Last year, Trump cut federal funding to the National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, which affected 80 organizations that taught sex education and sexual health. Trump pulled $32.5 M for a UN program that helps women and girls in 155 countries around the world. Not only is the current administration paving a devastating future for women’s health and comprehensive sex education, the path is already riddled with obstacles, disparities, and setbacks.
What lacks in sex education in middle school translates into adulthood, where grown individuals are unaware or uneducated on certain topics pertaining to their own body. Moreover, because sex education as teenagers is so terribly delivered, sexual health becomes a taboo, and overtly unavailable in conversations. Sexual illiteracy is common in adulthood as their childhood lacked proper and informative education. However, for these two smartphone applications, technology is breaching those gaps in order to strive to create quality comprehensive information.While teaching in rural Eastern North Carolina through Teach For America, Liz Chen and Vichi Jagannathan began to see that many “School leaders and health teachers weren’t equipped to teach it or didn’t want to teach it [sex education].”
Co-Founders of Real Talk
In early 2016, Christina Leos, Chen, and Jagannathan created MyHealthEd, Inc in order to create a change within the sex education system by incorporating online courses and technology.
The team decided to focus on 7th and 8th graders and researched what teens wanted from a sex education course. Chen explains that they spent time, “with hundreds of middle school students” and had “interviews and observations” and found that they felt the most comfortable with an application on a smartphone. After brainstorming ideas, the team worked closely with the teens to address any problems or questions that they found important. The result? The RealTalk app, a non-profit phone application that allows teenagers to speak with real teens through stories and narrative based messaging.
How do you reach out to middle schoolers and engage with their interests? Chen explains that they are focusing on “puberty, relationships, and bullying.” RealTalk also works in a narrative form, where you can chat and read stories relatable to acne or having a crush. The team hopes to grow in the months and years in accordance to what their users are looking for in the app.RealTalk works with real teenagers and their stories. Their middle school teen advisory board communicates virtually with the team and introduces content and gives input into social media aspects for the app. Leos explains that a “distinguishing factor of [RealTalk] is that we use real stories as content and to connect teens with information.” She continues, “That’s very important when you’re working with an audience of a specific age group. Being able to use language that’s relatable, offering stories and experiences of other people who are like them. That’s a natural way that they see information and a natural way that they learn.”
Their board of directors include a “cross-section of experts across a variety of fields which include education technology, sexual health education,” and they “offer guidance and expertise of all of the topics that are relevant to how we run our organization and how we work with teens,” says Leos.
Ask Tia App
After raising $2.5 M to continue development and branding, Tia launched as a smartphone application that answers questions about birth control, insurance, vaginal health, PMS, and various other health concerns. Like RealTalk, Tia provides a conversational approach with a sassy narrative by the bot, Tia. She answers your questions, she sends you .gifs, she’s your personal private health advisor on speed dial.
Carolyn Witte, the CEO and Co-Founder of Tia started the app when realizing her own “frustrations with the healthcare system.” She explains to me that the system is not “designed to serve women’s unique healthcare needs.”
Witte, along with Co-Founder Felicity Yost of Tia, wanted the bot to be your “BFF with an MD.” In the Guardian’s 2017 opinion piece by Ranjana Srivastava, she explains that doctors must be more equipped in answering questions about sexuality. She explains that this is “good medicine,” and to do any different would be contributing to a failing in the healthcare system. Adults need sex education, too. Recently, educators have begun to seek out adult spaces like churches, retirement homes, volunteer spaces, or clubs where they can teach sex education to grown adults. These discussions don’t involve topics like puberty, obviously, but touch on dating, physical alterations to the body, and dialogue around intimacy.
For Witte, she says that Tia is a persona brought to life. Like these in-person classes, Tia acts as your really smart friend who you can trust, and who never leaves you on 'read'. White says, “We obsess and obsess over the right balance of sass to sweet to serious to science in every message Tia sends you. We obsess over it because it’s the key to cultivating trust and building a meaningful 1:1 relationship with women — something we believe is largely missing from health care today and a void that Tia seeks to fill. Without a trusted relationship, all else falls apart, so it’s really the most important thing we do.”
Tia begins by asking you a series of questions, to better understand you, your body, your cycle, and your preferred interests. With Google search as a millennials main source of knowledge, Tia is a conversational interface that creates a database of your health, gives you the ability to set up reminders, find a doctor, choose a type of birth control, and response to questions with a sex-positive attitude. Witte says, “Since launching the Tia app in June, we’ve learned that so many women just want to know if what they are experiencing is ‘normal — to which the correct answer is almost always, ‘it depends…’ To better solve for this, we’re working on some cool new stuff to help women better benchmark their own bodily experiences against themselves, other women and medical standards.”
Obviously, Tia isn’t a substitute for seeing a professional but sometimes, women just want to know what an abnormal Pap means or why certain sex positions feel better than others.
Ask Tia App
For both applications, the idea of negating “loneliness” is a common goal. For many people, whatever their questions, whatever their age, feeling alone is a commonality. RealTalk and Tia provide real, or bot-like, voices that immediately respond via messaging. These applications become a user's best friend—someone removed from the situation, but someone who is always there. Moreover, someone who is knowledgeable about the situation or topic. Reading stories from people with similar experiences is something that the team learned was valuable for middle schoolers during their time spent with the teens.
Leos says that RealTalk is unique because of the “explicit focus on middle school students.” Most resources don’t target this specific age bracket but focus on high schoolers, young adults, and college students.
