, she says. She started watching Witton’s videos when she was about 12. “Everyone around me seemed to understand sex stuff and I was completely clueless,” she says. What did she find most helpful? “Quite a lot of it was her masturbation videos. She presents it in a very positive way – female masturbation is a controversial subject when it shouldn’t be. It helped me understand that side of things. If I had questions, I could probably go on her channel and scroll back and see if she’d posted on it. I’m not that sexually active but I feel like I’m more understanding of what [happens]. I feel a bit more confident because I’ve learned about it in a way that isn’t porn. It’s helped me become more sex positive. It helps me feel like I can talk about it with my friends, whereas before it was like: ‘I can’t talk about that even though everyone’s going through it.’” Has it made it easier to talk to her parents, too? “A little bit,” she says.

It is not surprising that young people are turning to the internet for information, says Lisa Hallgarten, policy manager at Brook, the sexual health and education charity. “Partly because they get everything from the internet. But there is also the fact that in schools they’re just not getting what they need. Even in schools where they’re trying to do a good job, young people aren’t getting the information they need, when they need it. Young people are saying: don’t talk to us about contraception when we’re 17, because some of our friends are already pregnant.”

At the moment, personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) – in which sex education is often included – is not a statutory part of the curriculum in the UK, although schools are expected to provide it. Last year, the Department for Education announced that relationships and sex education (RSE) would be compulsory in all secondary schools, and an eight-week consultation on what should be included recently ended; the guidance has not been updated since 2000, during which time children have had to face then-unheard of things such as sexting, cyberbullying and access to online pornography. “What we would like is for RSE to be a mandatory part of PSHE and for PSHE to be a statutory subject and taught as a timetabled lesson,” says Hallgarten.

Some aspects of sex education are compulsory and taught in science classes. However, parents have the right to remove their children from RSE. “Most parents want RSE for their children but we are worried that those who get withdrawn are possibly the most vulnerable and the least likely to be in households where they get that information from their parents,” says Hallgarten. “They may well resort to looking on the internet of their own accord, and in that case more power to the vloggers. I think there are good vloggers and mediocre vloggers. Some of what people see will be misinformation. I think vlogs should be a supplement, not a replacement to classroom teaching.”

As it is, many teachers are not supported well enough to deliver great sex education lessons, she says. “I think there are a lot of teachers who feel awkward about talking about any aspect of RSE and that’s why we are lobbying hard to make it a real subject and provide real training. There are teachers who really love doing it and are really excellent, but lots of teachers don’t want to do it. If they feel awkward talking about it then it’s not really helpful for young people.” As Amy puts it: “Sex education isn’t seen as a positive thing. It’s seen as cringey. [Watching YouTubers] where it’s people who are only a little bit older than us and not like 40-year-old teachers, it might help people understand it better.”

Hallgarten identified particular areas in which conventional RSE is lacking. “Things like talking about sexual pleasure is something that lots of teachers would really shy away from. They are told about unhealthy relationships but they often don’t have a good model for what a healthy sexual relationship would look like. The vast majority of people will have sex at some point in their life and we hope that it will be a nice experience, but we don’t talk about that. That’s one of the things young people go online to try to understand.”

Some teachers have started even using YouTube sex-ed clips in a classroom setting. “We use a lot of the vloggers in our work,” says Eleanor Draeger, senior RSE trainer at the Sex Education Forum. “We go out and train teachers and show them a wide range of different resources they can use in their classrooms, and one of the resources is vlogs. The idea is that the teacher chooses the things they think will work with the students in their class.” Many of the topics might not be appropriate for secondary school age children; some of the most popular sex education videos are on topics such as encouraging stripping, and the use of sex toys and porn.

“One of the ways we might recommend using a vlogger is we show the video on whichever subject you’re teaching and then the teacher can explain anything the students didn’t understand or expand on the topic. If you were only getting your sex education from [videos] you might not get a rounded sex education. Having said that, I think they’re fantastic as an adjunct and I wish that kind of thing had been around when I was younger.”

