Monday, May 18, 2015

What are we ready to risk? Academia, advocacy, and activism


I graduated from Tufts University this weekend, with a Ph.D. in Child Study and Human Development. I was honored to be the student speaker for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Doctoral Hooding Ceremony. Here is what I said.






As the non-indictment verdict arrived, I was working on my dissertation. Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, will have no trial. The people of Ferguson protest: Black Lives Matter. They call for an end to business as usual, but my business as usual was just getting good. I wanted to write my dissertation and I really, really wanted this degree.

And I was tired. Business as usual is exhausting and there’s no energy left for protests and movement building and solidarity.

Abigail Ortiz taught me that solidarity means sharing risk. I ask myself what risks I am willing to share as a white person in solidarity with people of color: Am I willing to risk arrest? Injury? Reputation? Career?


The system is built to maintain itself.


In the first month of 2015, four black trans women were murdered. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia. The intersectionality of oppression is life and death.

“Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.

Support for trans women dwindles when we are still alive… It points to who is valuable and who is disposable. If you’re not a trans woman… think long and hard about the ways that you’re supporting trans women in your community. Do you see trans women in public community spaces? How are your actions pushing them out? 


I learned to do academic work that could inform advocacy. I wrote a guide for youth development programs about queer-inclusivity, racial justice, and trauma-informed practice. What is life anyway but one giant youth development program? These principles can guide both the work we do and how we run our workplaces.


But these systems are built to maintain themselves.


As PhDs, we are pronounced producers of knowledge. We can use our position within the system – and the peer-reviewed knowledge that we produce – to advocate for change. That’s our professional work; activism is the personal work. But activism, solidarity, is risky. I want a job, tenure, grants, clout. I want those things for myself and for my advocacy – I am building power and building knowledge with hope that I can leverage my power and my knowledge to make a difference.

Can I continue working on that, while also working to break down the systems that grant me this power?


These systems are built to maintain themselves. And I am a part of that.


But these systems are not okay. We need an end to business as usual, and we all need to commit to that end, as knowledge-producers and as human beings, each situated at various sites of power, within White Capitalist Heteropatriarchy.


So now that our degrees are not on the line anymore, what are we ready to risk?

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Publication Alert: A Skills-Based Model for Promoting Adolescent Sexuality Development

I published a theory paper in the journal Human Development. In the paper, I present a model for thinking about adolescent sexuality in terms of skills – what young people know how to do and how young people act, in and through sexuality. The model explains the following skills…
  • Sexual Selfhood: Desire, Ethics, and Identity
  • Sexual Agency
  • Sexual Negotiation: Consent, Protection, Pleasure
  • Sexual Intimacy
  • Sexual Empowerment: Boundaries, Coping, Analysis
  • Sexual Advocacy


Emphasizing sexuality skills over specific sexual behaviors allows us to remove “intercourse” from the center of a research agenda on adolescent sexuality development. In this way, I decenter concepts such as virginity, marriage, and heterosexuality from how we think and talk about young people and about sex overall. Focusing on skills raises questions about how to facilitate skill development for all young people, whether they are sexually active in particular ways or not.


I am honored to have this article published in Human Development. I am also honored that the journal elicited commentary from two renowned scholars in the field, both of whom expressed support for the model and provided me with inspiring feedback.


  • The need for a cumulative life span approach
  • Expanding the focus on biological processes
  • Grappling with gender variation
  • Gender as a product of sexuality
  • Greater attention to sexual-minority development
  • The meaning of meaning-making



I am particularly moved by Diamond’s suggestions for how to use this model push the interrogation of gender, sexism, and sexual orientation in the study of adolescent sexuality. She writes about the need to research the “interplay between gender and sexual questioning,” particularly for transgender and gender non-conforming youth, saying that the model “provides a framework for reconceptualizing gender questioning as adaptive and even normative” (p. 298). In addition, she suggests attending to the role of binary gender socialization (differential systems of expectations and rewards for men and women) in shaping young people’s skills for sexual negotiation and, in turn, how their experiences of sexual negotiation may shape their sense of their own gender. Furthermore, she provides several examples of how the model can be applied to supporting sexual minority youth not only in their sexual identity but also in being sexual and acting upon their sexual feelings.


  • Developmental change
  • Relational developmental systems
  • Promoting adolescent sexuality development
  • Promoting sexuality development beyond adolescence



Specifically, Moshman discussed the value of the model for expanding the notion of sexuality education, given that “secondary schools can and should contribute to sexuality development” (p. 290). Moshman also asserts that the model can be applied to colleges and universities addressing sexual assault, in order to not only respond to sexual assaults as they occur, but also “to reconcile such responsibilities with the responsibility to educate and promote development” (p. 291). Sex ed in schools and campus sexual violence prevention have long been personal and professional interests of mine, and I am excited to apply the skills-based model to these pursuits.


