TEDxUCLA 2012: Open

The UCLA Sex Squad


About David

David Gere, Ph.D., is director of the UCLA Art & Global Health Center and is a professor in the Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance, where he teaches courses in arts activism. In 2004, Gere founded MAKE ART/STOP AIDS, an international network of artists intervening in the AIDS epidemic, and since 2007 has co-directed Through Positive Eyes, an internationally recognized participatory photography project created by people living with HIV and AIDS.


I’m going to start out by telling you something that will absolutely shock you. Across the United States of America, teenagers are having sex. (laughter) I take that as confirmation of my theory.

Now, the truth is I didn’t even have to get that confirmation from you because I did already know, and I knew because the U.S. government told me so. For real. And the organ of government, forgive the use of the term, that gives us this information is the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta commissions a survey which they call the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, YRBS for short, people in the public health world know it by its, its acronym. And they do this every two years in major cities, in the public schools, this survey.

The new information is out. I just checked it last night online. 2011 is in. And here’s the information from Los Angeles: the percentage of high school students in the city of Los Angeles, in the public schools, who are sexually active is 40 percent. Of that number, the percentage who drank or did drugs before they had sex the last time, 20 percent.

And the number, this one actually really scares me. The number who did not use a condom in their last sexual encounter, 40 percent.

Hmm. Mission control, we have a problem.

Now, there are a couple of ways to look at this, and one of the ways to look at it is to say that the sex is the problem, and it’s what I would call the moralistic view. And I’m going to say at the outset, I have nothing against the moralistic view. I think it’s appropriate for parents, for example, or for people in houses of worship to have opinions about whether teenagers should have sex or not before they’re married. Fair enough. I don’t have any issue with that.

But the problem with the moralistic view is that it leads usually in just one direction, and that is the direction of saying, “Oh my God, we’ve got to stop this sex. And the best way to stop it is to teach abstinence-only health education.”

Well, you know, on the surface, that looks like a perfectly reasonable approach to take. If you think that too much sex is happening for whatever reason, or if you think it’s dangerous because of drugs, alcohol, and no condoms, you know, fair enough.

But here’s the issue. We tried that abstinence-only approach. I see some heads nodding because you remember. It was under George W. Bush, it was governmental policy during his eight years. It was true of health education at the school level, it was also true internationally, that we wouldn’t give grants to organizations that were teaching about condom use, for example. Instead, they had to take a predominantly abstinence-only approach or we wouldn’t give them money. We tried that approach and it didn’t work.

There are so many studies, I can’t even tell you, the great preponderance of those studies shows that people still had the same amount of sex. Surprise, surprise. The only difference was that they became more secretive about it. And you know, if you’re secretive about something that means that there’s no way for public health people to intervene because it goes underground. So that’s the moralistic view.

The other potential view is one that I would term the realistic view. We have the figures in the city of Los Angeles, 40 percent of high school students sexually active. Okay, now what? And the “now what” that I would propose is that we start thinking about how to guide young people in their choices so that they feel like this is a healthy integration of sexuality into their lives.

And I use the word “healthy” because it’s a word that I have all kinds of positive associations with and I hope you do, too. I mean, it is the thing that we seek, isn’t it? It’s healthfulness, it’s the sense of roundedness, a sense of humanness. And in essence, what could be more human than sexuality? Because how do you think we all got here anyway? Yeah, it’s one of the best parts of life.

So how can we teach about it in a way that gets across that point? The UCLA Sex Squad — please titter away! It’s a youth organization formed right here on this campus of committed arts activists who are here for only one purpose, that is to participate in that realistic, comprehensive sexual health education approach.

And they do so so beautifully because they bring to it their love of humanity, their love of each other, their interest in the subject. Who is not interested in the subject? Yeah. And they managed to bring all this together in a way that is ultimately so beautifully creative and so effective.

Now, I want to talk a little bit about where the idea of the Sex Squad came from. There was a moment, it was just a few years ago, when the Art and Global Health Center, which I direct here at UCLA, organized an exhibition, and it was an exhibition called MAKE ART/STOP AIDS. We brought together works of art from Brazil, from South Africa, from India, from the United States. All this work was shown together at the Fowler Museum right here on this campus.

And as part of the program, the really wonderful education folks at the Fowler brought huge numbers of high school students to come and see the show. And not only would they bring them in to see the show, but they provided docents — that is, you know, the people who show you around the museum — who were about the same age as the high school students. Just near peers, I’ll call them. College students here at UCLA.

