When Megan Meador was in fifth grade, her Las Vegas-area public school held its first sex education class. It consisted solely of watching one animated video about STDs. The 10-year-old hardly understood it. “They basically gave us a plastic baggie with a tampon and said, ‘Have fun,’” Meador, now 19, said. No one brought up birth control.
Meador’s experience should come as no surprise to anyone who has sat through an awkward, misinformed birds-and-the-bees talk coming from an underpaid gym teacher.
The shortcomings of our country’s sex education curriculum have been well-documented; a study by the Guttmacher Institute found that only 24 states and D.C. mandate it. When sex education is taught in schools, 26 states require teachers plug abstinence, and only 13 states require what’s said in those classes be “medically accurate.”
With actual sex ed resembling the parody scene from Mean Girls (“you will get pregnant and you will die”), teens have long relied on other ways to learn about their bodies. Two generations ago it may have been Cosmo’s Question and Answer section. Younger millennials might have turned to Reddit. Anyone whose mother identified as liberal might have been lucky enough to get a ride to Planned Parenthood. Today’s under-18 crowd has a new resource—TikTok.
Young women like Meador have taken to the video-sharing app to discuss their birth control, a hashtag that has over 13.8 million views on the app. Creators of these posts aim to be what their younger selves needed—a friendly, non-corny voice of reason, there to answer questions or address concerns about the pill or implants.
Earlier this month, wearing an oversized sweatshirt, extra-long acrylics and toting a gigantic soft drink, Meador addressed her following of nearly 2,000. “Hey ladies, here’s a fun fact for you,” she began. “Did you know if you’re on birth control, it gets cancelled out by antibiotics? Also, don’t take melatonin if you’re on birth control, because it’ll cancel it out too. Stay safe.”
The clip quickly garnered 64,000 views and 336 comments, with many debating the veracity of Meador’s advice. (The information is based on a rumor that has permeated the public’s imagination; studies have concluded only one antibiotic prescribed to treat tuberculosis, rifamycin, counteracts contraception. Other medications can decrease the effectiveness of the pill.)
But Meador’s video got people talking about their own experiences with the pill, which she thinks is a net win. “With how the world is evolving, everything is so hard to talk about and has to be so correct,” Meador said. “That means most things just don’t get talked about, like sex ed and birth control.”
Meador said most of her feedback came from young women, aged 12 to 23. She did get one unwanted response from a boy: “He said, ‘You must know [about birth control] from personal experience,’” Meador said. “That’s ugh. That wasn’t necessary.”
Margo Martin, 19, is a full-time student at Temple University in Philadelphia known to her 71,000 TikTok followers as @DumbBitchMargo. She’s also posted an “implant check” video, which gives rapid-fire commentary about her experience on the IUD Mirena.
“I will stan mirena til the day i die,” she captioned her video. Text boxes flash on screen telling the viewer, “It hurt like a bitch for two days after I got it. I lost 12 pounds after getting it. Haven’t had a period in 2 years. Worth it.”
Martin grew up in Nevada, where she describes the sex education as subpar. “They talked about the pill and condoms too, but no other forms of contraception, as far as IUDs and other implants go,” Martin said. “There’s a lot of misinformation about IUDs promoted in my town. A lot of people say it will mess up your fertility forever, you’ll never be able to have kids, and I originally thought that was the case until I did research on it.”
Martin admits that most of her content is “pretty unrelated to anything that’s important.” But she feels the need to use her platform to address things that matter to her. “I can get people to listen to what I’m saying if the video is visually engaging or using a sound that’s really popular, it can help push my agenda regarding the topics I talk about,” Martin said. She acknowledges the limitations of her role as a sex educator, and added that she’ll refer young followers to Planned Parenthood’s website if they have a question she can’t answer.
Elizabeth Gilstrap, 20, studies psychology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. They (Gilstrap’s pronoun of choice) have also talked about their IUD on TikTok. “Since I’ve gained somewhat of a following, I’ve posted more educational content, or content that might be controversial to educate and open people’s eyes,” Gilstrap said. “You hear these things in the news, but also here’s a person saying this to you.”
