8. Research & Academia, 9. Racial Justice

Make-your-own Keynote: A Tool for Interactive Academic Conferences

This piece was originally posted on November 3, 2016 on the Society for Research on Adolescence Emerging Scholars blog.

Elise Harris, Lisette DeSouza, and I were three Emerging Scholars collaborating to run a one-day SRA preconference addressing anti-Black structural racism: #BlackLivesMatter: Can Adolescent Researchers Contribute to Racial Justice? (Emerging Scholars are encouraged to contribute to conference planning and related events!) Following conventional wisdom, we invited a senior scholar to provide the opening keynote. But with a few weeks to go, this person became unable to attend, and it was time to get creative…

Enter the Make-your-own Keynote activity.

What’s the purpose of a keynote? Or at least what were we, as event co-chairs, hoping would be accomplished by a morning keynote address? First, we wanted to ground the group in the urgency of the event’s topic. Next, we wanted to show the explicit connections between the topic at hand and the field of adolescent research. Finally, we wanted the keynote to provide a call to action that we could build on throughout the preconference session and beyond.

The day was organized such that the morning was for researchers to reflect with each other on our roles in addressing racism, in preparation for the afternoon panel of community organizers from Baltimore followed by a collaborative critique of four specific research projects. We started the morning by anchoring the discussion in its historical context and presenting the critical frameworks that informed our design of the day. That allowed us to set the tone, provide transparency for our intentions, and let people settle in. Then we started the activity.

  • Small groups: At the conference tables, in groups of about 4-8 people.
  • Plenty of time: We had planned 15 minutes in small groups, 15 minutes to share, and 15 minutes of discussion. In actuality, people wanted more time in small groups, and it was fine to only have 5 minutes for discussion because we still had the rest of the day together.

The full version of the Black Lives Matter keynote activity is here. Below, I offer an outline that can be adapted to address urgencies within racial justice and within social justice more broadly.

Part 1. Urgency

  1. What, for you, most signals the urgency to address [topic]?
  2. What theories or frameworks, if any, do you use to understand this urgency?

Part 2. Research and Application

  1. What do we already know, as adolescent researchers, that can be applied in response to this urgency?
  2. What further research, if any, is needed?

Part 3. Call to Action

  1. What are our options for responding to this urgency, in general, including in our personal lives?
  2. Can we contribute to these efforts as adolescent researchers?
  3. If so, how? And what are the potential unintended or negative effects of our “contributions”?

We had our own positions on the urgency of addressing anti-Black structural racism, the many layers of relevance within developmental science, and needed responses. Transitioning from our introductions to an interactive group activity benefited us as facilitators as we gathered participants’ needs, intentions, and pressing questions. In the room, we had around 50 people who were emerging scholars, senior scholars, and a few folks from local schools. There were many Black scholars, other scholars of Color, and several White scholars present. But how were we to know each person’s understanding of race and racism in adolescent research? The activity connected participants to each other and to the group, which expanded where we were able to take each other throughout the rest of the day.

Note: Although this activity can be adapted to a variety of topics, anybody using it is requested to promote a commitment to racial justice. As I prepared the “adaptable” activity outline for this post, I struggled to rewrite the last question on the worksheet:

  • In what ways do adolescent researchers perpetuate “business as usual,” and how can we reimagine our roles in striving for racial justice?

I can’t rewrite this question to erase the centrality of racial justice in our need to examine “business as usual” within academia. As I share this activity with you, I want to hold space for the content of this question. I hope you enjoy Make-your-own Keynote (and please let me know if you try it!) and I hope you consider, whatever topic you are using it to address, how that topic connects to the urgency of identifying and eradicating anti-Black racism from academia and from adolescent research.

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 8. Research & Academia, 9. Racial Justice

Joint Reflections on Whiteness in Research: Missy Bird’s work on Contraceptive Access

Missy Bird, doctoral student in Social Work, reached out to me last week to share her crowd-funding campaign for her dissertation research – and a book she plans to write! – examining access to pregnancy prevention in rural Southern California, in a community that includes White people and People of Color, specifically many Latinxfamilies facing language and documentation barriers. In order to start a conversation with Missy about her work, I drew upon the researcher reflection questions from the SRA #BlackLivesMatter syllabus developed by Elise Harris, Lisette DeSouza, and myself.
 
