Stephen Arthur describes himself in typical 16-year-old fashion: He’s shy about speaking in groups or in front of people he doesn’t know well. And yet, here he is, talking with a reporter about sexually transmitted diseases, contraception and body image–while his mom is in the room, no less.

Over the past three months, the East Chapel Hill High school student has grown more comfortable with such topics. As a trained peer educator, he plans to keep talking about them with as many of his classmates and friends as possible. “I’ve gained a lot of information,” Stephen says, “and now I can make my peers more knowledgeable.”

The source of his confidence is the Teen Talk program run by Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina. At graduation ceremonies last month at Homestead Community Center in Chapel Hill, Stephen became the 200th “peer educator” to complete the 40-hour training since the program began in 2000.

While comprehensive sex education is a controversial issue in some quarters, at Planned Parenthood it’s a strategy for reducing teen pregnancy and teaching young people decision-making skills. Participants in Teen Talk–one of four youth training programs offered by the regional Planned Parenthood–learn about abstinence, contraception, sexually transmitted diseases and other issues related to sexuality and health. To complete the training, teens must also share information they’ve received with their peers.

Experts say peer education is an effective way to reach young people with preventive messages about sex. A study two years ago by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, for example, found such programs delayed the onset of intercourse, increased the use of contraceptives and decreased the number of sexual partners among participating teens.

Compare those findings to a federal study released this month that showed a majority of teenagers who took “virginity pledges,” agreeing to delay sex until marriage, failed to live up to their promises. Of the 12,000 teens in the study, 88 percent reported having sexual intercourse before they married. When they did, their rates of condom use were lower than teens who had not pledged, while their rates of sexually transmitted diseases were the same.

Stephen’s mother wasn’t thinking about all of that when she heard about Planned Parenthood’s peer education program through a service-learning initiative her son’s enrolled in at school. She was mostly interested in finding a place where Stephen could talk comfortably about difficult issues like sex.

“I’m a single parent–it’s just him and me,” Crystal Arthur says. “You hear that children reach a point where they can’t talk to their parents. Plus, he’s a boy and I’m a girl. I thought this program was a way to open the doors.”

At first, both mother and son were unsure about how actively Stephen would participate in the weekly training sessions. But he soon surprised them both by speaking up and voicing opinions about issues such as teen pregnancy and media images of youth.

“I was shy at first,” says Stephen, who has short-cropped hair and handsome features. “But when more people talked, the more I felt like I wanted to talk. We were basically a big family. Everyone liked each other and had a sense of humor. It felt warm inside, and like you could trust everyone.”

Jenny Palmer, Planned Parenthood’s peer education and outreach coordinator, says careful attention to group chemistry is one of the keys to the Teen Talk program’s success. “We really value diversity. The kids in these programs come from all of the public and private high schools in the area,” she says. “People have to apply and go through an interview. What I try to look at when I’m reviewing them is what a group dynamic would be like.”

Once they are chosen for the three-month program, Teen Talk participants can earn $200 for completing the training and another $100 for sharing what they’ve learned with at least 30 friends, family or community members. Stephen, whose favorite subjects in school are history and English, says he’s already started talking to friends about subjects like AIDS and contraception–and he’s made some referrals for the next “semester” of Teen Talk.

But the session that made the strongest impression on him didn’t focus directly on sex. “The one on body image, that was a really good learning experience,” Stephen says. That week, the group did a “media literacy” project perusing images of teens in magazines and analyzing messages they send about how young people should look and behave.

When he thinks about how the peer program has changed him, Stephen thinks about lessons like that. “My mind didn’t really change about anything,” he says. “I just had different options for looking at things. Now, I analyze things more. I can look at magazines and I think about them. My perspective has changed.” After Stephen graduates from high school, he plans to attend college and earn a degree in business administration. His experience in the Teen Talk program should stand him in good stead. “I developed a way to express myself more,” Stephen says. “I came out of my bubble.”

For details on the Teen Talk program in Orange County, call 919-5402 X42; for the Teen Voices program in Durham County call 636-0307; and for the Joven a Joven program for Latino youth, call 286-1770.