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 🙂

6. Youth Development & Education

An Open Letter to Tufts Magazine

Dear Tufts Magazine,

“The New Girl Order,” an article by Kay Hymowitz in your Fall 2011 issue, is a misinformed and narrowminded article that insults both girls and boys in America today. Hymowitz puts girls in danger by making the argument that there is no more need for feminism and that somehow the position of girls in society today is the best it could ever be. Hymowitz bluntly perpetuates the war of the sexes by looking for point-by-point equality rather than stepping back and asking, given a history of patriarchy, what can we do now to achieve gender equity. Furthermore, Hymowitz’s final messages seemed pinned on hurtful and antiquated ideas about marriage.

Hymowitz cites girls’ advancement in education as evidence that feminism has succeeded and is no longer necessary. Increasing numbers of women in science and engineering must mean that we’re all set. But we are not: I could talk about the glass ceiling, the need for more women in politics and the need for more fair and holistic representations of women in the media. I could talk about how women on college campuses face an epidemic of sexual violence and the “terrible trio of shame, blame, and fear” when they try to pursue their own desires. I could also cite the very research that Hymowitz dismisses—the tradition of Carol Gilligan of listening to voices of girls as they become teenagers, as they silence their own needs in order to become that perfect girl that everyone else wants them to be. Furthermore, I could and should write about so many women who don’t make it to college because they don’t have access to the education or the money they need, or because they were not encouraged to pursue their dreams. So many “American girls” are not the girls about whom Hymowitz writes—the ones who benefit from own race, class, citizenship, and other privileges that remain invisible in this article yet delineate her entire argument.

Another major misconception in this article is that equality and equity are not the same thing. Hymowitz seems to believe that we have reached equity once we have both “College Women’s Centers” and “College Men’s Centers.” She lives in an utterly binary, separatist world. I don’t want to live in that world. I am a feminist, but I do not, as she thinks I do, “worry that if we pay more attention to boys we will take our eyes off girls.” In fact, I heartily believe that the key to improving our education system and transforming gender socialization is empowering children and youth of all genders to explore, express, and embody. Hymowitz lauds a girls’ softball coach who decided to “coach them like men.” But treating girls the way we treat boys will not help anyone. What about the boys who want to sew, cook, care for children, build close friendships, and share their feelings? Where is the room for them in our culture, in our gender system? According to Hymowitz, feminists “could say that the culture of male privilege is so powerful that it can’t hurt for boys to be pulled down a peg or two.” Actually, dismantling the culture of male privilege is essential—for women and girls, for men and boys, and for everyone who can’t live and love within such a rigidly policed, binary system of gender.

Hymowitz, for a moment, would agree with me that girls and women stand to gain a lot from more attention paid to boys and masculinity. But her reasons for wanting to attend to boys are quite the opposite of mine. She says that girls are going to begin looking for males to marry, and will struggle to find males as educated and accomplished as themselves, and will instead choose to be single mothers, which she sees as a crisis. (Of course, in her world, the option of two women marrying each other does not seem to be available.) I find this last paragraph utterly offensive. It proves that her investment in the “betterment” of boys is not because feminism has done its work but actually quite the opposite—she invests in patriarchy because it provides a foundation for normative heterosexuality. Men have to be successful and powerful in order for women to be their subordinate wives.

I’m sorry, but as I finish reading this article, I completely fail to understand why you published this in the Tufts Magazine. Once I have my Ph.D. from your institution, will you be ashamed of me unless I become the wife of a man who also has a doctorate or other advanced degree? Women’s lives do not revolve around wearing a diamond given to them by a man with the right resume. Clearly, we still have a lot of work to do in promoting positive development for all youth and freeing all youth from hegemonic gender ideologies.