Witton launched her first sex education video in January 2012 (she had been posting videos on YouTube for some time before that). It was a video on contraception, presented with a friend. “Sex education is pretty crap, at least in the UK,” she said in it, “so I wanted to make a mini series of sex education videos that hopefully you guys will enjoy and learn some stuff.” That “mini series”, as she endearingly described it, presented and filmed without her more recent polish, has turned into dozens of videos, millions of viewers, a book, and a full-time job as a YouTube star. Witton is smiley and chatty and presents her videos from her flat. She has covered sex toys, hormones, masturbation, porn, consent and open relationships (she doesn’t only talk about sex and relationships – in recent weeks she has been talking about undergoing surgery for ulcerative colitis and what it is like to live with a stoma).

“I was very much inspired by Laci Green in the US,” she says, “and I decided I wanted to start making content about that because I noticed that most of my audience were young women. I felt like I wanted to do something. In terms of my personal experience, [sex education] was very much lacking in school. I had more of an open household so I could talk to my parents, in theory. I remember meeting people once I got to sixth form, who had maybe been to a different school from me or had a different upbringing, who didn’t know some stuff I thought was really basic. I met someone who thought it was totally fine to not use a condom and just pull out. I was like, ‘nooo’.”

She is direct and funny. “I genuinely feel no awkwardness at all. It was one of the reasons I felt like it would be a good idea to start making videos like this, because I know some people don’t feel comfortable talking about these things. If I have a platform and I’m OK talking about them, I can use that platform for good.”

The videos that have done particularly well, she says, include those on masturbation, “especially female masturbation, which for some reason is still taboo. A lot of people either don’t want to admit it’s happening or feel too ashamed to talk about it. There is a general shame and stigma around that topic, in terms of actually doing it but also talking about it.”

Her main audience is women aged between 18 and 24, with 25- to 34-year-olds the next biggest group. People have to be 13 to have a YouTube account (or say they’re 13, and there will be many people who watch without an account) but the 13-17 age bracket makes up just 6% of her audience. Witton, who is an ambassador for Brook, is careful about accuracy. Are there sex education vloggers who are spreading misinformation? “I couldn’t [think of any] off the top of my head, but it’s the internet, so yeah.”

Does she feel that for many young people, she’s their main provider of sex education? “That feels like a lot of pressure, but I’m always really clear that I’m not a doctor. I like to think of my videos as a conversation-starter and from there people’s curiosity can lead them to other bits of information if they want to look into it further. I don’t want to ever take a didactic approach of ‘I’m the teacher’. It’s more of a peer-to-peer education thing.”

In the US, Green started making videos at university. Growing up as a Mormon, her only sex education at school was around abstinence. “A lot of the teenagers in my community just didn’t have the information and resources they needed, so I was a bit miffed about that. I didn’t really ever get sex ed in school. It was only in college, which for me was much later – I’d started having relationships, dating, having sexual experiences. I felt it was too late.” Her videos, she says, felt like “a good platform to have a conversation with other people who thought the same way I did and to share information. As I was trying to figure this stuff out, I was getting the information I needed and sharing it online.”

Around 60% of Green’s subscribers are young women. “I think a lot of the problems we struggle with in society fall around misogynistic ideas around women’s bodies and about relationships, and this is what women are supposed to be and this is what men are supposed to be, which feeds into homophobia and transphobia as well.”

She says around two-thirds of the people who contact her have had no sex education at school, or abstinence-based lessons. “Then the other third did have sex ed but didn’t have all their questions answered. I think a lot of people are awkward about sex. A lot of teachers in the US don’t know how to answer these questions, they’re very restricted in what they can say or do and that makes it really hard for them to have an honest relationship with their students.”

Thea, 19, started watching sex education videos by Green and then found Witton’s. “I definitely got most of my sex ed from YouTube videos,” she says. “Which is sad, because some of this stuff should be taught in school to educate young teenagers properly about sex, but also about the gender and sexuality spectrums. My parents weren’t a lot of help either. It’s really awkward to talk to them about that stuff and they’re another generation so they don’t even know most of it.” She says YouTube videos have changed the way she thinks about sex, sexuality (she identifies as “queer”) and herself. “I feel a lot more confident about my body and I feel a lot more comfortable talking about sex. I probably wouldn’t have been able to actually come to terms with my sexuality if it wasn’t for YouTubers talking about theirs so openly. Online, people aren’t as reluctant to talk about sex, their sexuality and their gender any more, and that’s beginning to be the case in the real world as well, which is awesome.”

