6. Youth Development & Education

I’ve been away so long…

I have been steeped in grad school applications (and my job), and I’m really sorry I haven’t posted in so long! Here are a few thoughts, really briefly:

I just read a fabulous post on Feministing.com about sexist humor. It really gets to the core of why I protest offhand comments, jokes, and yes, it specifically mentions the ever-sexist Family Guy.

I’m beginning to enjoy the New York Times Style section more and more. I highly recommend a recent article about young adults increasingly popular androgynous clothing styles, and an article from a few weeks ago about high school students dressing in clothes more often attributed to a different gender.

In terms of my own job and my own thoughts… What can we do about sexual harassment on the middle school schoolbus? How can we create systems that support safety and accountability? How can we work to teach past and potential perpetrators new behaviors? How can we help the students who have been targeted and the other students who fear being targeted? This problem is far bigger than individual incidents, and the schools and bus monitors need to treat it as such.

I’ll start writing more frequently, and in more depth, in January. Thank you for your patience! Meanwhile… your responses to my brief ideas would be much loved!

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

Safety And Structure for Adult Sex Ed

I’m currently planning to teach sex ed to young adult peers in my community. Please see previous posts for other discussions of my thoughts and feelings while planning this project.

How can I plan this class so that it suits the realities of our lives and yet challenges us to take positive risks?

I think the first step is recognizing that for many, coming to even one session involves taking a positive risk. For others, arriving may be simple, but speaking up may feel momentous. I’d like to focus on these two challenges for now: attendance and participation. I want my expectations for both to be as flexible as possible to meet the varying needs of individuals and yet to be as consistent as possible in order to promote group cohesion. I have some ideas about how to approach this, and I would love some feedback . . .

Attendance

Ideal: 10 to 20 people committed to attending each of the 14 sessions. We would get to know each other, develop the group dynamic that supports accountability and confidentiality, and their learning in each session would build on our previous work.

Reality: “Eek! Who has enough time to commit upfront to 14 sessions? What if I missed the first one – does that mean I’m excluded from the project altogether? I’m sorry, but my [work/ studies/ family/ other] takes priority, and I have to allow for that in my schedule.” –thoughts of a hypothetical community member.

Compromise: I encourage community members to attend as many sessions as possible. I also hope that newcomers will contact me before coming to a session so I can help them get somewhat caught up. Just arriving at session is great, too. What I do ask, however, is that participants come for an entire session from beginning to end – arriving late and leaving early can drastically upset momentum. Does this seem reasonable? What other approaches might we consider?

Participation

Ideal: Participants could share their thoughts, feelings and experiences without embarrassment, shyness or fear of affecting their reputation. Such sharing could lead to communal support, learning and growth.

Reality: Sharing can be very difficult and scary! In addition, all of us have biases and prejudices that can keep us from reacting in positive and supportive ways. For some, sharing with friends and community members feels easier than sharing with strangers. For others, it feels much harder.

Compromise: We’ll spend time at the beginning of each session discussing building blocks for a safe space and sharing expectations with each other. No participant will be required to share, and multiple avenues for reflection will be encouraged, including group discussion, pair-shares, private reflection, and anonymous feedback. What more can we do to work together to keep everyone feeling safe, comfortable, and able to take positive risks?

I look forward to hearing your ideas!

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 4. Body, Movement, & Dance

Dancing for Sexual Health

Responding to a question about my last post, paraphrased as: What is positive, empowering dance music, and what makes it much more fun to dance to than misogynistic, degrading dance music?

Some reasons I love dancing:

• I get to move my body, and that feels fantastic.
• What matters is that my body moves, not how big or small or curvy or tall it is.
• I can’t fail; the harder I try and the more energy I put into it, the better I’m doing, by definition.
• I get to emote: As I move, aggression and frustration exit my body, and the joy and celebration expressed by my movement enter deeper into my body, and I can feel that joy and celebration.
• I get to act: I’m very much in my own body, and yet I get to perform by acting out the lyrics I hear. I am myself, yet I have this opportunity to connect with characters and feelings outside myself. I feel a part of something.

