Legit or Unfit? Finding Safe, Sound Sex Educators & Support Online
I once had someone on Twitter interact with me who claimed to be a teen sex educator. But they were saying some strange and unrealistic things about young people's sexuality, things that didn't ring true for me in the years I've done my job, and seemed off based on any conversation I'd had with other teen or young adult sexuality educators or read in sound sources. They were also saying what they were in a way that was outside general ethics most of us adhere to. When I questioned their statements, in a calm but direct way I would any colleague, they got angry and unprofessional, blew off other information out of hand and told me what they were saying was true and shouldn't be questioned because they worked with young people and sexuality in a few different places. When I asked where they worked and with what specific populations, they refused to tell me, stating they "could not tell me" because it needed to be "secret," but that I and others "should just trust them" as an expert.
Their refusal to disclose their name or who they worked for was all I needed to know not to trust them and to feel certain they did not do this work at all. Their intense reactivity, lack of professionalism and the elaborate story they had for withholding basic information all set off my radar. Blowing off other expertise and only privileging their own was one more signal this person was probably full of hooey.
I was able to know this person wasn't bonafide (and it later came to light they were even more shady than I thought), but that's largely because I've done the work I have for a long time, I've talked to many other real-deal educators, and I'm well-versed in the tactics of manipulative people. If I hadn't had that information and experience, it would have been easy to get snowed, and to give that person's information merit that wasn't sound. If I had been making decisions about my life or health, or about the lives and health of others, based on the advice of that person, I could have wound up endangering or misleading myself or other people.
Everyone knows some people are legit and some aren't. Most people know that not all advice is good advice; that not all information is sound information. Most people know that about sex educators, advice and information just like they know that about any other person or field. In sexology, sex therapy, sexual health and sex education, the quality of the work and the quality of the people doing it will always vary, just like it varies with general healthcare providers, other kinds of teachers, colleges, shoes, restaurants or anything else. This is just as true -- in some ways more so -- of services on the 'net as it is with services in person.
Sex education is very challenged in some parts of the world, and there's a lot of anti-sex ed propaganda and paranoia that every sex educator out there, especially those teaching young people, is skeevy in some way. While that certainly isn't true of most sex educators, online or off, unfortunately some people may use sex education or other avenues in sexuality online to mislead, abuse or exploit others, or may present themselves as sound sex educators when they truly are not. Young people, unfortunately, can be particularly vulnerable to this kind of exploitation or abuse. Many people feel shame and fear around sexuality, especially if they or their sexuality has been marginalized in any way -- like if you're young, trans or otherwise gender nonconforming, LGBQ, of color or poor. So, sometimes it can feel like anyone at all who'll answer your questions or even just be nice to you must be okay. That's fine, except when they're not, and/or when they're not giving you sound information.
Some of this is about how to find sound, accurate information about sex and solid sex educators. Some of it is about online safety, particularly around sexuality. We're generally safer online than we are offline, but there are ways in which we can be or be made unsafe online, like by disclosing identifying information, or by giving someone something very personal or sensitive that they may use for a different purpose than we shared it for, or use against us to harass, threaten or otherwise abuse or exploit us in some way. Our psychic, or emotional safety, is also no small deal. Trusting someone and being betrayed by that person can really mess us up, especially with something as loaded as sexuality.
How can you tell who's legitimate and who isn't?
Not every good sex educator or person you can trust to talk with about sexuality online and get reliable information from has one kind or set of credentials, nor one kind of experience or background. There are formal and informal routes into doing sex ed as your gig, and a lot of different avenues into the field. But even with our diversity, there are some common threads and some typical ways you can figure whose information and help you can trust and whose you probably shouldn't.
A credible sexuality educator will usually have and demonstrate verifiable education, work experience and/or credentials in one or more of the following areas:
- some form of medicine and/or healthcare
- general and/or sexuality education
- social work, psychology, therapy or counseling
- sociology or sexuality research
- sexuality journalism, arts or another humanities area
What does verifiable mean here? That you can find out if that's true, like by using a search engine to check the website of a clinic, agency or school the person is saying they work for or by making a phone call to their most recent employer or partner/supporting agency. If the educator is using a handle or pseudonym (a different name) online but works with or got their background via a different name, you can either ask them for that name or can ask them to call their employer or school in advance and disclose their handle/pseudonym to those folks so they can verify that person when you call.
