Shifting Paradigms of Sexuality Education in the Digital Era

Taboos around sexuality exist all over the world. In Argentina, a platform aims to change that. #ChauTabú (Spanish for #ByeTaboo) is a sexuality education resource that demystifies sex and sexuality and provides information about young people’s rights. The goal is to challenge power relations and empower young people to determine their own futures.

In Argentina, the sexual and reproductive health education that young people receive is out-dated and fails to comply with the very progressive Integral Sex Education Law, which was approved by the National Congress in 2006. The main obstacles include the poor quality of the current curricula and its inconsistent implementation throughout the country, which is left to the discretion of each province’s Ministry of Education. With #ChauTabú, the government of the city of Buenos Aires is taking a proactive, positive, rights-based approach to sex and sexuality, with a broad and fluid understanding of sexuality and gender. The content was co-developed with civil society organizations.

A high percentage of Buenos Aires’ youth have access to and use the internet, so an online platform made sense. #ChauTabú was inspired by the idea that sexuality education empowers people, allowing them to make informed decisions about their lives and bodies. In designing the platform, the city government had multiple goals:

  • To frame sexuality education in a positive way. The focus across the site is never ‘what not to do,’ but rather ‘how to safely enjoy what you want to do or are doing,’ stressing the importance of individual choice, informed decisions, and responsible practices.
  • To adopt a rights-based, non-heteronormative approach. The aim is to consider sexuality as a spectrum, and to provide information and visuals relatable to different kinds of sexual experiences. This meant a great emphasis was placed on providing information relevant to LGBT youth, including using illustrations and language that portrayed diversity.
  • To make a participatory resource. The platform includes an ‘online practice’ that allows users to send in questions and get a response from a doctor. This resource allows us to supplement the core content providing a better service to users. It also permits tracking recurring concerns from users, enabling us to strengthen and update the site to include these topics. This represents a way in which governments can acknowledge civil society’s concerns in the digital era.

Last year’s Zika outbreak exposed the elephant in the room with respect to poor sexual and reproductive health education in Latin America and the Caribbean, reinforcing the need for a paradigm shift in sexual and reproductive education. We need to tackle taboos that hinder progress, but this work does not come without challenges. During my time on this project, we did not conduct any formal monitoring and evaluation, but some key issues arose. Reflecting on these challenges may help practitioners currently involved in sexuality education, and digital interventions in particular.

One key issue is related to the anonymity of users. Online spaces have the great advantage of giving users privacy to explore sensitive topics, without worrying about stigma or peer pressure. However, for educators and policy-makers alike this creates a barrier to knowing their audience, and thereby programming content accordingly. While we did include forms for users to provide further information about themselves, digital spaces make it difficult to ensure the information provided is accurate.

Given the sensitive nature of sexuality education, we were not surprised to find resistance to the #ChauTabú project. Sex education inevitably elicits strong opinions and taboos steeped in social values, ideology, religion, and morality that are hard to break. In addition, our platform faced further criticism because it was groundbreaking in adopting a non-heteronormative, rights-based approach.

However, the extent of the backlash exceeded our expectations. The Catholic Church officially condemned the site, religious groups started campaigns to have it taken down, and the debate reached the front pages of national newspapers. The experience illustrated that sexual and reproductive health interventions are highly likely to provoke social controversy. This should not be seen as a weakness, but as an opportunity for an informed public debate about a topic that is usually silenced.

Mobilizing other progressive voices, whether from the government or other civil society organizations, may lead to transformative policies that stem from a broader agenda. #ChauTabú and other similar initiatives have the potential to be more than information resources; they can be platforms from which to advocate for sociocultural, political, and legal innovations that can advance sexual and reproductive rights.

Lastly, sexuality education digital platforms coexist online with other sex-related content, including: dating sites, awareness raising campaigns, porn, and revenge porn. Developers of digital sexuality education platforms should reflect on their project as one of many online sex-related resources.

In Latin America and throughout the world, governments and civil society organizations are increasingly exploring using digital spaces for sexuality education. Even porn sites can potentially contribute towards a paradigm shift about how and when people can access and learn about sexuality and reproductive health. Sharing the challenges, successes, and failures these initiatives face will be critical to advancing access to sexuality education and ensuring safe and healthy experiences for learners.

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