Among favorite positive-coping pastimes, dancing stands out because it does not involve verbally expressing my feelings or any direct conversation with another person. I’m not journaling, I’m not talking to friends, and I’m not blogging. I’m not expressing myself through words, which is the best way to ensure that I have direct control over what is expressed about me in that moment. Instead, I’m more fluidly a part of the moment and a member of the scene. This silent membership leaves me vulnerable. When I’m not speaking, the “scene” has much more power to define who I am and what I’m expressing, especially given my way of participating in this particular scene, as outlined above.

A sketch of my experience while dancing to music with a great beat but denigrating lyrics: I pick up the beat, and start dancing. I recognize the lyrics, and start singing along. I’m moving, and smiling, and beginning to perform fabulously. But the lyrics I’m singing aren’t fabulous. Maybe I’m singing about how great it is to watch my big butt move while I dance. Or maybe I’m singing out my desire to get some stranger into bed that night. But wait, this isn’t my body and my desire, right? I’m just inadvertently singing along. My facilitator at the MVP training made the following argument: The singers don’t know who you are, personally, and that you wouldn’t actually say such a thing. No, the singers don’t know you at all. But they do sing about you. Yes, if you’re dancing along to their song, they are signing about you. And just as I dance and sing the anger and frustration out of my body, I’m dancing and singing these negative, hurtful messages right into my body. I’m internalizing them, quite literally, whether I’d like to or not. And that’s when I start thinking about my body as a vehicle for sex and attraction instead of joy and celebration. And that’s when I start worrying about whether I’m doing it right, whether I’m impressing others in the right way, whether I’m adequately sexy but not too much so, whether I’m wearing the right clothes or shoes or earrings. And that’s when it does matter how my body is shaped in comparison with everyone else’s, because that’s what the lyrics tell me. I’m getting insecure and being objectified and as the lyrics move on and on, it sounds more and more like I’m dancing in order to show how attractive I am rather than dancing for my own joy and celebration. Is this about dancing, or is this about thinness and availability and sex?

A sketch of my experience while dancing to positive, empowering music: The music backs up the exact reasons I like dancing. The lyrics emphasize emotional expression, personal rights, and the complexity of relationships. In acting out the lyrics, I celebrate characters and feelings that resonate with who I am and what I believe in. Expressing those lyrics confirms my personal desires, and I’m thrilled to imagine that these lyrics are about me and my life. I emote. Some songs help me express feelings of upset, anger or sorrow. Other songs help me seek joy. I celebrate my beliefs, my friendships and my body as I smile at the people I’m with, dancing sometimes with them and sometimes with myself. But I’m always dancing for myself, not for an onlookers or dance partners. Other people’s gaze and opinions need not provide me with validation. I find inner validation in how great it feels to move. I feel warm, happy and successful. I feel optimistic. I feel stronger and more ready to take on life the following day. I feel more connected to myself, my body and the people I’m with in positive, emotional ways. When I wake up the next day, I look up the lyrics from my favorite songs the previous night so I can memorize them, and sing them to myself when I need an extra moment of coping during the week. And maybe while I’m signing the song to myself, I’ll close my eyes and picture myself dancing to those lyrics in order to return, for the moment, to the scene of release and joy as celebration courses throughout my body.

4. Body, Movement, & Dance

Don’t you wish your music were hot like this?

Many teenagers love hip hop music, understandably. Dancing, especially to those great beats, helps us loosen up, express ourselves, and celebrate. But all this fun may be at quite a high price. Whether or not the content of popular hip hop music helps or hurts teenagers has been the subject of much heated debate. Granted, the content of hip hop music varies widely. Much of hip hop is decidedly positive and proactive. But the other kind of hip hop—the materialist, drug-promoting, women-degrading hip hop—permeates radio, television and the internet. While it’s hard to demonstrate a direct causal relationship between hip hop and sexual violence, this music most surely negatively affects adolescent sexual health.

This issue is an offshoot of a broader question that frequents psychological and educational debates: Does violence in the media lead to violence by adolescents? James Garbarino, in his book Lost Boys, answers yes, it does. After enumerating the increasing incidents of violence involved in children’s television and video games, he cites studies that show that children’s use of these media accounts for a significant portion of the variance in children’s violence. While exposure to violent media does not cause violence per se, it is one of many major factors influencing children to behave in violent ways. If television and video games have this measurable affect on children, music most likely can promote negative behavior as well.

