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

Published Paper on Stopping Fascist Recruitment of Youth

I am thrilled to share this paper, just published, which I have been working on the past year.

Youth Practitioners Can Counter Fascism: What We Know and What We Need

  • By me, Sarah Burnham, Duane de Four, and Heather Cronk.

This paper integrates antifascism with youth development practices to present three ways in which youth development practitioners can stop fascist, White nationalist, and misogynist groups from recruiting young people into their ranks.

Download the full pdf from the Journal of Youth Development


Please share with anyone who spends time with youth — as a teacher, parent, coach, mentor, religious leader, or friend.

Please also share with anyone who might want to join my lab to get a PhD in developmental psychology while working on this stuff 🙂

Share widely! Use #YouthEquitySexualityLab on social media.

I welcome any feedback, questions, or reflections you have in response to this paper. I know it is deeply imperfect. This paper, or any paper, will not in itself stop fascism. I hope this paper helps some people take action in ways that will contribute to the fight against fascism. I hope.

P.S. Words cannot express my eternal gratitude for my co-authors on this project, each of whom made this paper significantly better than it could have been without them. My first-ever doctoral student mentee, Sarah Burnham, jumped right in to help significantly on the background research and crafting of the ideas. My longtime friend-colleague Duane de Four contributed his deep experience and keen analysis. And Heather Cronk — thank you for the many conversations that helped conceive and deepen this paper, and for your ongoing mentorship, friendship, and encouragement that helped me feel these risks could be worth it.

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

Fall 2020 will be difficult

Dear students,

Fall 2020 will be difficult. We are entering a historically difficult semester, and this time we are entering it knowing that it will be difficult, unlike Spring 2020, a historically difficult semester that most of us entered unknowingly.

Life changed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic less than six months ago. Even for those of us who have been mostly safe during that time, we may still be absorbing the shock of the enormous sudden changes we had to make to our personal and professional lives.

And many are dealing with harder things on top of that. Some of you may have been sick, or had friends or family members get sick, or even lost friends or family members. Some people may be coping with loss of jobs, housing, stability. Some people may be struggling with social isolation. Some people may be reeling from the ongoing police violence this summer, or may be exhausted from personal effort invested in the ongoing fight for racial justice. There is a lot. This Spring was a lot; this Summer was a lot.

This Fall? Will probably be a lot, too. This Fall will feature a U.S. presidential election amidst ongoing uncertainty, as we continue to watch the course of COVID-19 in our local and global communities, as we continue to seek equity and justice throughout our society. And, in the midst of all this, we will come together to learn and teach.

Just because we have had some time to prepare for online courses does not mean this is normal. I do not believe we have to normalize what we are doing in order to engage in it authentically. In fact, I believe that acknowledging at the start that this is hard, and weird, and this may be a hard and weird semester, will give us the psychological space to try our best given the circumstances.

My hope is that both the content and the community of this course will be meaningful to you, and will be a positive part of your life this Fall. I invite you to approach the course with that hope and to collaborate with me to fulfill it. We will spend some time in our first two sessions talking about the course goals, and guidelines we can use to pursue those goals. Think about what you want from the course, and what might help you get what you want and need this semester. I am here to help. Perhaps there are ways your classmates can help as well. 

We will get through this together as best we can. And together, perhaps we will not only get through, but also get something out of it, something that we can carry with us to whatever comes next, in our personal, professional, and political journeys.

Thank you for including me in this part of your journey. I look forward to working with you.


Dr. Arbeit

6. Youth Development & Education, 8. Sex Ed... Sexual Violence Prevention... and Gender Justice

5 Ways Sexual Objectification in Mainstream Media can Impact Adolescent Viewers

This piece was originally posted on May 3, 2018 with the Society for Research on Adolescence.

Adolescents learn about themselves, their bodies, and how to be a person in the world in many ways — from each other, from their families and schools, and also from popular culture. While most of these sources of influence can be facilitated intentionally by parents and educators, what happens in popular media cannot be controlled. However, parents and educators and other people supporting the positive development of adolescents can take an active role in helping young people understand and navigate the impact of popular media. To contribute to that process, this blog post examines one aspect of sexism in popular media: sexual objectification.

Sexual objectification of women means treating women as sexual objects. Sexual objectification is when people are treated more like things (as in, physical objects) than as people who are complicated cognitive social emotional human beings. Focusing on parts of a body is one example of something that is sexually objectifying; another example is presenting bodies as interchangeable.