Complete Article HERE!


Why hasn’t the gay community had a #MeToo moment?


The conversation around consent for gay men has been stifled. We must recognise the culture of sexual assault that exists

‘Sex is something to be celebrated – whatever your gender, sexuality or preference.’


Most gay men can remember the first time they set foot in a gay bar: the awkwardness as they walked up to the bouncer, ID (fake or otherwise) in hand, clasped tightly. Discovering others with a specific experience similar to your own, finding community, is a powerful feeling. But as the #MeToo movement rolls on, and the conversation turns to consent and dating dynamics between men and women, there’s an uncomfortable reality on the gay scene that also needs to be confronted.

According a survey by gay men’s health charity GMFA, some 62% of British gay men have been touched or groped in a bar without consent. In the US 40% of gay and 47% of bisexual men have experienced sexual violence other than rape, compared with 21% of heterosexual men.

There’s a culture of silence, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Recognising the sexual violence you have experienced isn’t always easy, especially when these are some of your earliest sexual encounters, or when memories are clouded by alcohol and drugs.

The conversation around consent for gay men has been stifled: most of us were never taught the language with which to explain or understand the experiences of our youth. Inclusive same-sex education in schools isn’t mandatory, being LGBTQ+ doesn’t often run in the family, and there are fewer role models to learn from. Instead, we navigate sex blindly. For many young gay men, the boundaries and the logistics of sexual contact are an unknown.

It wasn’t long ago that our relationships were looked down on by both society and the state, with our sex lives taboo and criminalised. To criticise now how some of our sexual practices have developed bears a risk: the bigots will say they were right all along, and our sexual relationships will be further stigmatised.

But fear is no excuse for avoiding difficult questions. When the types of intimacy we engage in deviate from “lights off, in bed, with a long-term monogamous partner every other Friday” – which, of course, can have its own problems – it’s not an act of betrayal to point out that there are more opportunities for things to go wrong.

Take, for instance the “dark room” – a space few people will speak of outside the confines of the gay scene’s sweaty, hedonistic heart. To the uninitiated, the concept is simple: it’s a room in a club, it’s dark and you have sex. When it comes to consent, though, the situation is more complex.

Much of gay dating revolves around hookups and clubs fuelled by alcohol and drugs. Gay and bisexual men are seven times more likely to use illegal drugs, according to a 2012 study, and twice as likely to binge drink than heterosexual men.

Is taking a step into such a dark room consent to all sexual contact? Can two (or more) people consent to sex when they’re both off their face? Is whispering “do what you want with me” a green light for whatever happens next? When others join in – do they need explicit permission – what if you don’t even notice? There aren’t necessarily right or wrong answers to all of these questions, but in the context of #MeToo these are conversations that need to be had.

It’s would be easy to write this off as universal; of course, heterosexuals also get wasted and look for sexual partners under the cover of night. Unlike our straight counterparts, however, it’s often only in bars and clubs that many gay men learn the rituals of love, sex and seduction – having to come out, rather than your sexual identity be seen as normal, means many of us do not innocently experiment and reflect during adolescence. We find our norms on the scene. For most of us, there were few other places to turn.

It’s not just gay men who have woken up next to someone they barely remember taking home, but when there are multiple sexual partners involved – in drug-filled rooms and dark, public spaces – the risks are multiplied. Having no recollection of who you had sex with, or where, means you may not have had the capacity to consent in the first place.

For younger gay men, the landscape is changing: the internet has revolutionised how we look for sex. Apps have provided a way to find partners away from nightlife, but these hookups aren’t always safe and forgiving environments either. Some men feel a sense of entitlement when you turn up at their door with a single, prearranged purpose. The number of crimes reported as a result of online hookups is rising. Casual sex is all well and good, but these interactions don’t teach teenagers about intimacy and relationships.

Reckless behaviour in adulthood can be linked to self-hatred, abuse and violence – it’s a coping mechanism in a world that continues to see us as victimised, isolated and abused.

Of course, it is possible to tackle these problems: the introduction of same-sex sex education in schools would be a start. Community support, once publicly funded and now decimated by local government cuts, would be another useful step. LGBTQ+ spaces away from drugs and alcohol are also sorely needed, as are effective mental and sexual health services.

