For 21 years, the University’s Adolescent Sexual Health Awareness club (ASHA) has worked to teach local high schoolers in south and central Connecticut about consent and other aspects of sexual well-being in a thoughtful, engaging way through two-day-long workshops. Since 2020, they have been designing a new, more socially conscious curriculum to be implemented this spring that puts an emphasis on antiracism, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual education. ASHA coordinator Simon Gaughan ’22 cited the increase in Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 as an impetus for reform.
“One of our big focuses, not only this semester but last year as well, has been reforming our curriculum that we teach to high schoolers, especially after the murder of George Floyd and increased activism surrounding racial justice,” Gaughan said. “We wanted to find a way to create a more actively antiracist curriculum, and then in that conversation, also being more inclusive to different identities, like variations of ability or sexual orientation and gender, et cetera.”
The new curriculum covers topics such as pornography in the media, body image, pleasure and orgasm, and systems of power, oppression, and privilege in relation to sexuality. It also represents queer people in its example situations. Gaughan said the old curriculum was inclusive in a more passive way, using gender-neutral names and pronouns in example scenarios, so that students of various gender identities and sexual orientations could relate to each scenario. In contrast, the new curriculum highlights LGBTQ+ identities, actively promoting representation.
“One of the conversations that came up when we were rewriting the curriculum was if it would be better to just explicitly, in a gendered way, include a diversity of examples,” Gaughan said. “So, [we] very clearly state, ‘This is a queer non-binary couple, and that heavily influences the dynamics of consent in the situation,’ versus, ‘[This couple] is a man and a woman, and that is going to influence the way that that works….’ A lot of students, no matter what, are still going to map on heteronormative dynamics to the couples if they’re gender-neutral names, so we believed it was more active queer representation to gender the couples.”
Eloise Lavacek ’24, who teaches sex education through ASHA, said she enjoyed helping students become more comfortable with different gender and sexual identities.
“It’s just fun to make it not awkward and be so straight up [and open] about it,” Lavacek said. “It is hard to get student engagement, but you know, that just comes with teaching sex ed, and you just kind of have to laugh it off and move on.”
Gaughan said working as a teacher was his favorite aspect of ASHA, mentioning that students had a range of responses to the workshops.
“It’s kind of optimistic sometimes to see how thoughtful and engaged kids can be when talking about sex ed,” Gaughan said. “But [also], high schoolers are young, and they’re rowdy, and they’re immature, and sometimes it can be difficult to manage when people are trying to be funny and making really insensitive and offensive jokes or just generally not taking it seriously.”
ASHA coordinator Leah Baron ’22 said the short timeframe of the workshops sometimes creates a barrier to meaningful, in-depth discussions.
“I would say the limiting factor is that we don’t have a lot of time with students, and so we are [somewhat] able to interact and engage with students conversationally…but not a whole lot,” Baron said. “So we never really get to really introduce ourselves to students.”
Baron also said she was looking forward to ASHA’s first in-person workshops since the start of the pandemic, which will start in late November 2021, and continue into the spring. Baron expects that in-person conversations—in contingency with the new curriculum—will make it easier to connect with students.
In addition to visiting high schools, ASHA works on projects within the University. About five years ago, the club created subcommittees, which meet independently, to organize these initiatives.
One subcommittee, Stimulating Campus, works to expand students’ knowledge about sexual health and experiences. The members are currently working on a new podcast centering on the theme of sexual awakening, as well as a publication titled Sexy Times.
Another subcommittee, Creative Sexpressions, provides opportunities for students to share personal stories in creative ways. In collaboration with the Wesleyan ACLU, its members are planning a benefit concert to support a reproductive justice organization to be chosen in the coming weeks.
The third subcommittee, We Are Wes, works to connect with other student groups and expand ASHA’s scope.
“We Are Wes…focuses on collaborating with other groups on campus and sort of maximizing the way that ASHA thinks across identity and experience,” Baron said. “So it has a particular focus on intersectionality and intersectional problems and topics.”
A fourth subcommittee focuses on reworking ASHA’s website to be useful for a broad audience.
“The website is…trying to find a way to be accessible both to Wesleyan students and to the students in local Connecticut high schools that we teach,” Gaughan said. “Having information for both of those communities, we decided, was really important.”
Going forward, ASHA will provide consent and sexual health workshops in University dormitories for all first-year students. Gaughan said the club hopes to expand the scale of the program.
“The first consent lecture at WestCo apparently had amazing turnout, and people really engaged with it,” Gaughan said. “So that’s a good sign that this thing can happen for other freshman dorms.”
The coordinators emphasized that the club is always looking for new members and that work-study students can be paid hourly for working with ASHA. The club meets on the second and fourth Sundays of the month at 8:00 p.m. in the Office of Community Service in the Albritton Center.
“Anyone is welcome to join, and there’s a couple more requirements for getting certified to teach, but that’s all pretty cinchy,” Baron said.
Baron reiterated that she hopes to continue to make sex education more thoughtful and relevant for students as ASHA moves forward this semester.
“Part of the thing I’m looking forward to in our new curriculum…is having a little bit more of a personal and tuned, meaningful and socially conscious experience,” Baron said.
Anne Kiely can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.