All my best,
Mimi Arbeit

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

Boston Teens Speak up for Sex Ed

This afternoon, Boston City Council’s Committee on Women and Healthy Communities held a public hearing on a proposal to bring sexual health education and condom availability to Boston Public High Schools. Committee Chair Ayanna Pressley presided with eloquence and insight over the hearing this afternoon.
While I am happy to express the depth and breadth of my support for sexuality education and condom availability in the Boston public schools in future posts, for this post I will focus on what I experienced as the most powerful part of this afternoon’s proceedings: the testimony from the teenagers themselves.
The Boston teens who spoke today totally stole the show, and rightly so. The teen activists from the Hyde Square Task Force have been leading this work all year. “Sexuality is a part of our lives,” said one teen, insisting that young people want to make responsible decisions but need the tools that will help them on the path. The teens advocated not just for condom availability but also for access to broadly comprehensive sex education. The teens named issues such as health, relationships, identity, power, and control.
Two teenagers from the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence also spoke. One said that sex education has the potential to help each student learn how to become a better person and a better partner. The other said that her last relationship had been unhealthy, but she did not know it until she had the opportunity to learn about healthy relationships through her involvement in this task force. Her story illustrates the importance of making this education available to all teens.
A representative from the Boston Student Advisory Council said that without sexuality education, students feel confused, and they feel they are not receiving the support they need from their school. She wants teenagers to learn about both the emotional and physical risks of sexual activity.
Two teens spoke for Massachusetts Asian and Pacific Islanders for Health (MAP for Health). The first teen scrolled through his Blackberry, reading aloud that students need an environment in which they can ask questions without judgment. When he finished, he reached across to pass the Blackberry to his fellow speaker. Lovely laughter flowed through the room. I felt it was a very sweet and humbling moment… The next teen was a bit flustered, but soon he started speaking and spoke eloquently. He emphasized that teachers need appropriate training in order to feel comfortable addressing issues of sexuality in the classroom. Therefore, he argued, Boston should invest in getting more teachers trained and certified to teach sexuality education. Both teens also made a plea for sexuality education that is fully inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth.
Many adults who work in various capacities to address the health and wellbeing of Boston youth also spoke with poise and insight, as did the Chair herself. But tonight, I am prioritizing the voices of the teens themselves, the people whose lives and whose friends’ lives can be changed for the better through the passage of this bill. Let’s listen to the voices of the teenagers, who organize their peers, educate themselves and others, and have the courage to speak at City Hall and ask that their right to education be fulfilled. These youth really want to be educated and equipped and responsible and healthy—we, the adults in power, now need to give them what they want.
1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 6. Youth Development & Education

Educated, Empowered and Resilient

Yesterday was the first day of classes! I am taking a seminar in resilience, which opened with ten minutes of free writing about what we think the concept of resilience entails. I love free writing as an educational technique, so I was thrilled. I also found it quite useful to take the time to frame my interest in resilience in terms of my mission of promoting positive adolescent sexual development:

Resilience is the process of getting through difficulty with continued strength and positive development. I think of resilience as a dynamic aspect of person and context that helps to foster positive development even through negative occurrences such as violence, trauma, illness, oppression, or other normal and abnormal challenges.

I believe resilience to be an important concept in the study of adolescent sexual development because adolescents must demonstrate resilient functioning in order to resist negative stereotypes and achieve personal agency within our sexist and sex negative culture. What characteristics of individual adolescents and of the contexts in which they live will contribute to their resilience and thus to their positive sexual development? How does resilience manifest in girls, boys, and transgendered youth? What kind of resilience do girls need in order to access positive feelings about their bodies and their sexuality?

We can ask questions such as the ones above in order to seek different approaches to promoting resilience within the realm of sexual development, and we can ask questions from a different angle. We might find that sex positive educators and activists are already engaged in promoting adolescent resilience in a variety of life contexts. How can sex education and, in particular, sex positive education, contribute to adolescent resilience overall? How can the knowledge, skills, and attitudes taught in a sex positive classroom or youth group help youth demonstrate resilience in a variety of situations in the realm of sexuality as well as in other aspects of their lives?

These two approaches to forming questions about the relationship between adolescent resilience and adolescent sexual development reflect the double meaning I intend in the title of this blog, “Sex Ed Transforms.” Through the reading, thinking and writing that I do in the process of blogging and in my other work on sex ed, I hope to transform the approaches we take to sex ed and our conceptions of what sex ed can entail. In addition, I believe that through reading, thinking, writing, and educating others and ourselves about issues of sexuality and sex education, we can transform our communities, our world, and ourselves. I am looking forward to discovering how the study of resilience can play an important role in both of these processes.

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

The 2010 Teen Pregnancy Institute

This week I had the honor of attending the 2010 Teen Pregnancy Institute: Expecting Success For Youth And Young Families, hosted by the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy. I spent the day learning with other educators, counselors, researchers and advocates invested in improving the sexual health and well-being of teenagers in our state.

When we came together in one space, I really did start to feel like there are a whole lot of us – people who work with teenagers and care about them and have the courage to talk to them about sex. No, not just the courage, it’s more than that. The ganas. The instinct. The drive.

I wish I could take each one of the attendees out to dinner and hear their stories.

My day started in Consuela’s workshop on the importance of giving teenagers access to words, concepts, and images with which to imagine, assess, and ask for healthy relationships. She challenged us to discuss how healthy relationships look similar and different for teenagers than they do for adults. What are the components of a good date? What does a healthy first month of dating look like?