At the same time, predatory gay men need to take responsibility for their actions. Drugs, darkness and the thrill of the moment are no excuse for exploiting vulnerable men. We need to recognise and highlight the culture of sexual assault and violence that exists in our community, as it does in others, and hold perpetrators to account. Assault is assault, and rape is rape. That isn’t the “freedom” our community fought for.

But neither do we need moralising from high horses, homophobic or otherwise. People of all genders and sexualities take drugs, and it can be done healthily. Putting your fingers in your ears and pretending it’s not happening serves no purpose to anyone. Ours is a community that has long been persecuted and made to feel ashamed. It’s important to talk about liberation, and to embrace sexuality in all its glorious forms. Sex is something to be celebrated – whatever your gender, sexuality or preference – as long as the all of those involved can and do consent.

Complete Article HERE!


How to build sexual confidence



Having sex for the first time is nerve wracking but it isn’t the only time when the thought of sex can feel daunting. Many of us will go through periods of abstinence later in our lives and the thought of engaging in sexual activity again can spark feelings of insecurity.

There are a variety of reasons why someone might have experienced an extended amount of time without having sex (divorce, a breakup, the loss of a loved one, or difficulty meeting the right person) and often by the time we get round to having sex again it feels as if we are back to square one with our sexual confidence.

Here, we speak to Valeria Chuba, PhD, MS, ACS, a board certified clinical sexologist and a certified intimacy coach. She helps her clients overcome sexual shame and anxiety, achieve sexual confidence, and create pleasure-filled intimate relationships. She is the creator and host of the Get Sex-Smart podcast, which offers expert information and guidance to listeners around the world.

“Finding that special spark with a new partner can often take a long time,” she explains. “Regardless of the reasons why we may find ourselves without a lover, when the time comes to get back into the groove, most of us experience feelings of fear, anxiety and low self-confidence.”

So to help anyone who is feeling less than empowered about the idea of a new sexual encounter, we asked Valeria to give us some practical advice on how to feel less nervous and more confident when starting a new sexual relationship…

1. Learn from the past

Each new relationship offers a promising beginning, which means an opportunity to do things differently and better than before. “Now is the perfect time to look back at your past sexual experiences,” Valeria advises.

“What were some of the things that worked well (or didn’t work) in your intimate relationships? What partners were the most memorable, and why? What would you like to do differently this time around? For example, would you speak up more about your need for sensual foreplay, or share more of your sexual imagination with your partner? Getting clarity around your needs and boundaries will help you start a new sexual relationship in a more proactive way, which in turn will help you feel more safe and grounded.”

2. Know what gives you pleasure

“As a sexologist, I often tell my clients that masturbation is the foundation for partner sex,” says Valeria.

“The more you know about what turns you on and helps you experience pleasure and orgasm, the better you’ll be able to share these things with your partner, leading to a more positive intimate experience.”

Reacquainting yourself with your body in this way will help you to first accept and then to gain confidence when it comes to being with someone else. It’s easy to forget the positive things about our body when we are feeling insecure and focusing on the parts we don’t like as much.

“If you are new to self pleasure or just want to broaden your sexual repertoire, sex-positive books like Come As You Are or fun and instructional sex ed DVDs will both inform you and spark your sensuality. It’s important to note that you should always consider seeking professional help for specific sexual concerns, like trouble experiencing orgasm with a partner, early ejaculation, erectile difficulties, or performance anxiety. Working with a sex-positive, compassionate professional can be a huge boost to your sexual confidence.”

3. Communication is key

“I often tell my clients that they should begin a new relationship as they mean to go on; and good communication is a big part of any successful sexual relationship,” says Valeria.

“There are few things more attractive in a lover than the confidence to speak up about his or her needs and desires, and the ability to listen to his or her partner. Speaking up improves your chances of getting what you want from your sexual relationship; and being accepting of your partner will make him or her feel special and appreciated. Either way, you will come across as a generous and thoughtful lover, which is sure to boost your self-confidence.”

4. Focus on pleasure and not performance

Whenever we begin a new relationship, especially after a long time without partner sex, we tend to feel anxious about things like our attractiveness; our size, shape and weight; and how well we will ‘perform’ during sex.

