Learning can be uncomfortable—just ask adults about their sex education classes growing up. Chances are you’ll hear a story about the awkward moment they heard their teacher utter the word “vagina” for the first time, or the stifled snickers when an image of the male reproductive system appeared on the projector screen.
However, Amy Vaillancourt (Los Angeles ’14) and a group of her students at Fremont High School in South Los Angeles are helping to make those cringe-worthy lessons a thing of the past. The peer-to-peer, art-based performances of the Fremont Sex Squad, as the student group is known, are as engaging as they are important in informing their classmates about the dangers of chlamydia and gonorrhea.
“Teenagers have a lot going on outside school, so they have a lot to say and know about the issues. We’re bringing sex education to the other students in a way that they can access,” she says of the performances, which range from skits to songs to spoken-word poetry. “We tell them the whole story. For example, we do say abstinence is best, but if you choose to do XYZ, you should know these other things.
“The kids are going to learn it online anyway, and a majority percentage of [what’s online] is not true, so it’s better they learn it from a medically accurate, unbiased source. And the fact we have a wellness center on campus in the UMMA Community Clinic really ties it all together.”
Fremont, with its sprawling campus of 2,500 students, is one of a quartet of high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District to field a Sex Squad. The Sex Squad functions in partnership with St. John's Well Child & Family Center and is an off-shoot of AMP!, a sex-education model developed by the Art and Global Health Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. Vaillancourt, herself a UCLA alumna with a dance and theater background, just completed her first year sponsoring the Fremont Sex Squad.
The key to success for the 20 juniors and seniors in the Sex Squad is the transparency that comes with students teaching students about sex. With many of them already peer health advisors at the UMMA Community Clinic, their ownership of the topics—including sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, and sexual bullying on social media—ensure an authentic learning experience.
“Ms. Vaillancourt allows us to be creative, and that makes it fun,” says Jenny Meraz, an outgoing senior who will attend UCLA in the fall and plans to join their Sex Squad as well.
In one skit, two Sex Squad members are alone together, and their parents aren’t home. Using the game of patty-cake as a stand-in for sex, they go through hypotheticals that touch on concepts of consent and gender-based power imbalances. Ultimately, they get the audience to participate in the conversation by having them stand in for the character with less power and act out more equitable ways of approaching the situation.
“Sometimes it’s easier to be open about these things with your classmates and friends, because you go through the same things,” Meraz says. “And the way we perform things with a straight face, the other students act like it’s not a big deal either, so it’s not embarrassing to talk about.”
To get their messages across in a relatable way, Vaillancourt’s students also tap into pop culture. Take the importance of using of condoms for safer sex. The Sex Squad wrote its own lyrics to The Weeknd’s hit “Can’t Feel My Face”:
They told us just do it without one /They told us just do it, come on / We know that we can’t go without it / So we're gonna have to / Wrap it up up up UUUP! / I can have safe sex when I'm with you / And we'll love it / And we'll love it
To describe how to put on a male condom, they adapted Silentó’s infectious song “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)”:
Watch me rip / And pull it out / Pinch the tip, tip / And roll it down . . . Watch me, watch me!
The squad can make their own raps, too, like the one about how using two male condoms simultaneously won’t exactly serve as a safer sex method:
Two condoms are better than one / All that friction and you’re done / But you’re being extra safe? / No, you’re being extra out / And you’ll catch something without a doubt!
The group’s first year at Fremont, Vaillancourt says, has been rewarding and challenging at the same time.
“A lot of these kids have never been in a school play, or been on stage, or played a musical instrument,” she notes. “I’ll give them tips, like ‘Slow down,’ or ‘Be a little louder,’ but for the most part, they’ve really grown.”
One of those students is Brisa Calvario, a rising junior.
“When I first arrived at Fremont, I was excited to do something involving theater, but with the budget cuts, there wasn’t anything for me,” she recalls. “Then Sex Squad came along, and it’s great. I’m learning and teaching at the same time, and I’m able to express myself.”
After performing in front of the ninth grade assembly, health classrooms, and two festivals, in addition to being featured in a four-minute segment on Southern California Public Radio, the program has already made waves.
For year two, Vaillancourt sees room for improvement: “We do a lot of male-female skits, but at some point, someone usually asks, ‘What if it’s a same-sex couple?’ We talk about acceptance, but we want to do more, so we’re working with our school’s gay-straight alliance next year to see how we can introduce more topics so that Sex Squad isn’t necessarily heterocentric.”
Her ultimate vision involves convincing the district to see the program, with its increasing popularity, as more than an extracurricular activity.
“I would love for this to be a class, like a credit for a performing art,” she says. “Hopefully that’s something we can talk about in the future.”