Masturbation hacks and consent advice: how YouTubers took over sex education
With UK schools increasingly falling short, vloggers such as Hannah Witton and Laci Green have stepped up to offer guidance on everything from body confidence to sexual pleasure
When Lily was at school, she remembers the boys and girls being separated for a sex education class. The boys were given one booklet; the girls another. “In the boys’ booklet, there was a section on masturbation and there wasn’t in the girls’ booklet,” she says. “A girl put her hand up and said: ‘Why don’t we have that?’ and one of the teachers said: ‘Girls don’t do that, that’s disgusting.’ It shouldn’t be a shameful thing to talk about. It can be a bit awkward and embarrassing, but we should be talking about it.”
Afterwards, Lily, who is now 19 and identifies as bisexual, went online and discovered sex education videos on YouTube, particularly those made by a young woman, Hannah Witton. “Within my friendship group it has really opened up a conversation about things you don’t normally discuss,” she says. “In schools, LGBT sex ed is just not talked about. Sex was never discussed as a pleasurable thing, especially for women.” Magazines such as Cosmopolitan filled some of her knowledge gaps, she says, but most of her sex education has come from Witton.
YouTube sex educators are increasingly popular, and for the young people I speak to, such videos are where almost all their information about sex now comes from. Witton, who is 26 and British, is incredibly popular, with 430,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel and videos racking up millions of views. Why Having Big Boobs Sucks! has received 3.5m views; 10 Masturbation Hacks has had 1.2m. In the US, Laci Green has 1.5 million subscribers and her videos on, among many topics, nudity, vaginas, foreskins and pubic hair reach millions. There are several other hugely successful sex-ed vloggers, such as Shan Boody and Dr Lindsey Doe. In Poland, where sex education was recently removed from schools, young people are turning to vloggers such as Natalia Trybus, while the model Anja Rubik and a women’s rights organisation, Dziewuchy Dziewuchom, have also launched a series of sex education videos on YouTube.
Amy, 16, says these videos are where almost all of her sex education has come from. “I only really started being given proper sex education in year 10 or 11, when I was about to leave school.” It would have been helpful to have had it earlier, she says. She started watching Witton’s videos when she was about 12. “Everyone around me seemed to understand sex stuff and I was completely clueless,” she says. What did she find most helpful? “Quite a lot of it was her masturbation videos. She presents it in a very positive way – female masturbation is a controversial subject when it shouldn’t be. It helped me understand that side of things. If I had questions, I could probably go on her channel and scroll back and see if she’d posted on it. I’m not that sexually active but I feel like I’m more understanding of what [happens]. I feel a bit more confident because I’ve learned about it in a way that isn’t porn. It’s helped me become more sex positive. It helps me feel like I can talk about it with my friends, whereas before it was like: ‘I can’t talk about that even though everyone’s going through it.’” Has it made it easier to talk to her parents, too? “A little bit,” she says.
It is not surprising that young people are turning to the internet for information, says Lisa Hallgarten, policy manager at Brook, the sexual health and education charity. “Partly because they get everything from the internet. But there is also the fact that in schools they’re just not getting what they need. Even in schools where they’re trying to do a good job, young people aren’t getting the information they need, when they need it. Young people are saying: don’t talk to us about contraception when we’re 17, because some of our friends are already pregnant.”
At the moment, personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) – in which sex education is often included – is not a statutory part of the curriculum in the UK, although schools are expected to provide it. Last year, the Department for Education announced that relationships and sex education (RSE) would be compulsory in all secondary schools, and an eight-week consultation on what should be included recently ended; the guidance has not been updated since 2000, during which time children have had to face then-unheard of things such as sexting, cyberbullying and access to online pornography. “What we would like is for RSE to be a mandatory part of PSHE and for PSHE to be a statutory subject and taught as a timetabled lesson,” says Hallgarten.
Some aspects of sex education are compulsory and taught in science classes. However, parents have the right to remove their children from RSE. “Most parents want RSE for their children but we are worried that those who get withdrawn are possibly the most vulnerable and the least likely to be in households where they get that information from their parents,” says Hallgarten. “They may well resort to looking on the internet of their own accord, and in that case more power to the vloggers. I think there are good vloggers and mediocre vloggers. Some of what people see will be misinformation. I think vlogs should be a supplement, not a replacement to classroom teaching.”
As it is, many teachers are not supported well enough to deliver great sex education lessons, she says. “I think there are a lot of teachers who feel awkward about talking about any aspect of RSE and that’s why we are lobbying hard to make it a real subject and provide real training. There are teachers who really love doing it and are really excellent, but lots of teachers don’t want to do it. If they feel awkward talking about it then it’s not really helpful for young people.” As Amy puts it: “Sex education isn’t seen as a positive thing. It’s seen as cringey. [Watching YouTubers] where it’s people who are only a little bit older than us and not like 40-year-old teachers, it might help people understand it better.”
Hallgarten identified particular areas in which conventional RSE is lacking. “Things like talking about sexual pleasure is something that lots of teachers would really shy away from. They are told about unhealthy relationships but they often don’t have a good model for what a healthy sexual relationship would look like. The vast majority of people will have sex at some point in their life and we hope that it will be a nice experience, but we don’t talk about that. That’s one of the things young people go online to try to understand.”
