The Weeknd's hit song "Can't Feel My Face" spent weeks at the top of the charts and was on constant rotation on pop stations. And so students at John C. Fremont High School in South Los Angeles saw an opportunity.
They wrote a parody of the song – completely reworking the original lyrics with a pro-condom, safe-sex message. Several weeks ago, the teenagers went into classrooms at their school and sang the remixed song in front of their peers.
They told us just do it without one
They told us just do it, come on
We know that we can go without it
So we're gonna have to
Wrap it up up up
I can have safe sex when I'm with you
And we'll love it
And we'll love it
These teens are part of the school's Sex Squad, a club that takes a peer-to-peer, art-based approach to delivering comprehensive sexual health education. They perform songs about HIV transmission, skits about safe sex and consent and material to dispel myths – for example, a poem about the risks of trying to use two condoms at once.
"Before this I couldn’t even say, like, 'breast milk,' 'semen' without being awkward," said Pedro Romero, one of about a dozen teens in the group. "But because you get so comfortable, you get comfortable to say it in front of your peers that don’t know anything."
Four high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District have these so-called "sex squads." California law requires schools to provide education about how to prevent STDs and pregnancy and teach about healthy relationships. This club is designed to make the information taught in a traditional health class stick with teens in a stronger way.
"You just take the class to pass it and graduate," said Romero. "But sex squad is like, because you’re doing theater and music, I feel like you pick it up faster."
"Each time we perform, it's less scary," said Gerardo Torres, another member of the club. "Because it's kind of the sense that we all kind of support each other because we know it's kind of awkward."
School officials have good reason to want the lessons of sex education to stick. In Los Angeles County, rates of syphilis and chlamydia have been on the rise for a decade. Fremont is a Title 1 school, where many students comes from low-income families. There's a health clinic right near that school that offers free condoms, testing and other services.
Amy Vaillancourt is a science and health teacher at Fremont and she sponsors the club at Fremont. (She also has a background in theater and dance, so this is uniquely suited role for her.) She brought the group to campus because she realizes that teens listen to each other.
"Even if you’re a cool teacher, you’re just not as connected as all these guys are," said Vaillancourt.
The high school sex squads are an outgrowth of the UCLA Art and Global Health Center. The has a program called Arts-based, Multiple-intervention, Peer-education or AMP!, which is collaboration with LA Unified that works to prevent HIV and STIs among high schoolers.
"When it comes to learning about sex and sexuality – surprise, surprise – adolescents would prefer not to hear from adults," said David Gere, director of the Art and Global Health Center at UCLA. "They'd prefer to hear from people who are about their age."
He said that the benefits of peer-to-peer education have been documented in public health literature for sometime now and the AMP! program seeks to capitalize on that. The UCLA sex squad has been going into high schools for performances and interactive theater workshops since 2010.
Student surveys showed that students retained more information and felt connected to the college students, who were close in age. But there was still a bit of reverence for the older students.
"When the UCLA sex squad started to morph into the high school sex squads in the various schools that we're working in, we were ecstatic," said Gere. "We said to ourselves, 'Now we've really got it!' "
'REHEARSAL FOR REAL LIFE'
At Fremont, the sex squad meets twice on Thursdays – at lunch and after school – to write and rehearse new material. They performed at an assembly for the whole ninth grade in March. And they occasionally pop into classrooms to perform.
One of their signature acts is called "Rehearsal for Real Life." The skit is all about consent – one character has invited another over to a house where the parents aren't home.
"Do you wanna play?" sex squad member Xia English asked Adelita Quiñones during a recent performance in front of about 30 of their peers.
"I’m down," Quiñones answered as they launched into a game of patty cake, which served as a theatrical euphemism for sex. After a while, Quiñones's character wanted to stop.
"You said you were having fun just a second ago," English fired back.
"You don’t care how I feel?"
Eventually, Quiñones's character was pressured into continuing. At the end of the scene, Krissy Leahy, a health educator with St. John's Well Child & Family Center, stepped into moderate a discussion with the class. She also regularly comes to the group’s meetings to make sure their songs and skits are accurate.
"Is this scene easy to deal with?" she asked the class. A resounding "no" swept up from the room.
Leahy then guided the class through a discussion about consent. Students from the audience stepped into the scene and act out different scenarios for how the situation could play out.
There were some giggles and squirms, but for the most part the class paid attention. And some students in the audience joined the conversation.
"The part when they both [were like,] I thought you cared about me – if someone said something like that to me I would be like, 'Well, I do care ..." sophomore Teshawna Greenfield said during the discussion. "But if y’all both care about each other, you’ll come to an agreement."
She said seeing the sex squad performance made her rethink some things and she felt safe sharing. "Talking to them is easy and and talking about that is easy with because, you know, you know them."
After she saw the performance, she expressed interest in joining the group.
The Fremont sex squad got started this year, but the club has been up and running at Taft Charter High School for more than four years. Bridget Brownell, the health education department chair at Taft who sponsors the group, has been teaching health for about 20 years, but said that allowing the students to mold the message has really changed things.
"For the students creating it, they get to talk about what they think is most important, as opposed to what our curriculum says is most important," said Brownell.
Brownell said that if she had a magic wand, she would make this into a real class that would count for a health and performing arts credit.
"I think that the name is a little bit scary to parents, but then the kids will turn around and show them the back of their shirts and they're like, 'Oh, that's a good thing.' "