For the past two-and-a-half years, I’ve been heading up a peer-to-peer, youth-led sex ed theatre troupe with Planned Parenthood Ottawa called Insight Theatre. Each year, we train a new group of high school youth in sexual and reproductive health, anti-oppression and performance skills. Once the youth are trained, they take the lead in creating a series of 15 or so skits on sex ed topics that they present to other youth at schools and community centres.
I’ve learned a lot in working with this project, but one of the most valuable lessons has been how youth access sexual health info and who they trust to get it right. In 2011, the Ontario Student Trustees Association reported that nearly half of all students were dissatisfied with the school-based sexual health education that they had received. The organization surveyed middle school and high school students across Ontario and found that 45% of respondents did not find their sex education classes to be useful or relevant to their own experiences. At the local level, the Ottawa Youth Sex Survey 2.0 found that 47% of participants did not feel comfortable seeking sexual health information from their teachers. But, this same group of respondents ranked schools as one of the top five locations in which they were likely to seek sexual health information.
Study after study has shown us that youth predominately get their information from peers and the internet. It is of course important to arm teachers, parents and other adults with accurate, evidence-based sexual health information, but we also need to equip youth with detailed sexual health info so that they can make the best use of this tendency toward peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing.
In my first year in this job, I started noticing how much casual, day-to-day peer education was happening between the Insight troupe members and their friends and classmates. In the bathroom at school and on a couch at a party, the troupe members were handing out free condoms, correcting misinformation and giving people info on where to go for STI testing, abortion care and affordable contraception. So we decided to formalize that part of the program. We gave the troupe members condoms to keep in their backpacks and created an information package so that they had the info they needed to refer their peers to local sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services as questions came up.
If youth are more comfortable talking to other youth about sex, then let’s train youth to talk to other youth about sex. There are lots of great sex education initiatives out there but, when it comes to really engaging youth, you have to pay attention to what they do and why. Youth trust word of mouth. They trust their friends. They trust the internet. Unless someone they trust has vouched for you, or you’ve proven upside down and sideways that you can be trusted, you’re not likely to get very far in terms of giving advice or being seen to have credible information.
Another big lesson I’ve learned in this job is that sex ed tends to go better when you indulge in a little infotainment. Over my last 15 years as an educator, I’ve noticed how much deeper arts-based educational initiatives go when it comes to youth and the ways they integrate information. Want to talk about anti-oppression? Analyze pop songs. Want to discuss consent? Show clips of TV shows. And, if you want them to listen when you talk about sex, present them with scenes that look and sound like their lives. Quote the TV shows they like, make reference to the songs they’re listening to and give them a chance to talk to their peers about what they’re thinking and feeling.