PRICE, UT — Des Childs really wanted to win sex ed trivia. She quickly picked her response to each question on her phone, and then her eyes darted to the TV screen, scanning to see if she had earned enough points to stay atop the leaderboard.
When should condoms be used? What’s the best way to prevent pregnancy and STIs? What is sexual consent? What’s the first step to safer sex? What STI is not curable? What is PrEP? How about a dental dam?
Utah doesn’t allow its teachers to discuss the answers to many questions like these, so Childs and a group of teens in Price have taken it upon themselves to become sex education experts outside the classroom, and share what they’ve learned with their rural community.
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They are members of the Eastern Utah Teen Council, which nurse practitioner Danielle Howa Pendergrass and educator Tomi Lasley launched in March 2021. The six teens have discussed various topics with Howa Pendergrass and Lasley each week, including what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like, contraception, anatomy, sexually transmitted infections, HIV and the stigma surrounding it, and queer and transgender issues.
“If the state of Utah isn’t going to step up and do all-inclusive education on sexual health, then we need to fill in the gaps somewhere,” Howa Pendergrass said. “And what a better way to fill it in [than] with where the teens go to get their information” — from other teens.
The sex ed trivia game was part of the council’s graduation party last month. Childs, who’s 18, cheered and laughed with the other council members after each correct answer, as they finished snacking on Taco Bell while wearing fancy dresses.
When she first started talking with peers about what she had learned, Childs said, “it was a little awkward … especially living in Utah, it’s sort of like, ‘Don’t talk about it; don’t say anything.’”
Now, she finds it “exhilarating” to present at local events and chat with people. And if she overhears someone say something that’s incorrect, she said, she’s comfortable jumping in and explaining, “Oh, actually, it’s like this […].”
“These teens are just nonjudgmental,” Howa Pendergrass said, “really open and knowledgeable, giving [peers] accurate information and ways to go home and talk with their parents or trusted adults or their partners.”
The topic of consent is at the forefront of everything the teen council does, but it’s one that specifically cannot be taught in Utah schools — despite efforts by a state lawmaker in recent years.
That’s “very frustrating,” Childs said, because, for her, “consent is the most important topic” that she and her friends talk about. “Consent doesn’t have to mean sexual things,” she said. “It can just be respecting your own and each other’s bodies.”
It’s possible sex ed could look different in the Beehive State someday, Howa Pendergrass said. “But I can’t wait around for Utah to change.”
In the meantime, Howa Pendergrass hopes that “maybe 10, 20 years from now we’re having different conversations because of this program.”
‘Real sex ed’
After opening the Eastern Utah Women’s Health clinic in Price almost a decade ago, Howa Pendergrass dreamed of starting a “real sex ed” program for her community. So many parents come to her, she said, asking her to teach their children the practical information they need, “not the stuff that they get in the schools.”
And Howa Pendergrass has noticed that sometimes the parents need more education, too.
“It’s kind of interesting to see women in their 30s and 40s,” she said, “who don’t know what an orgasm is, or have never had that, or don’t have the verbiage for refusal skills, or like to navigate […] what they want or don’t want.”
So, Howa Pendergrass teamed up with Lasley. The two had met running events at Utah State University Eastern in Price, where Lasley was involved with the Students United for Reproductive Freedom Club and the Queer Resource Center. They got funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and chose to use Planned Parenthood’s Teen Council curriculum.
To find the first cohort of teens, Howa Pendergrass called her patients who were between ages 15 and 18. Before joining the group, Childs knew “little to nothing” about sex education, she said. Lasley had a similar experience growing up in Carbon County.
“We got told about what the STIs are, not how they’re transmitted. We didn’t get told any information outside of, ‘These are the things that can happen. We’re not going to tell you how they happened or how to stop them,’” Lasley said. “‘Basically, have sex, you’re going to get pregnant and die.’”
As a queer kid, Lasley also “didn’t know lesbians could get STIs. I didn’t know that birth control was used for anything other than preventing birth. Nobody gave me any queer-affirming information.” Instead, Lasley had to find all of that out on their own.
The teen council members “come to meetings telling me all of the things that they didn’t learn and all of the things that they learned wrong,” Lasley said. “So, it’s a bit of a challenge trying to not only combat the stigma surrounding it and the culture surrounding it, but a lot of misinformation, as well.”
At each meeting, the members share how many informal conversations they had surrounding sex that week. “Some people, it’s two or three,” Lasley said. “Some people are extreme overachievers, and they have like 60 conversations in one week.”
Between the meetings and workshops they hold, it’s a “strong commitment” to join the Eastern Utah Teen Council, Howa Pendergrass said. So, the six teens involved in the first year each received a $200 stipend for their work.
