Sex ed is more powerful when it comes from peers

Senior Fatima Ibrahim, junior Rachel White, and sophomore Peter Tolle demonstrate how to use a condom in a middle school class at Keewaydin.

Photo courtesy of Rachel White

Senior Fatima Ibrahim, junior Rachel White, and sophomore Peter Tolle demonstrate how to use a condom in a middle school class at Keewaydin.

Anna Kleven, Staff Writer

“There’s a lot of fear surrounding sexual health. I think that people think that if we start teaching students while they’re young about their sexual health and their reproductive systems, it might corrupt them… but I think educating them is really important for their safety,” said sophomore Betty Mfalingundi, a first year participant in South’s Peer Education program.

Peer taught sex education is a growing trend, especially in the metro area. South High’s program is run by Lutheran Social Services, and is funded by Minnesota’s Support for Emancipation and Living Functionally (SELF) program. Others organizations, like Mankato District’s “Project 4 Teens” and “Dads Make a Difference” (DMAD), are separate entities and recruit in several high schools.

The South Peer Ed group does presentations in middle schools, which are sexuality education based. They do condom demonstrations and teach about birth control methods. Within South, they simply promote the school based mini-clinic in freshman classrooms.

These presentations are where many of the current educators first heard about the program. Immediately, the congeniality of the leaders grabbed the attention of senior Fatima Ibrahim, a current peer educator. “Her personality- she’s just so bubblesome!” she said, describing Chicka Merino, the head coordinator. “When they did the presentation they all looked like they were having a lot of fun,” added Junior Rachael White, also a peer educator.

After applying, the students were called back for an interview. White said that it was fairly intensive. “Out of five people in my interview group, only two got in,” she said. “It’s pretty tough to get in to. You really have to want to be part of the group.”

Not all of these programs are solely sex-ed based. Some, like DMAD, have a curriculum that places emphasis on other topics, like the characteristics of a healthy relationship and the significance of parenthood. “We compliment a health class,” explained DMAD’s head coordinator Jan Hayne. “It’s not just ‘do this’ and you won’t get pregnant or father a child, but if you become a parent, here are all the responsibilities that go along with it.”

Sex, however, is the main point of interest for many of South’s peer educators and their pupils. Mfalingundi said that for her, the main draw to the peer ed program was, “Sex, really just the whole entire topic.”

Ibrahim agreed that it is the intrigue of sex that keeps the middle schooler’s attention. “Kids are always paying attention because they want to learn about sex, who doesn’t?” she said.

Even the rowdiest middle schooler is mesmerized by a condom demonstration performed by an almost-peer. “You wear the right clothes and listen to the right music, all those things that younger kids look up to you for,” Hayne said. “By virtue of you being a little bit older than them,” she continued “you connect in a different way than an adult coming in to present the material.”

White agreed. “Once we come in, because we’re close in age to them, they’re all like, ‘Oh they’re cool. We’re going to listen.’” She said that in her four years of doing presentations, only a couple of kids acted immaturely.

For the peer educators, another draw to the program is the desire to improve the sex education model. Both Mfalingundi and sophomore Emma Pederson describe their dissatisfaction with the content of sex ed that is taught in schools. “Sex ed isn’t changing with the times.” Pederson said.

Pederson isn’t a peer educator herself, but she has strong opinions about the flaws in sex education. She believes that popular sex ed classes are too male-centric. “We need to teach women that they have a right to their body, and they have a right to say no,” she expressed. Most sex ed curriculums, she said, don’t address the issue of consent. “You need to teach boys that if a woman is drunk, don’t take advantage of her. And if a woman says no, that does not mean try harder.”

Pederson also believes that most sex ed classes don’t elaborate beyond the heavily pressed message: “Don’t have sex.” “I think abstinence is a very good thing to teach, you shouldn’t be having sex at this age, but it’s unrealistic, which is my problem with it. You should be teaching kids at a young age about your body and about what it does,” explained Pederson.

South’s Peer Ed program makes an effort to be inclusive in their curriculum. “We include all different kinds of couples, and different kinds of birth control to fit different lifestyles…also people with different identities,” Mfalingundi described.

The peer educators themselves come from a very diverse background. “We have had students from really high achieving [backgrounds], you know, National Honor Society and everything, to… teen parents… students from alternative learning centers and everywhere in between,” Hayne described.

Sometimes peer educators are allowed to share personal experiences. In the case of teen parents, Hayne said, “If they’re in a good place personally with their experience it can work really well because they can share about the difficulties of being a young parent and so it makes the activities in the lesson very real then because they’ve lived that experience.”

Although sharing personal experience can enrich learning, sometimes it can be inappropriate. The educators are trained to respond to difficult questions. According to Hayne, the most common question asked is “Have you had sex?” The educators at DMAD are told to refrain from sharing, because any personal response would lead to chaos.

When faced with the same question South’s peer educators are taught to respond with “We are not talking about personal information in this session. We are talking about sex ed in general.” Discussing boundaries in conversations about sex can be a teachable moment in the classroom.

The peer educators also add an element of fun that isn’t present in regular sex ed classes.

“One time we were doing condom demos in Jefferson Middle School and we had extra time…we were having competitions to see if the middle school kids could put the condoms on as fast as the peer ed kids could!’” recounted Mfalingundi.The peer educators and their leaders meet frequently during the summer for a variety of different activities, which is very time consuming. White says that the biggest challenge for her is, “Working Peer Ed out around summer schedules, wanting to hang out with other people.” During the school year it can be difficult to squeeze in homework after Peer Ed meetings, but White explained that the leaders are flexible and understanding when it comes to balancing school and group.

Despite the time sacrifices, all of the peer educators agree that being in the program has had an impact on their lives and their choices. Through training and teaching, the peer educators achieve a deeper understanding of the topics they’re teaching. “Being able to learn myself and teach as well is definitely the most rewarding part of it,” commented Mfalingundi

This two sided learning experience is what makes peer ed different than normal sex ed. The peer educators benefit from the curriculum, as well as learning public speaking and facilitative skills that are useful in other parts of their life.

“I think it helps reinforce the decisions that [the peer educators] are making in their own lives at that particular time,” said Hayne. She also notices the impact that the program has had on graduated student’s path of life.  “One of [the peer educators] became a middle school teacher. She found her love of teaching from being a peer educator. Sometimes it can help with with career choices.”

The program guided many students toward helping professions like social work, youth work, and nursing. Mfalingundi, who is interested in pursuing a career in counseling or therapy, speculates that the skills she has gathered from peer ed will help her in the future.

Mfalingundi confided that people are often confused or skeptical when she explains her job as a peer educator. “When I tell people that I teach sex ed, they kind of look at me like, ‘you’re a teenager teaching all these kids about how their bodies work?’ but I think once I actually explain what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, it people are a lot more accepting,” she said.