A credible sexuality educator will usually have at least one or more of the following:
- published pieces or other editorial work somewhere besides whatever one place they are giving advice or information, like on other websites, in books, magazines, and/or in academic or medical journals
- done or be actively doing public talks, appearances (like in community centers or schools, on radio shows, podcasts, television or video/webcasts), group panels; attending professional conferences or meetings
- done or be actively doing in-person teaching in a classroom, for community centers or at some other educational setting
- a physical office space where they can be accessed in-person
Not only are those places where you and others can see or read that person, someone who has done any of the above will usually have had their identity and credentials soundly verified. To get paid for a published piece or teaching you usually have to turn in tax documents, sign legal contracts and/or show some form of ID.
A credible sexuality educator will typically gladly provide anyone:
- their name, not just an internet handle
- a current resume, CV or their educational and work background
- personal and/or professional references or another means of verifying their identity and reputation
Not everyone is or has been affiliated with these groups, but plenty of us who work in young adult or general sexuality education have some relationship with at least one of these groups (and usually more), and/or we or the agency or website we work for will be recognized by at least one of these groups, particularly in the United States or the UK:
- The National Sexuality Resource Center (NSRC)
- Family Health International
- Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) or International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF)
An easy way to check a sex information/education website or educator's chops can be by sharing that list with them and asking for a reference or two from someone who is part of or is affiliated with one or more of those groups.
Some more basics? A credible sexuality educator will:
- provide ways to be held accountable: to take real responsibility for the advice and information they give
- always be glad to refer anyone to other healthcare and/or support services online or in-person
- have colleagues who know and respect them
- have good professional boundaries: even when being friendly, will act like a provider of services, not like a best bud, parent or a potential sexual partner; will recognize the difference between informal or intimate personal relationships and their role as an educator
- not just tell you what you want to hear, be really scary or or give only supasexy sex tips. Advice and information will typically balance addressing the challenging, boring or bummer stuff as much as it addresses what can be ideal, awesome or fun
- be transparent and reliable, not evasive or dodgy
- base their counsel for you as much as possible on your life and values, not their own
- utilize current, medically-sound information
- not just be trying to sell you something
Some red flags for shady sexuality information websites or educators:
No clear policies: Online, that would include policies in accordance with or required by any national and international law pertaining to sex, youth and/or the internet, like COPPA or laws around sexual solicitation and pornography, releases, or to medical privacy policies when relevant, like HIPAA or notice that the information being given cannot substitute from information from an in-person therapist or healthcare provider. If and when there are policies linked and listed, but an educator is not following those policies themselves, that's another red flag.
Refusal to identify themselves clearly: Some areas of sex education or sexual healthcare can be especially risky to work in when it comes to being harassed or threatened, like working in abortion, with sexual offenders or with very marginalized populations. Usually for that reason, some sex educators use pseudonyms and are more guarded than other professionals with things like their home addresses or the names of family members. Not everyone can be a sex educator who wants to: for some, that would require sacrifices in their lives that would just be too much. But it's on us as educators to decide if this is or isn't work we can do while also providing what's needed for the people we serve. An educator or a sex education website should list identities and roles clearly and comprehensively and at least one person at any website or agency should know who everyone working there is. If a website or educators about page doesn't list who's who, and give you a good deal of transparent info about them, that should set your radar buzzing.
Efforts to isolate you from other adults or support systems: A sound sex educator and support person wants you to be as well-connected to other systems of support in your life as possible, not to separate you from those systems or make everyone else's support but ours seem no good. If someone is trying to assure that your parents or other adults are NOT present when they interact with you, if they are suggesting or implying they are the only person you can talk to about your sex life, if they are presenting themselves as the safe or good adult and all others as unsafe or bad, or refuse to communicate with parents or other support people in your life when they or you ask for that, those are all big no-nos.
No boundaries or poor boundaries: Sound sex educators have, set and respect good, professional and clear boundaries. That means we don't do things like push anyone to disclose things they don't want to, give clients/patients/students gifts or other "special" items or favors that others would not be given, act very flirtatiously, overshare about our own sex lives or ask the people we're supposed to be helping for advice or approval with our own sex lives. Good boundaries also mean that we always back off if anyone expresses discomfort (and respect discomfort, rather than presenting it as some sort of character flaw or lack of enlightenment).