Mimi: Why this community?
Missy: I chose this community because of high rates of unintended pregnancy, its status as a rural community, high rates of poverty, proximity to my house (it is only a three hour drive), proximity to the border of Mexico, lack of research in that county, and the fact that a reproductive health clinic was built there recently to HUGE uproar.
Mimi: What’s motivating you?
Missy: I want policymakers to understand the steps to get contraception, from deciding whether or not to tell partner/s, figuring out child care, transportation, what type, what provider, safety, cost, I could go on and on. I want women to discuss their use of contraception, their experiences living in rural America, and how poverty and religion impact their ability to talk about sexuality (and thus reproduction).
Mimi: I want to name that you are talking about cisgender women.
Not all women have the same needs regarding reproduction. And there are people who are transgender or genderqueer who can and do use contraception, seek pregnancy prevention, and get pregnant. It sounds like your interviews will be specific to people assigned female at birth who currently identify as women. Have you thought about whether you will include queer women?
Missy: The inclusion criteria for the research is women 18-44 who are accessing one of two specific clinics for reproductive health care.
Mimi: So, you are not seeking out people of queer or trans experience. But. When we talk about reproductive justice, that must include trans justice and queer justice. And racial justice.
I want to talk to Missy, and to other fellow White researchers, about how we can examine ourselves and our behavior at every step of the research process, in order to more authentically and more effectively show up for the Movement for Black Lives. I ask myself continuously: What am I doing? What is the impact? What am I ready to risk? Through several phone conversations and email exchanges, Missy let me ask her some hard but necessary questions about our role as White researchers in addressing health, justice, and structural racism within White systems of power.
Mimi: In March, at the SRA #BlackLivesMatter preconference conducted in collaboration with Black activists in Baltimore, activists warned us of the harm that can be done when (particularly white) researchers create our own research projects without directly collaborating with community organizers. How are you grappling with this message, as you move forward with your research plans?
Missy: I’ve interviewed 17 community leaders — high level decision makers, health center administrators and staff, and thought leaders shaping moral, ethical, and legal arguments about women’s reproductive healthcare in the targeted area.
Mimi: Did you ask them what they want or need, or action steps they want other people to take?
Missy: I did not ask for action steps, but I did ask what the community needed. Their answers varied but the bottom line was: they want their population to be healthy and strong so that they can have healthy families that contribute to the larger society as a whole.
Mimi: Beautiful words, right? One of the core tenets of the reproductive justice movement is that reproductive justice will require racial justice. What does it mean for us as White people to be repeating high hopes for “healthy families” when there are Latinx families getting separated by deportation, Black children and parents being killed by the police. Frameworks such as “health” and “contribution” are so often coded terms that perpetuate racist narratives such as “individual responsibility.” And then we locate “unhealthy” as if it is within marginalized communities — but really the root cause is in the White systems, in structural racism. What does this mean for my role as a White person in the field of sexual and reproductive “health”? What was that like for you, to connect with community leaders and stakeholders as a White researcher? What questions did it raise?
Missy: One of the things I have really been reflecting on is whether or not I am clear on the difference between reproductive access and reproductive justice. Every step of the way in developing my project I have been questioning myself about whether what I am talking about addresses the complexity and entirety of women’s reproductive lives. I am really aware of my Whiteness. My original assumption of course was, well if there were more resources (e.g., clinics/physicians) then more people would be able to access health care. But to consider racism, hostile immigration policies, and extreme poverty, issues of justice are about more than sexuality. For myself and other White women, even poor White women, access becomes much less of an issue. I have had to expand how I look at access, making sure that I am talking about justice, not just access.
Mimi: I’m trying to get at a personal, emotional process here too. Something we can’t just be alone checking our own thoughts. I definitely can’t. That’s why I seek out conversations – to trouble the assumptions that I’ve internalized deeply. For example, you said in an email, “my purpose on earth is to tell people’s stories.” I want to trouble that with you a little. What are your intentions? What are the risks? How might your impact be different from your intentions?
Missy: I will interview 50-60 women and then write a book. I have been telling peoples stories for years. I genuinely and authentically want to tell these stories because I believe there is a story to tell. Maybe I am wrong and I will find out I am wrong. I appreciate where you are coming from with this, but I don’t know what more to say. I have really thought about this a lot over the last two years. Maybe the risk is that this isn’t important enough, that no one really cares about women because they are just vessels to be used for a purpose and if they don’t serve the purpose then whatever they have to say doesn’t matter. But that isn’t right. Women’s experiences are important, and I want to talk about them because it brings me joy to do so.
Melissa Bird speaking at the 2010 Utah Pride FestivalMimi: You name a number of goals – personal joy, policy change… and also this will be your dissertation work to earn a Ph.D.
Missy: I am pursuing my PhD. I do want to write a book about women’s lived experiences. And I want my research to mean something.
Mimi: What your research will mean is dependent on who you are and how you go about it. In qualitative research we talk about reflexivity – considering how your “findings” will be constructed through you – who you are, what your participants will tell you, what you are attending to as you speak to them and write about them.
Missy: Yep, this is qualitative research, and I don’t know yet how the interviews will be constructed through me. I don’t have any idea what this is going to look like because I haven’t collected the data. I can’t say how I will write the book. It will be a very typical research book, much like the kinds we read in our coursework. With quotes and analysis and such but not direct transcripts. It will focus on themes, but I can’t decide the themes before I get into the data. What is their agenda? What do they want? Maybe all of the 17 stakeholders I talked to are wrong. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe none of us have ANY earthly idea what women really want or need. Until I have completed this next phase of my project neither I nor my committee nor the stakeholders that I interviewed can tell me for sure.
Mimi: There is so much more I want to ask you about how your relationship with your own Whiteness will shape what you do and how you do it. So let’s keep talking about that as you move forward. But now, tell me: What scholars of color have influenced your thinking about reproductive justice, and what pieces will you be sure to credit and cite?
Missy: Dorothy Roberts, Zakiya Luna, and Kristin Lukerare three scholars I credit and cite in any of my work that references reproductive justice. These are the two articles I cite in my proposal:
Mimi: You ask for $28,000 to fund this research project. At the same time, there are many scholars and activists of color seeking funding for their reproductive justice work. Tell me about some individuals and organizations who are also in need of financial support.
Missy: I don’t even know how to answer this, but would love some suggestions.
Mimi: I’ll start with these three organizations – there are so many more.
Strong Families – by Forward Together, in Oakland– check out their Mama’s Day work, too!
Sister Song: Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective– debuted the term “reproductive justice” in 2003 – see writing by Loretta Ross
Mimi: Now I’ll come back to what I said at the beginning about framing and language that is queer and trans inclusive. Try to tell me about your work without equating the category of “women” with the category of “people who can get pregnant.”
Missy: My interviews are with women who are specifically seeking contraception and abortion services with the express purpose of not wanting children. I am not sure how to elaborate on this as a queer and trans issue. It is not my area of expertise nor is it the focus of my research.
Mimi: I’m not trying to say that your project needs to include queer and trans people if you’re not prepared to do that or if that’s not part of your research question. But whenever we talk about women we need to make clear, within ourselves and through our language, that not all women have bodies that can become pregnant, and not all people seeking contraception and abortion services are women. And trans justice and reproductive justice are inherently linked. Here are some people who say it way better than I do: Verónica, Jack Qu’emi, KaeLyn, and Jos Truitt. Read what they write!

