Q&A with Dr. Shira Taylor
Creator and director of SExT, Dr. Shira Taylor, answers your most frequently asked questions
Why sex ed?
“If you can’t talk about sex, you can’t improve public health.” Upon reading this sentence in the Spring 2008 issue of the John Hopkins Public Health Magazine, my career goals became crystal clear. Sexually transmitted Infections (STIs) are on the upswing across Canada right now, especially among youth. With the majority of youth having cell phones and internet access, issues surrounding sexting and cyberbulling are rampant. Traditional sex ed makes LGBTQ youth feel like outsiders and the health effects of this exclusion are well documented and devastating. I could go on and on. Yet, despite countless studies stressing its importance for youth health, we are still scared to talk to youth about sex.
Does teaching young people about sex make them more likely to have sex?
NOPE. Years and years of research on abstinence education have found it to be INEFFECTIVE. Furthermore, research shows that comprehensive sex education actually decreases STI and pregnancy rates.
What does an effective sex ed program look like?
Based on years and years of research (and there have been MANY years of research, followed by little follow up action), effective sex ed incorporates youth input, follows a peer-to-peer model, goes beyond biology to tackle social issues like peer pressure, is interactive, non-judgmental, doesn’t shy away from acknowledging pleasure, and is culturally sensitive.
What about the new Ontario curriculum? I've heard some concerning things.
It is important to recognize that there is A LOT of misinformation floating around. I highly recommend reading the actual document. Here is a meticulously detailed précis of every mention of sex ed topics in the nearly 300 page curriculum, quoted in context, and annotated with page numbers. Panic tends to win out over informed and productive discussion when it comes to kids and sex. Don’t let it! Check out this great article by The Huffington Post, presenting 5 myths and facts about the updated curriculum.
What I find far more concerning, is that until 2015, the most recent update to the curriculum occurred in 1998! Needless to say, the world was evolving faster than the curriculum could keep up. This is essentially before the internet and cell phones as we know it even existed.
Sexuality is a very human experience that ties in people’s biology, thoughts, feelings, attitudes, behaviours, family ties, culture, religion and politics, to name a few. Basically it’s an extremely complex topic. I believe that theatre is uniquely qualified to tackle this sensitive topic because it can engage young people both intellectually and emotionally and challenge them to think about issues in new ways. Plus live theatre is interactive, engaging, and fun.
Was it hard to get youth involved in the program? What about keeping them involved?
Actually quite the opposite. Just look at the expectations, versus the reality....
Some advice I received prior to actually working in the community went along the lines of, “You better recruit 15 youth if you want to finish with 10 because they will likely drop out”: Well, I started with 15 and finished with 19 youth with near-perfect attendance.
“Good luck getting girls in this neighbourhood to talk about sex”: When I crashed a girls’ gym class to put some feelers out on the program, I left with an old crumpled receipt from my purse packed with around 20 girls’ email addresses wanting more information on the program.
“You are asking for a big commitment from teenagers”: After the 10 initial workshops, going into the summer week-long intensive where we were to workshop and rehearse the play, almost half of the participants got summer jobs or had to attend summer school, but NOT ONE dropped out. They would come from a full day of work or school only to rehearse an additional 3-4 hours into the evening. Other youth, who had been there since 10 am, volunteered to stay to help catch up their peers. When I couldn’t get rehearsal space for the day before the performance, we rehearsed in a parking lot, in the rain. Many of the youth are STILL dedicated to the program even after graduating high school.
“It will be hard to get youth to talk openly and truthfully about these topics”: After establishing a safe and nonjudgmental space, youth were more than willing to talk. This was also the case for audience members who came to one-off focus groups to help evaluate the performance. What was supposed to be me getting feedback on the show turned into insightful discussions on anything from circumcision to cat-calling.
What about having guys and girls (and everyone in between) in the same sex ed program?
This decision went against much of the research that calls for gendered sex ed, separating guys and girls, but I think it was one of the program’s greatest strengths. It also usually saved me having to correct any offensive gender-related statements, as there was usually someone in the room willing to step up and correct these stereotypes, often in a more sassy and effective tone than I could use and still call myself a professional. Having all genders in the room can lead to discussions that increase mutual understanding and can expose people to new perspectives. This model can also be more inclusive for youth who don’t subscribe to the gender binary (feel like they are either male or female).
How did you make the program culturally appropriate?
Since the program followed an empowerment approach, the youth themselves were consulted at every stage of the program and it naturally followed that the program (and performance) was constantly being adapted to reflect participants’ cultural realities. For example, upon learning that a portion of youth participants and audience members were observing the Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan, and that the fast was ending at about the same time the performance, I arranged to provide snacks (selected in consultation with youth) for performers and audience members to break their fast after the performance.
What was it like working in a community as an outsider?
I get this question a lot as a 5’1 white Jewish girl. It was a beautiful experience of cultural exchange. I went in with the belief that I have as much to learn from the youth, if not more, as they do from me and that was definitely the case. Since sexuality is one of the most universal human experiences and is so closely tied to religion, culture, politics, and socioeconomic factors, we certainly did not shy away from these discussions and in opening this dialogue in a safe space, many cultural commonalities emerge. For example, during one of our stereotype exercises, we learned that both Jewish and Brown people are stereotyped as being cheap and having big noses. We also had a debate about over who has it worse, people observing Halal or Kosher dietary restrictions. I think I lost that round since those keeping Kosher can drink and we do love our wine.
How do you deal with the reality that what you are teaching will often be inconsistent with the values that youth are raised with?
I believe that a good sex ed program is based on respect for diversity and is a space where different and even opposing values can co-exist. I recognize that it is not my place to impose my values on youth or to go against what they are learning at home. I do feel that it is my responsibility to expose youth to different viewpoints, and to challenge them to think critically about everything they hear and read (even when it comes from me) so they can ultimately develop their own informed values and attitudes. The one and only non-negotiable value from my perspective is respect for others, including people who think differently from you. That said, there is no easy answer to this question, it is one that I am constantly grappling with.
What evaluation has been done? How can you prove something like this actually "works"?
Evaluation is tricky when it comes to arts-based interventions. For this reason, I have spent a good portion of my doctoral studies exploring successes and gaps in evaluation for this type of program. As a part of my PhD thesis, SExT is being evaluated using quantitative, qualitative, and arts-based methods to assess any impact on both youth performers and audiences. Data is in the process of being analyzed, with results coming soon.
What's next for SExT?
It is our hope to bring this show to wider audiences, as well as expand the program to more communities. If you have any ideas for the future of SExT, please contact us!
Still have more questions?
Contact us here!