1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 8. Sex Ed... Sexual Violence Prevention... and Gender Justice

Be Better to Me than Aziz was to Grace (A Script of What He Could Have Done)

I wrote a fan fiction spin-off of Grace’s story in Babe. I didn’t write it for Grace or for Aziz Ansari — I wrote it for all the people calling those events “normal,” and for all the people recalling their own stories, and for all the people who don’t know how he could have done any better. HE COULD HAVE DONE BETTER. And you can, too. Let’s just consider really specifically what “better” might have sounded like.



G: Why, what nice countertops you have.

A: Want to hop up and take a seat?

G: (Laughs, slides up)

A: Mhmm, this is a good height for me to kiss you. Can I kiss you?

G: Mhmm… (they kiss)

A: How about these clothes, how about we…

G: Mhmm, not yet…

A: Ok.



A: I’m going to grab a condom.

G: Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill.

A: Oh, ok. Can I keep kissing you? Or, do you want to get down from the countertop?

G: (Slides her feet back to the floor.)



A: (Pulls her hand towards his penis.)

G: (Pulls her hand away.)

A: I want you to touch me. I want to feel your hands on me.

G: (Looks uncomfortable, shakes her head.)

A: Oh, not if you don’t want to. (Puts his fingers in her mouth.) Do you want me to touch you?

G: (Shakes her head again, laughs a little nervously.)

A: Ok! Ok, I hear you. Can I keep kissing you?



G: (Stops moving her hand, moves away from him.)

A: Are you okay? What do you want, what would feel good?



A: Where do you want me to fuck you?

G: Next time.

A: Oh, you mean not tonight?

G: Yeah.

A: I hope for another night then. What do you want to do tonight? A glass of water, a glass of wine, watch a movie, get an uber?



G: I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you.

A: Oh, of course, it’s only fun if we’re both having fun. I don’t want to force you, and I don’t want you to feel forced. What would help? Do you want me to get you an uber? Do you want to sit with me on the couch?

G: I’ll come sit with you.

A: Can I do something to help? Rub your shoulders, turn on the TV?

G: Yes, please!



A: (After the episode of Seinfeld finishes.) Thanks for staying and cuddling. Can I kiss you again? Or shall I get you an uber?

G: An uber, thanks.

A: Just tell them your name is…


1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

I first need to name what I am afraid of.

I am afraid of hurting you. I am afraid that the hurt inside me will become aggression, need, demand, overwhelm, that I will push and pull and tear and break. I am afraid of hurling my trauma around irrevocably and causing more trauma. I am afraid of repeating the cycle of violence.

I am afraid of leaving you. I am afraid of changing my mind, of not being sure, of wanting more, or wanting less, or not wanting the same thing. I am afraid of all my imperfections, and of your imperfections, and of the inevitable scrapes and scratches we endure as we try to fit together like the puzzle pieces we aren’t. I am afraid it won’t work.

And I’m afraid for myself. I am afraid for my reputation, for what people will say, or not say, or see, or not see. I am afraid of being seen as sexual, of my sexuality being seen as hurtful (because it might be). I am afraid of being seen as emotional, as messy, for all my trauma and all my defenses and all my mistakes and mistakes and mistakes. I am afraid of shame.

What would I do if I weren’t afraid?

Ask if I could kiss you.

It’s that simple.

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 5. Connection/ Community

5 Strategies for Surviving Psychological Abuse on a National Scale

This piece was originally posted on February 8, 2017 on the Society for Research on Adolescence Emerging Scholars blog.

Alternating between mocking and manipulative platitudes.

Outright lying.

These are all aspects of intimate partner abuse. Or, to speak in terms of adolescents, tactics of teen dating violence. This is what I study and teach about – what I work to prevent, understand, and address. This is something I’ve lived through, too.

I never thought it would be so politically relevant.

There is so much that is not normal that is coming out of the White House right now. The discriminatory posturing from the campaign trail is turning into actual discriminatory policies. What I’m talking about is not just those specific policies but the comprehensive pattern of behavior towards entire segments of the population (including scientists and academics). Repeatedly, survivors of domestic abuse and other abusive relationships have spoken up about the ways in which they are triggered and traumatized by Trump’s bullying, lying, victim-blaming, and other forms of psychological manipulation and devastation.

