Sexual education in America is failing teenagers, and many existing models fail to prevent pregnancy and the spread of STIs. New peer education programs are asking a controversial question: What if we let teens speak to each other about sex instead?
Photo by Miquel Llonch via Stocksy
Two teens sidle up to each other on stage, pretend-sipping from empty Solo cups. It is soon established that the pair—Diana and Paul—are at a graduation party. They begin to reminisce about the last time they saw each other, and then quickly shift to the process of gauging each other's interest in possibly hooking up. "So, do you have a boyfriend?" Paul asks Diana.
Diana laughs. "Not really. I've been busy."
The two freeze. Time stops. A guy walks up and places his hand on Diana's shoulder, and then turns to address the audience. "Diana and I went out for a couple of months last summer and we never used a condom," he says. Another guy walks over and places his hand on Diana's other shoulder. "Diana and I were together at the beginning of the year," he tells the audience. "We broke up but sometimes we still have sex. I just went to the doctor to get some bumps checked out and found out I have HPV."
Time unfreezes and the two resume their conversation. "Do you have a girlfriend?" Diana asks Paul.
"Uh, not exactly," says Paul, and the two freeze again. A girl walks up and places her hand on Paul's shoulder. "I'm Paul's girlfriend," she says. "We've been together for about six months. I am on the pill and I trust him, so we don't use condoms."
The skit goes on like this until there is a long chain of teens stretched across the stage, all of them existing in various degrees of intimate separation from Diana and Paul. Finally, Diana and Paul come to a mutual agreement. "You want to go upstairs so we can be alone?" asks Paul.
"Do you have any condoms?" Diana asks him. Paul checks his pockets, finding nothing there.
"Well, I guess it's okay. I'm on the pill," says Diana. And they walk off, dragging their respective chains of people behind them.
This is meant to serve as a means of illustrating the importance of knowing a partner's sexual history, and also of practicing safe sex. But in case the students in the audience don't grasp the full implication of what they just saw, the performers file back onstage in order to facilitate a discussion. Their ability to engage their audience is admirable, especially considering how young they are. If they pose a question to the audience and are met with silence, they deftly recast it. If the students in the audience begin to get rowdy—which they inevitably do—the teens onstage immediately take charge.
The fact that they are tackling subject matter that is often taboo—giggled over with close friends, avoided with the adults in their lives—makes their poise all the more striking. Is this just what happens when you begin to involve teens in their own self-education?
Numerous programs have formed in recent years that enable teens to become peer educators. This isn't so surprising—a study published in BMJ Open shows that students are hungry for information about their sexuality, though most felt that their in-school lesson plans were out-of-touch and outdated and did little to address their actual concerns about sex. Many pointed out that there was no acknowledgment of non-heterosexual relationships, of the fact that they might already be sexually active, or even that sex could be pleasurable.
Despite copious research indicating that comprehensive sex education is more effective at reducing the prevalence of behaviors that lead to unplanned pregnancies and STIs, and that abstinence-only education is ineffective at preventing teen pregnancy, Americans remain sharply divided on how to best educate adolescents and teenagers about sex. On one side are those who believe that the more information a teen has, the better prepared they are to make decisions about their sexual health. On the other side are those who believe that the best way to prevent unplanned pregnancies and the spread of STIs is to promote abstinence, full stop. Supporters of abstinence-only curricula believe that to give teens too much information about sex itself—and how to have it safely—is tantamount to giving teens permission to do so.
School districts across the country are divided on the issue, too, with some opting for abstinence-heavy curricula, some opting for evidence-based curricula, and others opting not to mandate any form of sexual education at all. This leaves many teens at a disadvantage, particularly LGBTQ teens, who continue to be underrepresented and even stigmatized in many sex ed curricula.
Enter peer educators. Trained in the information that actually matters to teens, they train to become the people their coevals can turn to when they're not getting what they need in the classroom, or when they're embarrassed or afraid to go to their teachers with their most pressing questions and concerns. The above-mentioned teens, for instance, are part of a group at Robbinsville High School in Robbinsville, NJ, that participates in Teen PEP, a sexual health promotion program originally developed by the Center for Supportive Schools (CSS) and HiTOPS in collaboration with the New Jersey Department of Health. Teen PEP has programs running in 60 schools in New Jersey and North Carolina, and lessons are integrated into the regular school day.