Some teachers have started even using YouTube sex-ed clips in a classroom setting. “We use a lot of the vloggers in our work,” says Eleanor Draeger, senior RSE trainer at the Sex Education Forum. “We go out and train teachers and show them a wide range of different resources they can use in their classrooms, and one of the resources is vlogs. The idea is that the teacher chooses the things they think will work with the students in their class.” Many of the topics might not be appropriate for secondary school age children; some of the most popular sex education videos are on topics such as encouraging stripping, and the use of sex toys and porn.
“One of the ways we might recommend using a vlogger is we show the video on whichever subject you’re teaching and then the teacher can explain anything the students didn’t understand or expand on the topic. If you were only getting your sex education from [videos] you might not get a rounded sex education. Having said that, I think they’re fantastic as an adjunct and I wish that kind of thing had been around when I was younger.”
Witton launched her first sex education video in January 2012 (she had been posting videos on YouTube for some time before that). It was a video on contraception, presented with a friend. “Sex education is pretty crap, at least in the UK,” she said in it, “so I wanted to make a mini series of sex education videos that hopefully you guys will enjoy and learn some stuff.” That “mini series”, as she endearingly described it, presented and filmed without her more recent polish, has turned into dozens of videos, millions of viewers, a book, and a full-time job as a YouTube star. Witton is smiley and chatty and presents her videos from her flat. She has covered sex toys, hormones, masturbation, porn, consent and open relationships (she doesn’t only talk about sex and relationships – in recent weeks she has been talking about undergoing surgery for ulcerative colitis and what it is like to live with a stoma).
“I was very much inspired by Laci Green in the US,” she says, “and I decided I wanted to start making content about that because I noticed that most of my audience were young women. I felt like I wanted to do something. In terms of my personal experience, [sex education] was very much lacking in school. I had more of an open household so I could talk to my parents, in theory. I remember meeting people once I got to sixth form, who had maybe been to a different school from me or had a different upbringing, who didn’t know some stuff I thought was really basic. I met someone who thought it was totally fine to not use a condom and just pull out. I was like, ‘nooo’.”
She is direct and funny. “I genuinely feel no awkwardness at all. It was one of the reasons I felt like it would be a good idea to start making videos like this, because I know some people don’t feel comfortable talking about these things. If I have a platform and I’m OK talking about them, I can use that platform for good.”
The videos that have done particularly well, she says, include those on masturbation, “especially female masturbation, which for some reason is still taboo. A lot of people either don’t want to admit it’s happening or feel too ashamed to talk about it. There is a general shame and stigma around that topic, in terms of actually doing it but also talking about it.”
Her main audience is women aged between 18 and 24, with 25- to 34-year-olds the next biggest group. People have to be 13 to have a YouTube account (or say they’re 13, and there will be many people who watch without an account) but the 13-17 age bracket makes up just 6% of her audience. Witton, who is an ambassador for Brook, is careful about accuracy. Are there sex education vloggers who are spreading misinformation? “I couldn’t [think of any] off the top of my head, but it’s the internet, so yeah.”
Does she feel that for many young people, she’s their main provider of sex education? “That feels like a lot of pressure, but I’m always really clear that I’m not a doctor. I like to think of my videos as a conversation-starter and from there people’s curiosity can lead them to other bits of information if they want to look into it further. I don’t want to ever take a didactic approach of ‘I’m the teacher’. It’s more of a peer-to-peer education thing.”
In the US, Green started making videos at university. Growing up as a Mormon, her only sex education at school was around abstinence. “A lot of the teenagers in my community just didn’t have the information and resources they needed, so I was a bit miffed about that. I didn’t really ever get sex ed in school. It was only in college, which for me was much later – I’d started having relationships, dating, having sexual experiences. I felt it was too late.” Her videos, she says, felt like “a good platform to have a conversation with other people who thought the same way I did and to share information. As I was trying to figure this stuff out, I was getting the information I needed and sharing it online.”
Around 60% of Green’s subscribers are young women. “I think a lot of the problems we struggle with in society fall around misogynistic ideas around women’s bodies and about relationships, and this is what women are supposed to be and this is what men are supposed to be, which feeds into homophobia and transphobia as well.”
She says around two-thirds of the people who contact her have had no sex education at school, or abstinence-based lessons. “Then the other third did have sex ed but didn’t have all their questions answered. I think a lot of people are awkward about sex. A lot of teachers in the US don’t know how to answer these questions, they’re very restricted in what they can say or do and that makes it really hard for them to have an honest relationship with their students.”
Thea, 19, started watching sex education videos by Green and then found Witton’s. “I definitely got most of my sex ed from YouTube videos,” she says. “Which is sad, because some of this stuff should be taught in school to educate young teenagers properly about sex, but also about the gender and sexuality spectrums. My parents weren’t a lot of help either. It’s really awkward to talk to them about that stuff and they’re another generation so they don’t even know most of it.” She says YouTube videos have changed the way she thinks about sex, sexuality (she identifies as “queer”) and herself. “I feel a lot more confident about my body and I feel a lot more comfortable talking about sex. I probably wouldn’t have been able to actually come to terms with my sexuality if it wasn’t for YouTubers talking about theirs so openly. Online, people aren’t as reluctant to talk about sex, their sexuality and their gender any more, and that’s beginning to be the case in the real world as well, which is awesome.”