What it means to be a Teen Advocate for Sexual Health
By Pardes Lyons Warren | May 1, 2018, 6:49 p.m.
“Girl Power” is a given in my family. I have three older sisters and countless other women in my life; each one intelligent, powerful, and influential. I’m surrounded by advocates for health, public housing, and criminal justice, among other things. These role-models have instilled in me the values of hard work, education, and equality. Unfortunately, growing up in Missouri means not everyone shares these sentiments.
Being a student, the issue of comprehensive sex education, or the lack thereof, was right in front of me. I saw policies hindering education and the stigma against sex stopping conversations. I have challenged this taboo through lobbying, educating myself, and educating others.
Sex Ed, when comprehensive, leads students to healthy lives before, during, and after they are sexually active.So, all the time. Why wouldn’t we want that? My less-than-ideal sex education came from school and my parents. My school teaches about puberty in elementary school, STIs in middle school, and briefly touches on condoms in high school. It's always a short lesson thrown into a general health class, with fear tactics applied liberally. At home, there is an open atmosphere, but awkwardness prevents actual conversations. Not surprisingly, I was left with many questions. Finding Teen Advocates for Sexual Health (TASH), an education and activist group, provided me with the extensive knowledge I craved. I know not everyone has this kind of opportunity, though, and the positive impact on me only increased my desire to right this inequity. Once I realized this passion, I took every opportunity to advocate and educate.
Being in TASH provided numerous opportunities for me. In this environment I could ask any questions and I was learning things I wouldn’t have known to ask about. During my first week we learned about hormonal contraceptives; I had always thought the options were condoms or the Pill but I became versed in everything from IUDs to fertility tracking. Later we did an activity about consent and I was surprised at the controversy within our group over some of the scenarios presented. There are so many layers to “consent” and the lack of education about it is dangerous.
TASH also has an annual lobby day where we travel to Jefferson City and talk to state representatives. We lobby for a bill that would make comprehensive sex ed mandatory in all Missouri public schools. (Currently the subject is mandatory but the curriculum has no requirements, not even medical accuracy!) I was nervous when I talked to my first representative, but gained courage with experience. I was worried that as a highschooler I would not be taken seriously, but my age worked in my favor because this bill would directly affect my peers and me. Most legislators were receptive and co-signed the bill and those who didn’t only fired me up to work harder. Then I got an opportunity to take my advocacy to the next level: peer education certification. After 40 hours of training I earn my certification and even get to teach a class. It is empowering to know I no longer have to rely on others and that I can be a change-agent more directly. I have brought this power to my school club, Feminist Coalition, and am currently creating a sex ed presentation for our student body.
My crystal ball shows me working in the nonprofit sector doing community organizing. But that’s an end goal. I still have a lot to learn and I’m excited to do so. Just as I marched with a million women in D.C., every step I take in my advocacy will be alongside fellow fighters and for those who can't fight. It’s important that my work stays intersectional because everyone has multiple identities which blend to create their unique experiences. I could spend my whole life happily advocating for comprehensive sex education and shattering the stigma around it.
Pardes Lyons Warren is a fourth-year TASH participant and a St. Louis-area high school student.
Tags: Sex Ed, Missouri, sex education, TASH, advocacy, sexual health