Sex Education

What happens when teens teach sex ed

At South Eugene High School in Oregon, one student-run club is teaching sex ed to peers to make it more comprehensive, relatable and effective.

By Ryan Nguyen, Theresa Wanner and Cole Kundich

When South Eugene High School senior Jesse Pearce asked the class if anyone had questions, there were a few seconds of silence.

One student raised their hand and asked: Is gender a biological or neurological condition?

“That’s a really good question,” said Jade Pfaefflin Bounds, another senior giving the presentation. “We wouldn’t call it a condition, because it’s not something that’s medical.” He explained that a person’s sex is assigned at birth, but that their gender doesn’t always reflect their appearances. “You can’t choose how you feel, but you can choose how to identify as,” he said.

Pearce and Pfaefflin Bounds are the leaders of Respect(Ed), a club at South Eugene where students teach their peers sex ed through in-class presentations. The students who originally founded the club in 2015 had one goal: to give students a more comprehensive and inclusive sex ed focused on consent.

“Rather than talking about condoms and birth control, our focus is really on consent and sexual assault and how to emotionally handle those scenarios, but also how to help your friends through them, or how to report it,” said Maya Corral, one of the original founders of Respect(Ed) and a first-year student at Barnard College of Columbia University.

Research has shown that one advantage of peer-led education is that students can better connect and empathize with fellow students than with teachers. This can make learning more effective.

“The best way to deliver a message in a peer-led setting is to let young people be the driving force,” said Martina Shabram, the community educator for Planned Parenthood of Southwestern Oregon and who coordinates a youth-led sex ed program at PPSO called REVolution, where students learn how to become community advocates for reproductive health.

Some peer-led sex ed programs are designed to supplement traditional teacher-led classes, like  Respect(Ed), while others are more focused on social activism and justice, like REVolution. What these programs seek to do varies, but by adding student voices, they generally aim to make sex ed more comprehensive, inclusive and effective.

“As students, we know a little bit more about what’s going on, what are the specific cultural issues that are facing students today around sex and consent,” Pearce said in an interview with the University of Oregon.

To fill these gaps in what they say traditional sex ed curricula lacks, Respect(Ed) focuses on teaching students about consent, sexual violence, bystander intervention, sexuality and gender. Teams of two or three Respect(Ed) members each present several times per semester to South Eugene students, including freshmen and seniors.

“Teaching sex ed can be really hard,” Shabram said. “When we’re trying to educate people on something that is so charged with emotions and values and feelings and fear and stigma and all the complications that come with sex, having young people at the table as equals who are capable of knowing and capable of acting in responsible ways becomes essential.”

Just as important as filling in those gaps is having high-quality facilitators from a variety of backgrounds who can accurately speak to whatever topic is at hand. During Respect(Ed)’s presentation on gender and sexuality, Pearce touched upon her experience as a lesbian woman to illustrate the differences between gender identity, attraction and expression.

David Evans, the CEO of Health Behaviour Group, a U.K.-based nonprofit that promotes sex ed research and training, explained that successful peer education programs don’t only transmit information. In successful programs, student leaders model certain behaviors and attitudes to younger students.

“Peer education works because of its impacts on social realities,” he said.

But although some researchers believe that peer education “aims to tap into what is known about existing social processes and to harness this power,” according to a 1995 Health Education Research study of peer sex ed, other academics and researchers are skeptical of such theories about peer education, which they say lack evidence and have yet to be truly rigorously tested.

Boiling down the multifaceted complexities and nuances of human interactions into a single, quantifiable data point is tough enough, but coupling that with the many varied approaches, objectives and evaluations that peer-led sex education programs can have makes measuring the relative success of these programs difficult, according to the 1995 study.

The varying philosophies, goals and terms used to describe these programs — such as peer counseling, peer tutoring, peer-led, peer-to-peer or peer-facilitated education — each of which carries different nuances, also makes collecting hard quantitative data difficult.

“Pre-test and post-test questionnaires or other forms of measurement are quite simply not enough really to understand why some interventions appear to have some success whilst others fail to have the desired impact on a particular group of peers, even in apparently similar circumstances,” the study states.

When student educators replace adults as teachers, “There suddenly is not a hierarchy of authority,” Evans said. “They are quite literally, in a sense, co-constructing the social world to those young people.”

Although evidence for the effectiveness of peer-led programs on teens’ actual beliefs and behaviors can be “unclear and contradictory,” according to the 1995 study, students, adults and the peer facilitators themselves — say that their firsthand evidence supports the idea.

When Respect(Ed) presenters ask students to pull out sheets of paper to write down anonymous questions — things that they would otherwise feel embarrassed to ask about — Pearce said they usually receive thank-you notes from students in class.

“Almost every presentation I get one that’s just like, ‘Thank you so much for coming in here. I really needed it,’ or ‘I feel like my classmates really needed this,’” Pearce said. “Or from students who maybe have experienced sexual assault or who are maybe closeted about their being part of the LGBTQ+ community.”

One South Eugene senior, Hunter Calvert, said that he felt more informed after listening to a Respect(Ed) presentation about sexuality and gender. “Both the presenters, Jade and Jesse, are very well versed in this topic,” he said. “It was all informative.”

These programs are also less expensive than those with trained health professionals, according to the 1995 study, which considers the time of teens to be “mostly free.” And since teens already turn to their friends for information and advice, it’s easier for students to teach each other.

“We have a more specific response to what students really know and really need to know,” Pearce said, “and are able to present information in a way that is better received than teachers necessarily would.”

Peer leaders also benefit from teaching. These students build professional and life skills such as public speaking and conflict resolution.

“Teaching something they’re passionate about really helps build confidence in them,” said Zoë Pringle, another co-founder of Respect(Ed).

John Tripp, the former head of the Department of Child Health at the University of Exeter in the U.K., compared peer education to skate parks, where he said everyone learns “without any obvious pedagogy.”

“It’s because the learning environment is effectively playful,” Tripp said. “The more I think about it, the more I think it checks all the boxes necessary to enable youngsters to feel this learning that they’re doing is where they are as human beings.”

According to a 2015 report from The Population Institute, a nonprofit that promotes family planning, the results of their fourth annual report came back with 19 states receiving a failing grade. Based on effectiveness, prevention and affordability, Oregon was one of the four states that received an A and that the nonprofit noted for mandating comprehensive and medically accurate sex ed in public schools.

And from 2000 until 2014, the percentage of U.S. schools required to provide education on HIV prevention, human sexuality and sexually transmitted disease prevention fell, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2000, two-thirds of schools were required to teach human sexuality, but by 2014, this number had fallen to 48 percent.

Both Pearce and Pfaefflin Bounds said that, though they recognize how Oregon has made efforts to improve sex ed in schools, it still isn’t enough.

Corral and Pringle founded Respect(Ed) in 2015, when Corral saw sexual harassment happen around her and nothing being done about it.

Frustrated by the system, Corral said she delivered a speech to Eugene School District 4J administrators and later met with them to implement a time where student facilitators could go into classrooms to speak about sexual health. Corral and Pringle then started working with teachers to develop ideas. That’s when things started to change.

“There’s no mistaking the fact that our students are absolutely demanding more information than what students 10 years ago did, certainly 20 or more years ago,” said Andy Dey, the director of secondary education at Eugene School District 4J, who helped supervise Respect(Ed) as the former principal at South Eugene.

The phenomena of teenagers sharing information gathered from a variety of sources, including from the media, other teenagers and adults, as well as their own experiences, is one typical view of teenage sex ed.

“Our job as educators is to help guide them,” Shabram said. “I’m an expert in a lot of things, but I have no idea what it’s like to be 16 today. The experts are the students.”

And although students prefer to learn from sexual health workers and that their least preferred source of sexual health information was youth clubs, according to the 1995 study, health educators “have begun to experiment with harnessing these naturally occurring processes to what they define as positive ends.”

Corral said that sexual harassment was never talked about during her time at South Eugene. A few years after Respect(Ed) began, she says, students walked out in protest of the school’s handling of a student’s sexual assault case.

“People were feeling more empowered to speak up for their peers and for themselves,” Corral said. “I don’t know if this could have happened without the environment that Respect(Ed) helped to create.”