Here is the Table of Contents for this issue, which contains my article as well the two commentaries. Please contact me if you have any questions, or if you have trouble finding the full text article.


I look forward to drawing upon this article in my future research and applied work, as I enthusiastically explore the implications of this work for understanding and addressing sexism; for supporting both gender and sexual exploration for queer, trans, and questioning youth; and for transforming the ways in which educational institutions constrain and facilitate the sexuality development of the young people in their care.


References

Arbeit, M. R. (2014). What does healthy sex look like among youth? Towards a skills-based model for promoting adolescent sexuality development. Human Development, 57(5), 259-286.

Diamond, L. M. (2014). Expanding the scope of a dynamic perspective on positive adolescent sexual development. Human Development, 57(5), 292-304.

Moshman, D. (2014). Sexuality development in adolescence and beyond. Human Development, 57(5), 287-291.

Monday, June 30, 2014

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.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

“Benign” Rape

Warning – this story contains explicit descriptions of sexual violence.


The writer of this piece wishes to remain anonymous. She sent her story to me to share publicly in case her reflections can help someone else. I’m sharing an edited version in my weekly column, The Debrief, as part of a series for April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The editors of that site requested that I remove the explicit details before posting it there. To remain true to the story as the writer wanted it told, I am posting the full piece below.


I thought after my first experience that it would be over. That I would be smart enough to not put myself in those situations again. I would no longer be naïve; I would no longer be desperate. I would no longer be that girl. Yet, as I have grown older, as I became less desperate and less naïve, it still happened.

I was 20 the first time. It was Halloween and I dressed up as Loki from Dogma with one of my best friends as Bartleby. It was actually a pretty good costume. We went to a party hosted by friends of friends, and I met him. He had longer hair than I would have preferred, but he wasn’t unattractive, and I liked the attention at the moment. We talked, invited him to the Rocky Horror Show event that I managed at college, and things kind of moved forward after that. I cannot actually remember if we ever went on any dates, but at one point I went over to his apartment for dinner and a double date with his roommate.

As the night drew to a close, we went into his bedroom. Clothes came off, things started to happen. Then the question came. “Are you ready? Do you want to do it?” My body was telling me yes, my heart and head were screaming, “Is this the man I want to lose it to?” I said yes. He went into the bathroom to get a condom and while he was gone, I realized that I wasn’t ready. That he wasn’t the one I wanted to lose it to and basically: what the fuck am I doing here. When he came back from the bathroom I told him that I’m sorry, I can’t do it. I’m not ready and you could tell—at least I thought you could tell—that I was freaking out a bit. He told me it was okay, and we started making out again.

As we were making out, with him on top of me, he started trying to have sex with me. I remember trying to push him away and of course not succeeding. This man had way more power than I did. All of a sudden he pushed in. But I realized he pushed in a different spot. He raped me anally. Now I didn’t scream, I didn’t push him off me, I didn’t say anything. I didn’t even sink my teeth in somewhere to get him off me. No, instead, my mind left my body. I was in so much pain, I was crying and all I could think of were shining rainbows and bunnies. I kept thinking to myself: “find your happy place”.

He finished. Got off me and went to the bathroom. I just laid there. My eyes had no more life. I felt like my spirit was gone. It was as if not just my body was raped, not just me as a person, but also my soul. He came back from the bathroom to tell me the condom had broken and that he would pray for me. All I could think was, “Jewish people don’t say that, and I’m Jewish.”

For six weeks after that, I stuck with it. Having him force me to have sex every night he came over, finding ways to push him physically off me even though he was stronger than me. Trying to deny and deny what was happening to me. Until finally he put my head against the dashboard and stood up, stuck his penis in my mouth and made me give him a blow job. Suddenly I couldn’t breathe. I tried to get him off me, and all he wanted was to finish. I finally realized: “Who am I? This isn’t me. I am not that girl who gets sexually abused.” Soon the flashes of reality came back to me, the choking, the helplessness as he holds down my arms and my only weapon are my legs, my fear, it just kept hitting me. Finally he came, I started chocking, and I kicked him out. Told him to get out of my life.

I felt like I learned my lesson, and I would never let that happen again. I would be stronger, no more fear. I would stand up for myself.

Well that turned out to be true bullshit. Things kept happening. Men forcing sex on me, men forcing their penis inside the ass when I didn’t want it. I would repeatedly say no, no, I don’t want it… and then my favorite line: “Oh honey, you know you’ll like it. How do you know unless you try it?” Then of course lube is on and it’s in. As they grunt and move back and forth, I am again in excruciating pain, almost in tears. They can’t understand why I bleed so profusely during and after.

When I explained my rape to someone they said: “Oh, so it was a benign rape.” Why was it benign? Because my clothes weren’t ripped off? Because I didn’t kick and scream at the top of my lungs? Because I did not tear my nails in his skin while running to the cops?

No, I didn’t report my rape or my abuse. No, I haven’t reported anything I have gone through with these men. 

