By Erica Houskeeper
In the era of #MeToo, Tianrae Chu is committed to helping teens establish healthy attitudes about sex.
By leading conversations about relationship boundaries and sexual consent at The Junction Youth Center in Lebanon, N.H., Chu wants teenagers to rethink unrealistic and harmful beliefs about sex.
Chu, a Schweitzer Fellow and medical student at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, says the inspiration for his Fellowship project came from the national discussion about sexual assault and the #MeToo movement. He also believes more men should be speaking up and mentoring young people on the subject of sexual behavior.
“When I was thinking about this project, I was dissatisfied that there weren’t enough male voices in #MeToo,” he says. “Young men especially would benefit from being able to see men join the discussion.”
With help from his project mentor, Dr. Paul Manganiello, Chu initially wanted to better understand how pornography is shaping young people’s understanding of sex and relationships, and how there is a need to engage youth in these conversations.
However, after spending time with teens at The Junction, Chu adjusted his project’s original concept to focus more on sexual consent and boundaries rather than solely pornography.
“The evolution of my project surprised me. The initial recognition was that pornography is a major unaddressed issue,” he says. “But as I spent time volunteering at the center, built relationships with teens, and conducted a formal survey to assess their real needs in terms of sexual health and education, it became clear that the greatest need was to address consent and relationship boundaries. This wasn’t all that different, but I had to reframe my approach.”
The evolution of his project helped Chu understand that the most effective community service is about meeting a community’s needs. By partnering with The Junction, Chu figured out what he could offer to help support the community.
“I learned that community service needs to be done with the community’s needs first. It’s a bit cliché, but absolutely true. By partnering with The Junction, I saw that they are already doing the work and know the target population of teens better than me. They already exist in the community as a safe, substance-free space for teens to hang out and develop healthy mentor relationships and acquire some useful life skills,” he says. “It was important to spend time with the target population to understand them and their needs, and not the ones I might have presumed.”
As part of his project, Chu recently organized an event at a local television studio for teens to share personal stories about consent and boundaries. The testimonials were recorded, and Chu hopes to share the video with a broader community of teens in the area to continue the discussion in other circles.
In the video, Chu says teens were honest about instances in which people would not take “no” for an answer, both on social media and in person. Teens also described ways to read cues from someone who isn’t reciprocating interest and how to respect that boundary. Some also shared that pornography is how they are learning about sex.
“An immediate impact of this discussion came from teens educating each other. Hearing other perspectives, some young men admitted that they had not realized how hard some women found it to say ‘no.’ They had not fully considered the pressure of going along with things in a relationship or in intimate situations,” he says.
Moving forward, Chu hopes the relationship he has established with the community through The Junction becomes a sustainable partnership between the medical school and the center. He’s confident that will happen, sinceother Dartmouth medical students are planning to work with the center and are developing workshops on a variety of sexual health topics for teens.
Ultimately, Chu hopes that promoting positive relationship dynamics will have a lasting effect and help counteract the impact that using pornography—a practice common among teens—has on shaping sexual attitudes and behaviors.
“Rarely are young people engaged in conversations about porn, which means unrealistic and unhealthy beliefs about sex and relationships can persist if they go unchecked,” Chu says. “Porn is fantasy, which certainly has a place. But it’s obviously not the most reliable educator on contraception, realistic body image, boundaries, and consent.”