See Missy’s crowdfunding campaign to learn more about her research. Also, I’m looking for more researchers who want to continue having these conversations – either confidentially or for another blog post. Volunteer yourself or nominate a friend! I am specifically seeking to engage with other White researchers, and I would also be thrilled to personally connect with and/or publicly feature any People of Color who have feedback, push-back, or other thoughts and feelings to share.

3. Queer Stuff, 8. Research & Academia

Coming out in Academia: After the Pulse Nightclub Shooting

This piece was originally posted on June 29, 2016 on the Society for Research on Adolescence Emerging Scholars blog.file-jun-29-10-02-38-am

I was trained to not come out.

It wasn’t specifically about hiding my gender identity or sexual orientation. As a college student peer counselor and peer educator, I learned to make space for others – to validate and accept other people’s experiences of gender and sexuality, to ask questions that helped other people say more. I learned to use public health data and critical theory to talk about why I did what I did, why sex education is important, why I focus on adolescents.

When I became a public school teacher, I was warned not to talk about “homosexuality” or homophobia in my middle school health classes. If I did, the school would not protect me from parents who protested. There were two out teachers in my building, so it might have been possible for me to follow their lead, and be open with the staff but not with my students. But even at that, they had each been part of the community for a long time, and were married, and I was new and young and single… and scared.

Many other factors shape how (not) often I “come out” explicitly: my critique of the gender binary, my discomfort with common sexual orientation labels, and my own complex relationship history. In addition, I appear generally feminine and gender-conforming and had a cis male/ gender-conforming partner for half of my twenties, so my queerness is not something a person would figure out just from getting to know me, or even sharing an office with me for many years. Keywords: “passing privilege;” “bisexual invisibility;” “femme invisibility.”

When I entered academia, I wasn’t specifically trying to keep anything private or hidden; I was simply not practiced in these forms of self-disclosure.

And there’s also this piece about post-positivist social science resisting transparency of positionality. (Stop, rewind, translate.) We joke about “all research is me-search,” and yet we want scientists to be “objective” and to have as little “bias” as possible. Perhaps I have unintentionally stopped myself from revealing “too much,” lest my personal identity make my professional work suspect. Would people think that? Do you think that?

These questions of if, when, and how to talk about my own gender identity and sexual orientation within academic spaces have specifically come to the fore since the attack against queer and trans folks of color, predominantly Latinx, at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Not being clearly and consistently “out” means that the people I work with may not know exactly how much this attack has been affecting me, my loved ones, my community. This all feels so deeply personal right now.

Although by writing this post I am taking a bold step towards outness and openness, I want to share some of the nuances layering this question for me, with curiosity about how these nuances feel to others.

  1.   Sheer awkwardness. After making the decision to make this part of myself known professionally, how do I actually do that? How, if at all, do various people want to be told? What are the core concepts that I want to communicate? Where do I start?
  2.   Appropriateness. There’s something tricky about being an unmarried professional. Perhaps that’s a topic for another blog post. When I’m talking about attraction and identity and relationships, how much of my personal life am I supposed to share, in the context of building professional relationships?
  3.   Scientific-ness. My experience of queerness does not check the boxes of our demographic questionnaires. My ways of describing my own gender and sexual orientation do not make me sound like a social scientist, necessarily. Or perhaps they simply lend themselves to qualitative descriptions and explanations, rather than quantitative!
  4.   Tokenization. Not being out means I might have missed opportunities to do some of the work of queer visibility, to have the chance to be that queer person that somebody else knows, thinks about, asks questions to. People have been asking me questions professionally because they know what my research and advocacy is about, but it’s different to be faced with someone else’s personal life and feelings. Could there be a useful or meaningful way to offer myself as an example, without being tokenized?
  5.   Reputation. Even in states with employment protections, so many subtle biases can shape a person’s reputation and movement within the field. Will being more out and open shape, at all, how people see me as a researcher? Will it affect how they see my work, judge its rigor, how they interpret my motivations?
  6.   Supporting students. As I have been checking in with friends, certain former students have also come to my mind. I particularly want to support members of the queer Latinx community, who were targeted in the Pulse nightclub attack, and queer Muslims suffering heightened Islamophobia in the wake of the attack. Do I reach out to students? What do I say? In general, what’s on the line with regard to the if, when, and how of coming out students?
  7.   Reflexivity. Qualitative research methods often include a statement of reflexivity, as in, the researchers’ reflections on their own identities and opinions in relation to the research project. Particularly when I write about sexuality and relationships, it’s not a stretch to claim that queerness is a relevant aspect of my identity and experience. What are the implications of naming that in a peer-reviewed manuscript?