The American Psychological Association (APA) Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls released a 2007 report about the impacts of media that sexually objectify women and girls. This report lead to further research in communications, cognitive psychology, human sexuality development, and other interrelated disciplines. Dr. Monique Ward then authored a review of the empirical research on this topic published 1995-2015.

Ward reviewed empirical studies published from 1995 to 2015 that identify effects of exposure to sexually objectifying media, through experimental lab studies or through everyday life. In Ward’s review, she found that exposure to sexually objectifying media can contribute to:

  • Self objectification: When people perceive or treat themselves as sexual objects. (How do I look? What will others think when they see me? Do I measure up?)
  • Body dissatisfaction: Endorsement of a cultural body ideal dissonant with how people see themselves, that makes people unhappy about their own bodies (although idealized body standards may vary cross-culturally)
  • Sexist beliefs: Seeing women as less than human, seeing women as interchangeable, erasing women’s inner lives (e.g., thoughts and feelings), and having negative judgments of sexualized people.,
  • Tolerance of violence against women: Blaming women for their own sexual victimization. Expressing attitudes that support rape and sexual harassment and actually engaging in sexual or gender-based harassment.
  • Objectified sexual experiences: Boys exposed to sexually objectifying media are more likely to focus on the body size and shape of girls they want to date and are more anxious about their own appearance. Youth of all genders may be more self-conscious of their body while engaging in sexual activity.

How prevalent is sexual objectification? Ward reported that sexually objectifying portrayals have been found for:

Knowing these potential effects of sexual objectification in media can equip teenagers to better critique and resist the media they consume. Furthermore, teenagers need to be aware that watching a movie or following a television series is not a benign hobby — everything we do shapes our experience of ourselves and others. Sexual objectification is just one of the many ways the impact of sexist media could be considered. There are other forms of sexualization discussed in the APA report, as well as other aspects of sexual scripts, toxic gender norms, and rape culture to consider.

Young people can also use this information to advocate for change. They can choose to support the Hollywood actresses naming their own experiences of sexual assault behind the screens through #MeToo and saying #TimesUp on sexism in the entertainment industry, both on screen and off. They can advocate for educational opportunities to help buffer the effects of pervasive sexism and sexual objectification, such as ways to build media literacy skills and ways to access comprehensive sexual health education that can strengthen their development of embodied sexual agency. They can also choose to support shows with complex, agentic characters like the Black teenage girl scientist-heroes Meg and Shuri in A Wrinkle in Time and Black Panther, respectively. Youth themselves can make choices about what messages they are exposed to and how they respond to those messages.

Note: The literature on sexual objectification for the most part takes a binary approach to gender, assessing the impact of sexualized media on girls or boys, often within a heterosexual framework. More research is needed to understand the impact of sexual objectification in media for queer youth, trans youth, and youth with non-binary gender identities. Furthermore, a growing body of literature addresses intersections of gender and race, for example, in how feminine and masculine body ideals and physical desirability itself is strongly racialized within the context of American popular culture that idealizes Whiteness.

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

How to Support the Adolescent Activists in your Life

UVA students standing in front of an image of Thomas Jefferson, holding a sign that reads "200 years of white supremacy."

This piece was originally posted on March 16, 2018 with the Society for Research on Adolescence.

We are watching them mobilize across the country: youth fighting for gun control; youth fighting for a Clean DREAM Act; youth fighting against police brutality and structural racism. Here are ways you can offer support to the adolescent activists in your life — and maybe also help a young person along the pathway to plugging into these social movements for change.

1. Provide Access to Knowledge — the kind they don’t (often) teach in schools

Stephen Russell, Anna Muraco, Aarti Subramaniam, and Carolyn Laub conducted focus groups with student leaders of high school Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA) to talk about empowerment, and they asked participants what aspects of their GSA involvement helped them become empowered. The study found that youth talked about “having and using knowledge” as one key aspect of empowerment. Useful types of knowledge included information about their rights as students and how to advocate for their rights within the school system, and facts that they could use to dispel discriminatory homophobic beliefs. In addition, GSA leaders benefited from knowledge about different approaches to organizing and activism, and how to connect the work they were doing together to broader social movements that they are now a part of. (Side note: Emma Gonzalez, one of the Parkland student activists, is President of her school’s GSA.)