So from educators, organizers, researchers, and people who themselves have lived through these experiences – here are five ways we can use knowledge about surviving abusive relationships to guide our collective resilience in 2017.

1. Don’t blame – Recognize abuse of power for what it is.

When harm occurs, the people responsible for that harm are the ones who chose to use their power to exert undue control. This harm can include grief, fear, loss of resources, loss of security, injury, and death. Don’t blame the victims. No one deserves to be hurt. Keep the focus on the ones causing harm – and don’t let them off the hook.

2. Don’t gaslight – Believe people’s reports of their own experiences.

Gaslighting is an abusive tactic that denies a person’s experience of reality until that person can no longer trust their own truth. When people are getting hurt, or when people are scared of getting hurt, we must believe them. Even if we can’t see it, and we can’t imagine their fear or anger or distress being warranted in this moment. The psychological effects of abuse and trauma may seem like overreactions to people who aren’t living within that experience, but they are not overreactions. To best take care of each other, we need to first believe each other, and bear witness to the painful nuances of what is happening.

3. Don’t numb out – Name your feelings, and engage in active coping.

I’m asking you to stick with the hard stuff. We live in a world where fear, anger, abuse, and trauma are real every day, and we’re going to need ways to feel as much of it as possible. Naming difficult emotions helps us accept and move through them. Journaling, taking physical care of ourselves, and finding others to give and receive care with, can help us build our capacity to hold and live with these difficult feelings. Emotions carry important information about how we are doing and how other people are doing. We can’t ignore these signals – we must feel, and respond.

4. Don’t isolate – Reach out and connect with family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors.

Isolation makes us even more vulnerable to psychological control and emotional despair. Avoiding blame and avoiding gaslighting are all about making space to actually listen. Paying attention to our emotions lets us share our emotions with each other. Talk to people about your truth and your feelings. Name what you see. Hear their feelings. Hear what they see. Be willing to hear more from people around you and notice more about other people’s experiences than you have before. Refuse to normalize – and insist on caring about all of it.

5. Don’t bargain – Hold firm boundaries around what is okay and what is not okay.

It’s insidious. Abuse is so unreasonable, and it’s so hard to believe that doing reasonable things will not lead to reasonable outcomes. “If I could only…” or “if I did it right next time then…” will not work. There is nothing we can do to change the behavior of an abusive person. We will want to think we have figured it out, but we haven’t. Holding boundaries is the primary thing that will get us out. We cannot end the abuse – we can only resist control.

One more thing that helped me, and that has helped many young people, is understanding how abusive relationships are produced through oppressive social systems. Patriarchy, racism, and imperialism are all systems of abuse in which power is used to exert undue control over others. We can work together to address abuse – from preventing teen dating violence to curbing this spiral of political violence – by ending these systems of oppression. And we can only get to ending these systems of oppression if we know how to survive the psychological abuse perpetrated through them.

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 7. Research & Academia, 9. Racial Justice (Smash White Supremacy)

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.
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.

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships



CW: sexual assault, silence



I spent this morning working on a paper about training undergrads in bystander intervention to stop sexual assault. One thing about bystander intervention is though, it absolutely wouldn’t have helped me.


There were no warning signs – definitely not in public, anyway. And there was no one else around when it happened. I willingly went to his house. Eagerly, even. He was a dear friend, and I was so touched when he asked me to come over. Sure we had a history, and I’d loved him in some way, and we made out once, years before.


I went over as friends. Not that I wouldn’t have considered it in general but… there was just too much else going on. And I told him as much that night, too. He kissed me and I pulled back: “I can’t. There’s just too much else going on.”


Please don’t tell me what I should have said next. That was a no. And I figured no was enough. I thought no was enough. I thought no was enough.



He kissed me again, moving in, and I froze. I dissociated. As I said previously, I had so much else going on. I was so traumatized in so many ways already and had spent much of the previous six months pretty dissociated already so, I dissociated. So, that’s what happened.