The connection between music content and listener behavior can be experienced at many parties and clubs. At the Mentors in Violence Prevention training I attended over the summer, we discussed how we would respond if a friend played such denigrating and sexist popular music at a house party. Really? Many of us in the room had been in the exact same situation before and had not said a thing. Why would we complain about such a common occurrence? Why would we deny ourselves the opportunity to dance and party with our friends without causing a fuss? Over time, our initial resistance gave way to a challenging discussion about what it feels like to dance to such music. Even if we try not to attend to the words, we still hear them and feel them. The words affect the way in which we portray our bodies, our sexualities, and our relationships with each other. Like Garbarino found in his study, the lyrics may not be the single determining factor of our behavior or our thoughts, but they certainly are one significant factor out of many. Besides, it can be much more fun to dance to positive, empowering music.

I have to face the popularity and attraction of hip hop directly right now at my job. In my past position as a health education teacher, I made it part of my curriculum to discuss song lyrics openly and to push students to find music that is both positive and enjoyable and popular. But I’m in a very different position this year as one out of several leaders at an afterschool program, and a new staff member at that. As part of our daily routine, the students come to the cafeteria afterschool for a snack before they start their homework. To make the transition fun and casual, we have music playing. And we want them to like the music, so it’s hip hop. However, I’ve noticed over the first few weeks that there are only one or two songs that we play. Does the veteran leader in charge of music pick only songs she considers positive? We haven’t discussed it at all.

Music plays a role in many other aspects of our program as well, so we need more than two songs that we condone! The positive-music CDs I made in my last job are now two years old, so finding the current positive-and-popular music would mean starting the project from the beginning. I need to find a way to discuss the issue with my coworkers—while presenting myself as both discerning and fun-loving! I value joy and dance and celebration, but we cannot compromise values such as respect, peace and health.

6. Youth Development & Education

New Job, New Roles, and Persistent Passions

Dear New Students,

I’ll meet you in a few days as your afterschool program leader. My job entails supporting your academic and emotional development. I hope this year that I can teach you to build healthy ways of relating — to express your feelings, to ask for what you need and want, and to listen to others. These skills will serve you academically and socially. In particularly, though, I want you to learn these skills because they can help you achieve sexual health.

Because here’s the deal: I am a sex ed teacher at my core. You are sixth-graders. Therefore, I want to teach you about puberty, reproduction, consent, and HIV prevention. I want to set up a question box and hold small group discussions. I want you to demonstrate mastery of relevant vocabulary and skills while demonstrating an open-minded and positive approach to the care of your own body and relationships. I know sexuality education is important; I know I have the ability to teach it to you.

However, my dear students, I’m not your sex ed teacher. Instead, health is part of your physical education curriculum. I’m here to care for you afterschool and to join you an other powerful and crucial learning adventures.

So what, I just forget my own priorities for a year? No! No, I cannot do that at all. I need a moment to reconfigure, to re-conceive of myself and my rules and to refocus on how I can do this job passionately and fully. Here are some of my initial thoughts about this dilemma:

You need many adults in your lives who advocate for sexual health and express sex-positive values. I’ve already started connecting with your school staff — today I spoke briefly with your nurse and she mentioned other teachers I might turn to as potential allies. My job also entails reaching out to your parents and guardians, and I will present myself as a resource to them. Most of all, I myself will become an important adult in your lives. As a “mainstream” mentor-figure, perhaps I can model discussing sexual health in a manner that helps normalize such conversation. Adults should not confine intentional teaching about sexuality to one unit or one class. Students, you and I together will figure out how to weave what I can teach you and what you want to learn into both structured and spontaneous lessons throughout the year as part of the dynamic we develop together.

Hopeful, curious, and eager to engage,

Ms. Arbeit

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships

A Role for Women in Preventing Men’s Violence against Women

I’m breaking from the discussion of my plans for teaching in order to reflect on a recent experience I had as a student at a training in preventing men’s violence against women.

Many different aspects of the program, called Mentors in Violence Prevention, struck me as fascinating and insightful; I’m still reeling, however, from the “bystander approach” used: The facilitators address participants as witnesses to men’s violence against women and trained participants to actively respond to potential scenarios.

As a female, I’m not only a bystander to men’s violence against women. I am by definition a target as well. I listen to music, I watch television, and I walk down the street. Furthermore, most women have suffered more specific targeting through violent interactions with men.

