High Schoolers Turn To Their Friends for Sex Advice—This New Sex-Ed Program Will Make Them Reliable Resources

Photo: W+G Creative
Like so many other young people, sex educator Tara Michaela Jones had plenty of questions about sex in high school that weren't addressed in her sex-ed classes. Eager for answers from people who could relate and whom she felt she could trust, she turned to her peers—much like the high schoolers in the cast of hit Netflix series Sex Education look to their friends Otis and Maeve for advice. The only problem? Like the stars of the show, her friends, while easy to speak with about a still-taboo topic and ocassionally helpful, weren't exactly wealths of knowledge. After all, everyone in Jones's age group was just about as uninformed as she was, sharing only what they'd learned through trial and error.

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But if Jones had had a peer who was a sex expert—someone knowledgeable and informed about relevant sex topics—it would've made all the difference in her ability to make empowered choices about her health and pleasure, she says. Which is why she's now launching a non-profit to facilitate that: The Youth Sexpert Program aims to arm high schoolers around the country with comprehensive, inclusive information about sex, plus resources for sharing it directly with peers.

“The idea here is that, not only will youth come to the program to learn for themselves, but also, they'll be able to disseminate that information to their peers.” —Tara Michaela Jones, sex educator

“The idea here is that, not only will youth come to the program to learn for themselves, but also, they'll be able to disseminate that information to their peers,” says Jones. And that's a big deal given that so many high schoolers are left missing key information about sex or confused by the information they receive in lacking sex-ed classes.

Where sex education falls short—and how the Youth Sexpert Program aims to help

Because there are no federal laws mandating sex education in this country, the programs vary by state. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends sex education programs be "consistent with scientific research and best practices; reflect the diversity of student experiences and identities; and align with school, family, and community priorities," the reality is that these guidelines are interpreted in vastly different ways. According to the Guttmacher Institute, just 27 states and the District of Columbia require sex education to be taught in schools at all, only 17 require the content to be medically accurate, and 29 require that abstinence be stressed.

These different standards matter in terms of the information students receive. According to a study published last year in the Journal of Adolescent Health, "differences in the receipt of sex education, by gender, race/ethnicity, and the location of instruction, leave many adolescents without critical information." And that information gap could grow even wider as certain state governments make legislative efforts to curtail sex education. Case in point: Florida governor Ron DeSantis recently passed a bill restricting any instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity through eighth grade.

As a result, says Jones, plenty of young people still resort to the internet or each other for answers to questions about sex, which leaves them ill-equipped and vulnerable. "It always felt very backward to me that the way we're expected to learn about sex is just by having it or talking to the friends who are having it, but who are not really necessarily more resourced or knowledgable than we are," she says. "There’s so much room for misinformation and harm when that's the case."

"It felt very backward to me that the way we're expected to learn about sex is just by having it or talking to the friends who are having it." —Jones

Indeed, Jones says she experienced several harmful moments in her own life that she "feels could have easily been prevented had I been better informed about sex." Her new Youth Sexpert Program will both provide that information to interested high schoolers and equip them with the tools they need to educate their peers IRL and on social media.

Jones initially came up with the idea last November, when she said it "dawned on me that the person I could've used in high school is the person I am now for others." She put out a call to fellow sex educators of different backgrounds—many of whom now make up the program's advisory board—to help design an inclusive, thorough curriculum.

Applications for high schoolers who'd like to join the program (with parental permission) just launched at the beginning of June and will be open until August 31. For the first iteration, Jones says they'll accept between ten and 15 students, who will meet for virtual workshops each week starting in September through the fall.

In honor of the program's launch, Jones spoke with Well+Good about the personal experiences that inspired it, what she envisions for the youth sexperts who are selected, and why she thinks reimagining sex education is so important in our current political climate.

Well+Good: What was your experience with sex education in school?

Tara Michaela Jones: I was raised in Massachusetts, so it was more comprehensive than in many other states. I would categorize what I experienced as abstinence-plus because we did get information about birth control and sexually transmitted illnesses (STIs), but that was pretty much it. There was a little bit about reproductive systems, but there was very little on relevant things I was experiencing like consent, pleasure, slut shaming, and sexual coercion.

