7. 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!

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

Interviewed for The Academic Feminist

Gwendolyn at Feministing.com interviewed me for her Academic Feminist series. I loved the experience so much, and really appreciated the questions she asked. I’m excited to see more entries into her series, and also to continue thinking about the issues she brought up and expressing my thoughts here on this blog.

Read the interview, and let me know if you have any follow-up questions 🙂

7. Research & Academia

My first Giant Academic Conference: The Society for Research on Child Development

This post is my attempt to summarize some of my recent thoughts on directions for research with the potential to transform the way we design and implement sex education. I just got back from spending three days in Montreal with lots and lots of developmental scientists. At the conference, I found many sessions that could help me think about—and connect with others who are thinking about—adolescent sexual health and its role in normative, positive development.
Among variables that help us measure adolescent sexual development, age at first sex gets a lot of attention. One aspect of this discussion is whether or not “onset” of sexual activity in middle adolescence can be healthy as opposed to inherently risky. The average age of first sex in the United States is 17, so that means many teens have had sex before age 17, too. Discussing this question in one session gave rise to a magnificent group insight: What if we look at the content of adolescents’ sexual experiences, the meaning they make of sex and the thoughts and feelings they have before and after sex, instead of judging them for engaging in a behavior that can have such a myriad of situation-dependent positive, negative, and neutral consequences?
So the next question is, as researchers, how do we do that? Here are some ideas I had while in Montreal:
1. We need to start asking about the nature of consent in adolescent sexual experiences. I saw many interesting studies that gathered detailed information from college students about their sexual activity and other factors such as body image and sexual satisfaction, for example. However, I did not see any studies that asked college students whether of not the sex they had was consensual—whether they had wanted it, or whether they felt pressured. I want to know.
2.  We need to study sexual activity as if it takes place between two people, as if two people are doing it together. I saw some great research on sexual behavior, and some great research on romantic relationships, but not a whole lot of attention paid to the fact that much sexual behavior takes place in the context of a romantic (or sexual) relationship. Not necessarily a committed, long-term relationship, but some kind of interpersonal dynamic. And that dynamic—the emotional and social content of the interaction between those individuals—is an important part of the immediate context that can directly influence the healthfulness and hurtfulness of sexual activity.
3. We need to study the effects of gender roles and gender socialization on adolescents’ sexual identities and behaviors in more and more complex and nuanced ways. I went to sessions on the sexualization of girls, and I went to sessions on masculinity, and I went to sessions on racial socialization. All the sessions address intertwining themes, but most of the research presented missed some very important points: mainly, what the other researchers were discovering. Extensive collaboration can allow us to study the effects of the systems of power and privilege that structure today’s society. We will need to reach outside of the field of sexuality and sexual health in order to return to these issues with a new perspective and a transformed vision for change.
What else do you think sexual health researchers need to consider? What questions would you like to pose regarding the developmental course of adolescent sexuality?
6. Youth Development & Education, 7. Research & Academia

I’m studying adolescent sexuality!

About a year and a half ago, I began pursuit of a new stage of my career. As I spoke with other sexuality educators and activists, I became acutely aware of the need for research on adolescent sexuality that can inform effective sexuality education programs. I decided to apply to graduate school so that I could do this research.

I am honored to say that I just began a Ph.D. program in Child Development at Tufts University. Throughout my five years as a student at Tufts, I will be working as a research assistant at the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development, directed by Dr. Richard Lerner.

Dr. Lerner’s work appeals to me because of his strength-based approach to the study of adolescence, known as positive youth development (PYD). As the wording suggests, PYD is to the concept of adolescence what sex-positivity is to sexuality. What is “adolescent negativity,” you might ask? Dr. Lerner cites the stereotyping of adolescence as a period of “storm and stress,” one crisis followed by another, in which all that parents can do is make sure their kids aren’t on drugs or dropping out of school. But that’s not the whole story, nor is it the most healthy and helpful perspective. In fact, adolescents have all sorts of strengths and tons of potential.

Having a positive view on the potential of adolescents to be happy, healthy and productive people is a prerequisite to believing in the benefits of educating adolescents in a sex-positive way.

I plan to use the positive youth development approach for the study of adolescent sexual development, focusing on how school-based curricula and programs can proactively support adolescents in developing sexual agency, sexual ethics, and the social, emotional, and cognitive skills relevant to making healthy decisions and engaging in fulfilling relationships.

I face many challenges in pursuing this research, not the least of which is managing the sex-negativity that impedes even preliminary attempts to gather data from adolescents about their sexual beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. But I’m going to figure it out, and it will be worth it!