Lone Wolves or Me-too-ers: Credible sex educators network with others. If it seems like a website or sex educator isn't connected with anyone else in the field, or doesn't seem to have peers or mentors they work with or consult and who really know them, be wary. Same goes for educators who present themselves as being SO like you: having a similar age, being of the same gender, sharing all the same or similar interests, listening to the same music, talking the same way as you. Even when our age or position is different, we can have lots of things in common, but a good educator just won't be trying that hard to connect with you that way. There are also excellent peer educators out and about in the world who are your same age, who you probably do have a lot in common with, but they won't tend to push it and will tend to be connected with a sound trainer, agency or organization.
Presenting a personal sex life as an ideal or a qualification to be a sex educator: The idea that anyone can be a sex educator by virtue of having had sex (or abstained), even lots of sex, is problematic. It'd be like suggesting that we could all be massage therapists because we give a good backrub, professional chefs because we can cook our own dinner, or nurses because we can put band-aids on our own wounds. While sex education is a field where there are a lot of different tracks to come through, and many different ways to do it, one thing any good sex educator will tell you is that they know their own sex life or what their friends report are often the WORST places to source sound information about sex because they're so subjective. We can factor that information into what we do in some ways, but we know to be very cautious about that, and to always balance out information we're gleaning from our own experiences with information from broader, less personal sources.
A sound sexuality educator, if they know anything at all, knows that human sexuality is about the most diverse thing there is and that what's right for one person can be totally wrong for someone else. Knowing that, good sex educators are careful not to present their own sex lives as ideal or aspirational -- like "I LOVE doing [insert a sexual activity here], so you should/will too!" -- or even share much about their own sex lives in the context of providing education.
Presents themselves as the expert of everything: No one is the expert of everything. People who provide sound counsel and information will frequently make clear that given subjects or areas aren't within their study or expertise and will try to refer people out to others whose expertise it is. Every sex educator or service has limitations, and should be comfortable with having and expressing those limitations. As well, all of us know the study of sexuality is still actually very new, so you'll often hear us qualifying statements or information with phrases like "but we're still learning about this," or "but there's still not enough data/study on this to draw firm conclusions."
Private or hidden communication: If and when a sex educator or therapist has private communication with you no one else is seeing or supervising, you should be made aware of policies around that, including your privacy and legal protection. On the whole, though, if you're not paying for a service, like online sex therapy, and particularly if you are a legal minor, communication you have with a sex educator will not be hidden or unsupervised.
Asking for information from you they do not need: NO sex educator needs to know what you look like or needs a photo of you. NO sex educator should be asking for information about where you live unless you are asking for help finding local services (in which case a zip code does the job just fine). No sex educator needs details about you, your life or sex life that aren't pertinent to the questions you're asking, and should always be willing and able to explain their rationale if asking for information you don't think is pertinent.
Support or encouragement for high-risk or illegal activity: While what's high-risk can be arbitrary to some degree (for instance, some people would say sex outside marriage is high-risk, even though sexual health and sexuality experts know that marital sex poses similar risks as sex outside it), there are plenty of things where most educators have a consensus. If a sexual educator or advisor is cheering you on, for example, in barebacking, in sex without contraception when you don't want or aren't ready for a pregnancy, in doing things that feel very outside your own wants, ethics and values, or in sex with partners likely or known to be harmful to you or others; if they are encouraging you to do unlawful or risky things in general or in interactions with them -- like sharing sexually explicit photos of yourself or anyone else or suggesting you have sex with them -- those are HUGE red flags.
Some of this boils down to online safety basics. What's best for a consumer (that's you) to keep to yourself and not to share with others online?
