The 2 Crucial Things We Have To Teach Boys About Sex Before They Go Online

When it comes to sex education, there are some things we shouldn’t leave to the internet.

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sex education for men

Photo, Getty Images.

Chatelaine’s recent survey of Canadian men, “What’s It Like To Be A Man In 2018?,” highlighted an undeniable trend: Young men are increasingly turning to the internet for their sexual education.

For men aged 40–49, 6 percent said the internet was a source of sexual education. That number jumps significantly — to 18 percent — for men aged 30–39. And for men in the 25-29 range, it nearly doubles again: A third of men my age say they learned about sex from the internet. Does the internet mean porn? Not exclusively, but it plays into it for sure.

For many, hearing that the internet is the primary source for education on anything tends to conjure up ideas of the worst that humanity has to offer. But these numbers aren’t all bad news. Stumbling on online communities with sexual interests that resemble your own can be a powerful force, especially for young people looking for answers to questions they can’t ask family and friends. So while we should celebrate the good that is out there, we need to recognize that there are things we should never leave up to the internet to teach.

I’m a millennial man and certainly among the 32 percent who credit the internet for the bulk of their early sexual education. In an environment where the most straightforward answer I could get for my questions was a condom on a banana, the internet served as a demystifying force.

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I am ecstatic for those who found the community of the internet to be empowering. Imagine a teenager with big questions about their gender or orientation, or even small questions about fetishes or the mechanics of sex — questions you might not feel comfortable asking anyone in person. Communities on platforms like Reddit and Tumblr offer an important alternative for people who want to ask and explore without shame. Having those answers when you need them can be a profound experience.

But I’ve also been exposed to the not-so-good parts of the internet. I shudder to think of young people whose first forays in sexual education come from online forums that foster sexist views. Worse still are the YouTube communities of “pick-up artists” who turn sex purely into conquest.

And then there’s porn. Here’s a worrying anecdote: In a recent article about what teenagers are learning from porn, one boy told the New York Times, “I’ve never seen a girl in porn who doesn’t look like she’s having a good time.” Studies suggest he isn’t alone in this kind of thinking: Increasingly, teens think of porn as a realistic depiction of sex.

As more men turn to the internet for their sexual education, it’s crucial to think about the gaps we can’t let the internet fill. Think of them as the ideas we need to know together, so that we all share a baseline of sexual knowledge. Top among them: that we all have the same understanding of consent — a common understanding of when a partner is not just not saying no, but actively saying yes to sex. Leaving that up to the internet can leave us with mismatched ideas of consent that lead to negative experiences.

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Here in Ontario, even though the curriculum was revised in 2015 to include discussions of consent, students still say those discussions are not happening in a meaningful way. Because the province sets the curriculum and leaves it up to teachers to implement it, not all students are on the same page when it comes to consent. That failure on the part of the education system might end up being addressed by the internet, and in ways we might not prefer.

Similarly, sexual health is not something young people should learn about randomly. In Ontario, even if guidelines lay out the basics of sexual health that should be taught, there is evidence that the implementation is failing students. Some teachers are hesitant to get into the details of sexual health because of embarrassment. The problem is, this leaves uneven levels of knowledge about important information.

The solution for both problems is the same: If we don’t want the internet to be the chief source of knowledge about consent and sexual health for young people, we need better training and tools for educators to overcome the awkwardness of talking about sex.

For all the advances in sexual education, policymakers don’t seem to have figured out the most attractive reason why young people turn to the internet: the anonymity it provides. We still rely on a teacher standing in front of a classroom to deliver sensitive information to teenagers — teenagers who likely have detailed questions that go well beyond the surface, questions they’d never bring up among their peers. There is a lot of opportunity to incorporate anonymous learning into sexual education. What if students got to ask the questions they really want to ask about sex in an anonymous online course with a randomized group of students from across the province?

The youngest group polled in Chatelaine’s survey were aged 25–29. If we were to look at even younger men, we would likely find an even higher percentage of them receiving sexual education from the internet. This trend isn’t likely to slow down, so the sooner we have this dialogue, the better.