In addition to just simply showing them around the exhibition, however, they developed a series of activities that were, you know, small-scale activities that they could share with the students that sometimes involved art making, which for me is the ultimate way to think something through, because as you’re making something, you’re processing information.

So they did this and, you know, it looked fantastic to us who had organized it, we were delighted and then it was over.

Many months later, one of the graduate students who had assisted in producing this program had occasion to go back to one of the high schools from which the students had come. She went for a different purpose. But just by way of introducing herself, she said, “Oh, by the way, I was involved with that. MAKE ART/STOP AIDS exhibition that you saw, some of you saw at UCLA last year.”

“I remember that! That was that exhibition where when you came in the door, there was this human figure. It was made up of pill bottles and yeah, those pill bottles were collected by those two men, those two gay men in San Francisco who had been on treatment for more than 20 years.”

“Oh, I remember that exhibition! That’s the one that had those really amazing — what did they call it? — condom couture dresses, dresses made entirely of multicolored condoms. They were so funny and so sexy.”

“Oh, I remember that exhibition! That’s the one where there was this photograph. It was a South African woman and her two children and her two children were sitting on her lap and it almost looked like a religious picture. And then we learned after we, we saw the picture that that mother and her two children had all died within six months because they didn’t have access to the same medications that we have in the U.S.”

Light bulb moment. The light bulb moment for me, and for all the good people I work with in the Arctic Global Health Center, was that all of that stuff had stuck.

And I don’t know, this particular talk is requiring all of us in the room, including myself, to go back to being a teenager, if you’re not still. Do you remember holding onto anything in your mind for six months? I mean, really?

So the fact that that much time had gone by, and there was that kind of depth and detail of recall, was something we had to take note of. And we began to think, “Oh my God, we’ve got some extraordinary power here in the idea of artworks, whether they be visual artworks or performing artworks related to comprehensive sexual health, because primarily, first and foremost, they are so incredibly memorable.”

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the UCLA Sexophonic Choir, here to teach you the five fluids of HIV transmission.


Blood. Blood. Blood.

Breast milk. Breast milk.


Breast milk. Breast milk.

Pre pre pre precum. Pre pre pre precum.


Breast milk.

Pre pre pre precum.

Breast milk.

Pre pre pre precum.

Breast milk.

Pre pre pre precum.

Vaginal fluid. Vaginal fluid.

Breast milk.

Pre pre pre precum.

Semen! Semen!

Ladies and gentlemen, this is Bobby Gordon, who is the very out-of-breath director of special programs at the Art and Global Health Center and the director of the UCLA Sex Squad.

Bobby: As you can tell, we always take ourselves very seriously in the UCLA Sex Squad. I can’t even keep a straight face about that for one second, even out of breath. We have a sense of humor about sex. You have to if you’re going to talk about it. Does anyone remember an awkward conversation with a health teacher or a parent? Okay, so this is.

Raise your hands. Come on.

Bobby: In other words, how many of you have hair? So sex is taboo to talk about. We get nervous. We get frightened. We get scared. And what happens when you’re nervous and frightened and scared? What happens in your body? Your shoulders go up. You clench your butt. You clench your jaw. You stop breathing. I’m trying to breathe again.

Bobby: But what can you do in that moment? When no air can get in, no air can get out. No ideas can get in, no ideas can get out. That fear shuts you down and it silences you.

Bobby: So what can you do? How can you talk about sex if you’re so afraid of it that you’re shut down, and the people around you are making you afraid of it?

Bobby: Now Peter Dircase is a South African performance artist, and he came to UCLA and he sparked an idea, and he actually sparked the very first UCLA Sex Squad with this idea, that laughter is powerful. It’s not frivolous.

Bobby: There is an amazing potential when you laugh, because what happens, right? You’re tense and you breathe out. You’re in the room. You see oh, these people here. Oh, cool. I can talk with them and I can learn from them. New ideas can get in and ideas can get out. And finally, it becomes possible to talk about the thing that was shutting you down. It’s an amazing concept. We like laughing, so why not laugh?

Bobby: Now, the amazing thing is that we also remember this thing. We remember these things better when we’re laughing, because if you’re in high school and you’re walking down the halls and you hear:

Semen! semen!

Bobby: Or:

Breast milk.

Bobby: We’ll try that one again. Or:

Breast milk. Vaginal fluid. Pre pre pre precum.

