Opening Uncomfortable Conversations: Inside Sexual Health Advocates (SHAs)

Courtesy of @swatsexualhealthadvocates on Instagram

Every Sunday afternoon, Swarthmore College’s Sexual Health Advocates (SHAs) gather to plan events and have discussions surrounding safer sex, sexuality, and pleasure. 

According to the club’s mission statement, SHAs aim to empower students “to be able to make informed decisions about their sexual health free from shame, guilt, and judgment through conversations, inviting speakers, and interactive events.”

The Phoenix spoke to several members of the SHA executive board about their experiences with the program.

“The biggest support that SHAs provide is a knowledge base to draw on. We’re an organization that you can talk with and learn more about sexualities,” said Caleb Kim ’26.

Ray Craig ’24 highlighted that the vast majority of SHA events are discussion-based, engaging students in open conversations about various topics related to sex, intimate relationships, sexual health, sexuality, and gender.

“We’re trying to create space for people to learn more or share what they know — or a combination of both.”

When asked what motivated them to become SHAs, club members shared a variety of stories. Zoe Sperduto ’26 expressed that upon her arrival at Swarthmore, she was keen on engaging with a community focused on LGBTQ+ topics, which aligns closely with the work of the SHAs.

“I knew I wanted to be involved with a group that worked on LGBTQ+ topics, which is not all that SHAs do, but is a big part. And I really enjoyed going to SHA events my first semester and found, sort of unexpectedly to me, that the Sexual Health Advocates is a great place to find a queer community.”

Jai Perez ’27 shared that they were first introduced to the club during the Discover Swarthmore Fly-In Program. 

“My host was an executive board member, and I remember walking into her dorm, and she had a big bag of condoms,” Perez said. “Then she told me that they were hosting De-Spookifying Sex last fall, and I just thought it was really exciting that a group of people were talking about sex and making the information and resources more accessible.”

In contrast, Emily Dong ’27, who joined the club earlier this semester, discovered her interest in sexual health academic education through academic courses.

“I took an Intro to Gender and Sexualities class last semester, which kickstarted my interest in gender and sexualities,” Dong said. “I got more interested in how this field would interrelate with the everyday world, and especially how this [field] would play into the campus community culture. So, I thought that becoming a SHA would be a really good opportunity for me to see how this would connect.”

Being a collective of volunteer students, SHAs are the only health-related club the administration does not have purview over. This independence allows SHAs to pursue their own initiatives and projects, tailoring them more closely to the needs and interests of the student body. 

“I can plan any event I want. If there is ever a topic somewhat related to sexual health that other SHAs or I are interested in, we have the resources to bring people to campus to run those events and talk about it — or even run them ourselves,” Sperduto said. “It is very easy to make your dream a reality.”

Kim empathized that, beyond the activities and events, another enriching aspect of the club is the opportunity to converse with fellow members. 

“I only had one health class in middle school — and that was it. So it was really nice to be able to expand my mind in terms of things that I thought I knew or had no experience with,” he said. “We’re all learning together and growing to be a better student resource.”

Craig pointed out that he genuinely enjoys engaging in conversations with fellow students, highlighting that SHAs are just other students who share a profound interest in sexual health education and have dedicated some extra time to learning more about the topic. 

“Oftentimes, it is nice to have SHAs function like an uninvolved third party you can go to for advice. We all know what it’s like to have that kind of friend you can go to, and I like to think of SHAs as playing that role for people sometimes,” he said.

Kim and Sperduto stressed that many students enter college feeling uncomfortable talking about sex, and organizing events and initiatives centered around sexual health awareness — such as sex toy bingo — can help normalize discussions about the topic and make students feel more comfortable toward openly addressing sexual health. 

“Even if they are not necessarily talking about it with us, like with their partners or friends, it is just by having the events [that we] open more room for conversation,” Kim said.

Funding is one of the club’s current challenges. Specifically, Sperduto shared that it can be difficult for SHAs to justify why they need money to plan events that the Worth Health Center or the SWELL team could organize. 

“I think every club has experienced this: it’s hard to get club funding. There’s just not enough money in the Student Activities Fund for all the activities happening on campus,” she said, “But there is something important I think about having an independent student group that’s able to plan events without administrative oversight in them.” 

Perez was really excited about the club’s new initiative: SHA Book Club. This semester, they are reading “Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens on Our Sex-Obsessed Culture” and just had their first meeting to discuss the text. Though the group is small, Perez enjoyed the meeting. They recall how they talked about the social aspects of asexuality stigmatization and the ways it plays into the perception of sex. They also highlighted that people often assume that SHAs are enforcing sexuality, while the club members do not want to give off the impression that they do. 

“I think that by reading this book, we can be more considerate of asexual people and their sexuality and how it relates to sexual health,” they said.

Furthermore, the club frequently holds collaborations with the Worth Health Center, SWELL, and other organizations and student clubs. Recently, SHAs collaborated with Crumb Cafe to serve sugar cookies as part of the second annual Body Liberation Week. 

“I am hoping that we can continue doing that [collaborating with Crumb Cafe] because it was really fun, didn’t require a lot of budgeting, and really helped to get the SHAs’ name out,” Kim shared. 

While SHAs may not currently have the resources to make this happen, they would like to organize a multi-day conference where college sex education groups could gather. 

“A multi-day conference for other college sex education groups to come together here, listen to high-profile speakers, and do workshops together would be a dream. I don’t think we necessarily have the capacity for that right now, but we’d love to see that,” Sperduto shared.

When asked about the club’s plans, Sperduto shared that the primary aim is to align activities with current member interests. 

“Being a student organization, the goals and values will naturally change every four years as you cycle through student members. A primary overarching goal is to do what our members are interested in at the moment. If we have members who are very passionate about planning an event related to asexuality, then we’re going to make that event happen that semester because there’s energy for that now,” she said. 

Furthermore, SHAs will be transferring their responsibility of supplying residential spaces with safer sex items to the Worth Health Center, and, as a result, SHAs will be able to focus more on community-building and hosting training sessions.

“Dorm supplying has taken up so much of our time and energy, although I hope it won’t in the future. We have more trainings now, and I think there’s something especially satisfying about them,” Sperduto shared. “We had a training last fall semester with some student members of the SWELL team, so it was only students in the room doing a training about STIs, common STI symptoms and treatments, and just baseline knowledge [that is] healthy for us to have — and that just felt so great.”

Typically, recruitment for new club members occurs at the start of each semester, with the Worth Health Center emailing application forms to the student body. However, Craig emphasized that they welcome SHAs to join at any time — in fact, just this year, several students joined the club midway through the semester. He also mentioned that students should not be afraid of the application process; the form focuses on ensuring that the values of the prospective club members align with those of the club rather than testing their existing knowledge. 

“You’re not expected to know everything. You’re just expected to want to know and have the desire to learn. We do trainings; if you feel like your knowledge is lacking somewhere, you can talk to the executive board — and we’ll plan a training or bring in an outside speaker if we don’t know something ourselves,” Sperduto said.

“Keeping an open mind and being friendly are the only two things you need to become a SHA — and the knowledge and experience [will] naturally follow as you go to more and more meetings,” Kim said. “We’re very informal, we’re very casual — we’re just having a fun time. So, even if the conversations are uncomfortable, I think I enjoyed learning from different perspectives and experiences, and I have grown a lot and learned a lot by being here. If you want that kind of thing — we are the club for you.”

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