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 Online censors are a barrier to sex education
  • Online censors are a barrier to sex education

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Sex, lies and algorithms — educators need to work with a changing online landscape, says Pauline Oosterhoff.

Rapidly expanding internet access for young people in developing countries poses new and unexpected challenges to sex education. At the end of 2015 there were two billion internet users in the developing world. And with this comes easy access to online pornography, creating a situation where young people in places as diverse as Britain, Ghana, Ethiopia, Egypt and India are now more likely to learn about sex online than anywhere else.

This has been recognised for a while in developed countries, but much less so in low- and middle-income countries where sex education for young people can do much to reduce maternal mortality, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy — and inform on the realities of sex and pleasure.

A changing landscape

A number of countries that restrict modern formal sex education have, in the past, provided education on sexuality and relationships through some form of indigenous cultural institution. In Sierra Leone, for example, it is women’s secret societies that have traditionally passed on sexual knowledge and norms to adolescent girls. But such institutions have weakened, or disappeared, just as internet access among young people has grown.

Much has been written about the role of religious authorities and parents in stopping sex education. They were, until recently, quite effective. These traditional gatekeepers encouraged the sex educators left to move online, providing information through websites and on social media to reach young people.

But these educators are up against some major obstacles, including how porn online can be identified and defined, and increasingly, the new online gatekeepers. And they find themselves in a new environment, where there’s no shortage of commercial porn providers vying for young people’s attention.

Understanding digital pathways

A survey of 5,000 young people in India, by international sex education provider Love Matters, found that 92 per cent of mostly 18–24 year-olds had watched porn at some point in their lives with only moderate differences between men and women. Eighty-four per cent of the women surveyed and 97 per cent of the men had watched porn on the internet. 

“This is a major challenge for sex educators as it makes it difficult to identify their audience and target their online messages by search words, especially when you add in to the mix censorship and algorithms used online to ban content deemed explicit.”

Pauline Oosterhoff

How do young people reach these sites? Do they land accidentally on a sex education site while looking for porn, or are they purposely looking for reliable information about sexuality and/or relationships? Knowing more about the digital environment and the various ‘user pathways’ would help build more effective online sex education interventions.

However, it is not always clear whether a search term like “penis” means someone is looking for sex education or porn, or how to tell the difference. In fact, in a digital environment it can be hard to figure out even basic demographics such as somebody’s gender or age.

New research at the Institute of Development Studies, in collaboration with Love Matters, analysed 471,000 individual search terms from Kenyan users that brought them to the Love Matters website. It found it almost impossible to classify education vs porn searches on a large scale. This is a major challenge for sex educators as it makes it difficult to identify their audience and target their online messages by search words, especially when you add in to the mix censorship and algorithms used online to ban content deemed explicit.  

The new gatekeepers

Another ongoing issue is censorship laws, and attempts to enforce anti-pornography and obscenity laws. The government of India blocked 857 pornographic websites in 2015, and just last week came news from the UK on a proposed new censorship law aimed at preventing children from accessing pornographic content online.

“Sex educators and policy makers need to work together with young people, ethical porn producers and social media to devise a sex education strategy.”

Pauline Oosterhoff

Social media giants Google and Facebook exercise another form of censorship. Through algorithms, they are deciding what can be shared and what cannot, and our research has found that what is deemed explicit is often surprising.

A recent example that caused wide international protests was that of documentary photography from the Vietnam War: a photograph by Nick Ut, showing a naked girl running down a street.

More generally, sex educators are banned on social media for publications that have no nudity. For example, an advert with the question ‘Is sex painful first time?’ with a picture of a hand picking up a bed sheet was blocked. A picture of a dog wearing sunglasses, featuring the caption ‘Doggy-style: Are all men dogs?’ on the website of the Indian chapter of Love Matters, is another 2014 ad campaign that was censored by Facebook between 27 December 2015 and 16 July 2016.
This is a global issue. Because Facebook and YouTube censor images of female nipples, Argentinean activists used an overweight man with large breasts in YouTube videos on breast examinations for cancer detection. 

Unclear censorship policies by these new gatekeepers affect access to sex education sites. Between December 2015 and July 2016, Facebook rejected 24 per cent of the campaign posts created by Love Matters India, 27 per cent of those created by Love Matters Hablemos in Mexico/Venezuela, 6 per cent of Love Matters Arabic’s posts and 8 per cent of those by Love Matters Kenya.

Working with producers and gatekeepers

Online platforms meet a demand for authoritative sex education — we need to better understand how educators in developing countries can use the power of porn and social media providers to reach audiences with comprehensive sex education.

Sex educators and policy makers need to work together with young people, ethical porn producers and social media to devise a sex education strategy.

There are potential risks – including reputational damage – of working with the porn industry. With development funding declining and aid contested, donors may be very wary of entering into these debates. But not doing so risks leaving the difficult decision-making to emotional responsesor algorithms, depriving millions of young people worldwide from accessing information that is vital for their sexual and reproductive health.
 
Pauline Oosterhoff is research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies in Brighton, UK. She can be contacted at [email protected]
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