I have not provided a palatable coming out post, a clear narrative of who I am and who I’ve loved and the first time I told my parents. I have not given you specific labels. Even now, I am still figuring out what I want to share, what I am ready to risk, and how to open up space for those of us whose narratives aren’t as neat and whose identities aren’t as binary. Let me know if you have ideas.

I would love to hear from people who navigate coming out, or what it’s like for you to know or not know this information about a colleague. What other questions and concerns do you have? You can also consider this as a friendly reminder to reach out to colleagues and friends who you know are queer, especially queer and trans folks of color, who are particularly vulnerable to violence and particularly likely to be hurting after Orlando.

7. Youth Development & Education, 8. Research & Academia

Including – but not limited to – sexual and romantic relationships

Dear University of Virginia,
Read my blog, and then you’ll see why I want to join your Center to study youth relationships with peers and adults. Relationships matter. A lot. To me. And yeah, I do all this sex ed stuff, but really that’s all about relationships, too. Seriously. You can check out my bad-ass academic articles and all but still, read the blog. Connection, empathy, #feelings, love, community. I’m in.
With hope and an open heart,
Miriam R. Arbeit, PhD

I emailed the above letter to my best friend, and went back to writing a formal academic cover letter. My formal writing often flows better if I simultaneously have a document open in which I can say exactly what I need to say, on my own terms. Eventually, I crafted this:

My work thus far has illustrated the barriers to connection that adolescents face at multiple levels of the developmental system, including in their self-conceptions, in their sexual or romantic relationships, in their family and peer relationships, in the ways in which they are treated within youth-serving institutions (e.g., schools, health care), and in the messages they receive from their cultural context. My next steps involve deepening my study of empathy and diversity within youth-adult and peer relationships and across in-school and out-of-school-time settings. For example, I want to examine how the developmental process involved in building empathy may or may not be related to other aspects of emotional and relational skill-building. I also want to examine how youth and adults can form authentic and respectful connections across social and structural differences, such as gender, race, and language. I believe that these steps will support my future plans to do curriculum and program development with school-based and out-of-school time programs to promote youth thriving and facilitate safe, supportive, and fulfilling relationships including but not limited to sexual and romantic relationships.

Huge shout-out to my amazing colleague-friends who gave me job app edits. It still takes a village, even – or especially – at age 30.

And now I get to study that village!

I will be a postdoctoral research fellow at Youth-Nex, the UVa Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, directed by Patrick Tolan. I’m working with Nancy Deutschand Amanda Kibler on the study of youth development through interpersonal relationships (hence the above rant). There are two main projects, and a bonus pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Amanda Kibler’s project that I’ll be working on is Languages Across Borders: Building Positive Cross-Linguistic and Cross-Cultural Networks in High School. It is aimed at promoting positive development for youth who are English Language Learners through strengthening their school-based relationships with peers. Nancy Deutsch’s project that I’ll be working on is the Study of Important Youth-Adult Relationships. It examines youth experiences within relationships with important non-parental adults. Obviously if you want to talk more about either of these projects, just let me know!

And oh, the pot of gold at the end of this already gorgeous academic rainbow. Nancy Deutsch is collaborating with Futures without Violence and the Harvard Law School Gender Violence Program on a comprehensive training curriculum for institutions of higher education to reduce and address sexual violence on campus. So like, yes. That’s what I’m trying to do. This is the work I want to be doing in the world. Dare I repeat: Connection, empathy, #feelings, love, community. I’m in. My heart is exploding with hope.

I now have a job and an apartment in a place I’ve never actually been. But I hear it’s beautiful.

I’m moving next month. On my own… don’t worry, I’ll be asking for lots of help. It’s taken several villages to get me this far, and I may be physically leaving those particular villages for the time being, but I’m a big fan of Facetime, and I’ve got lots of plans for finding new villages down in Virginia. Did I mention that I’m already on an email chain with the other postdocs at UVa’s Curry School of Education? A warm, welcoming email chain. I’m so excited. I’m going to miss New York, for real, and also I’m so excited.

Charlottesville, Virginia. Come visit!

