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

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!