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Two Days in Sex:Tech Heaven

A Review of Sex:Tech STD/HIV Prevention Conference Focusing on Youth & Tech


There is almost nothing as exciting as a well-organized conference “first.” I’ve been lucky enough to attend a few conference firsts in my life. I was at the first conference on queer disability, the first full-day workshop on computer-human sexual interaction, and last week, along with about 300 other people, I spent two blissful days at Sex: Tech, the first STD/HIV prevention conference focusing on youth and technology. If you’re like me -- a wannabe technophile sex educator geek -- it was a little bit of heaven at the JW Marriott.

From the first announcement about the conference, the organizers (led by my new not-for-profit crush Internet Sexuality Information Services) stressed that they wanted this conference to be about youth, but also for youth, and with youth. In addition to raising the rhetorical question of whom exactly we mean when we talk about “youth,” it was an organizing principle, and one that organizers tried their best to deliver on.

When I first sat down and looked around I knew I was in for something different.

There were clergy and sex workers, administrators and academics, sex therapists and educators, activists, service providers, writers, pornographers, and an assortment of people who primarily identified themselves as “parents” and “youths” (more on the scare quotes below). It also was a much more diverse group in terms of age, gender, and ethnicity than I’ve seen at almost any other sexual health conference I’ve been.

The vibe at Sex:Tech was like a group of people who were excited to finally get the chance to sit down and talk to each other about something they have been thinking about for quite some time.

The opening remarks elicited enthusiastic shouts from the audience, laughter, and a few tears (well those were just from one of the speakers, but they were sweet nonetheless). After opening comments from the organizers, the talented and silver-tongued Nikol Hasler of the Midwest Teen Sex Show spoke briefly about her own experiences with sex education and then introduced the finalists of the Fresh Focus Video contest. Below are some of the themes that I became aware of over the jam packed two days of workshops and panels, along with some of the questions that I was left with.

Finding an “Authentic” Youth Voice

Participants had different ideas on how much youth involvement was required, and at what points in the development and delivery of services these voices of youth were most needed or appropriate. In developing several HIV-prevention intervention computer games Marguerita Lightfoot included youth by recording their voices and leaving scripts open enough to change the language when it seemed like it would work. Audacia Ray offered a thoughtful comparison of two approaches to involving youth as moderators and participants on sexual health forums/discussion boards (Scarleteen and Teenwire.com).

Some of the questions raised by these discussions include:

  • Who exactly are we talking about when we talk about “youth” and what are the implications of homogenizing this diverse group?
  • Can the highly successful model of person-to-person peer education for youth be useful in thinking about computer mediated models of sex education?
  • What opportunities are there for service providers to step back and let youth create their own content while making sure spaces are safe for youth and information is accurate?
  • When virtual spaces allow adults and youth to represent themselves however they like, what does this do to the concept of “authentic” youth voices?
  • What role can or should for-profit companies be playing in supporting accurate sex education and STD prevention for their youth markets?

Struggle for Diversity

One of the great successes of this conference was its ability to attract a relatively diverse group of presenters and attendees. They were diverse both in the populations they served and to some extent among the attendees themselves. As a result, the idea of diversity was on the table at many of the workshops.

There were interventions geared to street-involved youth, queer youth, trans youth and youth of color. Many of the presenters were aware that not all youth have the same access to technology and that we have to meet youth where they are if we want our interventions to work. Most presenters also did a good job of pointing out all the people who were being missed by their work, and acknowledging that to do something well you usually can’t do it for everyone. But I was surprised that there weren’t more open discussions about race and class during the workshops. I’m not sure why this didn’t happen since both topics felt to me like elephants in the room.

Some of the questions raised by these discussions include:

  • Can you develop computer-mediated services for diverse communities or will online service provision simply replicate what happens off line (e.g. community and identity specific materials, lots of duplication, not enough collaboration)?
  • If we’re stuck in the old model, is it possible for technology to allow us to translate materials from one population to another?
  • In what ways can technology facilitate greater diversity not just in appearance, but in practice?
  • How should we be thinking about diversity for youth who interact in virtual spaces where their online identity may be very different than their off line identity, yet no less meaningful to them?

