Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Body Positive New Year Challenge, Week One: Dressing Up

Sunday: self-massaged my tight leg muscles using oils
Monday: told a friend about the challenge
Tuesday: went to work dressed ready to dance
Wednesday: gave my students non-food items as prizes and gifts
Thursday: cried, briefly, in the morning
Friday: read a book about healing trauma in and through the body
Saturday: wrote my blog posts about the challenge

The first few days of this challenge were quite exciting, but it definitely became more difficult to think of what to do as the week went on and my attention drifted elsewhere.

My most body positive day was Tuesday, when I went to work dressed ready to dance. I really dressed up because my students had a major presentation that evening, but I realized in the morning that I really enjoyed moving my hips in that outfit. I felt good the whole day not because I was actually dancing, but because even walking reminded me of my body is amazing ability to dance and how much I enjoy it.

How do your clothes affect how you feel about your body? How do your feelings about your body affect the choices you make about what to wear? When is dressing up a body positive action, and when does trying to dress a certain way contribute to negative feelings about our bodies?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

My Body Positive New Year Challenge

I was reading and came across a post about New Year's resolutions to start dieting. The blogger pointed out that many of us also set New Year's resolutions to love our bodies for what they are and to enjoy our various curves and appetites. I took notes from the comments on that post with suggestions about how to set and keep such a resolution.

Now, I'm going to do it! Body positivity is an essential element in sex-positivity. Learning to love and listen to our bodies is intricately related to our embracing of a healthy sexuality, though different and separate in many ways. As I document my progress in this body positive challenge through a series of posts on this blog, I hope to explore that connection between body image and sexual health.

For now, here's an outline of my definition of this challenge:

• Every day, do one thing that supports a positive connection to my body.
• What I do each day must be unique, although I expect patterns to develop and similarities to be clear.
• What I do each day must be something active and/or interactive -- simply having a thought or feeling will not suffice.

My personal goals are to experience less physical pain, develop healthier habits, and have more energy. On the blog, I hope this challenge provides me with an opportunity to explore different ways we can initiate promoting body positivity and sex positivity in our individual lives and to open a discussion of the benefits and challenges of embarking on this process.

If you have any ideas about actions or steps that I can take as part of this challenge, please post a comment!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Sex-Positive Educators' Book List

As I come to the end of my application process, I'm excited to get back to the rest of my life. In addition to blogging more frequently, I definitely plan on reading a lot.

What are your suggestions for me? I'm looking for nonfiction in addition to fiction. I’d love to read books related to sex ed and human relationships -- I'm sure you’re surprised -- as well as books on other issues that you care about a lot!

In return for the recommendations that you will give me, I decided to write my own recommendation lists. Some of these references are quite obscure, some are quite well-known. Feel free to ask me for more details on any and all of them.

Mimi's top 10 reading recommendations for sex-positive educators:

1. Risky Lessons: Sex Education and Social Inequality, by Jessica Fields

2. Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality, by Deborah Tolman

3. Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson

4. Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, Eds. Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti

5. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, by Mary Pipher

6. GenderQueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary, Eds. Clare Howell, Joan Nestle, and Riki Wilchins

7. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, by Daniel Goleman

8. Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters, by Jessica Valenti

9. Anything by Paulo Freire

10. Anything by Jonathan Kozol

What do you think? In terms of transformative sex ed, what other books should be included on the reading list?

What’s the list of the books that you recommend for the issues that you are passionate about?

I can’t wait for your responses!

Monday, November 23, 2009

No such thing as TMI?

I always have an issue when people use “TMI” to excuse their talking about their own sexual experiences. It’s not too much information– it’s exactly the information that I want to hear! That’s why I’m listening to them, as their friend/ counselor/ teacher who wants to know what their experiences are so we can learn together and think together about our real lives

Check out Thomas's post on the Yes Means Yes blog.

However: A conversation I had last night brought up another layer to this discussion. Are there contexts in which sharing more details may make the listener uncomfortable? Yes, most likely. So? ASK! Check in. Ask for consent. "Can I tell you some more about..." Or, "I'd love to share some detail about... if you want to hear it!"

Thursday, November 19, 2009

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 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!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

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 . . .


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?


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!

Friday, October 2, 2009

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.

Monday, September 21, 2009

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.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

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

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

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.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

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!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

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!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

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.

