Shira Taylor is the Founder of SExT, a Canadian theatre company dedicated to educating young people about sexual health topics.
SExT uses an art-based and youth-led approach to take on pressing issues such HIV/STI prevention, consent, mental health, gender and sexual diversity, healthy relationships, racism, and cyberbullying.
Shira joins us on Close-up Culture to tell us more about the theatre company and their mission.
Q: Can you tell us about the issues in the Northwest Territories (NWT) that prompted this tour? What do you feel are some of the root causes in this area?
A: This April, the Chief Public Health Officer of the Northwest Territories issued an alert directed at young people in response to skyrocketing Gonorrhea and Syphilis rates in the region, with Gonorrhea rates reported to be 17 times the National average. Within a couple of weeks, in partnership with the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR), the Government of the Northwest Territories, and the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, our group of SExT peer educators set out to equip NWT youth with knowledge and skills to make healthy choices for themselves through song and dance.
By holding focus groups with students following performances, we learned of unique barriers to sexually transmitted infection (STI) prevention, testing, and treatment. STI stigma is pervasive, and privacy concerns are paramount in small, remote communities.
A trip to the health centre rarely goes undetected in the North, and it is highly likely for health care professionals to be friends or relatives. The goal of our show is to shatter stigma and provide young people with crucial skills to protect themselves.
Q: The only memory I have of being educated about STIs while at school are slideshows filled with disgusting photos. I felt it created a closed atmosphere of discomfort and fear more than anything else. What do you feel the SExT experience offers that the classroom might not?
A: Despite much research discrediting a fear-based approach to sex education, well-meaning educators seem intent on clinging to the ‘don’t have sex or you’ll die!’ approach.
In reality, I think it’s safe to say that even the most grotesque slideshow won’t stop all teenagers from doing what teenagers have been doing since the invention of sex. My doctoral research shows that sex education is more likely to lead to real behaviour change when youth find it comfortable, personally relevant, and even fun!
We continually hear from youth that they appreciate our straight forward, realistic, and balanced, ‘if you do choose to have sex, here are some hot tips so you don’t die!’ approach. In SExT, we use humour and pop culture references, all delivered by peers, to dispel discomfort and build trust among young audiences, making it more likely they will take our advice to heart.
Q: The SExT performances include sketches, songs, poems, raps, and dances. Do you feel the variety of this production means there is something for almost every young person to connect to and engage with?
A: The area where I started SExT is a priority newcomer community of Toronto, with limited access to arts programming. My first visit to the local high school, two young girls shared with me having an intense love of dance, but no opportunities for formal training. I was quite moved when these young women spoke of teaching themselves to dance from YouTube videos, and taking the initiative to hold dance lesson for peers in the community.
For many of our youth performers, it was the opportunity to develop and showcase their skills in specific art genres that encouraged them to join. The power of our show lies in the bravery of our cast to use songs, dances, poems, raps and sketches to deliver important messages in unique, personal, and entertaining ways.
As you suggested, the eclectic nature of our show also provides a variety of avenues for connection for diverse audiences.
Q: How important – and at the same time challenging – is it to cover all of these sexual health topics adequately and responsibly in one show?
A: At the first SExT workshop, I asked the group to brainstorm a list of sexual health-related topics most relevant to their lives, and we created a scene to address each issue. Some of the topics raised, such as STIs and pregnancy, were expected. Others, such as the way women dress in this conservative majority Muslim community, were not on my original agenda.
It was very important to me that the show be youth-driven and reflect their lived realities. While it is impossible to cover every aspect of teen wellness in 90 minutes, we receive a lot of accolades from educators who are impressed with both the breadth and the depth of issues covered. It is our hope that educators use this show as a starting point for more in-depth discussion with their students.
Q: Can you talk about your own memories of sex ed and the path that led you create SExT?
A: The majority of my own sex education came compliments of my very liberal Jewish parents and grandparents at the dinner table. I do not remember receiving any meaningful formal sex education in school beyond my teacher putting a condom on a wooden penis in Grade 9 gym class.
In light of my own unfiltered upbringing, I was always fascinated by the restriction of lifesaving information from young people by adults on moral and religious grounds. In creating SExT, my goal was to revolutionize sex education in a way that put the youth voice centre stage and celebrated diverse cultures as enriching the health conversation as opposed to as a barrier to dialogue.
Q: Can you tell us about your young cast? What do they bring to the show?
A: My cast is the greatest strength of our program, and I am so proud of each of them. As high school students, some of them admittedly first joined for the free pizza. Five years later, each of them has had the opportunity to grow individually and together as performers and people.
In the show, one young cast member shares her experience with domestic abuse through song; another raps about the challenges of coming to terms with her gay identity in the context of a religious family; a young man delivers a spoken word piece about the mental health challenges related to finding your place in Canada as a young immigrant.
These young people demonstrate so much bravery through the unabashed sharing of their experiences and in doing so, inspire other young people to own their identities and share their stories through art.
Q: What have been your biggest takeaways from touring with the show and seeing young audiences react to it?
A: In the last year, we have performed for over 5000 youth across Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and the Northwest Territories in partnership with CANFAR. It is fascinating to see how consistent and positive youth reactions are across the country, with 90% of youth rating the performance a 4 or higher out of 5.
The universality of social media has shrunk our world, and whether we are performing in downtown Toronto or steps away from the Arctic Ocean, youth tend to laugh and cry and cheer at the same points of the show. There is something extra special about bringing our cast of immigrant youth into an Indigenous context and providing the opportunity for cross-cultural connection in terms of both shared struggles and deep cultural pride. Our cast shares pieces of their diverse cultures through the show and audience members are often subsequently inspired to share their culture with us after performances, through music, dance, food, and other traditions.
We are also very proud that over 40% of students report feeling more knowledgeable about HIV and other sexual health topics after seeing the performance and 36% of students report feeling more knowledgeable about where to get STI testing in their community.
Q: What are your hopes and goals for SExT in the future?
A: The overwhelmingly positive reception to this latest tour has only strengthened my commitment to expanding the reach of SExT’s innovative and effective approach, so every young person is equipped with the knowledge and skills to stay safe. In partnership with CANFAR, we plan to continue touring the show to areas of Canada most affected by HIV/STIs.
With the help of my current cast, I hope to train another cohort of SExT performers to ensure program sustainability. With youth leadership, I also hope to expand our social media presence (@SExTEdShow) and create more music videos, like the two we released this year in partnership with CANFAR on the topics of intimate partner violence (Tunnel Vision) and consent (Bodak Consent)!