Technology Isn’t a Replacement

As you’d expect, there weren’t a lot of technophobes at this conference (if they were there, they were cleverly disguised). But several non-attendees I told about the conference expressed a concern that we might begin to use technology as a way of avoiding having to do sex education with youth directly. It’s an interesting thought, since talking to kids about sex is something many parents (and teachers) wished they didn’t have to do, and if a computer could do it for you, would you let it? Add to that the results of studies that were presented at the conference which clearly indicate that computer-mediated interventions can be more effective than interventions led by a service provider, and you have a real argument for the computers. But it was clear from all the workshops that technology will never replace human service provision, and a computer game is not a substitute for parenting.

As technology becomes more integrated into the fabric of our daily lives it’s going to become important to stop trying to tease it out and instead explore the ways we combine human-to-human interaction with computer human interaction. This raises several questions:

  • In the areas where computer-mediated education seems more effective, why is it more effective? What precisely makes interacting with a computer better in these cases?
  • How can we begin to develop tools and materials both for educators and families that integrate technology and human interaction?
  • Are there affective pieces of sex education that are going un-addressed in person-to-person interactions that might be incorporated into computer-mediated programs?

Getting the Right Information in the Right Hands

It was generally agreed that there is a lot of good sexual health information on the web. It was also agreed that people are looking for information about sex, and they use the web to do it. One session directly addressed the issue of whether or not people looking for sexual health information were finding it, and when they found it, if they find the good stuff. What this session and comments in several other sessions pointed to was that we don’t necessarily need to be developing a lot more content at this point. Instead we need to be improving the chances that youth are going to find appropriate content when they’re looking for it.

Some of the questions raised by these discussions include:

  • How might we integrate available sex information into currently popular web-based applications that youth make use of?
  • Is there a higher order way to distinguish sex content on the web that has little or no educational value from sex content that is designed to be educational? Is this where so-called “human search engines” can play an important role?
  • How does the practice of online sex information seeking differ from off line sex information seeking? Are the words we type into search engines different than what we might write on an anonymous card we hand to our teacher? If we IM or text a sex question to a web based application do we use different language than when we ask someone a sex question in person?

Sex and Politics

There wasn’t a lot of open political debate at the conference, and the shared political agenda was about doing more to help youth protect themselves from STDs/HIV. Politics emerged more in the spaces between people working in different environments: The freedoms enjoyed by individuals running their own sites or blogs who didn’t have to worry about insurance, investors, or boards of directors getting in between them and their target audience; the privilege of the relatively well funded organizations or government agencies, the ones who get paid for their work, probably own homes, and weren’t paying for their own hotel rooms; the differences between organizations for youth and those by youth. None of these differences prevented attendees from connecting, but that may in part be because the differences were generally kept under wraps.

The most overtly political presentation at the conference was a fascinating talk given by two sex work activists who presented on a blog project called Bound Not Gagged. The project, which is a group blog by and for sex workers developed out of a frustration with the media's portrayal of sex work and sex work issues, and fear that coming out as a sex worker can make you a target for arrest or prosecution. The blog, which I’m now an avid reader of, collects the opinions and voices of sex workers on a variety of topics. They have also done some exciting things using online collaboration and actively dealing with the media through their blog.

While the Bound Not Gagged presentation used sex work as an example, it was just as relevant to questions people working with youth need to be asking about tech tools:

  • How can technology give disempowered and disenfranchised people a voice?
  • Can technology stretch the limits of anonymity to allow us to hear from those we serve who might not otherwise speak up?
  • What role can technology play in shifting the public discourse on youth and sexuality?