As I sat in the training, part of me clung to my identity as a target and wanted to a right to hurt, to cry, and to remove myself as quickly as possible from any situation, real or hypothetical, in which I personally felt targeted. But I found no room for these reactions in the training. According to the MVP philosophy, even when I’m a target I also have the responsibility to address the violence as an active bystander.

But I want to run away!

At first I felt offended. When I’m hurt, my first responsibility is to take care of myself. Yes. And after that, what is my responsibility? Is there an “after that” — what would it mean to “fully” recover from violence?

Can taking a stand as an active bystander play a role in the process of recovery? What’s the ethical responsibility of targets in preventing their perpetrators from harming others? How can we support survivors in recovery AND encourage active response in a way that both validates their experience AND empowers them?

I could continue listing question after question… Right now, I would love to hear your ideas as I sort through my own thoughts and feelings and figure out the implications for my personal and professional work.

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

Adult Sex Ed — Wait, What?!?

In my last post, I shared my intention to offer a sex ed class for young adults (in their 20’s and 30’s). Here, I will speak to the three most common concerns raised in response to my proposal.

1. “My long-term romantic partner is also part of this community — how can I participate in this class without violating my partner’s and my privacy?”

As a group, we can develop a confidentiality structure that will guide us in respecting everyone’s boundaries and privacy. I’ve seen class facilitators encourage participants to tell personal stories and to speak from experience; I’ve seen other facilitators prohibit participants from sharing personal information and require them to word all stories and questions in the third person (“I have a friend who…”). We can work together to find a method that suits our needs and wants. Participants may choose to speak in the first and the third person at different times depending on context and comfort level. By coming together to discuss our knowledge, thoughts, and feelings, we certainly need not get into specific details regarding our current sexual habits. I intend this class neither as a support group nor a gossip session! We will explore ourselves, our community, and our society while we respect and honor the plethora of boundaries, desires for privacy, comforts, and discomforts that we all bring to different settings.

2. “How will this class be related to social justice and social action, since our community is explicitly dedicated to both?”

This question is so important and inherently related to my motivations for offering this class. As such, my response diverts in a few different directions: By discussing these issues together in an open, progressive setting, we work towards justice for ourselves, those close to us, and our community as a whole. And as we create this space in which we can insightfully analyze the social processes that affect gender and sexuality, we can build awareness and generate new thoughts and feelings that will inform our fight for justice in our society. Such class discussion can spark ideas for and interest in a specific campaign that we can plan and implement together as a class and/or as a community. Additionally, I hope and expect that the class participants will generate even better answers to this question as we discuss and learn together.

3. “How can we have these discussions in an inclusive and safe manner?”

Yes! We must also pose and respond to this question throughout the class. Therefore once more I can only offer my initial reaction supplemented by my trust in the process: We will establish building blocks for safe space, we will check in with each other and reflect on our developing dynamic, and we will celebrate our differences. I will also combine multiple venues for participation and reflection, including but not limited to group discussion, sharing ideas in pairs, and recording private thoughts in journals or anonymous question/ comment cards. Alas, I can only describe structures — the dynamic of the group will deepen and develop when we are together, conversing, taking risks, taking care, and holding each other accountable.

I’m so excited!

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

Young Adults Enjoy Sex Ed, Too

While I consider myself primarily an educator of adolescents, I’m a strong believer in sexuality education throughout our life span. I’m also currently a young adult. Thus I’m very excited to say that I’ve decided to offer a sex ed class for interested members of my young adult community.

The UUA publishes Our Whole Lives, a progressive and insightful sexuality education curriculum. I love this curriculum. And while my professional self yearns to someday teach the high school version, I’m currently getting inspiration from the young adult program. Because educated, informed, insightful young people in their 20s and 30s also deserve lots of great sex ed.

To explain my motivations, I return again to the initial thesis of this blog: I believe in sexuality education as a site for personal and societal transformation. Change. Growth. The need for growth does not end with the end of adolescence. Indeed, I feel as a young adults that we can and do appreciate such growth in a whole new way. The conversations, revelations, and debates we can have about sexual health now are entirely different from those we had as teenagers. And yet, like when we were teenagers, we lack the context and structure in which to discuss sex in sensitive, meaningful ways. So let’s make that space.

