5. Connection/ Community

I am a Feminist (Finally!)

I write this piece in honor of International Women’s Day and Feminist Coming Out Day.

I am a feminist, but I didn’t always call myself one.

I didn’t call myself a feminist in kindergarten when I told the boy down the street that we should have a playdate, even though he thought I wouldn’t like anything he liked since I was a girl. I said, I have dinasours and we could play with those.

I didn’t call myself a feminist in third grade when the boys organized a soccer game during recess, and I said I wanted to play. They were confused, but I had been playing soccer for years, and I insisted.

I didn’t call myself a feminist in seventh grade when some of my friends started pinching their bellies and saying they felt fat. I thought they were weird (and gorgeous).

I didn’t call myself a feminist in tenth grade when the boys on the track team teased me about another boy and without missing a beat I told them to stop it, seriously, not cool and not okay.

I didn’t even call myself a feminist in eleventh grade when I learned to teach workshops about how sexist jokes and reinforcing gender stereotypes lead to sexual harassment and violence against women. Because I thought to myself well, the gender binary is the problem. Separating women and men into different categories is inherently detrimental, and we should just destroy the binary and discard the categories. The exact wording of the label “feminist” didn’t seem to allow for that.

I didn’t call myself a feminist until college. I didn’t call myself a feminist until I was an undergraduate at Columbia University and campus organizing against sexual violence was based at a women’s center at Barnard College (an all women’s college): The Columbia/ Barnard Rape Crisis/ Anti-Violence Support Center. I was, I admit, upset that the work I wanted to do was in such a place because I thought, since high school, that the binary was the problem and that this structure would reinforce it. But my training as a peer educator at Columbia/ Barnard challenged me to grapple with the tensions inherent to feminist activism: yes, the gender binary is a problem and yes, we need to advocate for the rights of women—both, and. And, females, in our society face different socialization pressures, different emotional education, different kinds of sexualization than males face. And, females are more likely to be sexually abused or assaulted than males are. And, males are more likely to perpetrate sexual abuse or assault than females are, because we live in a patriarchal society and are immersed in rape culture and an epidemic of physical, sexual, social, emotional, and economic violence against women and girls.

And, I am a feminist.

I am a feminist because I listened to stories, and I read books, and I spoke with mentors and friends. And I grappled with the truth: we cannot truly get rid of the gender binary without also working to get rid of sexism. We cannot truly achieve gender liberation, sexual freedom, or economic prosperity until we tackle the patriarchy head-on and transform rape culture into a culture of personal agency, mutual consent, and universal human rights. Yes, I believe all humans are real humans, and I believe we need to protect the fundamental human rights of all humans. That’s why I’m a feminist. Finally.

5. Connection/ Community

Making Mistakes

I made a mistake today.  I left my reading glasses behind at the gym and had to go back to get them.  I’ll probably make a mistake tomorrow too, although I don’t know yet what it will be.  In fact, I’m going to make tons of mistakes this year, and actually I find that thought pretty frightening, given that it’s my first year of graduate school and my first year sharing a home with my partner.  Those are some huge responsibilities, and I shouldn’t be going around making so many mistakes.
Given the inevitability of mistake-making, the meaningful question is not whether I will make mistakes, but rather, which mistakes will I make?  Although mistakes are, by nature, accidental, I can still engage in a practice of intentional mistake management, choosing to increase my risk for making some mistakes while decreasing my risk for others.
In my mere two weeks as a graduate student, I’ve already made mistakes—for example, I responded to a question in class with the wrong answer.  But I’m ok with the risk of making that kind of mistake again because I’m in this program for the purpose of learning.  Others mistakes, however, I don’t want to repeat, like when I wore casual clothes to visit colleagues at another university.  I felt awkward and out of place.  Next time I’ll err on the side of dressing up.
Intentional mistake management could be a powerful concept for sexual health, as it offers a approach with more potential to promote sex-positive values in combination with risk reduction practices.
Since we all make so many mistakes, we’re going to make mistakes in our sex lives as well.  A person might kiss someone and later decide just to be friends. Another person might invite a date to stay overnight and in the morning yearn for solitude.
As an educator, I would ask people to consider which mistakes they are not willing to risk and which mistakes they could willingly leave themselves vulnerable to making.  Once people decide they are unwilling to mistakenly contract HIV, they can commit to using caution.  Once people decide they unwilling to mistakenly violate someone else’s boundaries, they can make a habit of asking for consent.
Most mistakes are tolerable.  Some are not.  To what extent do you think we can commit to preventing intolerable mistakes, in sex and in life? How do we discern which mistakes we can tolerate and which we cannot? Furthermore, how can sexuality education support individuals in making that determination for themselves?
5. Connection/ Community

