Front Lines of Sexual Revelation

What kids don't know about sex can kill them. Too many think AIDS is solved. Meet two educators working to save young lives.

By Sondi Bruner 26 Dec 2003 |
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Twelve teenaged girls sit in a semicircle exchanging glances, tittering nervously. They wear white button-down shirts peeking out under green v-neck sweaters, and green and navy plaid short skirts with dark knee-length socks, the uniforms of York House, one of Vancouver's most proper private schools.

"Ladies" says today's visitor, Jamie Myrah of YouthCo AIDS Society, "I'm very sad to think that you don't think of your vaginal fluids enough." She smiles as the girls crack up.

YouthCo, a non-profit that specializes in HIV/AIDS education, is unique because it's the only youth-specific HIV/AIDS agency in Canada, and it is peer-based, run by volunteers aged 15 to 29. YouthCo takes its programs into schools across the Lower Mainland, debunking sexual myths, breaking down stigmas and getting kids to understand that HIV/AIDS is a reality and it can kill you.

What kids don't know . . .

YouthCo has cause for concern. Two thirds of Grade 7 students, half of Grade 9 students and one third of Grade 11 students think that there is a cure for HIV/AIDS, according to the recent Canadian Youth, Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS study (CYSHHAS) released by the Council of Ministers of Education.

Some students even think that there is a vaccine available to prevent HIV/AIDS.

The study says that youth constitute a small portion of HIV/AIDS cases in Canada, but they are vulnerable to the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) due to risky sexual behaviour, substance abuse, and their perception that HIV is not a threat. Less than two percent of the students surveyed said they abstained from sex because they feared HIV or AIDS.

YouthCo is most disturbed at the percentage of students who think there is a cure for HIV/AIDS. In a letter sent out to schools around the city, the group used this percentage to emphasize the need for sexual education in British Columbia.

YouthCo is trying to improve the statistics by creating an open conversation about sex. The goal is to educate young people about HIV/AIDS, drug use and sexuality, while giving students the necessary skills to act upon their knowledge, according to Myrah.

'We need to start younger'

"We need to realize that sexual health is important," she says, "and we need to start educating youth at a much younger age."

One way YouthCo reaches students is through a Forum Theatre Troupe, which is a three-hour interactive workshop that focuses on communicating and conflict resolution, a dress rehearsal to help students navigate real-life sexual situations. Another is their Speaker's Bureau, a shorter lecture/workshop that provides information on HIV/AIDS and safer sex.

"The whole idea is to engage youth as much as possible," Myrah says.

At York House, the Speaker's Bureau begins with a word association activity, asking students to brainstorm all the words and concepts that come to mind when they think of HIV or AIDS. Students mention 'epidemic', 'sharing needles', 'incurable' and 'death'.

Myrah then moves on to technical definitions of HIV/AIDS, allowing students to ask questions. When one asks if HIV can be remedied if you are given enough drugs in the first few months after contracting it, Myrah launches into an explanation. The next part of the presentation involves a story about the progression of HIV, moving a fictional character from the point of infection to the onset of AIDS, which allows students to create a character they can relate to.

Laughter and accolades

Today at York House, the students create the fictional 'Carmen': 15 years old (like they are), who plays volleyball and likes movies, and goes to a volleyball tournament in Seattle where she meets 'George', with whom she eventually has sex with. Myrah narrates:

"She really likes George, and they start kissing, and they're making out," she says, and then pauses before saying, "Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera--end scene."

Silence. "What happened?" One of them finally asks, and laughter erupts.

Myrah says there is always laughter at any presentation YouthCo facilitates, and it is always welcome.

"We allow for that," she says. "It's much easier to allow for laughter and then move on."

So far, YouthCo's programs have been successful. Last year they received an 'Accolade' from the province for their contribution to teenage sexual health. The students have been receptive and responsive, and the programs have given them the opportunity to discuss issues that are important to them, Myrah says.

"The students really want this information," she says. "They know it's important and relevant to their lives. Rarely do we get a person who says 'This sucks, I don't want to be here'."