My goals for this class are multilayered. First, I hope that participants engage in a process of personal reflection and growth. Second, by sharing their reflections with each other, I hope they develop a deeper appreciation for and understanding of each other’s lived experience. Third, I want the class to contribute to the process of community building – engaging in reflection and growth on a communal level. Finally, I believe that such conversations can help us understand how our personal lives relate to our search for social justice and vice versa.

Right now, I’m working on the logistics of offering such a class and trying to gauge the levels of interest and enthusiasm among members of my community. What do you think I will need to do to make such a class enjoyable and worthwhile? Feedback wanted!

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

A New Campaign in Boston

When multiple friends forward me the same news story, I figure I should write about it. Today’s news is the latest sex ed campaign of the Boston Public Health Commission, which features a video on STIs and condoms to be played on YouTube and cable television. In addition, the campaign has its own Facebook page through which teenagers can comment and post questions.

Fantastic! I definitely want to meet the people behind this campaign. I’ve heard lots of talk about a growing desire to reach teenagers through technology. This campaign combines peer education, one of my favorite methods, with new ways of using the media. In particular, I’m interested to see how teenagers respond to the Facebook page, and whether they really do frequently ask cyber questions. I’m also glad that the large technological component of the campaign does not preclude in-person work — teams will also perform street theater in Boston.

While I’m very pleased with the campaign, I’m not as pleased with the rhetoric used to explain the need for the campaign. The Boston Globe article cited teenagers’ age – “barely old enough to drive” – and their “casual attitudes about sex” as the reasons for increased STI rates. Can’t we seek to support teenagers without such condescension? We must be able to explain our reasons for wanting to teach sex ed without putting down the very same people we need to empower.

One choice that did not seem to demand justification, however, was the selection of a featured video that focused on promoting condoms and STI screening and did not mention abstinence. Here’s a question that I’ve been pondering for a while: Do sex educators in the field of public health have more political leeway than those of us in schools? No school committee writes the rules for the Boston Public Health Commission. And this funding was for preventing communicable disease, not for character education. If we can frame public school sex education in terms of these public health priorities, how would that affect the discourse around what we should and should not teach?

While sex education through cable and the Internet is exciting and chic, it cannot replace face-to-face conversation. The benefits of structure, space and relationship building will remain unique and powerful elements of school-based sex ed, in addition to and (hopefully) in conjunction with Facebook and YouTube.

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

My Past

I have been interested in health education since I began tenth grade. I spent the next three years of high school volunteering with my school’s chapter of Mentors in Violence Prevention. As a Mentor, I taught 8th graders to think critically about gender stereotypes and take an active role in preventing gender violence. From those early lessons, I realized how health education can bring to the surface conversations about the most vital and pressing issues in students’ daily lives.

In college, I volunteered as a health educator in the New York City public schools through Peer Health Exchange. I saw the transformation of ninth graders as they received basic health education. When our program started, they lacked basic information about how to care for themselves and their relationships. As they enthusiastically engaged with the lessons we taught, however, they reported change in their attitudes and their behavior. Students expressed the results of feeling empowered, whether through a vow to stop the cycle of teen pregnancy in their families or through more daily decisions to stop drinking soda.

Meanwhile, in my health education work on campus at Columbia University, I saw what happened to otherwise bright and aware people who had not received comprehensive health education as child or teenager. I worked with college students getting tested for HIV, often anxious and ashamed but unaware of the specifics of HIV transmission. In teaching incoming freshman about consent and sexual assault prevention, I encountered a plethora of young adults who could not talk about their bodies, neither with friends nor with partners. As a result, they suffered from heartbreak, violence and disease.

Health education is a basic tool to protect youth from a plethora of epidemics spanning obesity, sexual violence and HIV. But health education is also much more than that– it is a path through which to develop healthier, happier students and learning communities. As I taught health education full-time these past two years, my students developed basic social and emotional skills that immediately began to help them manage their emotions, relate positively to each other, and engage with their schoolwork. They brought to class many current, pressing issues in their lives, whether related to conflicts with friends, changes in their bodies, or concerns about their schoolwork and stress levels. In these ways, I saw the health education is a crucial part of helping a school become a positive and productive learning community.

When a health learning community thrives, it has the power to transform much more than just itself. Through our discussions in health class, my students became inspired to take a stand on issues, express themselves, and spearhead community service projects. For these reasons and others, my experience engaging in and reflecting on health education for nine years and has inspired me to pursue this path for many, many more.