Bobby: You’re gonna remember it. And one of my favorite anecdotes actually from, from our recent tour of Los Angeles high schools, this principal told me, red in the face, blushing so profusely, she told me a story of a week after the show, all of the students walking through the halls of the high school chanting out:

Blood. Breast milk. Vaginal fluid. Pre pre pre precum. Semen! Semen!

Bobby: And while it might be a little bit uncomfortable for the teachers to hear all day long, those students, those students remember the five fluids of HIV transmission.

No kidding. And I for one who didn’t necessarily know that breast milk was one of the infectious fluids — maybe you were in that same camp? — we’ll never forget that and perhaps you won’t either.

Breast milk.

All right. So what do we do with all these concepts? What we tried to do was to build them into a larger program that we thought could be supremely effective. And we were using a theoretical basis here to do it, whereby we combined three approaches: We called the program, we did that classic public health and we gave it an acronym, it’s called AMP, A-M-P: Arts-based, because it’s memorable; M because it’s Multiple intervention; and P because it’s Peer education or near peer education.

We put those three things together, we worked with the L.A. Unified School District very closely and with Tim Kordic who’s the wonderful head of the HIV/AIDS Prevention Unit at LAUSD. Did you know that they had one? They do, and he’s the guy.

We put all of that together and we developed the program, which we’ve piloted now and we’ve tested. And I wanted to just give you a short sense of the effectiveness of the program.

First off, we saw a 50 percent uptick in compassion toward people living with HIV, in part that was because we included an HIV-positive speaker in the program. We had a 100 percent uptick in the number of students who said they would correct a myth. If they heard an HIV or sexual health myth amongst their friends, they would correct it. 130 percent said that they knew now — this is an uptick, not 130 percent, but is an improvement of 130 percent — and the students who said that they now know where to go to get an HIV or AIDS test.

But the kicker, the most important statistic for us that’s led to future work is that four times more students who were sexually active made the choice to go and get tested for HIV. That was behavior change. Behavior change is very rare to come across in intervention work, and so when we saw that, we said, “We’re onto something. What can we do with it?”

Bobby: And I went with those results to a conference sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control. And I met a woman from the U.S. South who looked at our approach and looked at our numbers and said, “You need to come to the U.S. South. It’s the frontline for HIV. The infection rates are skyrocketing and people aren’t talking about sex. We need to open these urgent conversations.”

Bobby: And so, in collaboration with people at the University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill, and in collaboration with people at Emory University in Atlanta, this January, just a few months away, we’re launching Sex Ed Squads and in those two southern states. So it’s not just something those Californians are doing, but all across the country we’re starting to have the conversations about sex that we need to have.

And we’re even taking this as far away as Malawi, where we’ve found that this is potentially so culturally adaptable because it’s made by the students in the group. So the Malawian students will make material that works for them in the same way that UCLA students make material that works for students here in LA.

Bobby: And one of the really powerful parts of this program is that, you know, as wonderful as these students are, and I think we can all agree that they’re amazing, they’re not professional actors. They’re not doctors. They’re not public health professionals. They’re students going through their own lives and sitting with their own questions and battling, trying to figure out what they think about all these things.

Bobby: And they’re coming into the high schools with those questions and they’re sharing those questions in their art. And so it’s a big risk that we’re asking high school students to make, to talk about sex. To think about sex. These college students are taking that risk right alongside them. It’s a big risk to think about transforming the way that you think about yourself as a sexual being or your sexuality or any of these topics about sex. It’s scary. These students are going through their own process of transformation.

Bobby: You know, we came together as a group, God, just a few short weeks ago in September. And in that time there’s been a lot of laughter, there’s been a lot of learning, there’s been a lot of tears, and there’s been a lot of change in who we are, and who we think we are, and who we say we are.

Bobby: And because of that, when these students go into the high schools, they’re not just telling the high school students, “Here, you should think, you should think differently or you should open your minds.” They’re doing it, they’re doing it themselves. And there’s something really powerful ethically about going into a community and taking the exact same risks — risks, excuse me — risks that you’re asking the community to take.

Bobby: And I want to just applaud these students for all of their bravery that they show. Not the least of which is coming into a giant crowd of people in their underwear and singing out the five fluids of HIV.

And you know, we have a ritual when we convene the Sex Squad for workshops and we’re going to do that now for closing out the workshop.

David and Bobby: Sex Squad, how you feelin’?