November 20, 2014

Talking About Sex Openly and Loudly

by Marlees West ‘15 and Emily Westgate ‘16

SHAPE (Sexual Health Advocacy through Peer Education) strives to create an environment in which students at the MET school in Providence can engage in open and honest discussion about sexuality and sexual health. This year’s Community Fellows for the program are Marlees West ‘15 and Emily Westgate ‘16. Marlees is a Senior concentrating in Psychology with a focus in education. Marlees has coordinated the Peer Education Program for the past two years and taught in the classroom the year before. Emily is a Junior studying Public Health and currently coordinates SHAPE 1 & 2; she also taught in the classroom for a year. 

Talking about sex is often done in hushed tones, in small spaces. Parents answer their children's questions about where babies come from, friends whisper experiences and questions to each other, and teachers wait for the school nurse to deliver traditional Sex Ed.

In SHAPE, though, we talk about sex openly and loudly. SHAPE 1 & 2 happen in Met (The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center in Providence) classrooms, where we reach as many high school students as possible with our 8 week long curriculum. The Peer Education Program runs on a yearlong model - the first half of the year we train and educate a select group of Met students so that in the Spring they can step into the classroom as peer educators and facilitate the SHAPE 1 curriculum.

This year has been a year of growth for all of SHAPE’s programs.

Between SHAPE 1 & 2 there are 16 Brown volunteers who facilitate lively and open discussions in Met advisories each week. With 6 returning and 10 new facilitators this year, there has been a lot of room for seasoned volunteers to share their experiences and for new facilitators to share their ideas for the program. The facilitators themselves bring a new sense of diversity to the program; this year we have volunteers from the United States, the U.K, and Canada who range from sophomores to seniors, guys to gals, each of whom bring their own experiences with sexual health education.

Each individual facilitator has their own passion that fuels their involvement in SHAPE, and it is the differences among these passions that make our weekly meetings exciting and engaging. For some, talking honestly and casually about sex within their assigned Met advisory is the first time they have been able to do so in an educational setting. Other Brown volunteers had unconventional Sex Ed in high school and their motivation is to ensure that other students have the important discussions that are often hushed away in school settings. Each week, we see the confidence in our facilitators grow as they share the highlights - and challenges - of their weekly lesson. We know, from listening to our volunteers, that the Met students are talking candidly about sex and learning the tools they need to be empowered to make informed decisions about their sexual health.

Peer Education, which serves as an internship for Met students, expanded this year as well. Last year - with only 3 Brown volunteers and 2 Met peer educators - we were able to lead deep reflections with the class of students. This year the Peer Ed program is much bigger; we have 7 Met students and 4 Brown volunteers. While we were happy the program had grown, we were initially concerned that we would lose the intimacy we had last year with such a small group. 

Yet we were all pleasantly surprised. With our larger group, we've gained so much diversity. This semester has been an important reminder of how critical different voices are in every conversation. We talk about sex loudly. Openly. And from many different perspectives. While sometimes this makes it harder to maintain a safe space, it also makes the conversation much richer. This week alone Peer Ed had a discussion about the legality of gay marriage across the nation and a conversation that pushed all of us to think more critically about gender roles than ever have before.

Talking about sex, sexual health, and sexuality honestly and without judgment is important for all. We are so glad that SHAPE, through our Brown facilitators, can provide Met students and the Peer Educators the opportunity to talk about sex, openly and loudly in safe spaces.

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