Street Wise Sex Ed
By Jen Moore
What if — during our teen years — we each had to write a sex advice column?
My visit to the Institute for Education and Health (IES) in Lima, Peru makes me think that we might all benefit from such an opportunity to regularly reflect on relationships and sexuality in the third person.
Not only would we be better informed about the dangers of unprotected sex and the risk of HIV/AIDS (fifty percent of new infections around the world are believed to take place during adolescence) but we might also have a clearer frame of mind from which to explore intimate relationships and ourselves.
Meeting Lurdes and her young colleagues certainly impressed me enough to think that there could be a less shame-filled and confused way to experience one’s teens, particularly coming from a culture where such issues are frequently taboo.
Lurdes, 19, is part of a team of volunteers and staff at IES that’s developing an interactive website called Punto J. Punto J promotes healthy sexuality and HIV/AIDS awareness among Peruvian adolescents. Translated as “Youth Spot” in English, the site is supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, the Institute for Connectivity in the Americas and the United Nations Population Fund in Peru.
Edgy videos and straight-talking interviews offer answers to questions about STDs, pregnancy, sexual diversity and adolescent rights. A section called ‘Orientation’ also lets site visitors e-mail their questions.
Lurdes says that learning to give advice to her peers has made her “better prepared” to face similar situations. “You have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes,” she says, “and try to figure out the best alternatives to suggest. It ends up making things easier because you learn how to respond in different scenarios that come up in your own life.”
Pegi, a long-time staff member at IES, says they have always used a peer-to-peer approach in their sex education and HIV/AIDS prevention programs. “We believe that youth can communicate with peers in their own language,” she says. “They also become role models for youth around them, so that the process of enrichment is collective, not just individual.”
“Now, with the Internet, we believe that their potential as communicators is doubled or even tripled.”
Punto J receives thousands of hits each month and dozens of queries week after week, their best indicator that they are reaching their audience. Moreover, as the project grows, other youth organizations in countries such as Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and Mexico are emulating Punto J’s strategy.
“We want young people to have all the information they need to make the best decision for themselves,” says Pegi. “Regardless of the decisions they make, we aim to generate a culture of respect, but with a focus on human rights.”
When a new law was passed in Peru in 2006 prohibiting sex with or between anyone under the age of 18 — consensual or not — Punto J responded critically. In many parts of the world, a Punto J brochure noted, the age of consent is 14. Regardless of customs, argued Punto J, most young people in Peru are having sex by the age of 16, so the new law could obstruct their access to needed health care and information for fear of going to jail.
Lurdes, who is now studying toward a career in communications, says her experiences at IES have transformed her outlook.
“In high school, they didn’t talk very much about these themes and when they did, we tended to feel ashamed. For example, it used to be strange to talk about masturbation. But over time, having been through so many training sessions, it’s become a lot more comfortable.”
Lurdes puts access to health services in a new light.
“The need to go to a health center or to get informed isn’t a favor anyone is doing us — it’s a right.” Grateful for her experience, Lurdes says, she hopes to continue participating in sex-positive education well into the future.
“If all youth could become aware of the rights we have, I think things would be very different, from the way we communicate to how we talk about different parts of our bodies that often cause us so much shame.”