Getting high school students to pay attention to anything can be a challenge. But at a recent show put on by the UCLA Sex Squad, a performance troupe of college students from the University of California, Los Angeles, the audience of ninth-graders was interacting, reacting, and laughing--and amazingly, no one was busy texting.
Masturbation, orgasms, and loving your body aren't typical topics of a high school assembly, but the Sex Squad tackles all these issues and more in their hilarious and innovative performances, which will soon reach high school students around the nation. A project of UCLA's Art and Global Health Center, the Sex Squad was conceived in 2008 by David Gere, a UCLA arts and culture professor and the founder and director of the AGHC, and brother of actor Richard Gere.
"The first time we realized the possible power of using a performance by college students for high school students was when the Art and Global Health Center developed a project called Make Art Stop AIDS at [UCLA's] Fowler Museum," Gere told HIV Plus before a recent Sex Squad presentation. "As soon as we began working on that exhibition, we thought of ways to involve high school students."
Gere worked with Kevin Caine, a theater director, to create a performance that used song and dance to convey messages about HIV, condom negotiation, bullying, sexual identity, and self-esteem. "It was amazing," Gere recalls. "It unleashed something in the students and in us. We felt like there was direct communication happening."
Pieter-Dirk Uys, South African performance artist and HIV activist, next took the reigns, refining the show. Visiting UCLA to show his own work, Uys was recruited by Gere to create the AIDS Performance Team, which injected racy humor into the original piece that Caine created.
"It [showed] how essential humor is to communication, even about difficult subjects," Gere says. "The piece he made with students was very frank, very of the moment, very youthful."
Bobby Gordon, a UCLA graduate and staffer with the Art and Global Health Center, worked with Uys on the AIDS Performance Team, and took over as director when Uys returned to Africa, renaming the Team the UCLA Sex Squad. Now in its second year, the Squad, whose members must audition to be in the troupe, regularly performs at Los Angeles-area schools, bringing the message to high school freshmen that sex is both a pleasure and a responsibility.
So, how do they get through to cynical teenagers? With Sesame Street spoofs featuring condom puppets discussing the proper way to put on protection ("don't forget to pinch the tip!") and the difference between fulfilling sex and "wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am" intercourse; with college students relaying their own embarrassing, hilarious, and often-universal first-time sexual experiences; with party scenes that depict how alcohol often makes people do irrational things. There are also interactive songs that require the audience to shout out the five body fluids that can spread HIV (blood, semen, pre-cum, vaginal fluids, and breast milk), interpretive dances with young women declaring their body is theirs alone, and gay performers frankly and unapologetically talking about their HIV fears. While some moments are emotional, even sad, they're never heavy-handed or phony.
"I've seen the impact of the lack of sex education among our young people," says Sonya Rahders, a UCLA sociology major and Sex Squad performer. Rahders attended a continuation high school, where many students were already parents. "So, it's important to me to engage students in a dialogue and give them the tools to make their own choices. After almost every show, we have students come up and say, 'What you said is how I feel' and 'I didn't know anyone else felt that way.'"
As inventive as the shows are, "I know one performance is not enough to have any long term impact on someone," Gere says. That's why the Sex Squad is only one aspect of the Art and Global Health Center's AMP It Up! project (AMP stands for Arts-based, Multiple-intervention, Peer education), which offers several programs to make the lessons of the Sex Squad stick. The Squad performers visit high schools to discuss safe sex and conduct art-making projects, including poems, skits, and visual artwork. AMP It Up! also hosts "Positively Speaking" events, where HIV-positive people share their stories with 14- and 15-year-olds.
All this work leads to tangible results, says Gere. A study found more than a three-fold increase, 14% to 59%, in sexually active students who'd taken an HIV test during the AMP It Up! programs.
"That's what we want to see," Gere says. "It indicates a belief that it's important to know your status."
Gordon and Gere just traveled to Georgia and North Carolina to work on bringing the Sex Squad model to Southern high school students. The process started after Gordon attended a health educator conference, where a woman from Arkansas told Gordon that HIV numbers were skyrocketing there.
"She said, 'You need to be in the South,'" Gordon recalls. "I immediately said, 'You're right.'"
Gere and Gordon collaborated with Atlanta's Emory University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, to develop Sex Squad-like troupes that will be adapted to the different environments. For example, the Emory performers may call themselves the Emory Sex Ed Squad, Gere says, which sounds a bit less racy than UCLA's troupe name.
Regardless of the name, Gere and Gordon are confident of the program's success in other parts of the country. People are people, after all.
"Big political institutions want to control the way the way we think and talk about sex," Gere says. "So to be lighthearted and humorous and open in our discussion about sex is counter to what we're used to and, for most of us, it comes as a huge relief."