When I learned to play tennis at summer camp, the counselor assured us that she would tell us when she saw us swinging our racket correctly, so we could learn what the correct swing felt like.

Have you ever told a teenager that you thought something was healthy and positive about their dating relationship?

In my second session, I learned about specific ways to teach sexuality through a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) framework from Liz of Planned Parenthood. When her coworker Mindy took over to introduce the parent engagement component of their curriculum, Get Real, I was captivated by the overlap between our fears as sexuality educators and the fears that parents have when their children enter our classes. The tools that Get Real provides for parents are really just conversation starters. A simple question like, “Are there any kids at your school you don’t like?” appears not to be about sexuality in all, but it can clear the way for exploring relevant emotions and communicating core values.

In the afternoon, Kelly from the Cambridge Health Alliance launched a conversation about what a sex-positive national culture might look like, using slides from this Slate article. What would it take for American teens to start hormonal contraception before ever having sex? What would it take for American teens to carry a condom with them on a regular basis? And, how can we get from here to a place where American teens have an open conversation with their parents about what they want to do sexually and who they want to do it with before they actually start having sex.

Can such a world exist?

It can in the Netherlands. (Watch the Slate slideshow. Really.)

To end the day, everyone gathered together to watch The Gloucester 18, a story about teen parents who made national news. I have so much to learn about the lives of pregnant and parenting teens. See this film, then help push back on the stereotypes.

Thank you so much to the Massachusetts Alliance On Teen Pregnancy for putting together this incredible day of learning and community-building. Thank you to each of the presenters for sharing your passions, and to everyone I met or reconnected with for showing up and stepping up.

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!

6. Youth Development & Education

Transitioning to Middle School

Puberty. Menstruation. Breasts. Sweat. Acne. Lack of coordination. Incessant hunger. Expensive sneakers. Pop music. Text messages. Swearing. Fist fighting. Exhausted teachers. School buses. Fear. Boredom. Failing grades.

I have a student who did really well in fifth grade and by half way through sixth, is now failing in both English class and math class. I have another student who falls on the floor, whines, and yells on a daily basis. I have two other students who want to go home early every time they have menstrual cramps. I have three other students who want to open the window even when it’s cold outside because they don’t know what to make of how much they’ve recently begun to sweat around their armpits.

And as I write this, I’m sitting across from a student who started out as one of my best but hasn’t spoken to me all afternoon and refuses to even look at the unsolved math problems on the desk.

My job is to try to ease the transition to middle school, but I’m just one person amidst this whole scene of stress. Last year, when my job was to teach about puberty and friendships and communication, I think I helped to ease some of the confusion. However, I still was not the guidance counselor, and I still was not the English teacher. Now, I’m an afterschool team leader, technically concerned with the whole child and technically only needing to focus on a dozen children — yet even now I know they need much more attention than I can give them.

They need more attention, more explanations, more validations, and much more tutoring. (Come tutor my students!)

Back to the point: I’ve been thinking a lot recently about school restructuring. What would middle school look like if we took what we know about puberty, adolescent emotional development, and peer dynamics and we structured a school with insight into these processes at its center, placing priority on meeting these social-emotional needs? What would middle school look like?

6. Youth Development & Education

Study Shows Intelligent Conversation with Caring Adults Helps Teenagers Make Healthy Decisions

Several people have asked me what I think of the study that found one abstinence-only program to be effective in delaying sex for middle school students. See coverage from the Washington Post, the Salt Lake Tribune, and the New York Times. Here’s my response:

  • This study looked at the effectiveness of just one program. It’s not a comprehensive study of what abstinence-only has come to mean in this country, meaning that we must not generalize the findings to abstinence-only education overall.

  • The program studied did not follow the definition of abstinence-only under the guidelines for federal funding.:

o They taught students to be abstinent until ready to have sex — not abstinence until marriage. They did not condemn sex outside of marriage.

o They discussed with students the pros and cons of deciding to have sex. This conversation can be useful and powerful — and could not have occurred openly and honestly in federally-funded abstinence-only programs.

o The program was not sex negative and moralistic. Furthermore, they used only medically accurate information about condoms and contraception. Often, abstinence-only programs inaccurately present failure rates in order to discourage condom usage and scare students into feeling there is no such thing as safer sex.

All of these aspects of the program make it particularly hard to believe it in any way representative of what abstinence-only implies in practice.

