Peer to peer: When teens have questions about sex, they often ask each other


On your mark. Get set. Ready? Go!

Two teens tear off the plastic wrappers containing the latex condoms. They quickly pull the wet, slippery material over two wooden sticks that resemble penises.

Douglas G. Washington cries out in desperation as Julia Bailey wins the race. They both laugh. 

ThreeSixty Journalism is nonprofit youth journalism program based at the University of St Thomas in St. Paul. It is committed to bringing diverse voices into journalism and related professions and to using intense, personal instruction in the craft and principles of journalism to strengthen the civic literacy, writing skills and college-readiness of Minnesota teens.

As peer educators, Julia and Douglas do this to attract the attention of their peers, because the attention gives them the chance to teach about health. Today’s lesson is: If you have sex, use a condom, and use it correctly.

When teens have questions or want to clarify certain issues in reproductive health, they are more likely to turn to their peers than adult professionals.

That’s why programs like the Teen Age Medical Service, a teen clinic at 2425 Chicago Ave. S. in Minneapolis, employ peer educators like Julia and Douglas.

Emily Scribner-O’pray, community service coordinator
at TAMS Clinic.

“[TAMS] has done this thing where we take young people and we teach them all about reproductive health in the hope that they can do a better job of reaching their peers,” said Emily Scribner-O’pray, the community service coordinator at TAMS Clinic.

Peer educators are teens, so they know what it’s like being one.

Many studies confirm the power of teens to educate their peers on a range of topics. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Peer education programs, in which teens are trained to teach other teens, have proven to be one of the most successful components of the young worker projects. Teens are effective trainers; they bring energy and enthusiasm to their teaching, speak the language of their peers, serve as role models to other young people, and provide a fresh perspective on workplace issues.”

TAMS, which serves 2,000 patients a year, has trained Southwest High School students as peer educators for the past 20 years. The clinic’s peer educators meet every other week for two hours to learn about issues like birth control, sexually transmitted infections, healthy relationships and communication. Teens develop presentations and give them to student groups, ranging from elementary age to college students.

“It’s a really great partnership between adults who care about reproductive health and keeping kids healthy, and kids who care about it and really want to make a difference in their community,” said Scribner-O’pray.

“The younger kids love them. They want them to come every day. They write love letters to them and ask them for their phone numbers. When I go back, they’re like: ‘Why are you here? We want those guys.’ They really love them because they’re big kids and they can relate to them in a different way than they can relate to an adult,” said Rachel Navaro, the peer educator mentor at TAMS.

Rachel Navaro, peer educator mentor
at TAMS Clinic.

Navaro hired the more reserved Julia when she was a freshman who wanted to learn about reproductive health. Julia wanted more than the abstinence education taught at her arts school but was uncomfortable asking her father, who raised Julia and her older sisters.

“I always thought it was important to learn these things and have other kids learn these things. That’s why I decided to work at TAMS,” said Julia.

Douglas became a peer educator as a sophomore, after meeting Navaro when she visited his 8th grade class. At that first meeting, he tried to charm condoms out of Navaro “for a friend.”

Douglas was outgoing, funny, and more comfortable than many of his peers in asking questions and talking about sex. Perfect, Navaro thought, to be a peer educator.

By attending the TAMS training, making presentations with Navaro, and watching other peer educators give presentations, Julia and Douglas progressed from average teens to health experts.

Douglas remembers when a kid told them, “gravity is the ultimate birth control…if you can jump up and down, it will just fall out.”

Even among older teens, Julia, Douglas, and 18 other peer educators at TAMS still have to correct common misconceptions:

  • Pregnancy can be avoided if we have sex for less than two minutes, right? Wrong.

  • Sexually transmitted infections only come from vaginal sex, right? Wrong.

  • There’s no need for condoms during oral sex because it isn’t real sex, right? Wrong.

Douglas’s responsibility to promote safe sex has added a little to the weight of his backpack.

“It’s like I’m a mailman with condoms. I always have condoms in my backpack at school…for them I’m like a little TAMS that walks around the school,” Douglas said.

Research indicates that reproductive education does not promote higher rates of sexual activity among teens. According to an article in the 2008 Journal of Adolescent Health and Society for Adolescent Medicine, “Teaching about contraception was not associated with increased risk of adolescent sexual activity or STD. Adolescents who received comprehensive sex education had a lower risk of pregnancy than adolescents who received abstinence-only or no sex education.”

While peer educators understand a lot about reproductive health, they also strive to help teens create healthy relationships.

After hearing Douglas describe manipulative behavior, one of his friends recognized how he was manipulating people.

Julia’s older sisters come to her for advice on relationships. “My sisters thought of me as a very young child, but now they see me as an adult. My sisters now come to me and they’re like: ‘I’m in this relationship with this guy. Am I doing this right?’ and I’m like no, you’re not. Now we talk about everything. It’s actually made me more confident in myself and made me know myself more,” said Julia.

Julia and Douglas graduated from Southwest High School this spring and start college in the fall. They both want health education to be a part of their future careers.

Julia’s interested in environmental science and horticulture. She thinks her studies might allow her to work with TAMS urban farm project in the future. The gardening project at 25th and Park Av. employs teens ages 14 to 18 years old learn to plant and care for a garden.

Douglas wants to run a company that makes updated sexual education videos.

“I feel like I’m always working for TAMS because people always come to me with questions,” he said.