Shira Taylor created SExT: Sex Education by Theatre back in 2014 for her dissertation during her time at the University of Toronto, in order to explore the use of theatre for sex education aimed at young students. The play, SExt, has been performed by youth peer educators at Canada’s largest theatre festivals to thousands of students in schools and indigenous reserves across Ontario and Saskatchewan. She has also worked with teachers to implement sex education in an art-based, culturally-inclusive and impactful ways.
“Bodak Consent”– a Bodak Yellow (Cardi B) parody– was created through SexT’s partnership with the Canadian Foundation of AIDS Research (CANFAR). Read the interview below with Shira to find out more!
Thank you so much for talking to Defective Geeks and answering our questions today. Can you tell us about SExT: Sex Education by Theatre, how it was founded and why you wanted to start it in the first place? What are the programs’ main goals?
Five years ago, I walked into one of Canada’s most diverse and over-populated high schools, located in an immigration destination of Toronto, with the idea of having sex education more comprehensive, relevant, and impactful by emboldening youth to sing, rap, and dance about everything from chlamydia to homophobia to racism. This visit led me to create the peer education program, SExT: Sex Education by Theatre, as my PhD Thesis (Public Health, University of Toronto) to empower youth from communities where talking about sex is cultural taboo to take center stage. Our main goal is to support young people to reflect on, challenge, and communicate their realities and celebrate their unique identities through performance art. Youth are invited to tackle current issues head-on in a non-judgmental environment that promotes education, discussion, creativity, and personal discovery.
In partnership with the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR), we are celebrating the completion of our first National tour reaching 4000 students in high schools and Indigenous reserves in areas most affected by HIV and the release of our first music video, Bodak Consent. Our long-term goal is to expand the reach of our innovative and effective approach to educating about consent, HIV/STI prevention, and healthy relationships so every young person is equipped with the knowledge and skills to recognize and avoid unhealthy situations, to know their options should they find themselves in a precarious situation, to feel empowered to set boundaries, and to confidently explore their own identities on their own terms. We also hope to challenge policy-makers to reconsider any preconceptions of young people, diversity, and sexuality and demonstrate the power of theatre to activate communities and tackle public health concerns.
Do you find that younger generations today are more open to talking about sex, consent and topics surrounding it? What has been the biggest challenge for you?
The youth voice is notoriously absent from the age-old sex ed debate. Traditionally, we see politicians, teachers, religious leader, and parents – all with good intentions – debating each other over how best to “protect” children. This generation wants to talk, and they have a lot to say. The challenge is getting adults in power to listen.
On our latest tour, we had a gym-full of students (at a school struggling with poor attendance) stay 30 minutes after the final bell rang to ask our youth performers questions weighing on their hearts and minds. We have youth messaging our Instagram account months after we visit their school because they don’t know who to turn to in their own communities. We get questions from kids as young as 12 asking:
“A boy in my class keeps asking me to send him nudes – do I have to?”
“My boyfriend is trying to force me to have sex – what do I do?”
“I’m gay and get bullied a lot. How do you deal with bullies?”
We also get comments like:
“I was sexually assaulted and I didn’t know what to do, but now after seeing your play, I do.”
We believe protecting youth means providing them the answers to these questions. We hope our show and music videos remind young people that they have important stories to tell and deserve a seat at the table when it comes to decisions-making affecting their health and well-being.
Bodak Consent is a great video– funny, relevant and educational! How did this idea come about?
Thank you! One of our Peer Educators, Lauren Chang (aka Ms. G) wrote the lyrics to Bodak Consent in response to her frustration around not being able to go out dancing with her friends without one of them being touched against their will. She chose to parody Cardi B’s hit song, Bodak Yellow, since she was inspired by the fact that it’s a song by a female rapper that all of her friends knew the words to. In creating the choreography for Bodak Consent, SExT peer educators had the chance to embody precarious situations that youth encounter in 2018 and practice navigating them in a safe space. By performing these scenarios for their peers, they are modeling how to deal with difficult and common situations in the era of cyberbullying and #MeToo. When rapping as her alter ego, Ms.G, Lauren describes feeling powerful and in control of her body.
Why do you think it’s important to incorporate pop culture and doing parodies in order to reach young people today? Is it effective?
My doctoral research shows that educational approaches that are culturally relevant, non-judgemental, comprehensive, engaging, fun, and that centre the youth voice are most effective in leading to real behavior change. Youth need to see themselves in their sex education to take it seriously, which is rarely the case when lessons are delivered by uncomfortable teachers or out-dated films. In this video, we feature a diverse cast of young people who look like youth in Canada and the US in 2018. They’re listening to the same music, they’re rocking the same dance moves, and here they are modeling how to enact consent in a really relatable way.
What other projects or programs do you have coming up with SExT? Where can people find out more?
SExT will be back on tour this coming spring in partnership with CANFAR as part of their National Awareness Programs, focused on educating young people across the country about HIV prevention, testing, and treatment. This means many more road trip sing-alongs to come for our tight knit cast and new dance moves to be learned from youth nation-wide. We are also gearing up to release our second music video, Tunnel Vision, featuring an original song by SExT cast member, Mary Getachew about her experience healing from intimate partner violence. Her story is bravely and beautifully told with the support of local artists, Elena Juatco (music and directing), Bo Lam (choreography), and Fred Yurichuk videography).
Lastly– if you could have a super power that will help you achieve SExT’s mission across the world, what will it be and why?
I love this question. I choose a combo of freezing time and teleporting (is it greedy to ask for two?). That way, any time someone is about to act without consent or make a risky decision, time will freeze and they will be teleported to our show where Captain Condom and Crossfit Chlamydia can teach them about STIs and HIV and Ms. G. can teach them a few things about consent. They can then be teleported back to the situation with the requisite skills to make better choices, having learned their lessons in a fun and gentle way.