“Every single one of them has kind of stepped into their power,” Howa Pendergrass said, going from “being scared and not knowing things and not sure if they could do it, to really being super confident and knowledgeable.”
Childs said that the teen council has become her “ultimate passion.”
“It just started to impact every aspect of my life so positively,” she said. “I just started to become more comfortable in my own body as I started to learn about it, and in my relationships, too.”
‘We don’t understand boundaries and consent’
The Eastern Utah Teen Council isn’t the only group working to teach comprehensive sex education outside the state’s classrooms. There are three other teen councils in the state — one in Summit and Wasatch counties and two in Salt Lake County.
At the end of May, the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Rape Recovery Center and other organizations hosted a summit in Salt Lake City for high schoolers about consent and healthy relationships.
This was a youth-led conference, with teens giving presentations with help from a mentor, said Juanita Escareno, one of the organizers. They also talked about how to help people who have been sexually assaulted and ways to break the cycles of rape culture and victim blaming, said Nick Arteaga, prevention coordinator for Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Sexually transmitted infections are rising in the Beehive State. And Utah’s rape rate has been consistently higher than the U.S. average, according to the Utah Department of Health — with even that statistic considered an underestimate, since rape is an underreported crime.
“Generally, it just kind of shows that we don’t understand boundaries and consent,” said Arteaga, which is why it’s important to teach Utahns when they’re young.
After moving to Utah, Escareno said, she realized that she learned more about sex education from her teacher in a small Wyoming town than students do here.
“Utah is really behind when it comes to sex education,” Escareno said, “when it comes to teaching the youth about contraception and pregnancy and what happens to a woman during pregnancy, like what happens to their bodies.”
McCall James, an alum of the Salt Lake City Teen Council, “grew up in a pretty liberal household,” she said, but talking about sex with her parents “still felt a little taboo.”
Her mother, Jill James, said that by joining the council, her daughter “brought sex ed into our house and opened the door for us to talk about things more intimately.”
The experience led Jill James to tell her daughter something she had never shared with her before.
“We went for a walk around our block,” said McCall James, who’s now 26, tearing up as she remembered that moment with her mom. “[...] And she said, ‘You know, years prior, I had an abortion in Salt Lake City.’ And it made me feel like what I was doing with teen council was important.”
The experience was so “life-changing,” she said, that McCall went on to teach sex education with the Peace Corps, and now she’s getting her master’s degree in public health, with a focus on sexual reproductive health.
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, said she’s glad there are organizations where young Utahns can learn about consent and related topics. Still, she added, “it needs to be in the schools, too,” so as many kids can learn about this information as possible.
A couple of years later, Spackman Moss proposed a bill for students to learn about consent as part of their health education. The bill failed — despite Spackman Moss’s efforts to reach a compromise by removing “consent” from the language.
Spackman Moss tried again during the latest legislative session, emphasizing that her motivation was to protect students against sexual assault and give them resources they need to stay safe.
While some critics argued that parents should be the ones to teach this information to their children, Spackman Moss said it’s important for students to also be able to learn this at school.
Her second attempt didn’t pass, either, but Spackman Moss said she plans to run a similar bill next session.
‘I made a difference’
Over the past year, there were times when members of the Eastern Utah Teen Council hosted events in Carbon and Emery counties and no one showed up, Lasley said. They were ready, though, if someone did. And they hope that, as time goes on, more people will know about the council and what its members do.
Last month, 16-year-old T’Kiah McArthur and other members were at a booth at an outdoor market in Helper. Some teenage boys walked by, and most of them made jokes about sex ed, said McArthur, who uses they/them pronouns.
But one of the boys commented, “This is cool,” and said he was glad the teen council was there.
Thinking back to that moment while at the graduation party, McArthur smiled and raised a fist in the air, happy that they had made a connection, even with just one of the boys.
McArthur celebrated all that they had done that year, eating cake and taking turns signing yearbooks that Lasley had printed out for them. They laughed about how McArthur’s green dress left glitter everywhere they walked. The teens put on silly glasses and took selfies together in front of the dinosaur decorations they set up.
Childs said she plans to work at the Utah Women’s Health Clinic and get involved with the Students United for Reproductive Freedom club at USU Eastern. Howa Pendergrass said she is excited to see their knowledge “trickle down” to future generations.
“I don’t think these teens actually understand the gravity of what they’re doing,” she said. “And I hope that they can look back on this and be like, ‘Wow, I made a difference.’”
Lasley added, “It’s our dream to grow the program to more rural areas,” such as Moab and Blanding. They hope their work serves a model that others can replicate.
“The entire state, pretty much every county,” Lasley said, “would benefit from having at least one teen council.”