- Photos or other very literal images of yourself, including in avatars
- Your full name or the names of your friends or family
- Information that is absolutely unique to you, like your address, your social security number, your phone number, ID or driver's license numbers or passwords
- The name of your school or workplace
- Handles for messenger accounts (IMs), your Facebook or MySpace URL or handle, or other personal websites which identify you in any way
If it seems weird I'm suggesting you withhold information that educators should share, remember: you're in a different position than an educator, agency or service website. We're providing a service to you; you're a consumer of that service. This is (supposed to be) our job. This isn't your job. You need that information about us. Most of the time, we don't need any of that about you unless we're using it to help you get a service locally or are trying to help get you safe, such as by calling a police station or family service agency for you in a crisis. If and when we do say we need it about you, why we need it should be made very clear, as should policies around how that information will be used and protected.
Not sure if something or someone has really been okay or not?
Talk to a trusted adult, in person, even if you feel foolish or embarrassed. That person might be a parent or guardian, a friend's parent or guardian, a teacher, an older sibling, a nurse or doctor, a coach, tutor or mentor. Someone you know cares about you, who you know is solid, and know will do their best to act in your best interest, even if and when the two of you don't fully agree or connect. More often than not, when we feel like something isn't quite right, it's because it isn't. Even if we're wrong, and something we think isn't safe is safe, it's no harm, no foul. Checking into something or someone legitimate doesn't hurt anyone. The same goes for talking to someone if and when you think or know a friend of yours may be unsafe: being a bystander when someone else is or may be being harmed can really keep people in danger. Asking for help from trusted people for others who may not feel able to ask for themselves or may not realize they're unsafe is something we can all do to help take care of each other.
Just as it's the case with people who abuse or exploit people in person, people who abuse or exploit others online often are not easy to spot, and don't act like a lot of people expect predatory or abusive people to act. In other words, just like we know that people who mug or sexually assault people can be attractive to us or others, can be positioned well in their family or community, the same goes online. Predatory or shady people often develop mad skills at being that way, and can often be more likeable or charming than the rest of us. They learn how to disarm people easily, and often won't seem creepy right from the start. The 'net, unfortunately, can provide predatory or iffy people cover they can't get offline. Someone being likeable, attractive or charming does not, all by itself, indicate they're solid or sound.
- The Trevor Project (for LGBTQ youth): 1-866-488-7386
- RAINN's National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224
- The Hope Center/Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-784-2433
- The CDC National STD Hotline: 1-800-227-8922
- The National AIDS Hotline: 1-800-342-2437
- Backline (pro-choice pregnancy support): 1-888-493-0092
- The National Abortion Federation Hotline: 1-800-772-9100
- The National Mental Health Association: 1-800-969-6642
- The National Runaway Switchboard: 1-800-786-2929
- Covenant House (homelessness): 1-800-999-9999
The CyberTipline not only has a lot of helpful information about being safe online, they also have reporting services available if you know or suspect you are not safe, may not be safe, or if someone is compromising the safety or privacy of you or others, particularly regarding sexuality. You can contact them online here or by calling 1-800-843-5678.
Because so many people feel they can't talk about sex or sexuality as it is, I hate to suggest it isn't okay to talk about it when you want to. But the truth is, it often isn't safe or sound to talk about our sexuality with just anyone just like it often isn't okay to have sex with just anyone. To protect our bodies, hearts and minds, we need to try and be selective in who we talk to, in what we share and where, with whom and how we share it.
Finding The Safe Spaces
The web or any one sex educator or service is never the only place to get the sexuality and sexual health information or help you need. Just like it's a good idea to back up one method of birth control with a second, it's a good idea to back up one source of sexuality information or help with another. You can find more in books -- either by purchasing them or checking them out at your local library -- from sexual healthcare providers and clinics or other in-person sexuality professionals, or from sex education classes in schools, colleges or community centers. You can ask people like your doctor, a school nurse, a community leader or community center (like a YWCA or YMCA, for instance), for direct help and information or for referrals to help and information.
There are safe, sound places to either talk about sexuality online and/or to get sound sexuality information as a young person, even though there aren't as many as any of us would like. There are also a couple spaces where you can talk about sexuality with both or either educators and peers (since we know sometimes any of us can tire of hearing from teachers), but where even peer-to-peer communication is moderated well and kept safe. Scarleteen is one of these places, but not the only one. If you want some other sources to back up our information with or talk at, or if we aren't a place that works for you, feels like a right fit, or feels safe for you -- remember, it's always okay to steer away from anything where you don't feel safe -- here are some more national or international English-language options that also fit the kind of criteria on the checklists above: