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Making sex education more accessible to young people by theatre

Making sex education more accessible to young people by theatre

by Shira Taylor

Taylor with SExT peer educators at a drum circle during SExT’s national tour to schools across the Northwest Territories.

In 2014, as a fresh-faced doctoral candidate, I walked into one of Toronto’s most diverse and overpopulated high schools with the idea of making sex education more accessible by inviting young people to sing, rap, and dance about everything from chlamydia to menstruation to homophobia.

On my first visit to Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute (MGCI), I overheard a teacher talking about a young man making sexual innuendos with a banana in her class. I immediately asked to speak with this student. I pitched him my idea for a series of theatre-based sex education workshops that would culminate in the creation of a new play on sexual and mental health topics to be performed for local peers. ‘Banana boy’ listened with interest and responded that while he thought this was a good idea for young men, he didn’t believe his female peers would talk about sex due to the religious context of the community. MGCI serves Thorncliffe and Flemingdon Park, immigration destinations and ‘Neighborhood Improvement Areas’ of Toronto with a majority South Asian Muslim population. The neighbourhood is rich in culture while facing a number of structural barriers to the health and well-being of its inhabitants. Thorncliffe Park has Toronto’s highest child poverty rate at 60%. For newcomer youth, the burden of social exclusion and inequitable access to sexual health education and services lead to disproportionately poor health outcomes.

SExT performs “We Can Stop”  at the SummerWorks Theatre Festival in Toronto: Photo by Dahlia Katz.

After my helpful consultation with this young man, I decided it was essential to speak directly with female-identifying youth and re-iterated my pitch to a physical education class. Contrary to the warnings I had received about young women’s comfort with sexual topics in this community, my spiel was tremendously well-received. Students began sharing about gaps in arts programming in the neighbourhood. One student shared about a love of dance and no opportunities for lessons. I was moved to learn that she had taken it upon herself to fill this gap, teaching herself to dance from YouTube and offering free lessons to local youth at the community library. It was in that school gymnasium that SExT: Sex Education by Theatre was born to provide theatre-based, peer-led, trauma-informed, anti-racist sex education that embraces culture as enriching the sexual health conversation.

As of 2022, the play SExT, co-created with a mixed-gender group of Thorncliffe/Flemingdon Park youth, has been performed over 100 times for more than 10,000 students across Canada. Nine of the original 19 youth are still actively involved as Peer Mentors eight years later, an extraordinary retention rate, especially since many participants admittedly first joined for the free pizza. A 2016 run at the Toronto Fringe Festival and SummerWorks followed closely on the heels of the 2015 protests against comprehensive sex education reform. These protests attracted an unhelpful and stigmatizing media focus on Thorncliffe Park. While adults usually saturate the sex education debate, SExT put young people centre stage and gave them a platform to reflect on and challenge their realities. Former Ontario Premier and sex education champion Kathleen Wynne expressed that she felt every high school student in the province should see the performance, leading to a 2017 high school tour.

Taylor during SExT’s first national tour in Buffalo Narrows, Saskatchewan.

In 2018, SExT partnered with the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR) to reach young people in areas of Canada most affected by HIV/AIDS. Our first national tour brought our group to schools and Indigenous reserves across the GTA, Northern Ontario, and Northern Saskatchewan, where HIV is double the national average. We experienced beautiful moments of cultural exchange, learning to jig in Prince Albert and serenading an MLA about the ‘Steps to Condom Use’ in a Dairy Queen in La Ronge. In 2019, building upon five years of working with youth, Elders, and service providers in the Northwest Territories, I formed a partnership with the Chief Public Health Officer of the NWT and the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation to tour SExT to 8 NWT communities in response to gonorrhea and syphilis outbreaks in the region. Our cast of newcomer youth was humbled at the opportunity to learn from and with the original caretakers of the land, participating in drum circles, moosehide tanning, Inuit games, and even dipping toes in the arctic ocean, condoms in hand.

SExT at the Toronto Fringe with a digital show filmed completely in self-isolation.

COVID-19 cancelled our planned third national tour and pushed SExT activities online, leading to interactive virtual performances, a digital show for the Toronto and Camden (UK) Fringe Festivals (Captain Condom & The COVID-19 Conundrum), and a series of health promotion music videos  (It Wasn’t Me: A Quarantine Parody, Quarantine Dream, Best Vaxxed Friends) to add to our existing music videos about consent (Bodak Consent) and intimate partner violence abuse (Tunnel Vision).

My dissertation involved the design, implementation, and evaluation of SExT, with a focus on the group of young people trained as peer educators. Mixed data were collected and analyzed from surveys, focus groups, peer interviews, field notes, and arts-based evaluation workshops at pre-, post-, and 4-month follow-up. The pilot program improved the personal/social development and sexual health self-efficacy (condom use, STI/HIV testing, and sexual limit-setting) of peer educators. Youth peer educators were actively involved as peer researchers in line with a participatory action research approach, including co-authoring a book chapter.

SExT in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, bringing youth-led sexual health and HIV prevention education to youth across the territory.

My postdoctoral plan will expand upon my doctoral work by focusing on audience impact. I will explore the applicability of the SExT model (originally developed with urban, newcomer youth) to rural, Indigenous communities; evaluate the impact on student audiences and health educators; and assess remote delivery and engagement considerations. SExT’s pandemic-precipitated pivot into the highly scalable and cost-effective virtual realm is an unprecedented opportunity to explore digital delivery of the SExT model at a time when multiple regions face STI outbreaks, travel is uncertain, and traditional sex education has failed youth in priority populations. I am delighted to be working with Dr. Sarah Flicker, York Research Chair in Community-Based Participatory Research and the inaugural coordinator of the Environmental Arts & Justice program. Dr. Flicker’s work on the Toronto Teen Survey paved the way for my doctoral research. Dr. Flicker has spent 15 years working closely with Indigenous youth. Within the interdisciplinary structure of the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change, I hope to broaden and hone my skills amidst experts in participatory methodologies, public health, and social justice. In addition to focusing on growing my publication record, I will continue my commitment to community-based research, mentoring youth as community researchers by co-authoring a book with SExT Peer Educators and Dr. Flicker.

Dr. Shira Taylor is a public health advocate and theatre artist who completed her PhD at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. Shira is currently a CIHR Postdoctoral Fellow at York University. Shira created the award-winning workshop and performance program, SExT: Sex Education by Theatre(@SExTEdShow) designed to address sexual health inequities facing newcomer and Indigenous youth. SExT received the ArtBridges/ToilesDesArts Remarkable Innovation Award, and Shira received CIHR Gold, a Gairdner Award, and the TD Michaëlle Jean Bursary for excellence in addressing issues of national concern through art.