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 8. Research & Academia

Teaching Consent: Coverage from Tufts Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

This article is cross-posted with permission from Tufts University. Jane Carter, Communications Specialist for the Tufts Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, interviewed me and generously wrote this profile, posted here with an original illustration by Laura Dozer.

Mimi Arbeit, a recent graduate of the Applied Child Development Ph.D. program within the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, centers her work on a very specific yet complex topic: adolescent sexuality development.
“So often, development is heard as meaning ‘child development,’ but in fact we continue to develop as human beings throughout all of life, there is great diversity and plasticity in how we learn to be people,” says Arbeit. She has taken frameworks commonly used to understand adolescent development and explores how to use them in classrooms to promote positive sexual health and development.
“Sex education [in the context of health education] is going in the direction of teaching children skills in addition to knowledge,” says Arbeit. She defines skills as a coordinated set of behaviors: “emotional, social, cognitive, personal, interpersonal… the capacity to act in an organized way,” which is needed in addition to understanding the basics of human anatomy and safer sex practices. In 2014, she published a paper in the journal Human Development that presents a skills-based model for promoting positive adolescent sexuality development.
While at Tufts, Arbeit engaged in applied work in the city of Boston and beyond. She served on the AIDS Advisory Panel, the sexual health education advisory board for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. She has also worked with The Fenway Institute on a project funded by the National Institute for Health called “Connect to Protect,” a nation-wide effort to prevent HIV transmission among young people. “Our Boston site is focused on young black men who have sex with men, and black transgender youth,” says Arbeit. She facilitated a subcommittee focused on sex education and school-based policy.
Arbeit’s work in Boston, and her publication of a skills-based model for sexuality development, laid the foundation for her dissertation research, which applied that framework to preventing sexual violence and understanding sexual consent.
Part of her dissertation research included an independent study with Nancy Bauer, philosophy professor and Dean of Academic Affairs for the School of Arts and Sciences, to examine theories on sexual consent. Dean Bauer is familiar with the academic approaches to sexual topics—her recently published book, How to Do Things With Pornography (Harvard University Press, 2015), explores new feminist frameworks for philosophical methodologies.

Illustration by Laura Dozor
Understanding the philosophy behind consent, in addition to the developmental realities of the adolescent experience, was very important to Arbeit’s process. In order to understand consent, Arbeit and Bauer explored the areas where consent is in use. “I call them personal transformation, institutional transformation, and political transformation,” says Arbeit. “For personal transformation, we are talking about consent as a skill,” or how the message of consent is taught through interactions with other people.
Institutional transformation has to do with how consent is handled within legal frameworks ranging from the American legal system to an educational institution’s own policies. Arbeit says that as a result of Title IX, “educational institutions, places like Tufts, are responsible for asking themselves, what is our policy? What are our responses?”
The third transformation, political, examines the aspects of our historical and present social structures that led us to our current consent issues. “This is where we look at discussions of rape culture,” says Arbeit, “histories of sexism, histories of the use of sexual violence to perpetuate other forms of violence, racism, colonialism, heterosexism, heteronormativity, the pressure to marry, the shame of virginity, the shame of losing virginity, all the different pieces of our historical and present social system that are part of why we have a rape problem.”
When it comes to teaching consent skills, these three transformations help explain why it is so difficult to reach a consensus on the definition of consent, and yet, the concept is so fundamentally important to healthy relationships and promoting nonviolence. “I think it is really important to continue examining how we conceptualize sexual violence from a legal standpoint, however, I think it is also important to have high personal and institutional standards for how we interact with people and negotiate consent,” says Arbeit.
Arbeit has been examining these frameworks in the field through her work at Tufts Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development led by Professor Richard Lerner. Professor Lerner, Arbeit’s graduate advisor, focuses on positive youth development and character development. One of his projects is a collaboration with the United States Military Academy at West Point. As a result, Arbeit’s dissertation addressed sexuality in this distinct environment.
“At West Point, they have a specific commitment to addressing sexual assault and sexual harassment, which are behaviors that we want to prevent,” says Arbeit. But, she points out; they are also dedicated to developing leaders of character. For her dissertation, she takes values such as respect, humility, honor, and courage, and examines what it means to apply them to the domain of sexuality.
Building on these positive attributes is part of the mission of Lerner’s lab. “In a lot of health and youth development contexts, there’s a desire to prevent the negative outcomes, and I have been trained at Tufts to ask, what is going right in the lives of youth?” says Arbeit.
West Point is a great place to start when thinking about promoting skills and preventing sexual violence, but Arbeit notes that they have a more structured character model than most educational institutions. “There is a lot of opportunity for parallel work with universities that are addressing sexual violence and promoting sexuality skills for college students,” says Arbeit.
Theoretical frameworks, skill sets, and models of transformation can be difficult to navigate in any context, but Arbeit notes that it all comes down to humanity. “Once you acknowledge the complexity, that’s where the humanity comes in,” says Arbeit. “Sexism is a system of trauma—where our humanity gets separated from us or we don’t have access to our humanity. We need to do a lot of work on emotionally reconnecting to ourselves and to the people we are in relationships with and our community in order to feel our way through all of these complexities, and start developing skills to enact our values.”
Mimi Arbeit spoke at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Doctoral Hooding Ceremony on Saturday, May 16, 2015. Her speech, “What are we ready to risk? Academia, advocacy, and activism,” is available on her blog,Sex Ed Transforms.
Arbeit is now a Postdoctoral Fellow and Program Administrator at the Center for Ethics Education at Fordham University. She is working on a grant from the National Institute on Minority Health Disparities (NIMHD) on Ethics in HIV Prevention Research Involving LGBT Youth (1R01MD009561-01). Learn more >
8. Research & Academia, 9. Racial Justice

What are we ready to risk? Academia, advocacy, and activism

I graduated from Tufts University this weekend, with a Ph.D. in Child Study and Human Development. I was honored to be the student speaker for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Doctoral Hooding Ceremony. Here is what I said.