I remember getting my period for the first time before high school; my mom threw me a bunch of tampons, and I didn't have a basic understanding of my own body or where my vagina was, let alone other people's bodies. If I got the better end of the stick, it's scary to imagine what's happening for others.

When [sex education] is mostly just you being thrown into the deep end and left to your own devices, nobody knows anything, and you're all just playing this guessing game. It leaves so much room for breaches of consent or pressure to do things you aren’t ready for. That was a huge driver for me to become a sex educator within my community.

W+G: What's in the curriculum for the Youth Sexpert Program?

TMJ: We want the topics to be as inclusive and wide-ranging as possible, and to move from the personal to the interpersonal.

We're thinking of splitting the curriculum into three categories: First, we want to talk about the sexual narratives that we hold for ourselves, self-pleasure, and purity culture; then, we'll move to topics like consent and slut shaming; and in the third section, we'll cover what sex really is and what it can be and look like for different people.

We want to talk about queer identities, intersexuality, and potentially kink, but that is an area we're still thinking through. We walk a really fine line with kink, but I think that as certain sex acts [that could cause harm] become more mainstream, young people do need to know about them for their safety—like breath play, for example (which involves restricting oxygen to the brain for arousal purposes). The question is: What other areas are potentially posing risks that we can better educate around?

Overall, we're thinking of our programming as a heavy supplement to what’s offered in school. The big dream would be to eventually put our curriculum out there as something that other educators can emulate and bring into schools.

W+G: Why is it important for young people to get this information from their peers?

TMJ: I've personally seen the way that somebody acting in a community role can create a safe space for people to ask vulnerable questions. I answer questions in my Instagram DMs, and I find that even people whom I know in real life but with whom I'm not really close [will submit questions]. There's a lot of power in realizing that somebody will come to me instead of going to their best friend because they know I have more knowledge, and they know I'm a safe, trustworthy person to talk to. It makes you realize how many of these questions are not things an online search would answer.

The premise of the program is being able to build on the community support systems that are already in place because we know that young folks are talking to each other.

Having a space where students can have real conversations and work through nuance, and then bring that to their own schools and social media pages, is really important. The premise of the program is being able to build on the community support systems that are already in place because we know that young folks are talking to each other.

W+G: What challenges do you anticipate with launching in a political environment where sex education is being curtailed and people of different gender identities, including trans people, are being targeted?

TMJ: It’s so terrifying to watch the state of so many parts of this country in terms of trans students, specifically. Right now, there couldn't be a greater need for comprehensive sex education. It's wild to me the number of states that don't require sex ed to be medically accurate, the number that don't require it to include consent, and the number of people who tell me they never learned anything regarding queerness or queer identity and other really important topics.

Because of this, we've prioritized logistics and legal. Initially, the question on my mind was, "What risk do I take on if I admit a student or two without parental permission?" If you asked me this a year ago, I would have a different answer for you than I do now. For everyone's sake, we need this to be so thoroughly sealed; we need it to be basically no risk because there is so much room for legal action from parents and schools, so we have to be extremely careful.

We have support for that through individual organizations that help nonprofits, and we’ve been able to speak with the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), and they’ve been hugely helpful in terms of their state-by-state knowledge. It’s also been helpful to talk to leaders of other nonprofits in this space—including an organization called OkaySo, which does youth sex education through texting—just to learn what they're doing.

W+G: What do you want adults and those without young people in their lives to know about the need for the Youth Sexpert Program?
TMJ: We tend to think of kids and young adults as so different from us or how we may have been, but so much is the same. I think we can all think back to moments where we wish we knew more [about sex] and moments where we felt empowered knowing more and can then understand why we need to ensure [the latter] for young people.

From a health standpoint, half of all the new STI infections are in people under age 24, so we know that the health of young people is also being impacted by how uninformed they are—and this has implications for the adults they interact with, too.

Because I run the Youth Sexpert Program TikTok account, I can also see what young people are discussing, and even for me, as a sex educator, it's shocking sometimes. High schoolers are certainly talking about sex topics and things that adults might think are taboo, anyway, and from those conversations, it's clear that they're lacking an understanding of things like consent and queer education. It's so important for us to meet them where they are with accurate information.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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