The biggest challenge for YouthCo is reaching youth. Some school boards, parents and teachers are not entirely comfortable with sexual education programs like YouthCo's coming to their schools. To combat this, Myrah says that they make their programs adaptable.

"We remain flexible," she says. "As much as I would like every student to leave the presentation with a condom, that's not realistic in every community."

Stigma in Asian cultures


Traditions can form a barrier to new information, as Mandip Kharod, youth education coordinator for the Asian Society for the Intervention of AIDS, well understands. 

ASIA is a non-profit HIV/AIDS organization that provides support, sexual education and information to the Vancouver Asian community. Its youth division participates in various health fairs and gives lectures in international schools. ASIA's materials are available in numerous languages including Chinese, Japanese, Punjabi, Korean and Vietnamese. While their programs are not currently in public or private schools, Kharod is championing to take them there.

ASIA says they have a tough time reaching youth due to a cultural clash between Asian and Western cultures. Kharod says that Asian communities do not discuss sexual issues openly because there are cultural stigmas attached to HIV/AIDS, homosexuality and drug use. People don't want to talk about sex and the organization does not have any support from the families of young people.

"Sex and sexuality are not openly discussed," she says. "The lines of communication aren't very open. It's very sad because it [sex] is a fact of life. It's all about stigma. They have to get over it."

Kharod receives numerous anonymous calls from young people requesting information, but when she asks them for their number or email address to send it to them, they refuse to identify themselves. She even offers to leave them packages on ASIA's doorstep after hours, but youth don't want to go near the organization, afraid that they will run into someone they know or be recognized.

Separating fact from fiction

Kharod says that in the Asian community, everyone is afraid to talk about sex, and there's a stigma that sexual activity--along with drugs, alcohol and homosexuality--is  wrong. These cultural assumptions are dangerous, Kharod says, because they can negatively affect sexual behaviour.

Like YouthCo, ASIA wants to create a dialogue about sex and the issues that surround it, giving Asian students the support and information they need to engage in safer sex. Kharod says that most students she's given presentations to are aware of sexual myths, and she separates fact from fiction for them.

Even with encouragement and support, Kharod says that many Asian students are uncomfortable talking about sex.  "They all kind of cringe and look sideways," says Kharod. "I tell them, 'It [sex] is out there whether you want to talk about it or not'."

For the most part, Kharod thinks her group is making an impact on young Asians, and the students she's dealt with seem receptive to what she has to say. Once they hear that HIV/AIDS and other STD's can affect their entire lives, she says, they understand that HIV and AIDS is a reality.

"It makes them think if nothing else," she says. "It brings them [STD's] to the limelight, brings them to the forefront."

Kharod says that an Asian-specific agency is crucial to making an impact on Asian students.

"It's good for Asians to have someone who's Asian…saying they understand," she says.

'Patchy' sex-ed in schools

The Ministry of Education says it does not have a separate curriculum that addresses sexual education as it does for English or Math; rather, it is discussed under the Career and Personal Planning (CAP) curriculum umbrella in a unit on healthy living. Prescribed learning outcomes set out by the Ministry dictate what students should know at certain ages, but with sexual education, there is no standardized testing done to determine what students have learned. The onus is on the teachers to decide what and how much they will discuss when it comes to sex education. Problem is, teachers don't always have the skills or the knowledge to teach it, or they're simply uncomfortable with discussing it.

"Teachers don't necessarily know what we know," says Myrah of YouthCo. "They may know the basics but not necessarily more than that."

And since sexual education isn't standardized across the province, the sexual education that students receive is varied.

"A lot of schools in BC are doing good jobs, but it's sort of patchy," says Trish Williams, a filmmaker who is making a documentary about sexual education. "Some kids get great [sex] education and some kids get nothing."

But in these risky times, every student in B.C. has plenty to gain from hearing YouthCo's message, says Myrah. "No matter who thinks they know what, everybody leaves learning something."

Sondi Bruner, a journalist in Vancouver, has written for the Toronto Star and Straight Goods.  [Tyee]

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