Formal sex education in the United States is pretty dismal.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 80 percent of adolescents aged 15 to 19 were taught in schools or churches about sexually transmitted infections (STI) and avoiding sex, but only 55 percent of boys and 60 percent of girls received instruction on methods of birth control.
That raises questions around the adequacy of sex education. But there are issues beyond the basics of protection.
The near absence of information on sex outside of heterosexual monogamy leaves many people out of the discussion. This has a large impact on Americans’ well-being.
Less than 5 percent of students received LGBTQ+-inclusive sex education, according to a 2013 survey from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. Even more shocking, only 12 percent of millennials received sex education that covered same-sex relationships at all, according to findings from the Public Religion Research Institute. Discussing sexual orientation in sex ed classes is only required in 12 states.
This leaves LGBTQ+ youth especially vulnerable. In fact, studies show that young women who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual are more likely to contract an STI and more likely to become pregnant than their heterosexual classmates.
Not talking about sexual health issues beyond same-sex monogamy can also add to the stigma around coming out, and confusion around attraction to the same sex.
O.school is a free online livestreaming service for sexual health and pleasure education that has the potential to fill these knowledge gaps.
Since their November 2017 launch, O.school has streamed two to four live videos with sex educators from across the country every day.
Lessons are queer, trans, and kink inclusive, and aimed at people over 18 years old. They broach subjects such as consent, sexual trauma, polyamory, and unique issues people of color face.
During a workshop on coming out, sex educator Mia Li explored her own experience and welcomed questions. “Coming out doesn’t have to be universal in all interactions, it’s different every time,” she told listeners. Screenshot of O.school livestream.
The importance of inclusive sex education
As a queer sex educator and sexual health writer, the creation of a safe place to learn and talk about diverse issues is important. It’s desperately needed at a time when public sex education isn’t enough.
My high school was so forward-thinking that the Westboro Baptist Church came to protest our school’s queer inclusivity. Despite this liberal leaning, I still received exclusively scare tactic, sex-negative sexual health education that included many graphic images of untreated STIs and warnings against engaging in sexual activities.
We learned about contraception, but abstinence was emphasized. Queer sexual activities were only discussed once — to warn us against anal sex because of its high rates of HIV transmission (which can be easily protected against using the correct contraception).
Because of my experience with sex ed, the idea of queerness and queer sex didn’t enter my head until I reached college. It was an incredibly confusing and difficult time.
I searched for every article I could possibly find on lesbian sex, but very little existed that wasn’t directed at the male gaze.
Had O.school been an option as I entered college, my level of understanding of my queerness and its implications on sex and sexual health would’ve been far superior.
Personally, I’m thrilled that O.school exists to educate and prepare people as they explore the meaning of their own sexuality.
While O.school offers up advice on a host of topics, their consent and queer-inclusive education is especially rich. From “The Birds, The Bees, and Consent” to “You’re Queer, You’re Here, Now What?” and “HIV Today: How Do I Know If I’m Queer?” they tackle several topics that a wide range of people would benefit from.
O.school founder Andrea Barrica realized the need for more inclusive and pleasure-based sex education when she was exploring her sexuality. Photo from Andrea Barrica.
Nothing between Planned Parenthood and porn
The platform was founded by Andrea Barrica, a 27-year-old technology accountant and venture capitalist turned sexual health educator.
“While working at a venture capitalist firm, I was exploring my sexuality and I couldn’t find anything online,” Barrica explained.
“It was either Cosmo or porn, and I asked myself, what’s between Planned Parenthood and PornHub?”
Barrica initially wanted to find an already existing platform to stream O.school lessons from, but realized quickly they weren’t allowed on Facebook Live. Periscope didn’t meet their needs. So, Barrica and her small team built livestreaming software from scratch.
Creating their own platform allowed for freedom in the type of space they wanted to foster.
“We care about building a community. There’s a big need for a place on the internet where people can talk about sex and consent and trauma and kink,” she said.
Health professionals support O.school’s mission
O.school is recognized by public health professionals who see the value in comprehensive sex education.
Emma Kaywin, a sexual health educator with a background in HIV work who’s currently a health education EdD candidate, praised O.school for being a safe internet space for people to engage in difficult topics.
“We are in an era where many young people around the country are subject to state-level guidelines that limit the type of sexual health education to which they are given access,” Kaywin explained. She believes policy advocacy is necessary for true change on a national level.
While Kaywin pointed out that O.school is better for individuals who already have a basic understanding of sex and sexual health, Kaywin is excited that O.school has provided a platform to discuss “desire and depression, supporting your partner post-trauma, and being respectful while dating gender-nonconforming individuals.”
Community educator and relationship expert Talia Baurer echoes Kaywin. She’s also excited that O.school is pleasure-focused and intersectional, especially because “it lifts the voices of queer and trans educators and educators of color” with their focus on hiring diverse teachers for their programs.
Baurer does point out that the lack of content available outside of livestreams from 3-8 p.m. PST isn’t convenient for everybody. O.school is currently working on a solution to their livestream-only platform, but as of right now, participants must tune in on time.
A platform for sex ed already being done offline
Sex educators have flocked to O.school to spread the work they were already doing in small group settings. Now their audience potential is unlimited. While livestreaming times may keep some people from tuning in, cost, location, and advertising are no longer a factor.
“There are so many awesome sex educators that have something to say, but have you ever seen an ad on Facebook for a sex ed class?” Barrica asks. “No. It’s really hard to be an educator without a platform.”
When O.school was first announced, they received over 250 applications from educators. They now offer classes from 65 sex educators.
O.school has offered Uchenna Ossai a platform to bring pelvic floor dysfunction to the mainstream.
“As a pelvic health physical therapist, I see patients every day who struggle with profound pelvic floor dysfunction that disrupts their ability to have fulfilling sexual experiences,” Ossai said.
“When I saw O.school’s mission of pleasure-centric sex ed taught by a diverse pool of educators, counselors, and therapists, I applied immediately,” she added.
O.school is certainly filling an important gap, particularly with its ability to actively engage participants while the livestreams are happening — as opposed to the YouTube platform, which only allows for conversation after.
While O.school is aimed at people with at least a working knowledge of anatomy and sex, it’s an amazing free tool for conversations that go beyond the minimal lessons of public sex ed.
Before sex educator Stella Harris ended her lesson on polygamy that I tuned in to, she encompassed O.school’s mission perfectly.
“There should be no shame in sex,” she said over the livestream. “That’s why I’m constantly talking about it on the internet. It’s my mission in life to get people talking.”
And that’s exactly what O.school is doing.