“This mindset keeps us caught up in our heads and disconnected both from our bodies and pleasure, and from our lovers and the process of lovemaking. Whenever you feel yourself getting caught up in performance pressure, focus instead on your body sensations. Breathe deeply and if need be, slow down. Pay attention to how things feel as opposed to how perfect you appear to be. As a bonus, a lover who is focused on pleasure and sensuality comes off as a lot more empowered and confident than someone who is insecure about their ‘performance’.”

5. Have a sense of humour

Sex can be complicated and intimidating at the best of times, let alone when we’ve been celibate for an extended period. Because of this, we tend to forget that at its core, sex is about connection, pleasure and fun. And since partner sex happens between bodies, it can also be a messy, embarrassing and unintentionally hilarious experience. Using this as a point of connection with your lover, rather than something to be ashamed of, can help you lighten things up. Chances are your partner is also feeling nervous, so bonding lightheartedly over your shared anxiety and the absurdity of it all can be both relaxing and very, very sexy.

Complete Article HERE!


Sex education at the push of a button: the apps changing lives worldwide


From dealing with harassment to frank advice about STIs, these female app developers are providing vital, candid knowledge

The Ask Without Shame app provides information about sex to young people and has 60,000 users across Africa.


Accurate information about sex and healthy relationships leads to greater gender equality worldwide, a report by the UN’s world heritage body Unesco found. It also leads to better sexual health, as well as less sexually transmitted infections, HIV and unintended pregnancies.

Yet many young people still don’t get the accurate information they need. Technology is one way to bring it to them. The revised international technical guidance on sexuality education, released by Unesco in January, said new technology offers “rich opportunities” to reach young people – if it’s used intelligently.

These women, from around the world, are working hard to found apps and use new technology to educate communities on sexual health.

Ruth Nabembezi, 22, founder of Ask Without Shame

Ruth Nabembezi, founder of Ask Without Shame.

When Nabembezi was just 16 years old, her older sister Pamela, who was 23, became very thin, started losing her hair and developed a skin rash. She was HIV positive, but a lack of awareness of the virus and Aids meant she didn’t get medical treatment straight away. “She was taken to a witch doctor to be cleansed of demons,” Nabembezi says. When she eventually did get taken to hospital, it was too late and she died there.

Since then, Nabembezi has wanted to help people access accurate information about sexual health. “In Uganda, anything related to sexuality is a taboo,” she says. Last year the government even branded better sex education an “erosion of morals”. Young people have to find their own information from peers, Nabembezi says. As a result, many end up believing harmful myths, such as if you sleep with a virgin, you can’t catch HIV.

Nabembezi created Ask Without Shame after joining a Social Innovation Academy when she finished school, because she wanted to change things. The mobile app, free phone line and text message service provide information about sex to young people through their phones. Questions are answered by doctors, nurses and counsellors.

The app has more than 60,000 users, mostly from Uganda and other African countries. But Nabembezi wants more. “I’d like to see it in every country in the world,” she says.

Beverly Chogo, 23, founder of Sophie Bot

Chogo created Sophie Bot in 2016 after watching her friend go through a traumatic abortion in Kenya. “It led to a lot of bleeding and abdominal pain,” Chogo says. At the time, Chogo didn’t understand what was happening to her friend. “It was a lot of trauma that she wasn’t prepared for,” Chogo says. “From that moment on I wanted to do something.”

And so the Sophie Bot was born. Chogo created the artificial intelligence (AI) Sophie Bot along with a team of three others whom she met at university in Kenya. Unsafe abortion is a major public health crisis in the country and a leading cause of preventable death and illness among women and girls. Young people can ask the Sophie Bot questions about anything, from STIs to family planning and it gives automated responses. Chogo says some people have even asked how to make sex more kinky or pleasurable, although she points out that’s not what it was originally set up for. The bot then gives automated responses.

Sex is still taboo in many African communities and so technology has been “very instrumental,” Chogo says. “Almost everyone has a smartphone.” The Sophie Bot is on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Telegram messenger. It’s had over 1,500 downloads so far, but “now we want to reach more people,” Chogo says. “The sky’s the limit.”

Heather Corinna, 47, founder of Scarleteen

US-born Corinna first set up the Scarleteen website, a platform which provides information about sex and relationships for young people, in 1998. Corinna – who identifies as non-binary and uses the “they” pronoun – had no idea it would become their second job. For the next year, Corinna taught a class of kindergarten children during the day – and then taught a “global online classroom” about sex during the evenings.

It all started when Corinna uploaded fiction about women’s sexuality online. Unexpectedly, they started to get letters from young women asking basic questions about sex. There wasn’t a resource for Corinna to direct them to, so they set up their own: Scarleteen. The website was one of the first of its kind and published questions, along with Corinna’s empathetic responses. “People wrote me long letters, so I wrote them back,” Corinna says.

It wasn’t easy and Corinna was stalked and harassed online, just for talking to young people about the topic of sexuality – but they didn’t give up. “I’m rebellious,” Corinna says. “When people give me grief I go in hard.” Twenty years later, Corinna now runs Scarleteen with a team of global volunteers.

Mia Davis, 25, founder of Tabu

Davis grew up in the American midwest and had an abstinence-based religious education that was “pretty limited” when it came to sexuality. As a result, she was ashamed of her body. “I was always learning from a boyfriend,” the Stanford University graduate says, “but now I realise they didn’t know what they were talking about either.”

So in 2016, the user-experience designer set-up Tabu. One thing that stands out is its colourful design. “A lot of sexual health content can either be too in your face, or is just images that you wouldn’t want anyone to see,” Davis says. “So instead we wanted it to be really fresh and to make it pop.”

Movements like #MeToo, where people have come forward about harassment, have highlighted the need for better sex and relationship education, Davies says. And advances in mobile technology mean that it’s more possible than ever to provide it. “There’s a lot of unlearning to do,” she says. “And it’s coming to a head now.”

Brianna Rader, 26, founder of Juicebox

Rader is about to launch a new version of Juicebox, an app that provides personalised coaching for sex and relationships through your phone. She has been passionate about sex education for years, even getting condemned by lawmakers in the state of Tennessee for running a series of sex education events called Sex Week at her university.

Attitudes towards sex education are changing. Even just a few years ago it was different, she says. But now people are more open to these conversations and are making the most of mobile and new technologies. “[Sex ed tech founders] are not just providing PDFs and booklets,” Rader says. “We are going much further than that.”

Complete Article HERE!


Our shame over sexual health makes us avoid the doctor. These apps might help.


We’re taught to feel shame around our sexuality from a young age, as our bodies develop and start to function in ways we’re unfamiliar with, as we begin to realize our body’s potential for pleasure. Later on, women especially are taught to feel ashamed if we want “too much” sex, or if we want it “too early,” or if we’re intimate with “too many” people. Conversely, women and men are shamed if we don’t want nearly as much sex as our partner, or if we’re inexperienced in bed. We worry that we won’t orgasm, or that we’ll do so too soon. We’re afraid the things we want to do in bed will elicit disgust.

This shame can also keep people from getting the health care they need. For example, a 2016 study of college students found that, while women feel more embarrassed about buying condoms than men do, the whiff of mortification exists for both genders. Another 2016 study found many women hide their use of health-care services from family and friends so as to prevent speculation about their sexual activity and the possibility that they have a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

While doctors should be considered crucial, impartial resources for those struggling with their sexual health, many find the questions asked of them during checkups to be intrusive. Not only that but, in some cases, doctors themselves are uncomfortable talking about sexual health. They may carry conservative sexual beliefs, or have been raised with certain cultural biases around sexuality. It doesn’t help that gaps in medical school curriculums often leave general practitioners inadequately prepared for issues of sexual health.

So how do people who feel ashamed of their sexuality take care of their sexual health? In many cases, they don’t. In a study on women struggling with urinary incontinence, for example, many women avoided seeking out treatment — maintaining a grin-and-bear-it attitude — until the problem became “unbearable and distressing to their daily lives.”

Which may be why smartphone apps, at-home testing kits and other online resources have seen such growth in recent years. Now that we rely on our smartphones for just about everything — from choosing stock options to tracking daily steps to building a daily meditation practice — it makes sense people would turn to their phones, laptops and tablets to take care of their sexual health, too. Websites such as HealthTap, LiveHealth Online and JustDoc, for example, allow you to video chat with medical specialists from your computer. Companies such as L and Nurk allow you to order contraceptives from your cellphone, without ever going to the doctor for a prescription. And there are a slew of at-home STI testing kits from companies like Biem, MyLAB Box and uBiome that let you swab yourself at home, mail in your samples and receive the results on your phone.

