Laci Green’s eyes light up as she talks about sex. It’s an unremarkable March morning as this relative stranger — who peers earnestly at me via our Skype video screens — and I discuss online pornography, sex positions, and masturbation. I’m not Green’s client; she’s not a service provider in the conventional sense. But this is how most fans and followers know her: totally at ease, sitting in front of a camera, staring earnestly into its lens.
Green isn’t a porn star. The 23-year-old is a peer sex educator and host of Sex+ (for “sex positive” or “sex plus”), a YouTube series aimed at helping young people learn more about safe sex, self-esteem, and everything in between. Because her videos have proved so popular, she’s now also working for Planned Parenthood and co-hosting the science-based YouTube channel DNews for the Discovery Channel. “I’m just enjoying doing so much awesome work,” she says. “It is a lot of work, but it’s awesome.” Four years ago, it was a little different.
At 19, while a student at the University of California, Berkeley, Green started making videos based on her personal experiences with sex and body image. Her early videos are largely informed by her own misconceptions and fears, while her later work is more broadly focused on the issues her audience struggles with, often directly addressing questions for which they wanted answers.
While sex occupies a sizable role on the Internet, it’s mostly pornography with a side serving of misinformation. From one-eighth to nearly two-fifths of all Web sites host sexually graphic material. LiveJasmin.com, the most popular adult Web site globally, receives 32 million hits a month. While a scratch for every itch can be useful if you’re looking to get your rocks off, that doesn’t help a 14-year-old looking for advice about sexuality, sexual conduct, or just what an average human body looks like. Between Yahoo! Answers, YouPorn, and a typical online forum, there’s an alarming amount of bum information out there.1
This has a harmful trickle-down effect. A report by Middlesex University for the Office of the Children’s Commissioner in England tried to quantify the effect that easy access to porn – and other unreliable materials about human sexuality – has on people’s sexual health, self-esteem, and bedroom behavior. “We’re all victims of porn,” one teenage respondent told Dr. Miranda Horvath, who led the study.
Horvath’s review found that young people are increasingly turning to pornography, “expecting it to educate and give them information regarding sexual practices and norms,” she explains. Obviously, anyone who has set eyes on a blue movie knows that it hardly reflects reality. Horvath says that from her research, she’s found that “young people want and need safe spaces in which they can ask questions about relationships and sex.”
Life through a lens
Laci Green has gone through a significant evolution since she started her peer-education quest four years ago. Her videos have multiplied in popularity, each garnering hundreds of thousands of views. Green has also largely exhausted her personal experiences as potential fodder for the show. “I’ve been out of college for a few years now; I’m older,” she explains. “I think my videos now come from a much more developed place than they did when Sex+ first started.”
Those initial few videos were a way for Green to thresh out her ideas about sexuality, all of which had been stymied by her closeted upbringing. “I was raised Mormon — which, if you know anything about Mormonism, is one of the most restrictive religions in the world,” she begins. (A Church of the Latter-Day Saints edict to the young commands people not to do anything “that arouses sexual feelings. Do not arouse those emotions in your own body.”)
“My project really started with me leaving the church and discovering sexuality isn’t the terrible, awful, shameful thing I’d come to believe it was.” Green was, by her own admission, “in a community where my ideas about sexuality were very taboo, and not acceptable.” The videos were a way for her to find like-minded people who wanted to discuss sex and body image in frank terms. “That’s been one of the best parts of the project, actually,” she says. “Finding a community of people who feel the same way as I do.”
College provided the fuel for her fire. “I was really interested in gender studies, feminism and humanism, social issues like that,” she explains. While at school she engaged with community activism. It all proved a useful outlet for something that had been stifled and stoppered by her Mormon upbringing. “Religion was a catalyst,” she admits, “but it’s much bigger than that.” You feel, talking to Green, that she has her own viewpoint that can’t be constrained by the edicts of religion. And that comes across in her videos.
A world away from the cringe-inducing PSAs that used to pass for sex ed, Green has a frank, accessible manner unimaginable to anyone over a certain age. She turns to all manner of social media to reach her audience, and to get their feedback on hot-button issues. It begins with her YouTube videos, but the conversation continues on Facebook and Tumblr. Green’s style of peer education is a direct response to what she sees as a failure in the way sex education is carried out in America’s schools, although unhappiness at the way the birds and the bees are taught in classrooms seems to be common the world over.2
Wisdom of crowds
Green earned her undergraduate degree in law, social sciences, and education from UC Berkeley, and read about sex education as part of her coursework. More than anything, college taught her how to differentiate the real research from hearsay. “I pick up good books from people who are well-known in the industry and learn from them,” she points out. “I use the Internet a lot for research. I know how to research – there are some rules, though. You don’t go to random-ass blogs with .net, .az, or whatever to get your information. You go to .edu; you go to government sites. You look over research and evaluate it.”
Green realized her research skills weren’t enough. She needed professional backup. Through an online call for experts, Green received 2,500 applications from people hoping to be peer counselors attached to the Sex+ project. (Some were more qualified than others.) She whittled down the applicants to a core team of 10 people with whom she regularly meets on Skype to discuss the latest research and who advise her on the next topics to open for discussion. All are master’s-educated; some are nurses or therapists. And as she puts it, “All are way more qualified than me to give advice, which is pretty awesome.”
