How Sesame Street-style puppets are making sex talks easier in rural N.S.

The scenario is familiar to many teenagers in Nova Scotia — things get out of hand at a field party and after too much alcohol someone starts recording on their phone.

But instead of a dry or awkward discussion, the Sexual Health Centre for Cumberland County in Amherst, N.S., is reaching for puppets to talk about sharing intimate images without consent.

It turns out felt-covered characters with big mouths and unfiltered emotions often succeed in ways lectures or brochures don't, by enticing young people to open up about sexual health and subjects that often come with plenty of stigma. 

"We use them to reduce anxiety on a topic that can create a significant amount of anxiety," said Rene Ross, the centre's executive director and a certified sexual health educator.

"We're able to really get right in the face of stigma and really challenge it … I don't think that we would have the same effect if we did it with humans." 

She said she often encounters discomfort — from students, parents and teachers — while delivering classroom-based sexual health programs in schools across Cumberland Country. Puppets like Betti the Yeti or Little Rene, a puppet in Ross's own likeness, create an opening for a little laughter.

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"It's like permission to play. You have this image when you're a youth and you want to look cool and stuff. Bringing puppets out, you can't help but giggle," said Kirstin Trochymchuk, the centre's youth program co-ordinator. 

The centre has been making videos for a while to try to spread information through the rural county. Puppets have so far tackled subjects such as menstruation, romantic rejection and alcohol consumption.

"We need to create that balance because what we're talking about, they are quite serious issues. But again, that's why we use the puppets because they can bring both levity ... [and] really, really serious issues with that different kind of connection," Ross said. 

A recent video, recorded in the council chambers of the Municipality of Cumberland County, had "Judge Truthy" presiding over the fallout of a field party. One of the puppets had disclosed she was a virgin while intoxicated and the judge weighed in on the rules around sharing private videos. It has garnered more than 11,000 views on Facebook.

Each year Ross speaks to about 2,000 students in schools. She often leaves study guides that go along with videos so teachers can continue the discussions. 

She and Trochymchuk started using puppets a year ago to try to connect with young people. But even Ross, who has been working in the field of preventing sexual violence for about two decades, was surprised with the results.

In the classroom and through the centre's youth programs, kids often ask questions they wouldn't otherwise feel comfortable voicing when they're using puppets, said Trochymchuk

"It's like a disguise almost, it's not them. It's the puppet," she said.

Elizabeth McMillan/CBC

This has also translated into more people opening up.  

"People will tell things to puppets that they would never, that they don't tell to adults. So the amount of disclosures has actually increased with the use of puppets. And we've been able to do a lot more deep one-on-one work," said Ross.

Young people have also been involved in all the videos, from creating the puppets to developing the storyline. Ross said the youth are quick to point out when language is outdated and suggest specific scenarios, like the character who disclosed she was a virgin.

There's still a long list of topics to tackle based on suggestions from educators and trends that emerge from classroom question boxes. Rates of sexually transmitted infections, access to health care and sharing intimate images are high on the list.

Part of the goal is to create sexual education for digital spaces, Ross said, especially since young people are already learning about sex online and it's not all positive or educational. Videos are posted on Instagram, Tik Tok and Facebook

"Our kids are living in a digitized time, they're living in a digital community. There's so much harm, there is so much hurt, so much anxiety out there that good sexual health education is needed more than ever," Ross said.

"It makes it more private, so they're learning sexual health on their own terms, right? They're going to watch it with a friend or themselves and they're going to learn it that way," added Trochymchuk.

She and Ross have put in extra hours learning how to manoeuvre puppets and how to shoot and edit videos. There's no fancy set. A green screen in their tiny office in Amherst, N.S., often serves as a backdrop and they scour secondhand shops for items that can be recycled as tiny costumes.

Part of the inspiration came from the classics: Mr. Dressup, Sesame Street and the characters created by puppeteer Jim Henson.

Not only did they inspire Trochymchuk's early love for puppets and spark her creativity, but they showed that educational videos can be captivating.

"I learned from Mister Rogers, for example, that you don't have to have high production value. As long as you have the message, it doesn't matter that our tripods are taped together with duct tape, which they actually are," Ross said with a laugh. 

Ross and Trochymchuk are planning a project about gender identity and correct pronouns at the high school level. Their next video will explore a classic fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty, and the role of consent.

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