There is nothing about my rape that is benign. Benign rape is just as bad as “bad” rape. If that is even a term.

Questions run rampant: Can I ever find a relationship that is normal? A relationship that is healthy? A man who won’t force anything? Someone who will respect me? Give me the love that I deserve?

I don’t know the answers. But I am tired of these situations. I am tired of constantly feeling like maybe it will be all right in the end. It’s not all right.  None of this is okay.


The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center provides free and confidential services to victims of sexual assault, survivors of sexual assault, and their friends and family. The hotline is a 24-hour service provided to help anyone affected by sexual assault: (800) 841-8371.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Testimony for An Act Relative to Healthy Youth


JOINT COMMITTEE ON EDUCATION

***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 Youth is 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)

References

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. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Introducing "The Debrief"

Great news!

I've been asked by JewishBoston.com to write a weekly column, "The Debrief," offering advice and commentary about sex, dating, and relationships for Jewish young adults in our 20s and 30s in the Greater Boston area. 

Even if you don't quite fit into or identify with this demographic, please check out my new work!

If you have a story to share, a question to ask, or an article/issue you want me to discuss in my new column, drop a line to mimia@jewishboston.com so I can write a column in response. All questions will be posted anonymously to maintain confidentiality, unless you request otherwise.

You can read my introductory post here to find out more about The Debrief. 

As I focus on this new project, I will not be continuing to post here at Sex Ed Transforms. I've had an incredible experience learning about myself and growing in so many ways since I started this blog four years ago. Thank you to all of you who have read, shared, and commented on my posts. Words can't express how much your support means to me. I hope you continue to enjoy the archives of my journey thus far.

And look out for a new column of The Debrief every Wednesday!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Authenticity, writing, and regret


Regret has been my go-to emotion these days.

The times in my life I most regret are the times when I have succumbed to inauthenticity. When I have not been my authentic self. When I have turned away from myself in order to turn towards something else, and then that something else ended up being really bad.

I can’t go back to any of those times and wake myself up. I can’t enter those key moments and decide to listen to myself, decide to take myself more seriously, decide that I am worth facing challenges for.

I can’t go back. That’s the whole point. That’s the one rule in all of this. I only have now and in the future.

This recent wave of regret has been triggered by something that feels rather silly in the context of all this existential reflection. But still, it is real and it matters and it’s bringing up some really strong feelings for me. It’s that Feministing contest.

Many of you were so overwhelmingly supportive and enthusiastic when I made it into the final round of the Feministing.com “So You Think You Can Blog” contest. I got the email on a Tuesday afternoon at work—I had arrived at work late after spending the morning presenting a lecture on adolescent sexuality at a Boston College class on Positive Youth Development and then getting lunch with the professor (at Inna’s Kitchen!). I was totally amped about the lecture and discussion and the prospect of more teaching about sex and sexuality.

Then I got the email that I was selected as a finalist, and I couldn’t stop shaking in disbelief. In fact, I didn’t stop shaking until I got the email three weeks later that I wasn’t selected as a winner.

And I just think—I can’t help but feel—my understanding of my own situation is that it was that very disbelief, that very shaking, that very frozen-in-time, this-can’t-be-happening feeling that pulled me out of myself and threw me into a state of inauthenticity bordering on emotional paralysis—and now remembering that state of being is at the core of my current regret. I regret that I didn’t slow down enough in order to enter the last round of the contest as myself. From the minute I got the email, I was thinking about how to fit into their club—how to write the way they wanted me to write and write about the topics they wanted me to write about—I wasn’t thinking about how to be myself and be true to myself. I ended up writing blog posts that I thought were smart and well-written, but I personally wasn’t anywhere in those posts. They could have been written by anyone.

My biggest challenge was the one instruction they gave us—to be timely. When I blog, it’s always timely, but to me, to my timeline. I’m blogging about the one thing that I’ve been stuck on recently, the one piece of my life, past or present, that is eating away at me and that I want to come to understand by communicating it to others. I don’t tend to discuss current events or pop culture, and I’d never written a post on-demand before. And instead of slowing down and considering how I would proceed were I to actually win the contest and become a more scheduled, more public blogger, I plowed forward without reflection. I was plowing forward without myself, because I wasn’t giving myself time to catch up.

I don’t know if any of this is making sense to you. I can only get it to make sense to me part of the time. But it’s really at the core of what I’ve been feeling and thinking about these days, and it seemed to be more honest and authentic than the “why I hate competitions” or the “what does this mean about my professional identity and career goals” posts that I was considering writing as another form of reflection on the Feministing contest. Maybe those will be important posts for me to write at some point in the future, but today I needed to write about regret. Because noticing this regret about the times when I haven’t slowed down to address myself, to try to be true to myself, to attend to my own feelings and boundaries and goals—noticing all of that regret regarding the blog posts I wrote made me notice all the other regrets I have, too: regrets about times when I turned away from myself in ways that had much worse consequences than losing a contest.