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22 November 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 3:52pm

The rise of sex education on Instagram

A new wave of influencers are using Instagram to bridge a gap between unrealistic expectations of sex and the limited remit of sex education within schools.

By Naomi Morris

When “sex edutainer” Zoe Ligon posted a photo on Instagram captioned with a “spontaneous poem” about her genital hygiene, almost 40,000 people liked it. But others responded less enthusiastically. The poem in question read: “Sometimes I have clit smegma / Sometimes I have toilet paper clumps stuck to my labia / Sometimes I have skid marks on my thong”. In a piece penned for Spectrum Journal – the magazine that runs concurrently to her sex shop Spectrum Boutique – Ligon writes that, alongside an outpouring of support, “people from all walks of life lost their shit”.

The backlash centred on the idea that these natural bodily functions made Ligon “dirty”, and therefore repulsive: perhaps even too abject to deserve respect. Under the Instagram handle @thongria, Ligon has amassed a platform where she is able to redress incorrect assumptions about and hatred towards the female body. Honesty about something as mundane and every day as the secretion of bodily fluids is a powerful antidote to the objectification of women and the idea that, to be sexy, women have to be like a sex doll: hairless, antiseptic, free of fluids. As well as explaining how bodily secretions actually work, Ligon emphasises how “harmful to our self-esteem” it is when we “consider our bodies a dirty place that constantly needs cleaning. You will never have a sterile body, it’s just not possible”.

A large number of sex educators like Ligon are using Instagram to bridge a gap between the unrealistic expectations of sex peddled by pornography and the limited remit of sex education within schools. This can include information on what it is normal – or not normal – for our bodies and reproductive organs to do; how to safely explore sexual relationships with others and ourselves; even how to address and overcome sexual trauma. At the heart of this plethora of information made easily available is the overriding sense that our sexuality is something we can ultimately have autonomy over. Safe to say, sex education on Instagram goes a lot further and deeper than learning how to put a condom on a banana.

There is clearly an appetite for better, more in-depth and wide-ranging sex education. The most popular sex educator accounts on Instagram have followings of hundreds of thousands (Zoe Ligon currently has 271k followers, and other popular personalities such as Ericka Hart and Eileen Kelly have 222k and 412k, respectively). Erica Smith, who has worked as a sex educator for almost 20 years, says this online community works well because “people are desperate for accurate and inclusive sexuality education.” On Instagram, she says, “people can access the information for free and discreetly. I get messages from so many folks saying their minds are blown by the things they’re learning, and they’re angry that they were denied access to this information earlier in their lives”. She hopes the online sex education community allows people to “become comfortable with their bodies and their sexuality”.

Ligon and others like her are using Instagram to subvert expectations of sex and sexuality, and to challenge misogynistic assumptions about sex – internalised or otherwise. For many of their followers, this content is both educational and comforting. Liv McMahon, a 23-year-old living in Glasgow, is a fan of Ligon because “her posts present a really playful but inclusive and intersectional image of sex”. Though she had felt less open about her sexuality in the past, in finding sex educators on Instagram she “felt encouraged to reclaim my sexuality for myself, rather than feel obliged to perform it.” I myself stumbled upon Ligon thanks to her YouTube series “Sex Stuff”, and found her openness on topics such as rope bondage, Kegal devices and sex toys endearing and ultimately reassuring. These were subjects I had not seen discussed so plainly, nor with such lightness and ease. I was immediately drawn into this new world of sex education.

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Thanks to the sheer number of regular Instagram users, the reach of Insta-sex educators is potentially extremely wide. McMahon uses Instagram “knowing that I learn more about myself through, and feel encouraged by, the mere presence of [sex educator] accounts on my feed”. There is a demonstrable power in being exposed to sex-positive content regularly: my own fears about having an up and down libido, or feeling disconnected during sex, are lessened when I read about other women – who are also experts on sex – that experience the same things.

Sex education on social media is able to be much more inclusive than traditional narratives around sex. Sonalee Rashatwar runs @thefatsextherapist: an account consisting mainly of text-based images with bite-sized quotes, such as “your fat body deserves pleasure without condition”, explored further in the captions. @afrosexology is an Instagram specifically aimed at providing a space “for Black people to openly discuss sexual exploration and liberation”. For Erica Smith, it was seeing other accounts educating on social justice that spurred her to create her own. “Sex education is inherently tied to all of those things,” Smith says “and reproductive justice and sexual health education are important components of equality”.

Of course, as with any large-scale social media platform, there are downsides to building an audience on Instagram. The company’s censorship policies have drawn harsh criticisms, particularly when it comes to content it deems sexually explicit. A number of sex education accounts claim they are “shadowbanned” by the platform – meaning their accounts do not show up when you search their names. Jimanekia Eborn, a sex educator and sexual trauma expert, says that although Instagram allows her to “reach the masses”, there is also a problem with censorship. “Censorship has gotten really tricky to navigate when trying to share content,” she tells me. “A lot of folks have had their accounts shut down.”

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Instagram recently mistook adverts for Salty – a digital publication for women, non-binary, gender non-conforming and transgender people – for “escorting services”. The ads featured transgender and non-binary people of colour and did not promote sex work. Ev’Yan Whitney, a prominent sex educator and host of the podcast The Sexually Liberated Woman, has emphasises the way in which Instagram sees her body as “inherently pornographic and automatically sexualised –even when it’s just being a body”. She believes “the algorithm harms community and exacerbates white supremacist patriarchal capitalism”. While many sex educators are able to thrive on a platform like Instagram, they also find themselves having to fight it.

In a time when well-known figures accused of sexual violence capture the headlines, it is more important than ever to reaffirm the right to exist safely within our bodies. For McMahon, one of the most transforming aspects of sex education on Instagram is the emphasis on consent, something that helped her come to terms with her own experiences of rape and sexual abuse. These issues weren’t covered by formal sex education, and as a result her experiences “ate away at me for a long time because I didn’t feel I could acknowledge them as being not okay in the slightest”.

Perhaps Instagram is currently the best place we have to fill in the blanks in our conversations around sex. As writer Lili Loofbourow argued in her The Week piece “The female price of male pleasure”, “sex is always a step behind social progress in other areas because of its intimacy. Talking details is hard, and it’s good we’re finally starting to.” If talking details can ultimately lead to progress, then the sex educators of social media are laying the foundations for change. The rise of Insta-sex education might just make it easier for everyone to have sex on their own terms.