FOXY has just launched SMASH, its sexual health program for young men. Here’s our piece on their development of the program, first published in November of 2015:
In its three years of programming and annual summer leader retreats, the award-winning research project known as FOXY has already reached 800 girls and young women across the Northwest Territories with arts-based sexual health programming.
But as Fostering Open eXpression among Youth plans to use its recent $1-million Arctic Inspiration Prize award to expand into Yukon and Nunavut, organizers are intent on ensuring the other half of the population isn’t left behind.
“We always knew that we’d need a program for boys, but we had to start somewhere,” said Nancy MacNeill, FOXY project coordinator. “When you’re teaching about healthy relationships, you can be twice as effective if you reach everybody, and everyone deserves good information about sex.”
The problem is, MacNeill said she isn’t, and has never been, a young man. That’s why she and fellow project coordinator Candice Lys have decided to roll out a series of male-led focus groups across the territory over the next several months, asking men of all ages what they want out of a sexual health program for boys.
Last week, the crew led a focus group while in Fort Smith to deliver regular FOXY programming to young women at the community’s high school — the first concrete step toward developing a boys’ program since beginning the conversation last summer in Yellowknife.
There, they heard from some 30 teenage boys during an afternoon session and followed up with a community group in the evening, where over a dozen parents, educators and youth came out to add their thoughts on what a FOXY program for boys should look like.
“We’re aiming to keep it an arts-based, sexual health program, but it can’t just be copy-pasted; it has to be customized,” MacNeill told participants. “We use the arts to create a safe space, and as a direct teaching method.”
Though still early in the planning process, it’s possible the boys’ program could look quite different from the original for girls, said MacNeill. For instance, while the girls’ program uses visual arts and drama, a boys’ program could potentially involve activities like games and comedy.
But regardless of the medium, Lys said any FOXY program will use the activities as learning opportunities to discuss tough issues “frequently, openly and directly.”
The FOXY-for-boys focus groups are now heading around the territory, piggy-backing on the regularly scheduled girls’ programs in the communities. Between now and March 31, folks in Behchoko, Norman Wells, Inuvik, Fort Providence, Hay River and Fort Simpson will have a chance to weigh in on the parallel program.
By next summer, MacNeill said there will be a pilot retreat for the young men of the NWT, followed by annual sessions for them, as well, across the North.
“And once the program is done, we’ll all travel together,” she said.
Beyond birds and bees
Though sex ed has come a long way since Nancy’s father Keith MacNeill was handed a book on the birds and bees some “150 million years ago” in high school, the curriculum is still lacking when it comes to teaching young people the skills they need to be healthy.
“Things haven’t really changed that much. Although young people do get honest and open education, if it teaches them about disease and anatomy, it still doesn’t really teach them about how to have healthy relationships and to protect yourself at the same time,” he said. “There’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s still missing, and I’ve been really impressed with how the FOXY program has addressed those gaps and think it’s every bit as important for young men to hear that as young women.”
Peripherally involved in FOXY over the years as everything from chauffeur to sounding board, Keith recently stepped into a role as facilitator of the focus groups working toward establishing the parallel boys’ program.
“What’s become very clear is the work they’re doing with the girls is incredibly valuable, but the mission kind of can’t be completed unless everybody gets to participate in that,” he said. “Clearly, a lot of the issues that girls and women deal with have a lot to do with boys and men, and I’ve also sort of always believed that men have work to do just as much, or more in fact, than women in eradicating some of the problems that are caused by sexism and how society treats the genders differently.”
Those issues came up over and over in the primary focus groups: observations on how the well-intentioned but damaging adage of “be a man” impacts boys’ decision making and confidence; how men aren’t taught important lessons about consent; and how popular culture, pornography, drugs and alcohol fit into the picture.
“Society lays on such expectations for everybody, so how do you maintain your own individuality? How do you have the courage to stick up for yourself? How do you have the courage to say when you think something is wrong?” Keith MacNeill said.
“Growing up is tough enough without all the baggage that everybody lays on, and people aren’t necessarily given the tools. I mentioned the word ‘courage’; people aren’t given the tools to have that courage, to be brave enough to first of all identify what it is that they want, and then to stand up in the face of social pressure.”
It’s his hope that, beyond a solid sexual health foundation, a FOXY for boys program will provide these basic tools to young men and ultimately create stronger families and communities in the North.
“I think people need to have the knowledge to make healthy decisions and the courage to stick by them. That’s what I hope for, is that if more young people can get that kind of support — and it applies to women and men equally — that could really help to solve the cyclical, generational problems that hold people back so much,” he said.
“That’s really an altruistic thing to say, but at the same time, every individual who is helped, who can prevent an unhealthy or harmful situation from happening, is a way out of those cycles of poverty and violence and abuse and despair. So every one thing that you can do for one person, that turns that in a healthier, more positive direction, is a little bit of a victory.”