Gilstrap knows it’s impossible to give a comprehensive anatomy lesson on TikTok, so they try to break down a juicy topic into three or four points. While discussing their implant, Gilstrap pointed to text boxes that read, “I haven’t had a real period in over a year,” “My acne has cleared up,” “I don’t have to get it replaced for three years,” and “It didn’t even hurt to get.” They captioned the post with, “and it was completely covered by insurance! #implant #birthcontrol #bestdecision #ilove it.”
“When people comment with questions, you can go deeper into it,” Gilstrap said. “I also got criticism from people claiming I was recommending something without explaining the bad parts of it. I just responded like, ‘This was my experience.’”
Gilstrap likes to keep the conversation going in their comments section, often answering questions from followers who slide into her Instagram DMs. “I have been more than willing to talk to people about it, but it can get overwhelming,” Gilstrap admitted. “I can’t go through and talk to people who think they know me through an app but don’t really know me. To have someone want to be my friend, want advice, it can get very overwhelming very quickly.”
Understandable, when coming from the mouth of a college student. But Kim Cavill, a sex educator from Chicago, wanted teens to reach out to her. She wanted to post on TikTok after reading an article about the app by The Atlantic’s former tech reporter, Taylor Lorenz.
“That’s the primary place for my students, that age group, to hang out,” Cavill said. “I also just like the creativity of it; it’s one of the few places on the Internet I felt better after visiting than worse. I really liked how young people were talking about things they bring up in my classes, like mental health, depression, anxiety, bullying. When I first started teaching, those were private conversations. Now they’re public.”
After lurking on TikTok for a while, Cavill posted her own video. “I know that being 38, most of the comments would be, ‘Ok Boomer,’ or ‘Thanks, Karen,’” she said. “That’s fine, I have thick skin. I felt like information is so important that I wanted to post anyway, go ahead and be the old person crashing the TikTok party.”
She posted a video demonstrating the proper way to open a condom wrapper, which is always a popular topic in her classroom. “People say, ‘I open it with my teeth because it looks hotter,’ because that’s what porn does as an embellishment, and that makes condoms not work,” Cavill said. In less than an hour, it had over 3,000 views and was climbing.
Suddenly, the post disappeared, with Cavill getting a notification that it “violated TikTok’s community guidelines.” She emailed the support team, and has yet to hear any explanation as to why the video is so offensive.
A TikTok spokesperson addressed Cavill’s concerns in a statement sent to The Daily Beast which read, “Our guidelines are designed to keep our community safe and welcoming for everyone. We are looking into this situation.”
Until then, the app has one less user. “As much as I’d like to provide this information, I’m not sure if continually fighting with a tech company is worth the investment of my time, as someone who has kids and a lot of things on my plate,” Cavill said.
Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, an OBGYN based in Portland, Oregon, has also earned the dubious distinction as being too edgy for TikTok. Her offense? A video, shot straight-on and showing the MD in scrubs, answering comment questions she receives from young patients like, “Do I have to have sex if my boyfriend asks?”, “Can I get pregnant the first time I have sex?”, “Is going to the OBGYN scary?” while lip-synching the lyrics of E-40’s “Choices.”
“My video was super straightforward and not that exciting,” Dr. Lincoln wrote in an email. “Totally educational (and benign) snippets about sex and pregnancy. TikTok hasn’t responded to any of my messages or emails but [said] that it is ‘under review.’”
Still, Dr. Lincoln will not be deterred. “I’ve had women on Instagram tell me their posts were the reason they told their OBGYN about their postpartum depression, or the reason they went to the hospital and had their complications treated,” she wrote. “If I can do the same on TikTok, helping girls and women know how to empower themselves and understand their bodies—why would I let a few bumps in the road get in my way?”
Even if these TikToks influence teens, the clips are more a symptom of the sex education crisis than a remedy for it. And no video, no matter how ironic or cute, can compare to the good a yearly check-up can do for women.
As Dr. Lincoln wrote, “It isn’t meant to replace a doctor-patient relationship but rather complement it. And with so much misinformation out there, we need to take every chance we get to correct it—even in 15 second snippets.”