The program coordinators—staff members who already work at the school—receive training through the CSS and HiTOPS, which partner with Teen PEP to train teachers on the most accurate sexual health information. Throughout the school year, this group of high school seniors takes classes from their newly trained teachers that help them develop leadership and facilitation skills and amass sexual health knowledge. Then, they are let loose to teach the entire freshman class. This program is not intended as a replacement for students' regular sex ed classes, but rather as an addition. It's intended to fill in any gaps that might—and quite often do—exist.
Proponents of peer-based sex ed argue that, on a fundamental level, everyone wants the same thing, no matter what their views on teaching students about sex: Safe and healthy kids who grow to become safe and healthy adults. "Communities need to take ownership of their own health, and have agency over their health, and a great way to do that is to have teens do it," says Alda Santana, who works with the Peer-2-Peer program, an Austin, Texas-based peer-led health project for teens. "Instead of having adults telling teens what they feel is best for them, this information needs to come from teens."
The teens involved in Teen PEP vehemently agree with this sentiment; the peer educators involved in the program practically fall all over each other when asked about its benefits. "I didn't have anything like Teen PEP when I was a freshman," says Rae'Ven Korm, 18. Korm, who has a little sister, explains that they don't have the type of relationship with their parents where they can talk about sex. "As an older sister," she says, "I want to be that for someone's younger sister."
I know how lost and weird it can feel to be in a sex ed class and hear that and think, 'But what if that's not me?'
Justin Wasson, 18, who identifies as gay, is troubled by the fact that many sex ed curricula assume that sex is defined only as penis-in-vagina intercourse between a man and a woman. "I know how lost and weird it can feel to be in a sex ed class and hear that and think, 'But what if that's not me?'" he explains.
Some parents were hesitant at first, says Anna-Maria Hernandez, a Teen PEP co-advisor at Robbinsville High School; she initially heard some voicing concerns about "what messages and information would be provided, and how those important messages would be conveyed," but she hasn't seen any opposition since the program was instituted.
Another Teen PEP location, in Princeton, NJ, saw vocal opposition from a group of parents who identified themselves as Parents for Sex Ed Choice. This group requested that an abstinence-only sex ed class be offered as an alternative, arguing that the existing program "encourage[d] sexual risk taking" by, among other things, "coercing students into sharing intimate conversations—their feelings about sex—with strangers... emphasizing the negative size of waiting [to have sex] ("it's really hard"), and desensitizing students by showing extremely graphic images of a condom being used."
"By turning serious decisions about sex into a series of cutesy jokes in skits and comics," some parents wrote in an indignant op-ed, "HiTOPS strips sex of its inherent dignity."
They raise a valid question question: Do the skits and comics actually work? Hernandez acknowledges that the methodology can be cutesy, and that students tend to become rowdy during the sex ed assemblies—but she sees this as a positive sign, an indication that students are engaged and willing to talk. "Students sometimes are chatty during the [assemblies], because I think they are still new at the amount of open dialogue Teen PEP encourages," she says. "But this year, we interviewed our first batch of juniors who wanted to become Peer Educators who had received Teen PEP as freshmen... They were so knowledgeable, so I feel confident that they are taking away great messages."
Advocates for Youth—an advocacy organization with a focus on adolescent sexual health—has compiled the results of several studies that show the impact of peer education. These studies show how peer education can reduce risky sexual behaviors by providing teens with a more accessible source for their sexual health information. For example, one peer education program targeting mostly black young women, ages 12 through 19, led to an 11 percent increase in condom use by sexually active participants, while sexual activity in general dropped. Evaluations of other peer-based programs showed similar results.
A more recent review of 15 peer-led sexual health education programs also shows positive outcomes—it seems that peer-to-peer sex education is effective at improving both teens' knowledge and attitude around sexual health. This is unsurprising, considering that it's usually teens themselves that other teens are most willing to listen to. As Wasson points out, the teens performing onstage provide students with educators they can actually relate to. "The other students are thinking: That's my peer. Not just a teacher," he says.
For students, the program is valuable because it helps them connect with peers who are going through the same confusing changes as they are. "I know, for a lot of kids, it's hard figuring out who they are," says David Sundburg, 17, a transgender student involved in the Teen PEP program. "I wanted to be someone people felt comfortable talking to."
Now, he says, people come up to him all the time to ask him questions. "It makes you feel really connected to people," he adds.