Peer-to-peer sex education gains popularity

According to Shael Norris, executive director of SafeBAE, sex education must be taught in an authentic and youth-driven way to students and teens. 

“No one needs to hear about these issues from another middle-aged white lady,” Norris said. 

SafeBAE was started in 2015 by three teenage survivors of sexual assault. It’s the only national peer-to-peer organization that helps promote culture change among teenagers to raise awareness about consent, sexual harassment, assualt and dating violence. 

Before SafeBAE’s 2018 Sexual Assault Summit, Norris told her youth planning committee, composed of exclusively high school students, that they were all about to become “lightning rods” and sources of information for other peers to report to. Norris said their peers would know that these youths take these issues seriously and appropriately.  

“There’s absolutely no reason that students can’t work in tandem with the appropriate adults,” Norris said. “There’s all kinds of people that want to step in and step over and overshadow. It’s not necessary. If adults actually just stood to the sidelines and said ‘How can I help?’ then students would be much better equipped to do that leadership.” 

Norris, who works with young adults on the daily, said it’s not uncommon for sex education to only be provided at the level to which a school system is comfortable with. She said it’s crucial to meet students where they’re at and for administrators to not limit sex ed to what’s “school acceptable.” 

The Journal of Sex Research’s article, entitled “Assessing Participation and Effectiveness of the Peer Led Approach in Youth Sexual Health Education: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis in More Developed Countries,” discusses a review of 15 peer-led sexual health education programs. The results show peer-to-peer sex education can be successful at improving knowledge of sexual health among adolescents. 

The Planned Parenthood Peer Education Program in Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo works to train young men and women about health, advocacy and sexuality in order to strengthen their leadership skills. After the participants, who are 14 to 19 years old, complete their training they go on to provide presentations to peers at their institutions about reproductive health. 

Community education manager at Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio Grace Schoenberger said their peer education program offers a unique approach to providing accessible sex ed for everyone. 

“Peer education is a supplement to the belief that this should be offered in every school, for every student,” Schoenberger said. 

Sarah Ferrato, community health educator at Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio, said the importance of sexual education is only growing.

“The fantastic thing is that, like comprehensive sexual health information, the more we know about sexual health– the more research being done, the more identities being represented– the more we learn and the more the peer education program evolves,” Ferrato said. 

While the benefits of peer-to-peer sex education seem to be increasing, some sex education experts have differing opinions. 

Laurie Wagner, assistant professor of health sciences at Kent State, said she has hesitations in regards to the amount of training that would be required for students to present appropriate sex education to their peers. 

“Even my graduate assistants are not allowed to teach sexuality without an immense amount of shadowing, preparation and coursework,” Wagner said. “The students are too vulnerable and the information is too important. There’s too much noise already out there, culturally, to let just anybody do the work.”

Director of the Kent State Women’s Center Cassandra Pegg-Kirby is enthusiastic about the idea of peer-to-peer sex education programming being brought to campus. 

“I would love to see some of this happening as a peer-to-peer kind of more conversational, more fun, more open-ended and not like a lesson to be taught,” Pegg-Kirby said. 

With all of the controversy surrounding peer-to-peer sex education, there’s no doubt that a strong portion of students feel like this approach has a lot to offer. 

Spencer Gibbs, a sophomore studying social geography, said the sex education program his high school was provided was thorough; however, peer-to-peer sex education seems like a much better idea.  

“When you find out about people in your same age group and your same situation, you hear their stories, their own opinions, and the horrors too,” Gibbs said. 

Skye Mills, a senior fashion merchandising major, said that peer-to-peer sex education could help bridge the difference between students’ sex education levels when they come into college.

“I think it sounds like a good idea because I feel like sometimes you get those kids that come to college that were very sheltered in high school and their parents didn’t let them do anything,” Mills said. 

While some students may have experienced being sheltered, Norris’s own children have grown up experiencing the SafeBAE activist model, and being able to look up to the leaders of SafeBAE for knowledge and information. 

“My daughter is Aela Mansmann. She’s been in the news recently because she went into her school and she stuck up some sticky notes that said ‘there’s a rapist in your school and you know who it is,’” Norris said. “That all came from being raised in this world, from looking up to these leaders of SafeBAE, who faced something no one should ever have to face and stepped into their bravery.”

Contact Linden Miller at [email protected].