An interview with Michele Ernsting, Founder of 'Love Matters' and Director of Program Development at RNW Media
Sex. It’s still a taboo topic censored in many parts of the world. Whether it’s learning about contraception and sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs) or finding the nearest abortion clinic, the dearth of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) education is leaving entire generations of young people vulnerable to the consequences of misinformation around sex. And, ultimately, it’s preventing young people from making informed choices about their sexual health.
But, RNW Media has a solution. The Netherlands-based organization’s program, ‘Love Matters,’ has become a leading voice in SRHR education, with seven platforms serving young people across Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. Often the only source of comprehensive sex education in the countries in which the organization operates, the program offers forums for 18-30 year-olds to safely engage on taboo and sensitive topics.
This year, World Population Day calls attention to reproductive health and rights, so we spoke to ‘Love Matters’ project founder, Michele Ernsting, about the importance of SRHR and how digital media can revolutionize sex education in more conservative societies across the globe.
Michele, your project brings highly taboo and censored information to closed societies. How do users on the ‘Love Matters’ platforms engage safely?
We work with a whole range of stakeholders in a country setting, providing young people with accurate and reliable information when there’s nothing available. National medical associations and clinics are so limited in terms of the information they are allowed to deliver that they can’t talk to people about what’s really going on in their lives related to their sexual health and rights.
We provide support by bringing in confidential sexuality resources that can be adapted locally, as well as engagement and content strategies to help get our message out. We have local moderators and medical professionals working with us, but it’s the local teams that decide every day how are we going to reach out, how are we going to capture young people’s attention around this issue, and how we are going to respond to their questions.
How do you ensure your platforms are culturally sensitive when working in less sex-positive societies?
We made a decision very early on that nothing would ever be censored on any of the platforms, whether it’s female pleasure, FGM, or LGBT issues, because this happens in the real world and these are communities that need resources. We do a lot of focus groups and data scraping to try to feed in new language in order to show that this doesn’t need to be shameful—that it’s a normal thing.
There’s also a lot of tailoring that takes place all the way down to the search engine marketing (SEM) because we’re trying to reach our audiences through platforms like Facebook or Google, where we know some of our content will be censored in a given setting. We try to work within those community guidelines so our young people are well served. The content has to be entirely reflective of the local experience.
In many parts of the developing world, watching or distributing illicit sexual digital content is banned or punishable by law. Though you’re not a sex service, your digital platforms include censorable and sensitive content. Have you or your users encountered any legal issues?
We’re working in highly-restrictive settings, but we always meet people where they are. So every question is a good question. They’re very aware of their own risks, but we do try and make sure people are well-informed. We don’t print people’s bylines and we protect our staff in each country. We’re cognizant of the guidelines and don’t break any laws, but we do share very sensitive information. It could be using different types of wording, images, page layouts… We try to help our users stay safe and look after their own needs.
What have you found to be the biggest information demand for users? How does that differ between, say, ‘Love Matters’ Arabic and ‘Love Matters’ China?
At the highest level, everybody wants to know, “Am I normal?” They’re ashamed of their desires, fears, bodies, etc. When we dig into what that means, penis shapes and sizes is one of the top areas of interest. Masturbation and anal sex are other popular pages, which is largely due to people practicing abstinence and men having sex with men where contact with women is limited, and their first sexual experience is with another man.
I know that penis shapes and sizes and masturbation and can seem far away from SRHR, but you can use these topics as a gateway to help people get the information they need. What I find fascinating is that those things never appear on public health agendas. There’s a lot of things people don’t know they don’t know. So unless you talk to people about it, you don’t know the next steps you need to take.
Is there anything you’ve been shocked to learn through ‘Love Matters’?
The thing that shocked me most was the international public health, NGO, and development world being shocked by pleasure. Knowing what we know about the availability of porn, are we really going to be all puritanical about this and pretend no one’s looking at this? I’m a pragmatist. If you have a great way to deliver a message and you’re not using it, then what a shame—we can do better.
Your reach is impressive. What is ‘Love Matters’’ greatest accomplishment?
Three years into the program in Kenya, we had a worried young woman come to the page. She had unprotected sex with her boyfriend and learned he was cheating on her and was wondering where she should be tested for HIV. We counseled her and she was positive. For about six months we didn’t hear anything. A year after that, this woman reappeared in the community and she came back as a moderator and was answering other people’s questions. That was the moment we realized the power of community. Communities share their learning and this young woman was a testament to that. We have medical professionals working on the platforms, but she’s more valuable than a doctor talking to you when she shares those same experiences and concerns. To have one young person go through this experience and be able to coach her peers… we couldn’t have imagined we’d get to that place.
Until now, we’ve answered questions and connected them to moderators who are SRHR professionals, since we haven’t been able to seamlessly connect people to local services. The next stage in this process is how we take all this information and learn collectively from it. How do we take these amazing toolkits and make sure they’re translated and shared as a driver of innovation? The Packard Foundation just gave us a grant to provide people with services to make this happen.
Our most recent platform is in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s one of the most challenging settings you can imagine in terms of access to the digital space, taboos, and the issues. But it’s a testament to the project, with pretty brave colleagues who go into extraordinary settings to do this work that isn’t possible offline. It’s one of the faster-growing platforms right now.
What is your vision for the future of the intersection of digital media and SRHR?
‘Love Matters’ is becoming a social franchise and there will be two independent platforms by the end of this year. We have seven communities around the world and I want to replicate this model and have local ownership because that’s the way this is going to grow in a way that you can’t deny anymore. Our platforms are the top sexual education platforms in most of the countries we operate in, so I want to grow and decentralize and shift the ownership and then take the replication model and move it on to the next opportunity that comes along.
In the last year we’ve had half a billion content views on our platform. We’re realizing that all our engagement with young people is telling us some really profound things about knowledge gaps and what’s most important in their lives. Ultimately, we really want to take that data and turn it into evidence for advocacy. We have the ability to describe what people want when they’re not feeling judged. People are sharing their deepest hopes and fears with you. That’s a game-changer.
My modus operandi has always been, “Proceed until apprehended!”
Photo Courtesy of Rita Lino
To learn more about Love Matters around the globe, find the site in your region here: https://www.rnw.org/what-we-do/love-matters/
About RNW Media: RNW Media is a Concordia Patron Member and international organization based in the Netherlands that builds digital communities for social change and creates online platforms where they design content, engagement, and moderation strategies.