One day last year, Evan Conaway realized he had a problem. He’d been through a series of breakups in a short span of time, and the ensuing stress manifested with the onset of erectile dysfunction.
He didn’t know what to think. And he felt embarrassed even talking about it.
After trying to research solutions to his problem online, he discovered Juicebox, a smartphone app that connects anonymous users with certified sex coaches to ask questions about sex or relationships.
Working with a coach motivated him to talk about the issue with his sexual partners. “She made it seem like a normal thing to go through,” Conaway said.
Conaway said he didn’t know how to talk about what he liked or expected out of a sexual encounter. In his home state of Georgia, sex was treated as a shameful subject, especially for gay people like Conaway.
“Before I was talking to the coach, I don’t think I would’ve had the confidence to express myself,” he said. “The way I approach sex is way more open and transparent.”
The slow process of public policy making means that technology has become a resource for filling in the gaps left by sparse sex education curricula that dominate U.S. schools. Juicebox, along with similar apps, has made it a mission to take the awkwardness and shame out of the “birds and bees” talk and encourage more sex-positive conversations.
While an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee, Brianna Rader, Juicebox’s founder, saw her peers enduring the consequences of a poor sex ed curriculum. She’d grown up in the state and also had to educate herself, especially as she came to identify as bisexual.
“Being queer in the South made me question the information I was given more critically,” Rader said.
Many students who had come through Tennessee’s mandated abstinence-only curriculum had a general lack of knowledge about sex and sexual health that, combined with newfound freedom at college and the ready availability of alcohol, led to disastrous situations.
Rader saw other schools like Yale and Harvard organize Sex Week, a campus event that held workshops and talks from sex educators, plus free HIV testing. But when Rader decided to organize Sex Week on the Tennessee campus, the ensuing controversy across the state led the university to succumb to political pressure and defund the project. Rader and her co-organizers kept Sex Week running for two years solely from their own fundraising.
Founder and CEO of Juicebox Brianna Rader. Photo from Juicebox.
The experience sparked Rader’s newfound passion for sexual health. It also led her to seek solutions that would address people’s needs immediately, and not have to wait for policy makers to come around in their thinking.
Rader later moved to San Francisco and got a master’s degree in global health. The proximity of Silicon Valley helped her realize technology’s ability to have a faster and more wide-ranging impact.
This lack of education about sex in many parts of the U.S. has led to some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections when compared to other industrialized countries.
Only 24 states require sex education be taught in public schools, and even when sex education is offered, the curriculum varies from state to state.
A 2017 report from the Guttmacher Institute said that 20 states require information on contraception, but 27 states also must stress abstinence. HIV education is required in 34 states, but only 12 states discuss sexual orientation. And out of 50 states and the District of Columbia, only 13 require the information presented to be medically accurate.
Research published by the Public Library of Science found that abstinence-only education does nothing to prevent teen pregnancy. In fact, it actually contributes to higher pregnancy rates in the U.S.
The LGBTQ community has suffered the brunt of poor sex education. The exclusion of sexual minorities from curricula has contributed to higher rates of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, and unwanted pregnancies among the group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Even with this data available, comprehensive sex education has yet to be universally adopted in the U.S.
Conaway didn’t receive much of a sex education growing up in Georgia, a commonplace situation throughout the South.
He said that when he began questioning his sexuality in middle school, he had to resort to the internet for information. At first, Conaway thought he was bisexual. Without anyone in school talking about LGBTQ identity positively, he assumed that something must be medically wrong with him.
“The first thing I Googled was ‘the cure for bisexuality’ because I’ve only heard of that as a disease, so it must be something that I can get rid of,” Conaway said.
Karen Rayne, a sex educator from Texas, has seen firsthand the result of a dearth of sex education. Much like Rader’s native Tennessee, Texas’ curriculum stresses abstinence. Texas also is one of the few states that forbids the curriculum from portraying LGBTQ identities positively.
Texas has some of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the U.S. About 35,000 teens get pregnant each year in the state. Rayne said that teens in other states have access to more progressive and medically accurate information, and the lack of that in Texas is largely to blame for the state’s high rate of teen pregnancy.
Juicebox initially launched as a resource for teens to ask the questions that couldn’t get answered in sex ed class. But then Rader noticed more adults using the app to get answers for much different questions. Users needed help with topics like erectile dysfunction, the female orgasm, or couples’ issues, for example.
An example of how the chat function on the Juicebox app is used. Image from Juicebox.
Influenced by the reality of that additional demographic, Rader relaunched Juicebox last spring with an option that pairs users with a certified sex coach so they can receive personalized attention.
Rader now wants to help users move past sexual shame and learn to communicate openly about sex—both lingering effects of inadequate sex education.
“We’re helping address the trauma that comes from our country’s horrible sex ed system, pornography, and the way media discusses sex,” Rader said.
Juicebox users span across the country—they’re even in big cities like San Francisco and New York City, where sex education is more comprehensive than Texas or Tennessee. Rader said that despite how good the education system can be, there’s still a lot of confusion around sex.
That’s why Rayne stresses that nothing can really replace comprehensive sexuality education earlier in life. Without a template to understand sex, it’s hard to know how to broach the topic with a teen.
Both Rader and Rayne believe open communication will be key in addressing an epidemic of teen pregnancies and STIs and helping people feel comfortable in their sexuality.
“Sex education is fun—or at least it should be,” Rayne said. “Our sexuality should be forces of joy and pleasure, whether we’re actively engaging with sexual partners or not.”
Even though apps like Juicebox can serve as a supportive tool in developing a comprehensive curriculum, Rayne said a face-to-face education must still be the priority. Without it, people often don’t know what questions to ask. She sees tech working more in conjunction with sex education programs rather than substituting for it.
Rader hopes Juicebox can be an accessible resource for people wanting to learn more about sex and adopting a more sex-positive attitude.
“I believe we’re at the very, very beginning of a hopefully larger movement,” she said.