When I told my closest guy friend a week later, he asked why I didn’t call him to pick me up. How do you figure out, at 19 years old, amidst so many other crises, that this particular crisis is worth calling a friend in the middle of the night to drive an hour to come pick you up? And if he does wake up and answer your call, and if he does come pick you up, then would he also return with you the next morning to get your parents’ car back? Because I drove myself to that place to begin with. Willingly. Eagerly. Having planned to sleep over, I was in no state to change those plans and drive myself home. I hate driving on a good day, but also like, being even a little intoxicated, and being in a lot of shock, no way.

I slept over, woke him up in the morning to get directions to the highway, and never spoke to him again.

He didn’t go to my college. He went to a college, and I went to a college, but it wasn’t the same college, and we weren’t on campus when it happened, and honestly I don’t even know if I would have thought to report it. I told my two best friends from my dorm because we talked about consent and sexual assault all the time anyway. I told that one guy friend who then asked me why I hadn’t called him for help. And there were a few other people I tried to tell but I couldn’t, or didn’t, or something. I didn’t tell my parents for many, many years.

Today I was working on a paper about bystander intervention programs and I was struggling, because it’s hot and I was working late last night and I’m tired. I was really struggling, and then I took a break and realized, I need to write this first. When I tell myself this story I tend to think of it as relatively mild, but I would never call sexual assault mild if anyone else were talking about it. I guess for me it’s as I said, there was so much going on in my life right then, so even at the time, it felt mild compared to the other things. But it had a serious impact on me, then and, in some predictable and some surprising ways, continuing to now.

About a year and a half after it happened, I was lying on the table in one of many physical therapy appointments, as the physical therapist was trying to decipher the odd patterns of tension, inflammation, and pain in my body. He asked me, carefully, if I’d ever been sexually assaulted. I said no. I had spend so much effort keeping this secret that I just said no instinctually. I went numb; I knew I was lying. To this day I wonder what I might have learned about my body, and what health care I might have received, if I were able to answer truthfully sooner, or if he were able to stay with the question long enough to hear the real answer.

I do believe he saw something real. The place he was looking, the injury he was examining, that was a real injury. That was a real thing that happened. And it hurt.

I am sacred and more than enough.

So are you.

There’s no particular institution I can ask to #JustSaySorry. But Wagatwe Wanjuki and Kamilah Willingham are doing exactly that, addressing Tuftsand Harvard, respectively. Follow what they’re doing over the next few weeks and send some cash to their org, Survivors Eradicating Rape Culture, to support them in this exhausting work of action and healing, healing and action.


Update: I am now involved in fundraising for Survivors Eradicating Rape Culture — please contribute!

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 3. Queer Stuff

So you’re trying to figure me out?

I am a divorced pansexual queer femme trauma survivor.
I am a smart successful sensitive spiritual progressive Jew.
I am a caring compassionate anti-racist White feminist.
I am layers of nightmare and daydream and full, raw presence.
I am hope and hurt and growth.
I am sweet caresses and confusion.

I am too much.
I am not enough.
I am busy.
I am deeply connected and loving and open.
I am alone and coping and yearning.

I am vulnerable.
I am incredibly strong.
I am not here to play games.

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 7. 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 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 >
1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 7. 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.
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.
1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships

“Benign” Rape

Warning – this story contains explicit descriptions of sexual violence.