2. Foster Critical Consciousness — reflect and act, act and reflect

Knowledge is not always sufficient to motivate action and change. Paulo Freire’s theory of critical consciousnessidentified the dynamic relationship between reflection and action — we need to think critically about the world, take action within the world towards change, think critically about what we learn from those actions, and return to further action, iteratively. Matthew Diemer, Luke Rapa, Catalina Park, and Justin Perry used a survey study of predominantly Black and biracial high school youth to identify three components of critical consciousness:

  • Critical reflection on perceived inequality involves “critical analysis of socioeconomic, racial/ethnic, and gendered constraints on educational and occupational opportunity.”
  • Critical reflection on egalitarianism means “endorsement of societal equality, or all groups of people treated as equals within society.”
  • Critical action entails “participation in social and political activities to change perceived inequalities.”

3. Help youth Organize! — build collective power

Youth don’t have to act alone! Critical action — and critical reflection, too — do not and perhaps should not have to be seen as isolated, individualistic processes. Ben Kirshner and Shawn Ginwright identify youth organizing as a powerful developmental context to promote thriving among youth of color, with regard to individual development, community development, and promoting social movements. They define youth organizing as “a form of civic engagement in which young people identify common interests, mobilize their peers, and work collectively to address quality-of-life and human rights issues in their schools and communities.” In other words, it’s about young people connecting with each other and collaborating to leverage power towards achieving the changes that they need for themselves and the people around them to thrive.

Providing youth access to knowledge, fostering critical consciousness, and helping youth organize are ways for adults to support youth activism whether as a parent, teacher, youth group leader, or simply through an informal connection with a certain young person. Youth are leading us towards necessary social change. We have the opportunity not only to applaud them, but also to equip them to become their most fierce and most effective selves.

6. Youth Development & Education, 9. Racial Justice (Smash White Supremacy)

Time to Mobilize: Youth Development Scholars and the Movement for Black Lives

This piece was originally posted on September 6, 2016 on the YN Blog of Youth-Nex, the University of Virginia Center to Promote Effective Youth Development.

The Movement for Black Lives is a coalition of more than 50 organizations fighting for Black liberation and for the end of state-sanctioned violence against Black people and communities.

The platform is divided into six sets of demands.

To examine how these demands relate to our work as scholars of youth development, we needn’t look any further than the first demand of the first set:

  1. An immediate end to the criminalization and dehumanization of Black youth across all areas of society including, but not limited to; our nation’s justice and education systems, social service agencies, and media and pop culture. This includes an end to zero-tolerance school policies and arrests of students, the removal of police from schools, and the reallocation of funds from police and punitive school discipline practices to restorative services.

This is not hypothetical. This is not up for empirical debate. This is happening, across all areas of society, as in, all the areas of youth lives that we study. And this is urgent.

“The urgency around Black Lives is not only relevant to scholars who list “race” among their research interests. It is relevant to ALL of us whose work touches our nation’s justice and education systems, social service agencies, and media and pop culture.”

And we’re not just talking about research, either. This past spring, Elise Harris, Lisette DeSouza, and I organized a one-day #BlackLivesMatter pre-conference for the Society for Research on Adolescence in Baltimore. (Huge thanks to the many Youth-Nex faculty and alumni who contributed. And work with us to get ready for Minneapolis next spring!) The central focus of the day was a panel of Black community activists, and one of the core messages we heard was, “Let us ask you for what we need.” In other words, don’t charge into the Movement with your own research agenda. Participate as a person first.

Our primary professional identities as academics are built around what research we have done, are doing, and plan to do in the future. But our behavior as professionals involves much more than the planning of research.

The first demand quoted above was drawn from the set titled, “End the War on Black People.” There is a second set titled “Reparations.” This set begins:

  1. Reparations for the systemic denial of access to high quality educational opportunities in the form of full and free access for all Black people (including undocumented and currently and formerly incarcerated people) to lifetime education including: free access and open admissions to public community colleges and universities, technical education (technology, trade and agricultural), educational support programs, retroactive forgiveness of student loans, and support for lifetime learning programs.

This isn’t just about our research anymore, see? This is about the institutions that employ us and support our research. And this is about our students.

