In 2014, 22-year-old Brianna Rader was officially condemned by the state of Tennessee’s House of Representatives for creating a series of sex-education events called Sex Week at her school, the University of Tennessee. The legislature’s resolution went so far as to call the festival “an atrocious event.”
But rather than intimidating Rader, that reprimand just made her more determined to start sex-positive conversations. Despite all of the controversy and pushback from both politicians and school administrators, she was driven by the stories she’d heard from friends about everything from sexual assault to not knowing where to find birth control. She was eager to help however she could.
So Rader–who has since graduated and is now pursuing her Master’s in Global Health at the University of California, San Francisco–created Hookup, an app that aims to make sex ed fun and engaging with the goal of getting teens to actually use it. “We want to target people when they start having sex, or right before, so they have the information they need,” Rader says. “That could be a young college student or a teen.”
Hookup was built by the three-woman team of Rader, Microsoft designer and fellow UT alum Tara Sripunvoraskul, and developer Laura Trigeiro as a mobile-compatible web app that will eventually be released as a free mobile app in late 2015 or early 2016. Still in beta, the web app currently offers two features: Ask a Sexpert, which allows users to write anonymous questions and receive answers from experts who work at organizations such as Planned Parenthood in real time, and Share Your Story, an also-anonymous forum-type feature for people to share their sexual experiences.
The latter function could prove controversial, since it has the potential to be a forum for underage kids to access sexually explicit storytelling. Rader says these posts will be monitored by an administrator prior to publication, and nothing deemed pornographic will be allowed. “Pornography is material written for the purpose of sexual arousal,” she says. “If a post is written for that purpose, then it won’t be published. We will use discretion, as we monitor which stories are posted.” Rader adds that nobody under the age of 13 will be allowed access.
In the future, Rader hopes to add more features. Foreplay will be a gaming center with offerings such as Sperm Invaders (players shoot birth control pill packs and condoms to kill sperm before it reaches the egg). Get Sexy Library lets users access original content such as videos and comics, as well as guest pieces from well-known sex educators. And Nearby You will be a Yelp-type locator for clinics and sexual health providers. The team recently received a $5,000 grant from 4.0 Schools, an accelerator program for education ventures.
What sets Hookup apart from other online resources, according to Rader, is that its primary approach is to be fun, not some educational tool that feels like homework. “We want to be a little more PG-13, a little more edgy, a little more entertaining to make sure that teens want to use it,” she says. “The users are our first priority. It has to be fun and entertaining but maintain integrity.”
Her Tennessee background gives her a unique position on sex ed, since the state is one of many with abstinence-only sex education and has consistently ranked in the top 15 with the highest rate of pregnancy in the 15-to-19 age group.
Could an app like Hookup really make a difference? To some degree, yes, says certified sexologist Megan Andelloux, founder of the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health and formerly of Planned Parenthood. Andelloux speaks often at colleges around the nation (including the University of Tennessee’s Sex Week). “The fact that they’re not going to have to see someone else’s face to access information is really beneficial,” Andelloux says. “You can delete this question, you can delete the app, so maybe it’s less likely people would find out you were searching for this information.” But she acknowledges there are limitations to what technology can do. In her own work, she answers questions via email but also does individual face-to-face consultations. “You can never really provide all the information that is necessary for people in an email or a text message. Each situation is different.”
The New York Times recently used Hookup as a jumping off point for an opinion page dialogue on the future of sex ed. The columnists were supportive of using technology to reach teens, but they also advocated for teaching in schools and at home. Rader completely agrees. “[Hookup] is not the solution, it’s just one piece of the solution,” she says. “Of course you still need sex ed in schools. We need advocates to help change policy in states like Tennessee. We need parents to be open to communicating. But when those things fall apart, it’d be nice if a kid could just turn to their phone.”