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Sex ed through social action theatre

Sex ed through social action theatre

Shira Taylor is a graduate student in public health at University of Toronto and the creator and director of Sex Education by Theatre (SExT). Lauren Chang is a cast member of SExT, and she sometimes raps under the name "Ms. G." Scott Neigh interviews them about their approach to sex ed, about theatre for social change, and about the ongoing work of SExT.

Good sex ed can be hard to find. Sure, there is at least some minimal version of it in schools in most Canadian jurisdictions. The inadequacy of sex ed is most visible in Ontario, after the new Conservative government's decision to revert to curriculum from the 1990s, but it is just as true in lots of other parts of the country too. Sex ed that is evidence-based, comprehensive, grounded in what youth actually need and want to know, organized decisively around consent, honest about pleasure as well as about risk, and vigorously relevant to the experiences of queer and trans people is pretty rare.

Though struggles to make such material universally available remain to be won, today's guests talk about a novel approach to producing and delivering sex ed that attempts to address at least some of that need.

For a long time as a student, Taylor studied primarily science while also being very active extracurricularly in theatre and other aspects of the arts. She loved them both, but never thought she would find a way to combine them. Then, after doing a Masters degree in Epidemiology and feeling dissatisfied with the detached population-level approach that it required, she came up with a very different idea for the focus of her doctoral work. -- she proposed a youth-driven, peer-education approach to sex ed using theatre, dance, and music.

In 2014, after getting the various academic and institutional approvals necessary for such a project, Taylor started working with students in a Toronto high school in a predominantly working-class, racialized, and immigrant neighbourhood. It's a largely South Asian Muslim area, but has students from many other backgrounds as well. Chang was one of the students who responded along the way to Taylor's request for participants.

The project started off with ten workshops for the youth who wanted to take part, all on topics related to sexuality that the youth themselves determined. Through the following summer they all worked to put a play together, using Theatre of the Oppressed and other theatre for social change approaches.

The scenes in the play span the range from the whimsical and humorous to the deeply painful and serious. They talk about everything from condoms and consent, to domestic violence and coming out as queer. Along with being very participatory and emerging, as much as possible, from youth experiences and youth direction, it is also a priority for SExT to be a space where questions of culture and questions of sexuality are understood as enriching and informing one another.

Even Taylor was surprised by the level of enthusiasm among students for this kind of initiative, both participants and youth who attended performances, so what was originally envisioned as a short-term project became something much bigger. They took the play to a couple of major Ontario festivals, the Toronto Fringe and Summerworks, and again had a great response. The Ontario Ministry of Education under the former Liberal government facilitated a tour focused on students in the Toronto area. And more recently, the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR) funded a national tour that reached over 4000 youth. Support from CANFAR has also allowed SExT to begin producing some online resources. This includes their first music video called Bodak Consent, a parody of Cardi B's "Bodak Yellow" with the lyrics rewritten and rapped by Chang. Membership in the troupe and the play itself continue to evolve, and future touring and further videos are in the works.

Image: The image modified for use in this post is used with permission of Sex Education by Theatre.

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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