How a group of Canadian Youth are using theater for sex education
I love to dance. I don’t really like going out, but once in a while the temptation of a dance floor drags me out with my friends. Even so, there are measures we take to stay safe. We always go dancing with at least one male friend, so when a strange guy starts grinding against one of us, there’s always a fake boyfriend there to latch on to. We do elaborate hand signals when a friend is dancing with a stranger to make sure they actually want to be dancing with that person. And even so, one of us always says on the way home: “Some guy touched me and I didn’t like it,” or “Some guy tried to kiss me, but he was drunk so...”
I’m sick of all these precautions. I don’t want to worry about myself and my friends when we go out; I just want to dance.
As a peer educator at Sex Education by Theatre (SExT), a youth-led, theater-based sex education program, I realized I have a place to express my thoughts and frustrations. Best of all, I have a platform through which I can teach young people about consent.
SExT was created by Shira Taylor in 2014 as her PhD thesis. SExT started in Flemingdon and Thorncliffe Park, neighborhoods in Toronto made up of majority South Asian and Muslim immigrants/newcomers. Shira was inspired to start SExT to put youth from a community where talking about sex is cultural taboo center stage in a way that celebrates diverse identities. In 2015, the Ontario government finally implemented an updated sex education curriculum for the first time since 1998. The inclusion of topics such as gender identity, masturbation, same-sex marriage, and consent seemed inappropriate to some parents in the community, who even pulled their kids out of their local schools and staged protests that garnered national attention. In 2018, a new government was elected and Doug Ford, the new premier, scrapped the updated curriculum.
Shira started SExT to give a voice to the youth in our community, and we have had a lot to say. After a 10-week-long workshop, my fellow participants in SExT and I created a play that included skits, poems, and songs about sex-ed topics most relevant to our lives — topics that included STIs/HIV, consent, sexual violence, gender and sexual diversity, racism, healthy relationships, and mental health. We don’t want to preach in our work, but instead show different types of risky situations and model ways people involved in them can react in safe ways. Recently, through a partnership with the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR), we were able to go on a national tour to high schools and reserves in areas of Canada most affected by HIV. Using drama techniques, we were able to engage with and teach over 4,000 students.
After my own experiences while dancing, it made sense to me to turn to SExT, so I decided to write a rap parody of Cardi B’s hit song “Bodak Yellow.” When I told the group, they said “Let’s do it!” And then they added, “Let’s make a music video!”
In the video, we show situations that young people experience all the time. A girl is dancing and having fun when all of a sudden a guy starts grinding up behind her. In another scene, a guy gets a sext from a girl and he decides whether to show it to his friends or keep it to himself. By acting out these experiences, the audience is able to consider the situation as bystanders while we model healthy choices.
The truth is, when I perform as MS.G (my alter ego) I feel totally in control of my body. I was really inspired by Cardi B’s confidence in her body and her words in the original song, and I wanted to emulate that same feeling in my parody. I wanted to do a fun and empowering take on consent where I establish that I am in charge from the get-go. The first lyrics I wrote say it best: “Listen up, you ain’t touching me unless I want you to.”
Throughout my experience with SExT, especially during my time on tour, I’ve learned that no matter where they are, young people are all going through the same types of things and are all itching to be heard. I’ve seen students cry in reaction to a powerful rap performed by a fellow cast member. Students come up to us after every single show to share their stories or to teach us new dance moves. I remember after one performance a girl came up to us and asked if she could share her poetry; We all sat in a circle, captivated as she shared her pain with us. Once we visited a school struggling with attendance, yet even after the final bell rang, the gym was full of students waiting to ask us questions weighing on their minds. Students also message our Instagram account because they don’t know who to turn to in their own communities. We get questions from kids as young as 12 such as "A boy in my class asked me to send nudes. Do I have to?" And comments like “I was sexually assaulted and didn't know what to do, but after seeing your play, I do."
This is why SExT will continue to listen to the voices of young people and why we will continue to advocate for and provide up-to-date, evidence-based, comprehensive, inclusive, trauma-informed, relevant, meaningful, life-saving, and sometimes hilarious sex education that celebrates all cultures, religions, abilities, sexualities, and genders. We don’t want the debate around sex-ed curricula to be “us vs. them,” because, for us, comprehensive sex education is about creating a space where everyone feels safe and respected, regardless of belief or identity. We hope our work reminds young people that they have important stories to tell and deserve a seat at the table when it comes to decision-making affecting their health and well-being.
In the meantime, we will continue to write skits and poems and even parodies of Cardi B to teach about the topics we feel are important and real in 2018. I’m looking forward to a world where we all can dance freely without fear. In the words of MS.G, “I know that it’s my choice and I’m going to raise my voice. So if you agree with me, sing with me and make some noise!”
More articles by Category: Education, Feminism, Girls
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, High school, Sex education, Sexual harassment, Sexuality