As the non-indictment verdict arrived, I was working on my dissertation. Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, will have no trial. The people of Ferguson protest: Black Lives Matter. They call for an end to business as usual, but my business as usual was just getting good. I wanted to write my dissertation and I really, really wanted this degree.
And I was tired. Business as usual is exhausting and there’s no energy left for protests and movement building and solidarity.
Abigail Ortiz taught me that solidarity means sharing risk. I ask myself what risks I am willing to share as a white person in solidarity with people of color: Am I willing to risk arrest? Injury? Reputation? Career?
The system is built to maintain itself.
In the first month of 2015, four black trans women were murdered. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia. The intersectionality of oppression is life and death.
“Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.
Support for trans women dwindles when we are still alive… It points to who is valuable and who is disposable. If you’re not a trans woman… think long and hard about the ways that you’re supporting trans women in your community. Do you see trans women in public community spaces? How are your actions pushing them out?
I learned to do academic work that could inform advocacy. I wrote a guide for youth development programs about queer-inclusivity, racial justice, and trauma-informed practice. What is life anyway but one giant youth development program? These principles can guide both the work we do and how we run our workplaces.
But these systems are built to maintain themselves.
As PhDs, we are pronounced producers of knowledge. We can use our position within the system – and the peer-reviewedknowledge that we produce – to advocate for change. That’s our professional work; activism is the personal work. But activism, solidarity, is risky. I want a job, tenure, grants, clout. I want those things for myself and for my advocacy – I am building power and building knowledge with hope that I can leverage my power and my knowledge to make a difference.
Can I continue working on that, while also working to break down the systems that grant me this power?
These systems are built to maintain themselves. And I am a part of that.
But these systems are not okay. We need an end to business as usual, and we all need to commit to that end, as knowledge-producers and as human beings, each situated at various sites of power, within White Capitalist Heteropatriarchy.

 

 

 

 

 

So now that our degrees are not on the line anymore, what are we ready to risk?

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 8. Research & Academia

Publication Alert: A Skills-Based Model for Promoting Adolescent Sexuality Development

I published a theory paper in the journal Human Development. In the paper, I present a model for thinking about adolescent sexuality in terms of skills – what young people know how to do and how young people act, in and through sexuality. The model explains the following skills…
  • Sexual Selfhood: Desire, Ethics, and Identity
  • Sexual Agency
  • Sexual Negotiation: Consent, Protection, Pleasure
  • Sexual Intimacy
  • Sexual Empowerment: Boundaries, Coping, Analysis
  • Sexual Advocacy

 

Emphasizing sexuality skills over specific sexual behaviors allows us to remove “intercourse” from the center of a research agenda on adolescent sexuality development. In this way, I decenter concepts such as virginity, marriage, and heterosexuality from how we think and talk about young people and about sex overall. Focusing on skills raises questions about how to facilitate skill development for all young people, whether they are sexually active in particular ways or not.
I am honored to have this article published in Human Development. I am also honored that the journal elicited commentary from two renowned scholars in the field, both of whom expressed support for the model and provided me with inspiring feedback.
  • The need for a cumulative life span approach
  • Expanding the focus on biological processes
  • Grappling with gender variation
  • Gender as a product of sexuality
  • Greater attention to sexual-minority development
  • The meaning of meaning-making

 

I am particularly moved by Diamond’ssuggestions for how to use this model push the interrogation of gender, sexism, and sexual orientation in the study of adolescent sexuality. She writes about the need to research the “interplay between gender and sexual questioning,” particularly for transgender and gender non-conforming youth, saying that the model “provides a framework for reconceptualizing gender questioning as adaptive and even normative” (p. 298). In addition, she suggests attending to the role of binary gender socialization (differential systems of expectations and rewards for men and women) in shaping young people’s skills for sexual negotiation and, in turn, how their experiences of sexual negotiation may shape their sense of their own gender. Furthermore, she provides several examples of how the model can be applied to supporting sexual minority youth not only in their sexual identity but also in being sexual and acting upon their sexual feelings.
  • Developmental change
  • Relational developmental systems
  • Promoting adolescent sexuality development
  • Promoting sexuality development beyond adolescence

 

