TikTok is making consent sexy again

[Illustration by Lorenza Centi for Mic]

Sex education in the United States is notoriously bad. I attended some of the best public schools in this country, and when I had sex for the first time, I didn’t know how to use a condom. I didn’t hear the word “consent” until I went to a kink party when I was 18. My teen years were let’s-not-talk-about-it long ago — but unfortunately, not much has changed since then. Fortunately, some influencers are using TikTok to fill in what sex ed leaves out.

Heather Chelan, an influencer in London who goes by the TikTok handle @hebontheweb, posted a video in August where she sings a song about consent. The video, which reminds viewers that everyone has the right to “change their mind at any time,” has racked up more than 275,000 views. And it’s not surprising. The fact that this message is delivered via a catchy tune by a woman looking hot in a sunny flat undoubtedly adds to its effectiveness. It would be difficult to not be drawn to Chelan’s smooth voice and seemingly effortless style.

Sure, you might be thinking, but that’s kind of cheesy. Fair enough. PSAs in the form of songs can be a bit twee — but because Chelan’s content isn’t all about sex ed, it doesn’t feel overdone. Rather, she kind of slips consent education in between birthday serenades for her dog and skits about raising the minimum wage. Chelan uses humor and wit as a form of social media activism; her audience may come for the levity, but they’ll leave with a valuable education.

And when it comes to sex ed, some psychologists find this community-led approach heartening. “What I’m seeing in those posts is people at the community level taking it upon themselves to take care of each other,” Dulcinea Pitagora, a New York City-based psychotherapist, tells Mic. This sort of grassroots approach to sex ed shouldn’t be necessary, Pitagora says, but it is. “Larger institutions and governments have failed the most vulnerable in our communities.”

Currently, only nine U.S. states require sex ed classes to include consent education, but more than half of teens have sex before they turn 18. That means there are a lot of sexually active young people out there who have had no formal education about what it means to have consensual sex. It’s not all that surprising, then, that a study released in 2019 found that 1 in 16 women reported that their first sexual experience was rape — and the average age of those women was 15. The consequences of insufficient sex ed continue well into adulthood, too. Plenty of adults don’t understand consent, and it’s apparent in every aspect of our culture.

Meanwhile, the TikTok community is compensating for the failures of institutions — not only by providing crucial information missing from school curriculums, but also by providing it through an alternate medium. Traditional sex ed relies primarily on books and lectures, which ignores the reality that people (of all ages) have different learning styles. Some TikTokers who talk about consent use already trending sounds to attract attention to their messages, while others create their own seriously catchy rhymes. We may not be able to definitively measure the effectiveness of their methods, but it certainly makes sense that taking a multimodal approach may help TikTokers get their messages across.

“People absorb information in different ways, and if one or more of the ways a post is presented appeals to them, the accompanying information usually will be better received,” Pitagora says. Think about how you learned the alphabet: It was probably through song, and it’s probably so ingrained in your memory that you couldn’t forget it if you tried. TikTokers are similarly using rhythm and rhyme to help their audiences remember that consent is sexy.

Plus, these TikTokers — unlike the U.S. Department of Education — are meeting teens where they already hang out and using sound pedagogical methods to deliver important lessons. “Young people need this education, and this is where their attention is focused,” Lila Donnolo, a Bali-based sex educator and host of sex and relationship podcast Horizontal with Lila, tells Mic.

But it’s not only young people who benefit from TikTok sex ed. The reality is that most of us — teens and adults alike — get a lot of sex ed from porn, friends, and elsewhere on the internet. Maybe it’s time we embrace TikTok as a sex ed platform, too. Or as Donnolo says, “Get ‘em where they’re lookin’.”