My Personal Goals for Summer 2010

At my new job, I’ve been doing a lot of lesson planning about how to guide adolescents through the process of setting and achieving personal goals. When I write activities, I always like to try them myself. So, please enjoy this initial brainstorm of my summer goals:

• Write more (and post it online; hence this post)

• Demonstrate engagement and success at work

• Achieve and maintain physical health in body-positive ways

• Plan a wedding (the wedding of myself and my partner, to be exact)

• Review the statistics that I learned in college

• Launch a Sex Ed Team at the center where I’ve been teaching

• Strengthen my relationships with my partner, friends and family

All right! That’s a nice list. I’m pretty sure I have a to-do list somewhere, but that’s quite different from a set of overarching goals. Remember that this list is just a brainstorm, and I haven’t prioritized or expanded upon any of these goals. But I’m glad to share them.

I’ll elaborate on the first goal right now. I want to write more. I haven’t posted on this blog in month! I apologize profusely. At the same time, I want to validate that not every time of life is a time for writing. Some times are times for doing and speaking and listening and sleeping. The last few months of this spring, I was reading a lot and feeling a lot and thinking a lot, but I wasn’t pulling it together in writing. Over the course of this summer, I hope to express some of what I’ve been thinking about. But what do you want to hear? This blog is, in a large part, of course, for myself—but I’m also at the point at which I encounter about 5 topics each week about which I would love to write, and clearly they’re not all getting on here.

Do you want to hear my responses to other blog posts about sex ed and related issues? Do you want me to comment on the news? Do you want my reflections on my personal processes? More thoughts about education and how to teach this stuff to teenagers? More about politics, or about personal lives? I’d love some input and guidance.

In addition, I’d love to do some writing about the personal goals I listed above. Are there any of those that you’d like to hear more about? Do you have any suggestions or feedback for me as I explore these goals? Is there anything that I should be working on at this time that I blatantly missed? It’s just a brainstorm, so please forgive me if I did!

Well, I’m glad I started writing again, and I look forward to writing my second summer post next week.

5. Connection/ Community

No such thing as TMI?

I always have an issue when people use “TMI” to excuse their talking about their own sexual experiences. It’s not too much information– it’s exactly the information that I want to hear! That’s why I’m listening to them, as their friend/ counselor/ teacher who wants to know what their experiences are so we can learn together and think together about our real lives

Check out Thomas’s post on the Yes Means Yes blog.

However: A conversation I had last night brought up another layer to this discussion. Are there contexts in which sharing more details may make the listener uncomfortable? Yes, most likely. So? ASK! Check in. Ask for consent. “Can I tell you some more about…” Or, “I’d love to share some detail about… if you want to hear it!”

5. Connection/ Community, 6. Youth Development & Education

We are all potential acitvists

Dear students,

Remember that you are the ones with the most information about what’s going on in your lives and what you need. If you need better health education, speak up and ask for it. You told me that you felt sad and angry that the school committee had cut health class. You told me that you need to learn this health information, that you liked having a space to share your feelings and that you wanted more opportunities to ask your burning questions.

You deserve a health class, but you might need to fight for it. I’m not there to help you, but I do have some suggestions:

1. Start gathering your stories. Why do you need and want health class? Find examples from your experience this past year to show how health class helps you.

2. Work together. Share ideas, and encourage each other. Use the resources you always use to connect with your peers — the Internet, text messages, and gatherings at the mall or the park, for example.

3. Reach out to adults! They are the voters, the taxpayers, the ones with political power who are supposed to have your best interests in mind. Make sure they understand how you feel. Show them how health education gives you what they want for you. Get adults talking with each other, too.

4. Contact the press — the local papers, in print and online, are major venues for debates about public education. Use them to make your voice heard.

5. Convince the school committee. The school committee consists of elected adults from your city. It’s their decision, ultimately. Show them what you want and why you want it, and make them work for you the way they are supposed to.

To my students and to teenagers everywhere: Fight for the information, resources and support that you need in order to take great care of your health.

I believe in you.

With hope,

Ms. Arbeit

5. Connection/ Community

Please comment on my blog!