Specifically, Moshmandiscussed the value of the model for expanding the notion of sexuality education, given that “secondary schools can and should contribute to sexuality development” (p. 290). Moshman also asserts that the model can be applied to colleges and universities addressing sexual assault, in order to not only respond to sexual assaults as they occur, but also “to reconcile such responsibilities with the responsibility to educate and promote development” (p. 291). Sex ed in schools and campus sexual violence prevention have long been personal and professional interests of mine, and I am excited to apply the skills-based model to these pursuits.
Here is the Table of Contentsfor this issue, which contains my article as well the two commentaries. Please contact me if you have any questions, or if you have trouble finding the full text article.
I look forward to drawing upon this article in my future research and applied work, as I enthusiastically explore the implications of this work for understanding and addressing sexism; for supporting both gender and sexual exploration for queer, trans, and questioning youth; and for transforming the ways in which educational institutions constrain and facilitate the sexuality development of the young people in their care.
References
Arbeit, M. R. (2014). What does healthy sex look like among youth? Towards a skills-based model for promoting adolescent sexuality development. Human Development, 57(5), 259-286.
Diamond, L. M. (2014). Expanding the scope of a dynamic perspective on positive adolescent sexual development. Human Development, 57(5), 292-304.
Moshman, D. (2014). Sexuality development in adolescence and beyond. Human Development, 57(5), 287-291.
7. Youth Development & Education, 8. Research & Academia

Publication Alert!

I published original empirical research, as a first author!

I am currently a PhD Candidate in Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University. Throughout my time here, I have worked as a research assistant at the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development. One of our flagship projects is the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development. I recently used data from 6th through 12th grade participants in this study to assess the relationship between potentially problematic behaviors and indicators of positive development.

You can find the article here, or email me if you’re having trouble.

Here is a passage in which we discuss our findings related to sexual activity:
“We found a distinction between youth who had sex with protection and youth who had unprotected sex: members of the Low Risk group were increasingly likely to engage in protected sex as they got older, but had a very low probability of engaging in unprotected sex; in contrast, members of the High Risk group were likely to engage in unprotected sex but not protected sex. Other research has shown that two-thirds of adolescents will have sex before they are 18 years old, making sexual activity a normative behavior during adolescence (Crockett et al. 2006). Unprotected and/or unwanted sex is problematic, but sexual activity per se is not always linked to negative outcomes” (p. 987).

In simple terms, when we talk about teenagers having sex, let’s focus on what goes on in the sexual activity, for example, whether or not they are using protection. Sex itself, particularly sexual activity characterized by positive attributes such as the use of protection, can be part of overall positive development for young people. But it depends what happens and how it is experienced.

However, this study only differentiated between protected sex and unprotected sex. I would advocate for additional research that assesses the degree and kind of consent involved in a sexual encounter, in conjunction with other variables and other aspects of the process. I hope to design and implement such research myself, in the future.

Arbeit, M. R., Johnson, S. K., Champine, R. B., Greenman, K. G., Lerner, J. V., & Lerner, R. M. (2014). Risk in Many Shapes and Sizes: Profiles of Potentially Problematic Behaviors across Adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 43(6), 971-990.
8. Research & Academia

I Chaired a Symposium

“Positive Approaches to Studying Adolescent Sexuality Development and Sexual Health” was the title of the Symposium I chaired at the biennial conference of the Society for Research on Adolescence in Vancouver this month. Chairing was a really exciting experience, and I’m so grateful I had the opportunity. Many people have asked me about what it really meant and what I did. I’ll start by explaining some of the process, and then I’ll share what it was like for me on the day of the Symposium.

The process began in June last year, when Ed Bowers, a Research Assistant Professor with whom I work closely at Tufts, started talking to me about putting together a submission for the conference. He mentioned the idea of chairing, which basically means organizing a 90-minute session around a particular topic or theme. If you want to do it, he said, you need to send out emails quickly to see who might present at your session. I was about to take a vacation to get married, but I was so eager to put together more conversations about sexuality, and particular adolescent sexuality, that I went right to it. I emailed scholars whose work I admire greatly, invited them to join me, and we put together a submission that included their abstracts and a statement from me about how it all fit together and matters. Then, on the last day of the conference, in the second-to-last time slot, I got to introduce them to a room full of about 40 colleagues.

Sexuality development is a healthy, normative, and important part of adolescence. Much of the existing research on adolescent sexuality frames sexual behavior as inherently risky and requiring prevention. This symposium addressed the merits of pursuing a research agenda that involves identifying and assessing indicators of positive sexuality development in adolescence and analyzing how societal and relational factors may affect different youth in different ways, particularly with regards to race and gender.

Emily Impett was going to present with us, but family needs kept her from being able to attend this conference, unfortunately. However, we had two wonderful presentations from Monique Ward and Deborah Tolman and a discussion by Sara McClelland.

Monique Ward asked, “Will it help?” and presented her work on identifying socialization discourses that promote sexual risk and sexual health among African American youth. She did a study asking youth to report the messages they receive about sex from their parents and their peers. Her presentation focused on four prominent types of messages: promoting abstinence, framing sex as relational, promoting sex-positivity, and furthering gendered sexual roles. I really enjoyed this presentation because one of my favorite sex ed activities is asking participants to map the messages that they receive about sex from parents and peers (and I also often include media, religion, and other sources of messages). Looking at this research allowed me to think concretely about how the messages we get relate to our behavior. Ward also focused on sexual cognitions, looking at how different patterns of messages relate to different thoughts and beliefs about one’s own sexuality. I would love to expand the “messaging” sex ed activity to help participants identify how the messages they receive contribute to their sexual cognitions and, in turn, how those messages may or may not shape their sexual behavior. On a larger scale, this research poses the question, “How do we talk to young people about sex and sexuality, and what impact does that have?”

