5 Reasons Sex Ed Videos Are So Awful — & How They Could Be Better

For a number of years, I worked as a sex educator at an adolescent pregnancy prevention program — and as part of that job, I was presented with an impressive collection of sex education films. These were films I screened for my students approximately zero times, because, well, they were mostly awful, and I wanted the kids to take me — and the messages I was trying to send about healthy sexuality — seriously.

I left that job in 2008, but I took those sex education films with me. For a while, they just sat on my bookshelf collecting dust, but then, in early 2014, I had an idea: What if I started screening these videos…and making fun of them? From that spark of inspiration, The Wonderful World of Boning, the site where I've rounded up the most cringe-worthy videos, was born — and suddenly, I had a reason to start collecting even more sex education videos.

Over the years, I’ve watched a lot of different variations of these videos. Videos about puberty, videos about condoms, videos about the horrors of STIs (or, to use the words of many of the films in my collection, "VD"). Videos for teenagers, videos for adults, videos for students, and videos for soldiers. I’ve seen videos from the 1940s and ones from the 2000s — and if there’s one thing that unites all the videos in my collection, it’s that they’re really, really bad.

But why? Why are we so unbelievably bad at creating videos about this incredibly important topic? Is there something inherent to sex education that just makes for a bad video — or are there other factors that contribute to the overwhelming awfulness of this genre?

I’ve had a lot of time to think about these questions, and I think I’ve come up with a working theory. There isn’t one specific reason why sex education videos are often awful; it’s more like a collection of different issues that merge together to create one laughably awkward video. Let’s take a look at a few of these factors (and, of course, check out some terrible sex ed video clips in the process).

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Talking about sex is awkward.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching a young person about the birds and the bees, or giving a teenager a lecture about proper condom use, you’re probably familiar with this barrier to effective sex education. For most of us, chatting about sex outside of the bedroom or a gossip session can be all kinds of uncomfortable, and that discomfort doesn’t always go away just because we’re sharing an important educational message.

And even when discomfort with the subject matter isn’t an issue, it’s still pretty tricky to strike the correct tone when talking about sex (especially when you’re talking to kids). Get too comfortable, and you wind up seeming pretty creepy, like the father in this scene from You, Your Body, and Puberty. Back away from straightforward, honest information into the safety of euphemism and metaphor, and you seem like a lunatic who doesn’t actually know what she's talking about. Finding a balance between these two extremes, and presenting honest, helpful information in a nonjudgmental and approachable way is an incredibly difficult task, one most sex ed video producers aren’t exactly up to.
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Adults who try to be hip are guaranteed to embarrass themselves.

It’s a universal truth that when adults aggressively try to connect with the youth, they inevitably wind up putting together some sort of tone-deaf simulacrum of whatever it is that kids are actually into — one that no real kid would ever mistake for the genuinely cool thing.

Since kids don’t really know much about sex, and don’t have the budget or skills to produce and film large-scale video productions, they’re not really in a place to put together their own actually cool sex ed flicks. So it falls to a bunch of uncool adults to figure out what, exactly, the kids are into, and how to get them to listen up and take sex education seriously. I’m sure whoever decided that Who Am I Now? would benefit from this awkward dance break was convinced they’d come up with something that all the kids would respond to and enjoy. I’m also sure they were very, very wrong.
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There’s endless product placement.

Sex ed videos, like all videos, cost money to make. But unlike blockbusters, or even indie films, they’re created as a public service — so the chances of reaping a profit from your film about herpes aren’t particularly high. This often means that sex education videos (and puberty videos, in particular) get funded by for-profit companies which can transform them into a marketing platform, filling young minds with all sorts of ideas about the “right” brand of tampon or pad or condom. You may remember some youthful sex ed experience that was accompanied by a gift bag full of tampons or pads or deodorant. Hey, you’re never too young to be marketed to — as this clip from Growing Up On Broadway makes clear.
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The acting is awful.

Some brilliant actors get their start in sex education videos — both Jonathan Banks and Dave Chappelle used their acting talent to educate about sex before their careers took off; and in the 1980s, a number of Annie stars teamed up to teach the world about periods. But for the most part, the people who get cast in these productions are about as skilled as someone you might see in a production at your local community theater. Which…well, just watch this clip from Seriously Fresh and let me know if it makes you want to take safer sex seriously.
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They’re super low-budget.

I know I said there wasn’t one specific reason why sex education videos are awful, but that wasn’t exactly true. Because while all of the above are definitely factors that combine to create these hilariously awkward educational experiences, they’re all pretty much the outgrowth of one thing in particular: We don’t prioritize, or put money behind, smart sex education. If you want to know what sex education videos would be like if they were star-studded, with scripts by award-winning writers, and with no obligation to shill someone’s tampon brand, take a look at this short video created by the team over at Last Week Tonight. Then compare it to this clip from A Is For Aids. Any questions?