Why America Should Beef Up on Peer Education
by Jessi Ensenberger, Planned Parenthood of Indiana
Last year I became a peer educator with Planned Parenthood of Indiana in Bloomington, Indiana. I am extremely passionate about spreading comprehensive, medically accurate knowledge about sexuality; but this isn’t the only reason I became involved in the program. I find that not only is my position as an educator important and rewarding, but the adjective “peer” carries a significant amount of weight with my age group.
Over and over again it has been proven to me that teens and college students often do not get their information about sexuality or relationships from parents, doctors, or experts. Sometimes they search online and find youth-friendly, accurate sources, like the Planned Parenthood site or Scarleteen. Most times they assume that romance movies like The Notebook or comedies like Wedding Crashers represent reality. Worst of all is what pornography tells our youth: that men have penises the size of cucumbers, women orgasm at the drop of a hat, and violence and sex are inseparable concepts.
But most of all, young people ask their friends what is normal, what is healthy, and what is acceptable. And let’s be honest, sometimes our friends aren’t the most accurate sources—because they’ve heard the same rumors that we have. That you can’t get pregnant if you have sex standing up, for example. Or that you can contract HIV from someone’s saliva. (Both of which are not true, by the way.)
It is unfortunate that professionals, even those considered experts, many times are not taken seriously by students because they can be waved off as “old-fashioned” or “out-of-touch” with the current generation. And in the current generation’s defense, college culture has changed quite a bit in the last twenty to thirty years. It makes sense that an informed young adult might have more impact on a young adult audience.
Our culture’s Closed Door Policy on family sex education has also had a hand in creating this generation gap. None of us want to discuss sexuality with our parents or, even more horrifying, our grandparents! When was the last time you asked a relative 20+ years older than you about how common dry humping is among young people, or if there is sperm in pre-ejaculate? (Answers being “very” and “sometimes,” respectively.) And in a lot of cases, parents are equally horrified by questions such as these—either because they don’t know how to talk about sex with their kids or because they simply don’t have the answers.
As much as I’d like everyone to recognize that sexuality remains with you over your entire lifetime, most people don’t want to accept it until they themselves are senior citizens and still gettin’ it on. I’d also love for our society to feel more open discussing sexuality in family settings, but Rome wasn’t built in a day!
Until we’ve made these strides as a society, peer education will remain unique and invaluable—and I plan to savor my role in it as long as I can still be considered a peer. When I stand in front of students giving a program, I know my audience feels that I am on their level. We have both witnessed firsthand the drinking and hooking-up culture so common to college campuses. I understand the most current issues, misinformation, and complexities that abound in this culture because it directly and inevitably affects me.
I also know that some individuals in need of help may not have approached me if it had not been for both my status as a peer and my reputation as a source of accurate information. These two identities, when working in tandem, have the opportunity to do a whole lot of good.
I look forward to working more closely with Planned Parenthood to recruit more peer educators, create an informed youth and facilitate a healthier tomorrow.
"Why I Teach Sex Ed" profiles sexuality educators throughout the nation. This column appears each Monday. If you teach sex ed and would like to tell your story, send your submission, in 350-700 words, to Bill@SexEdStore.com.