Bryan Stacy, chief executive of Biem, says he created the company because of his own experience with avoiding the doctor. About five years ago, he was experiencing pain in his genital region. “I did what a lot of guys do, and did nothing,” he says, explaining that, while women visit their gynecologist regularly, men generally don’t see a doctor for their sexual health until something has gone wrong. “I tried to rationalize away the pain, but it didn’t go away.” Stacy says he didn’t want to talk to a doctor for fear of what he would learn, and didn’t know who he would go to anyway. He didn’t have a primary care physician or a urologist at the time. But after three months of pain, a friend of his — who happened to be a urologist — convinced him to see someone. He was diagnosed with chlamydia and testicular cancer. After that, he learned he wasn’t the only one who’d avoided the doctor only to end up with an upsetting diagnosis. “What I found is that I wasn’t strange,” Stacy says. “Everyone has this sense of sexual-health anxiety that can be avoided, but it’s that first step that’s so hard. People are willing to talk about their sexual health, but only if they feel like it’s a safe environment.”

So Stacy set out to create that environment. With Biem, users can video chat with a doctor online to describe what they’re experiencing, at which point the doctor can recommend tests. The user can then go to a lab for local testing, or Biem will send someone to their house. The patient will eventually receive their results right on their phone. Many of the above-mentioned resources work similarly.

Research shows there’s excitement for tools like these. One study built around a similar service that was still in development showed people 16 to 24 years old would get tested more often if the service was made available to them. They were intrigued by the ability to conceal STI testing from friends and family, and to avoid “embarrassing face-to-face consultations.”

But something can get lost when people avoid going in to the doctor’s office. Kristie Overstreet, a clinical sexologist and psychotherapist, worries these tools — no matter their good intentions — will end up being disempowering in the long run, especially for women. “Many women assume they will be viewed by their doctor as sexually promiscuous or ‘easy,’ so they avoid going in for an appointment,” she says. “They fear they will be seen as dirty or less than if they have an STI or symptoms of one. There is an endless cycle of negative self-talk, such as ‘What will they think about me?’ or ‘Will they think that I’m a slut because of this?’ If people can be tested in the privacy of their own home without having to see a doctor, they can keep their symptoms and diagnosis a secret,” Overstreet says, which only increases the shame.

As for the efficacy of these tools, Mark Payson, a physician and co-founder of CCRM Northern Virginia, emphasizes the importance of education and resources for those who do test positive. These screening tests can have limits, he says, noting that there can be false negatives or false positives, necessitating follow-up care. “This type of testing, if integrated into an existing physician relationship, would be a great resource,” Payson says. “But for patients with more complex medical histories, the interactions of other conditions and medications may not be taken into account.”

Michael Nochomovitz, a New York Presbyterian physician, shows a similar level of restrained excitement. “The doctor-patient interaction has taken a beating,” Nochomovitz says. “Physicians don’t have an opportunity to really engage with patients and look them in the eye and talk to them like you’d want to be spoken to. The idea is that tech should make that easier, but in many cases, it makes it more difficult and more impersonal.” Still, he sees the advantages in allowing patients to attend to their health care on their own terms, rather than having to visit a doctor’s office.

Those who have created these tools insist they’re not trying to replace that doctor-patient relationship, but are trying to build upon and strengthen it. “We want people to be partnering with their doctor,” says Sarah Gupta, the medical liaison for uBiome, which owns SmartJane, a service that allows women to monitor their vaginal health with at-home tests. “But the thing is, these topics are often so embarrassing or uncomfortable for people to bring up. Going in and having an exam can put people in a vulnerable position. [SmartJane] has the potential to help women feel they’re on a more equal footing when talking to their doctor about their sexual health.”

“If you come in with a positive test result,” says Jessica Richman, co-founder and chief executive of uBiome, “it’s not about sexual behavior anymore. It’s a matter of medical treatment. It’s a really good way for women to shift the conversation.”

This can be the case for men and women. While many will use these options as a means to replace those office visits entirely, their potential lies in the ability to improve the health care people receive.

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