Next, Deborah Tolman asked, “What do you like about that?” and presented her work on power and pleasure in girls’ experience of fellatio. This research is a snapshot of a larger qualitative study Tolman conducted in which she asked girls to tell stories about their experiences giving oral sex to boys. She said she found the girls mostly reported negative experiences, although “punctuated” by positive elements. This presentation explored the themes in the positive punctuations, the expressions of power and pleasure. When prompted, “Tell me about a time when giving oral sex was pleasurable for you?” most participants said, “huh?” Their stories included lots of coercion and feeling “nasty,” but some girls expressed certain “nuances of power” (Tolman’s phrase) in stimulating another person, and some felt “possibilities for pleasure (again, Tolman’s) emotionally, physically, or in enjoying their own competence in performing the task. For me, this presentation raised a lot of questions about the purpose of sex-positivity. What does it mean to explore and honor the positive aspects of these girls’ experiences and at the same time recognize and publicize the ways in which they felt coerced and the ways in which male desire and expectations problematically trump their own in their sexual worlds?

After these two presentations, Sara McClelland shared some really insightful words and posed many key questions. Here are some highlights from the notes I took:

On sex:
• What is the point of sex?
• What do you want, and what do you do because you have to?
• How do you know when you want something? How do you know that you liked it?

On researching sex:
• What do we want to observe, to say that an expression of sexuality is developmentally appropriate and good? Do these indicators look the same in all bodies?
• What are we after as sex researchers? What are we idealizing?
• How do we prepare our participants to talk about sex with us? What power dynamics get recreated in the space of an interview?

On teaching youth about sex:
• How do we want to socialize young people?
• What do we want to say to young people about sex?
• What should we say about pleasure?
• What do we want young people to want?

My only regret is that we didn’t have the time to all pull up a chair and start hashing out our positions on these questions. I am so honored to have been a part of this fun and fascinating conversation, and I look forward to continuing to learn from these three scholars as much as I can and as often as I can as I work my way into this field.

8. Research & Academia

Highlights from a conference: Thoughts on theory, method, and practice

Before I leave for my next conference, I want to write about the one from which I just returned, a Themed Meeting of the Society for Research on Child Development on The Positive Development of Minority Children.

I’d hoped this conference would help me be a better ally and a better researcher, and it did. Furthermore, it strengthened my ability to take an intersectional lens when studying sexuality and gender. Most of all, the theoretical and methodological approaches used to study racial diversity and racial socialization are quite exciting to me as I explore what it means to be a feminist scientist. I came home from this conference truly believing that doing the kind of research I want to do is both important and possible.

I want to summarize three of the major highlights of the weekend.

1. Methodology with Niobe Way: Push yourself to the limits of what you know and pose research questions at those limits. Using herself as an example, she walked us step by step through her research methods. Then we conducted our own research on the person sitting next to us (bless the sweet professor sitting next to me who blushed when I posed my interview question to her). Way focused throughout the whole workshop on the importance of understanding your own assumptions in the questions you pose, the methods you choose, and the analysis you conduct. As I begin to plan and conduct my own research projects, I hope to demonstrate some of what I learned from Way’s approach through reflections posted here. I also hope to keep learning from Niobe Way…

2. Intervention theory with Margaret Beale Spencer: Make sure the support you provide is actually experienced as supportive. Words that make so much sense on paper, but are too rarely pursued in practice. An intervention can have the best of intentions, but it just will not work if it does not address the lived experiences of the people it is designed to help. Spencer talks (and writes) a lot about phenomenology—how individuals experience their own lives and their own development. Reality varies from person to person. Strengths and vulnerabilities vary from person to person—but everyone has both. What makes research a little more complicated can then make intervention and practice a lot more effective.

3. Intersectionality symposium: Identity is messy, and power structures are inherently intertwined. One of the last sessions of the conference, I was looking forward to this symposium from the beginning. Three presenters shared their research on intersecting identities in school contexts: wealth disparities among black students at elite independent schools; perceptions of race and gender among students at an all-male, all-black charter school; and messages that black college students receive around homosexuality. I started thinking about the intersection of gender and sexual orientation. Specifically: What does it mean, as researchers, when we hear “that’s so gay” in response to a male enacting stereotypically female behavior and then label it homophobia OR label it sexism? Does it depend on context? Alternatively, do we need an expanded concept that includes both, perhaps something like “homophobic gender policing”? (Warning: mouth-full!) And whether we call it homophobia, sexism, homophobic gender policing, or something else, we must continue to emphasize that it hurts all children, and all teens, and all adults, not just the ones who are “different.”

I look forward to many more thoughts and ideas about theory, method, and practice at my next conference, with the Society for Research on Adolescence, coming up in Vancouver this week!