She has to make sure she’s right when giving people such critical advice, and the burden of proof weighs heavily on her. “I feel a great sense of responsibility. I always put links to all my sources in the videos so people can check them out themselves.” Her hope is that she turns research that’s 50 pages long — “and in a very inaccessible language with lots of technical terms” — into a four-minute video that a 15-year-old can watch and actually understand.
Deep in the heart of Texas
Like many young Americans, Green received an abstinence-only education. In her opinion, avoiding the topic completely just doesn’t work. Take Texas, where abstinence-only education has worked so well that it has the third-highest incidence of teen pregnancy in the country.3
“I sometimes get email from people who are so appalled I would tell teenage girls how to actually have an orgasm when they masturbate,” she says. For a moment, she seems exasperated, before breaking into a full laugh. “I’m like, ‘Look, your daughter is the one emailing me. I’m just making it better for her!’”
Squeamishness around sex doesn’t help young people at a time when they need this advice most desperately. “There’s a sort of gut response we have to talking about sex,” she says. “I think there’s just a lot of shame associated with it. What ends up happening is nobody ends up talking about it – except behind closed doors – and then all kinds of shit happens because people don’t have the tools they need to engage positively with their sexuality.”
Jeremy Todd, chief executive of Family Lives, a UK-based charity, agrees. “Without clear and realistic facts about sex and relationships, young people will seek out information from elsewhere,” he says. “Seeking to maintain sexual ignorance is not the answer; young people may find information that is inaccurate. The UK has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Europe. Other European countries ensure their young people have realistic information about sex and relationships.” Burying your head in the sand, then, doesn’t seem to be the answer. But there’s a problem that goes beyond whether young people are being taught sex education: it’s how they’re taught, too.
Even the schools that do teach a non-abstinence sexual education curriculum still run up against one big difficulty: giggly teenagers really don’t want to be taught about their bodies by an overworked 40-year-old math teacher. “I think that’s part of the problem,” Green agrees. “The mold we use to talk about sexuality is very proscriptive. I think a lot of the time in education — not just in sex ed, but in education in general — we think the model should be authority shining down their rays of godliness onto the lowly minions that need to learn all of their great wisdom.”
At this point, Green mimics a beatific presence, with her hands miming the raining down of advice. “But really, there’s another way to educate, which is just arming everyday regular people with actual facts and information that they can then talk about in ways that feel natural and comfortable to them. I think that is huge — a huge part of Sex+.”
Indeed, Green takes the role of a normal person, a peer to the young and confused. She’s not stern or serious, instead presenting difficult (and embarrassing) concepts with a smile and sense of humor. That’s why 635,000 people and counting have watched her video on vaginal hygiene, and half a million her advice on anal sex.
But don’t be fooled. Though she’s using comedy and her personality to pop through the discomfort many feel in talking about such issues, these videos aren’t misleading. Green takes her role as an educator seriously; she’s seen too many half-truths and myths spread in the name of sexual science to do anything else. “There is a lot of false information out there,” she worries. “One of my most popular videos is about how you can’t pop your hymen. People think a hymen pops. That is factually false, yet it is taught in schools around the world. That is crazy to me!”
In it for the long haul
Eventually, Green may go back to school to get her Ph.D., but that doesn’t mean she’ll be abandoning her video work. “I’ll be putting out videos for quite a while,” she laughs. “I feel like I’ve finally got to the place where there’s a vibrant conversation. I’ve been working on this for years. I’m not about to peace out right as I’ve gotten to the point where I feel like I’m in a great place with it.”
Sitting in front of a webcam in her home has gained Laci Green a half-a-million strong audience, a tie-in with one of America’s foremost sexual charities, and a role on the Discovery Channel’s YouTube page. “Discovery was like, ‘Hey, we need hosts for our show,’” she explains. “So that came about like that.” Too often the Internet gets short shrift as a positive learning place — especially when it comes to sexual matters. We’re bombarded by porn and swamped by poor answers to desperate questions.
We’ve got an education system that blusters and blushes when the faintest mention of reproductive organs comes up in conversation. Laci Green, the former Mormon girl who wanted to learn the truth about sex, has a simple solution. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we had, like, twenty-somethings who were given specific training about sexuality and then went to talk to high schoolers?” she asks with a smile. “What if it was more mainstream to do that? That’s the battle. That’s the battle.”
Search terms for sex-related problems rank high: type “how do I know” into Google, and among its top suggestions are “how do I know if I’m pregnant?” and “how do I know if I have a yeast infection?” ↩
“Our review found growing evidence indicating that young people are unhappy with the sex education they are receiving,” Middlesex University’s Dr. Horvath tells me. “The onus must be on adults to provide [children] with evidence-based education and support, and help them to develop healthy, not harmful, relationships with one another.” ↩
Decorum prevents me from pointing out in the main body of this story that three school districts in the state tell students the lie that “if a woman is dry, the sperm will die.” If you want to read more about this madness, Gail Collins’ book, As Texas Goes…, will help enlighten you. ↩
Chris Stokel-Walker is a UK-based freelance writer for the Economist, the Sunday Times, the BBC, and BuzzFeed.