Facts of Life

How Three Portland High School Kids Are Reinventing Sex Ed

A "herpes pillow" and plush "Sammy the Sperm" all make appearances.

By Hannah Wallace August 14, 2018 Published in the September 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

When twins Milena and Sofia Ben-Zaken and their friend Tess Waxman were in grade school, sex ed was laughably brief. “We had one day on puberty in fifth grade,” Milena recalls. “We didn’t really have sex ed in eighth grade, either,” Sofia adds. In their first year at Northeast’s Grant High School, they finally had a thorough sex-ed class. By then, they say, some classmates had already been sexually assaulted.

This instructional gap is not uncommon. When Jenny Whithycombe joined Portland Public Schools to work on the district’s health and PE programs two years ago, she says, middle-school sex ed was hit and miss. “It was sometimes happening, sometimes not,” she says. “More often not.” 

In 2016, the Ben-Zaken twins and Waxman set out to change that. With the guidance of their English teacher, Susan Bartley, the young women (now all 18) met every Monday, interviewing peers about what they wished they’d learned in middle school. The resulting curriculum—they dubbed it “Let’s Talk”—is inclusive and robust. In addition to covering birth control, STIs, and sex in all its varied forms, lesson plans cover LGTBQ+ issues, body positivity, and consent. Over the past two years, they and a handful of their Grant High classmates have taught the lessons to middle schoolers at Sunnyside, Laurelhurst, and Mt Tabor.

Whithycombe now champions Let’s Talk. “They put so much time and effort into it,” she says. Whithycombe was delighted to see middle schoolers at ease discussing sexual subjects with kids just a few years older than they are.

“We’re more their peers than their superiors,” says Sofia.

Props help break the ice. A “herpes pillow,” tossed hand to hand, cues kids to take turns talking. A plush “Sammy the Sperm” and 3-D replicas of reproductive systems make appearances. An anonymous form solicits questions, and even awkward jokes provide teaching opportunities. “We get a lot of jokes about pulling out,” says Milena, “and we talk about how that’s not a sufficient birth control method.” 

The trio depart for college this fall, but they’ve trained about 10 classmates to teach Let’s Talk during the 2018–19 school year.  Whithycombe—who says many PPS teachers, especially if they aren’t health teachers, can be anxious about sex ed—couldn’t be happier. “I think when the teachers see [high school students teaching sex ed], it takes some of that fear away,” she says. “The world will keep spinning!”

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