When Brianna Rader surveyed teens and young adults on where they learned about sex, the top three answers were friends, Google and movies.
“They want something casual and comforting and accessible,” Rader, 24, told me. “And they don’t want to be embarrassed.”
All of which shaped her new creation: Juicebox, a free app that allows users to anonymously ask questions about sex and sexual health and get answers from experts at the Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists.
The app has two features: The first is Snoop, which lets users post their questions and browse through questions that others have asked. The questions range from, “Can I get HIV from kissing?” to “I’ve been with my girlfriend for two years, and I’m afraid she might be cheating on me because we’re not having sex anymore.”
The second feature is Spill, which is a collection of users’ relationship and sex stories.
“Our app is first fun, second educational,” she said. “But I would argue you can learn from everything on it. Reading other people’s experiences is a great source of information.”
Rader grew up in Tennessee, where her sex ed classes promoted abstinence as the only way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. At the University of Tennessee, where she earned her bachelor’s degree, Rader helped organize “sex week” in 2013 to promote sexual health and awareness – similar to a program launched at Yale in 2002 and picked up at Harvard, Brown and other Ivy League schools shortly afterward.
Caving to pressure from state lawmakers in Tennessee, the university yanked most of the funding for the event, which offered HIV testing, lectures and sex ed classes. The programs went on as planned, though, relying on crowdsourcing efforts by students and participants.
Rader, then, is no stranger to the entrenched reticence to discuss sex with young people.
But given the United States’ teen pregnancy numbers – the highest of any developed country – and sexually transmitted infection rates – 20 million new STI cases each year, half of which are among people ages 15 to 24 – not talking to young people about sex doesn’t appear to be working so well.
“We’re all about getting rid of shame and stigma,” Rader said. “Before you’re sure of yourself, you spend so much time thinking, ‘Am I normal? Is this OK?’”
Those are tricky inquiries to run by friends and movies, whose definition of normal may be pretty narrow, or Google, whose mechanics may take you to places you never meant to venture.
Juicebox, Rader hopes, answers people’s fears and curiosity in an accurate, judgment-free way.
“People think sex education is teaching people to put condoms on bananas,” said Rader, who recently completed a master’s degree in global health at the University of California at San Francisco. “But sex educators talk about sex and gender and relationships and body image. That’s what I believe comprehensive sex education is about.”
Contact Heidi Stevens at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter: @heidistevens13.