Appealing to Youth

For any sex education program or intervention to be successful it has to appeal to its target audience. There were many different points of view on the best way to do this from different presenters. Some people emphasized the importance of having flashy, good looking, and highly interactive websites. Others showed how they used group blogs and free services like Yahoo Groups, Facebook, Myspace and Flickr to create information and services. The problem with the former approach is that sex education organizations rarely have the human or financial resources to keep up with new technologies.

Of course everyone benefits from the fact that they’re delivering content youth are motivated to look for: sex information. In some ways the problem seems to boil down to how to connect the right audience to the right content.

Some of the questions raised by these discussions include:

  • How can we begin to envision partnerships with for-profit companies that won’t scare off boards of directors or bring the wrath of anti-sex groups to bear on the for-profit companies?
  • In the end how much of these issues come down to not enough funding for comprehensive sex education?
  • What role could user-generated content play in keeping sites fresh and developing new strategies for connecting youth with sexual health content?

Reconciling Sexual Panic with Utopian Ideals

There was an interesting tension not talked about explicitly at the conference between the fear, shame, and silence that surrounds sexuality in the U.S. and the often Utopian vision of those who develop new technologies. It wasn’t until I started spending time at tech conferences and interviewing designers and developers that I realized that a lot of people who work in emerging technology have a Utopian vision of their work and the future. It makes sense. They spend their days developing technologies to help us achieve our goals with greater speed or ease, or to offer people more information or opportunities. What technology so far isn’t so good at is meeting us at our most irrational, unconscious, and conflicting places. Sexuality is a site of immense power, pressure and pain (as well as joy). Technologies need to begin to take into account the multiple contexts and environments within which sexual interactions happen. I didn’t hear anyone talking overtly about this difference between the attendees from the technology world and those from sexual health, but I think the challenges many of them face as they try to collaborate and find the institutional will and the funding for their projects are tied to this underlying tension. I missed Dr. Marty Klein’s talk about sexual panic so I’m not sure if he addressed this, but I think it’s an area worth exploring more the next time I can get a bunch of sex people and technology people in a room.

Missing but not Forgotten

While the programmers of Sex:Tech did an outstanding job finding a diverse group of speakers on a wide range of topics, some content inevitably gets missed. Here are a few of the topics I didn’t hear much about at this year’s Sex:Tech that I hope we can hear more about at future conferences.

Web 2.0
In every workshop I attended and both of the plenary talks there was a constant refrain “we need more youth voices, and participation.” The videos which opened the conference clearly show that youth are able to provide the attitude and meaning, if not the actual content, of sex education. Yet there wasn’t a lot of web 2.0 talk. People in public health are using technologies but they still don’t have much of an awareness of the technologies that youth are using to create their own content. There wasn’t a lot of discussion of how user-generated content could be integrated into sexual health interventions.

Virtual Environments
The actual technology being utilized by most of the presenters was relatively old school. Very few people talked about the role of virtual environments in their work, and this seems like an important area for future consideration. For example, virtual environments have the potential to completely blow the lid off how we conceptualize and create interventions for diverse populations. Similarly, the discussion of what constitutes an “authentic” youth voice has to start taking into the account the multiple ways youths represent themselves online in virtual environments.

Security Issues
Many participants commented on the double-edged sword of anonymity online. On the one hand, many presenters (myself included) see that anonymity can make services more accessible for people who can’t out themselves by asking sex questions. On the other hand, we all know that nothing that happens online is completely anonymous. There wasn’t a lot of discussion around security of information and how we can protect youth from both negative sexual consequences and negative consequences of searching out sex information online.

Social Scientists and Computer Human Interaction Folks
Attendees weren’t all wearing their professions on their sleeves, so I may have missed a few of them, but in the discussions during workshops and plenaries the perspective of social scientists and computer human interaction professionals was missed. The former group would have a lot to add to discussions of identity, voice and diversity. The latter group has lots to share about the meaning of computer-mediated service delivery. There’s a small but growing body of research that indicates that computer-mediated sexual health interventions work, but we know nothing about why they work, or what meaning participants take away from these interventions as opposed to human interventions.

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