Health officials have repeatedly warned that the United States is facing “epidemic” levels of sexually transmitted infections. Ohio is no exception. Last year, in the state’s most populous county — Cuyahoga County, which includes the Greater Cleveland area — new cases of HIV infections soared to the highest level they’ve been in six years.
So, in order to effectively combat the growing public health crisis, which disproportionately impacts youth, high school students are stepping up to help educate their fellow teenagers about safe sex. Through a grant-funded program at Case Western Reserve University’s Infectious Disease Alliance, teens are being trained as “peer educators” so they can communicate directly with people their own age. As the Plain Dealer reports, the team of young people — who were selected from a pool of applicants from several Ohio high schools — received months of sexual health instruction from medical experts to help them design a public health plan that targets the zip codes with the highest rates of STD infection.
“In general, peer education is a tried and true approach,” Amanda Healan, a co-director of the Infectious Disease Alliance who has been working to raise funds for the program since 2009, explained. According to Healan, peer educators can effectively reach teens “before their sexual debut so they have information on how to have safe sex before they have sex.”
The high schoolers in the program offer weekly counseling at a health clinic located adjacent to a county high school. They provide the teens who visit the clinic with safe sex kits that include condoms, information about the Infectious Disease Alliance, hand sanitizer, and encouraging handwritten notes with messages like “Stay safe!” and “Thanks for coming.” The peer educators also travel to different high schools to conduct after-school programs and workshops with youth. They ask their peers to define safe sex in their own words, teach them that a sexual partner can’t give their consent if they’re drunk or high, and refute popular myths like the idea that women can’t get pregnant if they have sexual intercourse while standing up.
Often, that information is better received when it’s coming from a fellow teen instead of from a teacher or a parent. The sexual health advocacy group Advocates for Youth points out that including teens in sex ed programming helps ensure that the approach is relevant — and that the information actually sticks. “The value of peer educator programming is that it has far greater reach than adults could ever have,” Advocate for Youth’s senior program manager, Angel Brown, told the Plain Dealer. “Young people are engaging with other youth in settings that go beyond the clinics and the community settings.”
That’s especially important since some teens in the state may not be receiving this type of sex ed instruction elsewhere. Ohio does not currently mandate comprehensive sexual health information in public schools, and there are no state guidelines requiring health classes to provide medically accurate information that doesn’t promote religion. And conservative lawmakers in the state have pushed to weaken the sex ed laws even further. Earlier this session, Ohio legislators pushed a measure that would have banned health classes from talking about any “gateway sexual activity” like kissing or fondling that could “encourage students to experiment with sexual activity.”
That approach isn’t necessarily working for Ohio’s youth. The teens currently serving as educators explained that they wish someone had been available to teach them more about sex ed when they were younger. The rapidly rising rates of STD infections are “kind of scary when you think about it,” one advocate pointed out. “I want to be that person that tells others,” another one said, pointing out that many of her friends have had multiple sexual partners by the time they’ve graduated high school.
The teen advocates in Ohio are part of a growing movement among high school students across the country. Increasingly, high schoolers who are dissatisfied with the misinformation they’re receiving in abstinence programs — particularly when the material takes a shame-based approach to sexuality and teaches youth that becoming sexually active makes them dirty or worthless — are standing up to demand better resources.