The writer of this piece wishes to remain anonymous. She sent her story to me to share publicly in case her reflections can help someone else. I’m sharing an edited version in my weekly column, The Debrief, as part of a series for April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The editors of that site requested that I remove the explicit details before posting it there. To remain true to the story as the writer wanted it told, I am posting the full piece below.
I thought after my first experience that it would be over. That I would be smart enough to not put myself in those situations again. I would no longer be naïve; I would no longer be desperate. I would no longer be that girl. Yet, as I have grown older, as I became less desperate and less naïve, it still happened.
I was 20 the first time. It was Halloween and I dressed up as Loki from Dogma with one of my best friends as Bartleby. It was actually a pretty good costume. We went to a party hosted by friends of friends, and I met him. He had longer hair than I would have preferred, but he wasn’t unattractive, and I liked the attention at the moment. We talked, invited him to the Rocky Horror Show event that I managed at college, and things kind of moved forward after that. I cannot actually remember if we ever went on any dates, but at one point I went over to his apartment for dinner and a double date with his roommate.
As the night drew to a close, we went into his bedroom. Clothes came off, things started to happen. Then the question came. “Are you ready? Do you want to do it?” My body was telling me yes, my heart and head were screaming, “Is this the man I want to lose it to?” I said yes. He went into the bathroom to get a condom and while he was gone, I realized that I wasn’t ready. That he wasn’t the one I wanted to lose it to and basically: what the fuck am I doing here. When he came back from the bathroom I told him that I’m sorry, I can’t do it. I’m not ready and you could tell—at least I thought you could tell—that I was freaking out a bit. He told me it was okay, and we started making out again.
As we were making out, with him on top of me, he started trying to have sex with me. I remember trying to push him away and of course not succeeding. This man had way more power than I did. All of a sudden he pushed in. But I realized he pushed in a different spot. He raped me anally. Now I didn’t scream, I didn’t push him off me, I didn’t say anything. I didn’t even sink my teeth in somewhere to get him off me. No, instead, my mind left my body. I was in so much pain, I was crying and all I could think of were shining rainbows and bunnies. I kept thinking to myself: “find your happy place”.
He finished. Got off me and went to the bathroom. I just laid there. My eyes had no more life. I felt like my spirit was gone. It was as if not just my body was raped, not just me as a person, but also my soul. He came back from the bathroom to tell me the condom had broken and that he would pray for me. All I could think was, “Jewish people don’t say that, and I’m Jewish.”
For six weeks after that, I stuck with it. Having him force me to have sex every night he came over, finding ways to push him physically off me even though he was stronger than me. Trying to deny and deny what was happening to me. Until finally he put my head against the dashboard and stood up, stuck his penis in my mouth and made me give him a blow job. Suddenly I couldn’t breathe. I tried to get him off me, and all he wanted was to finish. I finally realized: “Who am I? This isn’t me. I am not that girl who gets sexually abused.” Soon the flashes of reality came back to me, the choking, the helplessness as he holds down my arms and my only weapon are my legs, my fear, it just kept hitting me. Finally he came, I started chocking, and I kicked him out. Told him to get out of my life.
I felt like I learned my lesson, and I would never let that happen again. I would be stronger, no more fear. I would stand up for myself.
Well that turned out to be true bullshit. Things kept happening. Men forcing sex on me, men forcing their penis inside the ass when I didn’t want it. I would repeatedly say no, no, I don’t want it… and then my favorite line: “Oh honey, you know you’ll like it. How do you know unless you try it?” Then of course lube is on and it’s in. As they grunt and move back and forth, I am again in excruciating pain, almost in tears. They can’t understand why I bleed so profusely during and after.
When I explained my rape to someone they said: “Oh, so it was a benign rape.” Why was it benign? Because my clothes weren’t ripped off? Because I didn’t kick and scream at the top of my lungs? Because I did not tear my nails in his skin while running to the cops?
No, I didn’t report my rape or my abuse. No, I haven’t reported anything I have gone through with these men.
There is nothing about my rape that is benign. Benign rape is just as bad as “bad” rape. If that is even a term.
Questions run rampant: Can I ever find a relationship that is normal? A relationship that is healthy? A man who won’t force anything? Someone who will respect me? Give me the love that I deserve?
I don’t know the answers. But I am tired of these situations. I am tired of constantly feeling like maybe it will be all right in the end. It’s not all right.  None of this is okay.
The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center provides free and confidential services to victims of sexual assault, survivors of sexual assault, and their friends and family. The hotline is a 24-hour service provided to help anyone affected by sexual assault: (800) 841-8371.


1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 6. Youth Development & Education