I’d like to take a step back and explain why I’m blogging in the first place.
* I love talking about sex ed, and I’m excited for any venue that helps me do so.
* I find it helpful to have an outlet for my own weekly opinions and reflections.
* I want to tell you what I’m thinking about! Well, I’d actually rather have a conversation with each of you face-to-face, but blogging at least seems like a good way to start a conversation.

Those are three things that I get from blogging — but I want things from you, too.

***I want you to comment! Is this too much to ask? I’ve been patient for the past two months, not pushing any of you. But I’m asking all of you, publicly, right now.

Please comment on my blog. I want to share my ideas and opinions — but more than that, I want to read your ideas and opinions. If you want to share something privately, you can e-mail me.

Your comments can describe whatever thoughts or feelings you have while reading the posts, or other ideas you have on the topic. Sorry, now I feel like I’m giving you a prompt for a writing assignment. Ah, teaching. But really, I didn’t intend for this to be such a one-way thing. I think there is much more transformational potential in processes of interaction.

I’m really enjoying the process of gathering my thoughts and expressing them, but I’d love even more to involve some interaction in this process. What do you want to read about? What kinds of things don’t you want to read?

Okay, there is my shameless plea.

Once a term I send out a worksheet asking my students and their families for feedback. Every day I’m paying attention to the more subtle ways in which my students react to my tone of voice, my lesson plans, and my assignments. Maybe I’m just not used to discussing sex education without constant feedback and judgment. What do you think?

5. Connection/ Community, 6. Youth Development & Education

Community

I want my students to grow up valuing community. I want them to identify as members of a community, and I want them to experience the power of community as a site for developing love, health and activism. Understanding ourselves as in community with each other can profoundly affect the way we function in our professional, personal and sexual lives. However, before I can use the concept of community as an educational tool, I want to understand how this value manifests in my own life.

These days, I think a lot about what it means to be growing up. The gendered aspects of growing up are the first to pop out at me, but that’s another blog post. Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of friends talking about wanting to achieve something they call independence. What is this independence of which you speak, and what makes it so cool? I seem to remember talk of such a thing back in high school, when I wanted to start buying my own clothes and driving myself around. But these days, I will only go clothes shopping with my mom, and if I can’t get a ride with friends then I just take public transit.

I enjoy these acts of dependence. The concept of dependence has been pathologized — if I wrote here that I feel dependent on a my mom, my friends, or my dating partner, many readers might judge that as unhealthy. But I do not desire independence. I am deeply connected to the people in my life, and they affect me emotionally, physically, professionally, and financially. I’m sensitive to the ebb and flow of these relationships, and I feel powerfully my potential to receive both pain and pleasure from my interactions with these people.

Wait… I started this argument with the concept of community, and now I’m at the concept of dependence. Let’s get back to community.

Just as I do not experience myself as an individual striving for independence, so too do I recognize that healthy relationships involve more than two people. All of my relationships have developed, healthy or not, in the context of a community. And just as I grow from embracing my dependence on my relationships, I believe that my relationships can grow from our mutual embracing of our dependence on community. For relationships to be healthy, the community that supports them must seek health as well . . .

5. Connection/ Community, 6. Youth Development & Education

Towards an Emotionally Intelligent Sex Ed Program

In addition to providing accurate and accessible information, sex ed teaches values, sending explicit or implicit messages to students about who they are, how to relate to others, and what roles to seek in society.

Schools end up teaching values wherever they want to or not. We need to take responsibility for the values and behavioral patterns we instill in students. One recent movement known as Character Education focuses on explaining what it means to have good character and be a good citizen. A new approach that can be called Emotional Education has the capacity to go deeper than that. I read about emotional education recently in the book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, and I’m enthralled.

Emotional education and sexuality education are inextricable from one another. In order to learn how to develop sexual agency, we need to know how to identify our own emotions and figure out what we want. In order to negotiate with potential sexual partners, we need to know how to recognize and respond to other people’s emotions. In order to develop healthy relationships, we need to communicate, debate and support each other in emotionally healthy ways.

Emotional education must also be antiracist, feminist education. In order to support all of our students, we must ensure that they receive the instruction and encouragement that they need, intentionally countering legacies of oppression and instead providing them all with opportunities for development as full and complex emotional beings. While the imperative to bring in the political analysis may not seem as obvious, I believe it is an essential basic element of such a curriculum.

I’m excited to continue to explore the potential for teaching about sex in the context of emotional education.