Written by Leslie Garrett for Medium. Originally published on April 21st, 2015.
“Every Thursday at Georges P. Vanier Junior High School, a dozen adolescent boys assemble in an unused classroom. They gather around a large table, doing their best to ignore the girl power posters and sparkles that cover the walls. After all, they’re there to talk about what it means to be a man.
Middle school health classes usually have a segment on sex education, which for most adults conjures awkward memories of studying the female anatomy and putting a condom on a banana. Wiseguyz, a nonprofit based in Calgary, Alberta, is working to broaden what “sex ed” can teach youth — specifically, boys between the ages of 13 and 15. Their participants instead talk about weighty issues like masculinity and the hyper-sexualized portrayal of women in media.
When these teens first gathered in October 2014, there was a lot of nervous laughter. Comments and questions were sometimes couched in bravado or sarcasm. Program creator Blake Spence used the first few weeks, as he does each year, for the boys to get to know each other and, in his words, “create a safe space.” Before long, the giggling gave way to critical discussion.
“We laugh with each other and we’re always joking around about stuff,” said Will, a current participant. “But when things need to be serious, they’re serious. We have a little rule: What happens in WiseGuyz stays in WiseGuyz — so whatever happens in there, we always have to keep it to ourselves.”
WiseGuyz is built on four modules, which take from October to May to complete. Instead of focusing only on the physical basics of sex, participants talk about human rights, sexual health, gender, and healthy relationships. Within those broad topics is plenty of conversation around pornography, consent, homophobia, sexual violence, and emotional abuse.
WiseGuyz is part of a nascent trend toward programs that go beyond physiology to often overlooked issues, like how to have a healthy relationship and how culture shapes our ideas around sex. It was developed five years ago, when staff at the Calgary Sexual Health Centre noticed that the rate of teen pregnancies was going down but sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among teen boys was rising. Boys, research revealed, were more likely to engage in high-risk behavior and less likely to protect themselves.
The center enlisted Blake Spence to create a program for boys to address this. Spence was already the Centre’s Community Education Coordinator and he’d also worked there in its peer education program. But perhaps most importantly, he’d been a 14-year-old boy — confused, eager for information, and wishing he’d had a mentor-type program.”
Continue reading about this fascinating program.