Testimony for An Act Relative to Healthy Youth


***Testimony of Miriam R. Arbeit, M.A. in support of***
***H. 450/S. 209 An Act Relative to Healthy Youth***
May 14, 2013
Chairwoman Chang-Diaz, Chairwoman Peisch, and members of the Joint Committee on Education, I, Miriam R. Arbeit, am pleased to offer this testimony in support of H. 450/S. 209, An Act Relative to Healthy Youth.
I am a third-year doctoral student working on my Ph.D. in Child Development at Tufts University. As a youth development researcher, I enthusiastically commend the beneficial impact this bill would have on the youth and families of the Commonwealth.
An Act Relative to Healthy Youthis a critical legislative initiative that will help more young people have access to comprehensive, medically accurate, and age-appropriate sexual health education. It will also ensure that no young people are shamed or taught lies about their bodies and their choices while in public school.
In my research institute at Tufts, we study Positive Youth Development in diverse adolescents across the country, which means we see young people as resources to be developed, not as problems to be managed1. This approach makes a vital difference when it comes to supporting adolescent health. For all of us – youth and adults – sex is an area of our lives that can be both positive and challenging – and, yes, even risky2.  The best way to promote sexual health and address sexual risk is to talk about it. Sex education is a perfect opportunity for youth to develop skills like communication, healthy relationships, decision-making, planning, and critical thinking3. Such life skills can contribute to their positive development throughout adolescence and into adulthood4.
The power of this bill is that it sets meaningful standards for our schools. We don’t have to tell districts that they must include algebra in their math curricula, or that they cannot say triangles have five sides. But, unfortunately, we very much need to send these messages to districts regarding sex education: they cannot spread lies and they cannot omit vital information.
I used to be a health teacher in a Massachusetts school district. The health curriculum explicitly included sex ed and it was my job to teach HIV prevention to all of my students. But I was warned NOT to teach about homosexuality, condoms, or birth control, and not to discuss oral or anal sex.
How is anyone supposed to teach HIV prevention without discussing the life-saving potential of a correctly-used latex condom? How is anyone supposed to teach pregnancy prevention without discussing safe hormonal birth control methods and other medically available options? How is anyone supposed to promote sexual health without acknowledging the sexual world students already observe in the media every day5,6?
I made a worksheet on the concept of consent. The goal was to establish the standard that when two people kiss each other or engage in other activities, it must be something they both want and agree to do.
I was reprimanded for making this worksheet and prohibited from discussing it with my students.
In 2011, 84% of high school students in the Commonwealth said they learned about HIV/AIDS in school and 49% said they learned how to use a condom7. That means that over one-third of our high school students learned about HIV without learning how to use condoms. What were they learning? There was nothing in place to protect those young people from the lies and shame that are too frequently invoked in the name of prevention. Such an approach leaves young people vulnerable to sexual coercion and more likely to have sex without protection8,9.
It does not have to be this way. If schools provide sex education, we must require them to do it well.
We all agree that young people need quality education. And quality education includes medically-accurate, age-appropriate, comprehensive sexual health information. An Act Relative to Healthy Youth is one important step towards promoting the positive development of young people and helping them thrive in all areas of their lives.
Please Give a Favorable Report to An Act Relative to Healthy Youth
(H. 450/S. 209)
1. Lerner RM, Lerner JV, von Eye A, Bowers EP, Lewin-Bizan S. Individual and contextual bases of thriving in adolescence: a view of the issues. Journal of adolescence. 2011;34(6):1107–14. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22056088. Accessed June 13, 2012.
2. Tolman DL, McClelland SI. Normative Sexuality Development in Adolescence: A Decade in Review, 2000-2009. Journal of Research on Adolescence. 2011;21(1):242–255. Available at: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/j.1532-7795.2010.00726.x. Accessed March 8, 2013.
3. Kirby D. Emerging Answers 2007: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy; 2007:72–81. Available at: http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/EA2007/EA2007_full.pdf.
4. Lerner RM. Liberty: Thriving and civic engagement among American youth. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications; 2004.
5. Kim JL, Sorsoli CL, Collins K, et al. From sex to sexuality: exposing the heterosexual script on primetime network television. Journal of sex research. 2007;44(2):145–57. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17599272.
6. Ward LM. Understanding the role of entertainment media in the sexual socialization of American youth: A review of empirical research. Developmental Review. 2003;23(3):347–388. Available at: http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0273229703000133. Accessed February 28, 2013.
7. Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Health and Risk Behaviors of Massachusetts Youth. 2012;(May). Available at: http://www.doe.mass.edu/cnp/hprograms/yrbs/2011Report.pdf.
8. Fine MM, McClelland SI. Still Missing after All These Years. Harvard Educational Review. 2006;76(3):297–338.
9. Santelli J, Ott MA, Lyon M, et al. Abstinence and abstinence-only education: a review of U.S. policies and programs. The Journal of Adolescent Health. 2006;38(1):72–81. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16387256. Accessed July 24, 2012.