Sex education in the classroom has been up for debate with both pros and cons for many years. Is technology the future of sex education? Leos agrees that technology, especially phone applications, have the “ability to reach a wide audience.” She continues, “What’s relevant to our case is that we know that so many teens don’t have access to relevant and high-quality sexual health information. Using technology allows us to bridge some of those barriers.”
Witte explains that tech solutions to sex education are important because of the privacy and anonymity within the applications. These applications are hacking the health care system in terms of tackling “taboo” topics, and creating a fully disclosed knowledge of a person’s body. Witte says about the future of sex in tech, “To be fully successful, tech needs to integrate with real-world care and real-world education systems. At its best, I believe technology can serve as a springboard for sparking a public conversation, changing consumer behavior, and ultimately creating systemic change. That, to me, is success for Tia.” For the RealTalk app, they are aware that many teens are finding incorrect information online or are seeking out pornography to better educate themselves. According to Time an average American teen spends over “seven hours a day on a media device.” Moreover, exposure to porn (which can be arguably the new age of sex education) can happen as early as six or seven years old. The team at RealTalk wants to redirect teens to the correct information.
Reshaping sexual education begins with the screen’s we hold in our hands. Where children are exposed to an onslaught of explicit images, and women spend hours texting or googling questions about their body’s, comprehensive technology can serve as a vehicle for bettering a sexual future.
In 2016, I finally found my voice. I always thought I had one, especially as a business owner and mother of two vocal toddlers, but I had been wrong.
For more than 30 years, I had been struggling with the fear of being my true self and speaking my truth. Then the repressed memories of my childhood sexual abuse unraveled before me while raising my 3-year-old daughter, and my life has not been the same since.
Believe it or not, I am happy about that.
The journey for a survivor like me to feel even slightly comfortable sharing these words, without fear of being shamed or looked down upon, is a long and often lonely one. For all of the people out there in the shadows who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, I dedicate this to you. You might never come out to talk about it and that's okay, but I am going to do so here and I hope that in doing so, I will open people's eyes to the long-term effects of abuse. As a survivor who is now fully conscious of her abuse, I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and, quite frankly, it may never go away.
It took me some time to accept that and I refuse to let it stop me from thriving in life; therefore, I strive to manage it (as do many others with PTSD) through various strategies I've learned and continue to learn through personal and group therapy. Over the years, various things have triggered my repressed memories and emotions of my abuse--from going to birthday parties and attending preschool tours to the Kavanaugh hearing and most recently, the"Leaving Neverland" documentary (I did not watch the latter, but read commentary about it).
These triggers often cause panic attacks. I was angry when I read Barbara Streisand's comments about the men who accused Michael Jackson of sexually abusing them, as detailed in the documentary. She was quoted as saying, "They both married and they both have children, so it didn't kill them." She later apologized for her comments. I was frustrated when one of the senators questioning Dr. Christine Blasey Ford (during the Kavanaugh hearing) responded snidely that Dr. Ford was still able to get her Ph.D. after her alleged assault--as if to imply she must be lying because she gained success in life.We survivors are screaming to the world, "You just don't get it!" So let me explain: It takes a great amount of resilience and fortitude to walk out into society every day knowing that at any moment an image, a sound, a color, a smell, or a child crying could ignite fear in us that brings us back to that moment of abuse, causing a chemical reaction that results in a panic attack.
So yes, despite enduring and repressing those awful moments in my early life during which I didn't understand what was happening to me or why, decades later I did get married; I did become a parent; I did start a business that I continue to run today; and I am still learning to navigate this "new normal." These milestones do not erase the trauma that I experienced. Society needs to open their eyes and realize that any triumph after something as ghastly as childhood abuse should be celebrated, not looked upon as evidence that perhaps the trauma "never happened" or "wasn't that bad. "When a survivor is speaking out about what happened to them, they are asking the world to join them on their journey to heal. We need love, we need to feel safe and we need society to learn the signs of abuse and how to prevent it so that we can protect the 1 out of 10 children who are being abused by the age of 18. When I state this statistic at events or in large groups, I often have at least one person come up to me after and confide that they too are a survivor and have kept it a secret. My vehicle for speaking out was through the novella The Survivors Club, which is the inspiration behind a TV pilot that my co-creator and I are pitching as a supernatural, mind-bending TV series. Acknowledging my abuse has empowered me to speak up on behalf of innocent children who do not have a voice and the adult survivors who are silent.
Remembering has helped me further understand my young adult challenges,past risky relationships, anger issues, buried fears, and my anxieties. I am determined to thrive and not hide behind these negative things as they have molded me into the strong person I am today.Here is my advice to those who wonder how to best support survivors of sexual abuse:Ask how we need support: Many survivors have a tough exterior, which means the people around them assume they never need help--we tend to be the caregivers for our friends and families. Learning to be vulnerable was new for me, so I realized I needed a check-off list of what loved ones should ask me afterI had a panic attack.
The list had questions like: "Do you need a hug," "How are you feeling," "Do you need time alone."Be patient with our PTSD". Family and close ones tend to ask when will the PTSD go away. It isn't a cold or a disease that requires a finite amount of drugs or treatment. There's no pill to make it miraculously disappear, but therapy helps manage it and some therapies have been known to help it go away. Mental Health America has a wealth of information on PTSD that can help you and survivors understand it better. Have compassion: When I was with friends at a preschool tour to learn more about its summer camp, I almost fainted because I couldn't stop worrying about my kids being around new teenagers and staff that might watch them go the bathroom or put on their bathing suit. After the tour, my friends said,"Nubia, you don't have to put your kids in this camp. They will be happy doing other things this summer."
In that moment, I realized how lucky I was to have friends who understood what I was going through and supported me. They showed me love and compassion, which made me feel safe and not judged.