  • What did the control programs teach? The coverage reveals very little about the programs used for comparison. So-called comprehensive sex education can be fantastic — and can also be taught poorly and ineffectively, especially if taught for a study designed to disprove it. From news coverage, it seemed as if the control programs focused on teaching health information, with perhaps very little opportunities for discussion and emotional processing. If so, they do not represent the myriad of comprehensive sex education programs focused on supporting the development of social and emotional skills that can help teenagers stay healthy and safe.

  • Let’s take a step back and look at our goals in teaching sex education. The coverage cited growing rates of unwanted pregnancy and STIs among teenagers. Decreasing these rates is a public health priority. However, the results of this study showed that the program did not have any effect on frequency and consistency of condom use. To quote directly from the abstract of the study itself: “Abstinence-only intervention did not affect condom use.” What the coverage calls evidence of success is evidence that the program delayed the onset of sexual activity for a certain percentage of participants. But when these teenagers to start to have sex, they need to know how to use and learn about condoms and contraception. If they don’t, they’re at risk for the very same unwanted pregnancies and STIs that we need to prevent.

I don’t want to discount the specific program studied per se; I do want to temper the myth that we now have scientific evidence in favor of abstinence-only education. We do not. What we might have, however, if we pursue this research further using responsible methods, is a demonstration of the power of training caring adults to facilitate intelligent conversations

6. Youth Development & Education

Teenagers Need Attention — from You, Even

My sixth-grade students need more attention. And I don’t just mean they need a better attention span or that they need to pay more attention in general, which are both true. I mean that my students need more adults in their lives who can listen to them, help them, and relate to them.

Here’s the good news: you can help. You can be one of those adults. I’m looking for volunteers to tutor my students for maybe just one hour per week. Mostly they need help in English, but also in math. I started looking for volunteer tutors because their homework and classwork are really hard for them and many of my students might not pass without extra help. However, I believe that tutoring also holds value beyond the academic.

When we get a chance to sit down with teenagers and pre-teens one-on- one, we get to teach them valuable skills about building relationships. A simple conversation about how their day went or how they’re feeling about class allows them to practice expressing themselves. By sharing examples of our own highs and lows, we can model tenacity and healthy coping.

I have seen my students work with tutors a couple times before, and it really makes their day. They’re proud of their accomplishments, they’re a little more calm and a little more comfortable in their own skin. And they’re even more ready to get to work and persevere on their own.

Try it! And spread the word if you know others who might be interested in volunteering. E-mail me at Mimi (dot) Arbeit (at) Gmail (dot) com for more information.

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

Starting Points for Sorting through High School Relationships

To a former health student, who asked me for advice about boyfriend troubles (by sending me a facebook message):

I wish I could sit with you in the cafeteria and talk about this like we would have been able to last year. I would like to ask you more questions and hear more of your thoughts. I still will — but since that takes a long time when we’re writing back and forth, I’m going to start by giving you some ideas to think about.

1. Trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right to you, it probably isn’t. You don’t think it’s a good to fight with your boyfriend so much, or for him to try to make you feel bad, and you’re right.
2. You deserve the best. Imagine what a healthy, supportive, enjoyable relationship would look like. That’s what you deserve. Do you believe you can have that with your current boyfriend? What changes would you need to make in order to get that?
3. It’s not your fault. When relationships get hard, it’s important not to blame yourself for what the other person is doce of emotions, relationships, ing. He is responsible for his own behavior. When he does things that he knows you wouldn’t like, he is making a personal decision, and that’s his fault and not yours.

What do you think of these ideas? Have you thought about them already? How you feel as you read them?

In terms of next steps, I have three very specific suggestions:

1. Get to know your feelings. This sounds like a tricky situation that you’re in, and I bet you are thinking and feeling a lot of different things right now. Writing to me is one good way to sort through your feelings. Keeping a diary is another great idea, or maybe even talking to a close friend. Your feelings are really important.
2. Talk to an adult that you trust. In person. Reaching out to me was a great first step, and you should be really proud of yourself for doing it. I will keep in touch, and I also want you to have an adult that you see in person that you can talk to. Is there a guidance counselor at school that you like, or a teacher or coach? Let me know what you think, and I can help you think of ways to approach that person and to start a conversation.
3. Talk to your boyfriend. This step is the hardest and the most important. But it’s going to be much easier to talk to him if you first take the time to know how you feel, know what you want, and know that you have adults who are helping you and care about you. It will also help to have a plan about when and where you want to have this conversation and how you’re going to start it.

What do you think? I don’t know if you were expecting such a long response from me, but there’s actually a lot more where this came from! I’d also like to keep hearing from you about what’s going on with you and your boyfriend right now. Please write back to me soon! I look forward to hearing from you.

Caring about you,
Ms. Arbeit