How a School Dance Turned Me Into an Advocate
Originally Published: August 27, 2010
Revised: September 5, 2012
It was just supposed to be another high school Valentine’s Day dance—one of the first I had attended as a freshman. I was intrigued by a table that was right outside the room where the dance was being held. The table was stacked with brightly colored pamphlets, condoms and even plastic models of reproductive organs, which I was too embarrassed to look at. Most of the people around the table looked like upperclassmen, so I immediately shied away and attempted to maneuver my way around the table without drawing attention to myself.
However, one smiling girl called out to me: “Do you want some condoms or dental dams?” I trotted toward the table, looking curiously at the foreign objects in her outstretched hand. “What’s this table for?” I asked. The girl explained that she was the president of the Sexual Health Awareness Group (SHAG) at our school and was responsible for its clever acronym as well. She was also a peer educator for the local Planned Parenthood. We began to talk about her work as a peer educator and how that translated into her promoting sexual health at school.
I was impressed by the girl’s open attitude about subjects I was intrigued by, but afraid to even name, like masturbation and birth control. As we talked, I soon realized that she could answer questions I had, like what does it mean to identify as “queer,” instead of heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual? What exactly are “blue balls,” which I had often overheard boys discussing? After our conversation, I began to regularly attend SHAG meetings. I also applied for a position as a peer educator for Planned Parenthood and was accepted.
Because I wasn’t sexually active at the time, I had wrongly assumed that sexual health was something that didn’t apply to me.
Informed and Involved
That summer, I completed the 60-plus hours of training to be a Planned Parenthood peer educator. I was introduced to a world of information and ideas that I had never even stopped to consider, like the fact that HIV/AIDS wasn’t a distant epidemic but actually affected people in my community, even people who were my age.
Because I wasn’t sexually active at the time, I had wrongly assumed that sexual health was something that didn’t apply to me. I learned that sexual health means a lot more than taking care of your body if you are having sex. I realized that, even if some of the information didn’t apply to me now, it certainly would in the future.
I began to support sexual health education in other ways, from becoming the president of SHAG to joining other community organizations devoted to sexual health. As president of SHAG and a peer educator, I have thankfully gotten little resistance from my school administration and am free to hand out condoms and give out information at school. Many of my peers now recognize me as a person they can talk to safely and confidentially about any sexual health questions they might have. I also became an advisory board member to the Greater Community AIDS Project, a local HIV/AIDS activist and support organization. In addition to serving on the board, I also wrote an article about the organization’s mission and the very relevant issue of HIV/AIDS in the United States for a local newspaper.
Educated, Healthier, Happier
Being a sexual health peer educator and SHAG club president has become an important part of my identity as an activist. I continue to teach teens about sexuality and even occasionally educate teachers and parents. And at the annual Valentine’s Day dance, I make sure to call out to the younger kids who, at first, seem the most afraid.
I love what I do, because the more teens get accurate information about sexuality and talk about it in an informed and mature way, the less stigmatized the topic becomes. When talking about sexuality is no longer taboo, people are free to ask questions, get educated and make more informed, often less-risky decisions. And the more open we are about sexuality and sexual health, the healthier and happier we’ll be as a generation.
Alexx Engles is a contributor who lives in Illinois.
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