Here’s another one from the list of demands for reparations:

  1. Reparations for the cultural and educational exploitation, erasure, and extraction of our communities in the form of mandated public school curriculums that critically examine the political, economic, and social impacts of colonialism and slavery, and funding to support, build, preserve, and restore cultural assets and sacred sites to ensure the recognition and honoring of our collective struggles and triumphs.

This is about our classes. This is about what we teach and how we teach it. This demand is not specifically about higher education classrooms, but the message is clear.

There is also a message here about funding. Another section of the demands is called “Invest-Divest”:

  • We demand investments in the education, health and safety of Black people, instead of investments in the criminalizing, caging, and harming of Black people. We want investments in Black communities, determined by Black communities, and divestment from exploitative forces including prisons, fossil fuels, police, surveillance and exploitative corporations.

Investing requires divesting. Mobilizing the resources of youth development scholars to support the Movement for Black Lives and to invest in the education, health and safety of Black people will require redistributing financial, intellectual, and emotional resources that are now spent elsewhere.

The platform includes detailed policy briefs for each demand, with actions steps at local, state, and federal levels. So we have this map. Now, we need to figure out how to use our energy, and our positions within the system, to implement these urgently needed changes.

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

Including – but not limited to – sexual and romantic relationships

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

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

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

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

And now I get to study that village!

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

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

And oh, the pot of gold at the end of this already gorgeous academic rainbow. Nancy Deutsch is collaborating with the work I want to be doing in the world. Dare I repeat: Connection, empathy, #feelings, love, community. I’m in. My heart is exploding with hope.

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

I’m moving next month. On my own… don’t worry, I’ll be asking for lots of help. It’s taken several villages to get me this far, and I may be physically leaving those particular villages for the time being, but I’m a big fan of Facetime, and I’ve got lots of plans for finding new villages down in New York, for real, and also I’m so excited.

Charlottesville, Virginia. Come visit!

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.
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. 

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

Jackson Katz responded to my email (and here’s what I wrote back)


Hi Dr. Katz,
I deeply appreciate your taking the time to respond to my email. I am going to take another opportunity to express my concerns with more detail and clarity, in response to the issues you raised in our personal correspondence.
In terms of not serving queer folk:
I agree that MVP does great work to address harassment that targets sexual minority and gender variant individuals. As I want to emphasize, I think MVP is in a very powerful position to impact violence perpetrated by and through heteronormative masculinity. In contrast, one of my major concerns, as I will explain further in a moment, is about the experiences of transgender and gender variant folks who might actually be in the room during an MVP workshop. Another major concern is that people who have or will have same-sex relationships will not realize in MVP that sexual and relationship violence can happen between two women or between two men, as well. Such work may not be within the goals of MVP as a program, but I do think there are steps that MVP can take to address and support these needs.
In terms of silencing survivors in the room:
This point is tricky. As a sex educator myself, I struggle with the ability to provide a space in which survivors can receive strong support without identifying themselves, and, in addition, to make space in which survivors can choose to identify themselves and use the power of identification to push back against the silencing and shaming cultural norms in our society. It’s about actively structuring my teaching based on the assumption that in any given group, there will be people in the room who are survivors of various forms of violence. Addressing people who are survivors only as potential bystanders can be guilt-inducing and embarrassing. To be a male ally to women who have experienced sexual violence requires a trauma-informed curriculum and approach.
In terms of reinforcing the gender binary:
I completely agree with you that gender neutrality is counter-productive. To talk about sexual violence, we need to analyze gendered power dynamics in history, society, and in our lives. And I appreciate that the MVP policy is to allow people to self-identify, as in, if someone identifies as a man, he can go to the men-only break-out group, and if someone identifies as a woman, she can go to the woman-only breakout group. But I’m wondering, what about someone who doesn’t identify as either a man or a woman? Or someone who identifies as both? Such people exist, and they matter. But I do not see them within the MVP curriculum, and that scares me. I don’t know what to do about it, either. I have a lot of ideas, and I also recognize the complexity. So at this point I am working to name what I’m seeing. To render visible what is now invisible.
In terms of the need for more comprehensive sexual violence prevention:
Here is my question for you: What does MVP do to “set the stage” for an expansion of comprehensive programs? I can see all the fabulous ways in which MVP is a strong program to start the conversation, to address the most resistant leaders and to start building social norms that would facilitate further sexual violence prevention work. However, in reality, I picture schools and colleges saying “well, we do MVP, that’s our sexual violence thing.” Thus, in practice, MVP could very well be the sole source of sexual violence education in many communities. That’s why I’m voicing my concerns. My question is, what can MVP do to be a better ally? When MVP does work with mixed-gender groups, the people in the room who aren’t the hetero/masculine men (who were the original target group of MVP) are not being prioritized in the conversation. Interestingly, these are the very same people (women, queer folk, gender variant folk) who are not being prioritized in society at large. So what is MVP as an organization doing to directly link schools and campuses with programs that will address the needs of women, people who have same-sex relationships, and people who are transgender or gender variant?
The broader question I’m getting at is: What does it take to be an ally? What is the imperative on those of us with power to truly open spaces in which we can directly hand over power to those who need more of it in order to be safe, in order to speak up, and in order to exist? How can I be a better ally to others? How can I ask you to be a better ally to me?
1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 6. Youth Development & Education

