The Birds, The Bees, & Gen Z: Sex Ed in the Digital Age

I debated writing this blog post, proof of how tricky the topic of sex education is.  I found myself hesitating, wondering especially what my inner circle would think.  Will I feel awkward if my aunt or mother-in-law reads this, for example?  But if you want to understand Gen Z it is a timely and relevant topic given that the majority of these Digital Natives have fully entered adolescence, and growing up in the digital age has had an enormous impact on sex education and sex education needs.

Earlier this month I attended a seminar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education titled “Teens and Sex: Navigating from Shame and Regret to Integrity and Wellness”.  Peggy Orienstein, author of the recently released New York Times bestseller “Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape”, was one of the featured panelists.  As the stepmother of two Gen Z girls now entering their teenage years, I jumped at the opportunity to hear some expert advice.  The sexual landscape has certainly become far more complex in the digital age.  There is easy access to pornography and new transgressions for parents to worry about such as sexting.   Pretending these issues don’t impact Gen Z kids is denying an important reality of the world they live in.  Like it or not, being a Digital Native means being aware of far more in terms of human sexuality than previous generations were at similar ages.

Interestingly, and encouragingly for concerned parents, this increased awareness does not necessarily translate into increased sexual activity. In fact, a National Survey of Family Growth data reported that the percentage of never-married teenage females ever having sex declined from 51% in 1988 to 43% in 2011-2013.  Furthermore, while there is a lot of talk about sexting, few are actually taking part.  According to the Center for Innovative Public Health only a small minority – between 3 to 7 percent – of teens are sexting.  They report that the number may seem higher to parents because “one salacious incident can easily seize the attention of all students in a school”.

My expertise lies not in sex education but rather in understanding trends and how they impact generations.  As such there are few important considerations to keep in mind when thinking about the impact of digital access to sex content for Gen Z:

1. Growing up as Digital Natives means Gen Z-ers have always lived in a world where information is immediately available at their fingertips. The implication for sex education is that while Gen Z-ers may not know it all, they tend to know much more on the topic than previous generations did at the same age.  Questions are a normal part of the coming of age process, and in 2016 Google makes it really easy to get answers.  Even if you have the strictest of parental controls pertaining to the internet at home, kids will have friends and classmates who have full access to search engines; it’s a reality of growing up in 2016.  And kids talk; that’s a reality of adolescence.  Understanding this is critical for parents, mentors, and any adult who has an important Gen Z child in their lives. To ignore this flow of information is to lose the ability to have a positive impact and shape how our kids think about sex, respect, consent, safety, gender equality and much more.

2. Schools are struggling to keep up with changing sex education needs. Rachel Hanebutt, a recent graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education who speaks about issues pertaining to gender empowerment and sex-education, explains that most school programs focus on abstinence and those programs that are more comprehensive are still
incomplete.  Although we need to better prepare Gen Z, trying to stretch the boundaries of traditional sex education within schools often leads to pushback.

As just one example, in August 2015, Time Inc. reported on the efforts of a group of parents in Freemont California to get a McGraw-Hill textbook titled “Your Health Today” pulled from five district high schools.  McGraw-Hill, one of the big three textbook publishers, was attempting to keep up with the times by touching on modern issues that Gen Z is exposed to, for example, bondage.  After a dry explanation of what bondage is the textbook attempted to offer some sound advice saying that “most sex games are safe and harmless, but partners need to openly discuss and agree beforehand on what they are comfortable doing”.

“Bondage?!” many of you reading this might be thinking.  Yes, bondage.  As a simple proof point that this impacts Gen Z, we need only remember back to 2011 when the well-known pop star Rihanna hit #1 on the billboard charts with her catchy and upbeat song titled “S&M”.  Gen Z kids of all ages were dancing along as Rihanna sang that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but chains and whips excite me” (and those are some of the tamer lyrics).  Not to mention the 2011 novel and subsequent 2015 movie “Fifty Shades of Grey” – with 125 million copies sold worldwide in 52 languages, and over $570M in worldwide box office sales, it would be naïve to think that Gen Z adolescents were blissfully unaware of this pop-culture phenomenon and what the premise was.

Hanebutt is an advocate of encouraging both parents and school systems to think more broadly about sex-education.  For example, she supports role-playing as an important part of the curriculum.  “[Gen Z] must learn the skills to develop healthy social relationships.  If Maya isn’t able to say ‘no’ to her classmate [in a role-playing exercise] requesting sex, how can we expect her to have that sort of decision making in a very impulsive, high risk environment with her date on prom night?”

3. Pornography is ubiquitous online, and Gen Z is exposed to it. One thing is clear: we cannot ignore the impact of pornography on Gen Z adolescents.  US research shows that 73 percent of youth have seen online pornography before age 18.  The implications of this early exposure, and easy access to, pornography are far-reaching.

First, there are body image issues that come with using porn as a baseline for what real naked bodies look like.  Actors and actresses in pornography, much like in mainstream media, are selected in part due to their physical appearance and physical characteristics. Add to that good lighting, editing and retouching and it’s a perfect incubator for a multitude of insecurities among the rest of the population.  And it goes beyond the more obvious concerns around weight, appearance and breast size.  The New York Times recently reported on the increased number of teen girls seeking genital cosmetic surgery.  As if adolescents didn’t have enough to worry about – now they are concerned with the appearance of their private parts.

Second, the vast majority of pornography is a terrible ‘how-to’ sex-education tool.  Most pornography is written from a male perspective and caters to male fantasies.  It does nothing to depict how real-life couples interact and leaves both genders with an unrealistic understanding of human sexuality.

Lastly, there are safety issues.  Safe-sex practices and how to avoid STI’s or unwanted pregnancies are not usually addressed in mainstream pornography. In addition, there are issues of violence, respect and consent that are not part of the “pornography as sex-education” curriculum.

In summary, for Gen Z adolescence is far more complex in terms of sex-education than it was for previous generations.  Adults interacting with Gen Z are imparting information about their own values about sex both by what they say and by what they avoid.  Understanding the sexual landscape of Digital Natives is critical to anyone wanting to help Gen Z successfully navigate through this terrain, make smart choices around sexual activity and develop both healthy self-esteem and respect for others.