How do we prevent men’s violence against women without recreating the sexism we are trying to end?

“How do we have men and women working together on preventing men’s violence against women without recreating the sexism we are trying to end?” 
Jackson Katz, at the Mentors in Violence Prevention Bystander Intervention Conference at Northeastern University, May 31, 2012

Dear Jackson Katz,

Great question.

Here’s my short answer: Currently, you are indeed recreating the sexism you are trying to end.

Here’s my long answer: Thank you for having the wherewithal to recognize the complexity and challenge in being a person with privilege taking leadership on issues of systemic oppression and violence. Thank you for your leadership, thank you for your decades of work, and thank you for continuing to ask yourself how you can be a better ally.

What I say in this blog post may be read as a criticism, and I want you to know that I am criticizing you because we are on the same team. We have the same mission. As we work towards this mutual goal, I believe I have a perspective that you need to hear. So, let’s get coffee (or the internet equivalent, if you’re back in Cali by now).

Yesterday I was at the MVP Bystander Intervention Conference, and I’ve also participated in the MVP Institute training program as well as taught several workshops myself in the (distant) past. I have a lot of respect and affection for the work done by MVP. I personally have gained so much from your organization, including some of my favorite workshop activities addressing gender and systemic violence, and that’s why I am so invested in seeing it do good work now and in the future.

For my readers: Jackson Katz founded MVP in 1993, to recruit male student athletes as leaders in ending men’s violence against women. Yes, just men’s violence against women. Not all sexual violence, not all gender-based violence. That’s fine. No one can do everything, maybe. The MVP approach is to address men as potential active bystanders—to talk to men about why stand up as a bystander, and possible ways to intervene in sexist and violent behavior. Calling other men to understand men’s violence against women as a fundamental social justice issue (see The Macho Paradox), Katz and MVP have brought their work to sports teams, fraternities, and the military.

Back to Dr. Katz: I’m grateful that you recognize the role that masculine role models can play in reshaping masculinity and addressing men’s violence. I can’t walk into hockey team locker rooms and talk to them about sexual assault. The NFL isn’t inviting me to speak with their players about rape. You are getting into those spaces and opening up conversation, and I’m impressed and grateful.

That said, Bystander Intervention training is NOT a comprehensive sexual violence prevention program. Bystander Intervention should NOT be promoted in mainstream spaces as a priority over actual skill-building that addresses actual people of all genders as people with bodies, people with intimate relationships, people with the capacity for sex and for love. Where are those people in Bystander Intervention training? I understand the importance of getting your foot in the door by addressing everyone as potential Bystanders so participants aren’t as defensive. But your approach is actively silencing those people in the room who may be more than potential bystanders—they may be victims and survivors of sexual or relational violence. Where are those people able to express their lived experiences in your workshops?

Furthermore, when you split up the participants into groups of “men/boys” and “women/girls,” to talk specifically about “men’s” violence against “women,” you are erasing the existence of trans* and genderqueer people. Erasing them. There is not room for people with non-binary gendered experiences and identities within the curriculum you use. What are you going to do about that? That is a major problem. It’s a problem that is the Achilles heel of your intervention. You cannot expand so much. You cannot be everyone’s solution.

When MVP comes to “mainstream” spaces and coed spaces—spaces that are not these hyper-masculine communities that were the original location of this Bystander Intervention—then you recreate the sexism you are trying to end by silencing the voice of survivors and by rendering invisible those living outside the gender binary.

 What are you going to do about that?

From your ally,
Mimi Arbeit