Monday, August 3, 2009

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.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Weighing in on the Weight Debate

Pediatricians discuss in New York Times this week how best to address weight with their patients. I've heard health and physical education staff debate without resolution how to communicate with students and parents about BMI measurements. Who knows how to do this effectively, supporting students’ health and well-being without spawning lifelong obsessions and insecurities? In her memoir Moose, Stephanie Klein recalls her childhood experience seeing weight management specialists and attending fat camps. She also poignantly illustrates how the cycle of weight loss and gain continued through college and adulthood to hurt her self-esteem, her relationships, and her family.

I believe that the values of transformative sex ed can inform how we address weight with children. I also believe that we have a lot of work to do before we can meet this challenge head-on. Furthermore, we will best cope with this epidemic of disordered eating if we can in turn allow our dealing with it to transform our thinking about bodies and relationships.

Teenagers must access positive feelings about their body in order to achieve a strong sense of sexual health and agency. As long as teens face an onslaught of messages criticizing their bodies and making them feel physically bad or unworthy, they will lack a basic motivation for taking care of their bodies and for choosing respect and safety over degradation in danger.

Distorted body image also grossly distorts the ways in which we relate to each other. Klein details how body hatred so painfully alienated her from her romantic partners. We need a new way of thinking about bodies that can serve as a basis for stronger, healthier, and safer relationships.

I don't have the answers on this one, but searching for answers is essential. Any ideas?

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Sex Ed Bookclub Reads Twilight

Alas, I never actually hosted a Sex Ed bookclub, but I would like to discuss the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer. I read these novels because so many of my students absolutely love them. The story both thrilled and appalled me, and here is a little bit about why.

Brief summary: Edward, a century-old teenage vampire, falls in love with Bella, a local human high school student. The smell of her blood draws him in, and his urge to drink her blood is drastically opposed to his urge to protect her mortal life. This focus on Edward’s control over Bella's mortality, his literal ability (demonstrated many times over) to save her life or take it, drives much of the tension in the series.

Edward positions himself as Bella's protector. Now, I've heard many people complain about Bella for being so vulnerable, dependent, and ready to give in. But how can his seductive (manipulative?) words and actions be her fault? We can't blame Bella.

Bella recognizes the power imbalance in her relationship with Edward and speaks out against it. She repeatedly points out to Edward that he should not be the only one in the relationship who has power. She doesn't want a relationship based on his constantly saving her from various dangers. But although she sees this problem, she does not know what to do about it.

Bella does not know how to develop a healthy relationship between a vampire and a human. She does not have the language or the skills to articulate what kind of relationship dynamic she wants and how she can get that. She does not even know why balancing the power between them feels important to her.

What does she do? She blames herself. She thinks, “Well, if I'm the weak one, then something is clearly wrong with me, so I should change.” She starts begging Edward to make her into a vampire. (He has the power to do this — he controls her very humanity, remember?) As a vampire, she dreams, she can be as powerful as he is, and their power imbalance can be righted.

Bella blames herself, but we know better. We have to show her that it's not her fault. Even if he has more raw power than she does, even if he is stronger and wealthier and more attractive, it is his responsibility to renounce that power if he wants a healthy relationship with her. He must control himself to keep himself from controlling her, and he must make room for her agency. He needs to work to ensure that they are both equal partners, sharing decisions, communicating openly, and both giving support to the other and receiving support themselves. If Edward can not manage his power so that Bella can achieve equal partnership, then he should not be dating her.

When one partner in a dating relationship attempts to use their power to control the other partner, it's called abuse. Why in this case is it called romance? Furthermore, how does presenting such a power imbalance as the ultimate in love and romance affect the children and teenagers who cherish these books? We need to help our children understand that it's not Bella who needs to change what she's doing and how she's living, it's Edward.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

We are all potential acitvists

Dear students,

Remember that you are the ones with the most information about what's going on in your lives and what you need. If you need better health education, speak up and ask for it. You told me that you felt sad and angry that the school committee had cut health class. You told me that you need to learn this health information, that you liked having a space to share your feelings and that you wanted more opportunities to ask your burning questions.

You deserve a health class, but you might need to fight for it. I'm not there to help you, but I do have some suggestions:

1. Start gathering your stories. Why do you need and want health class? Find examples from your experience this past year to show how health class helps you.

2. Work together. Share ideas, and encourage each other. Use the resources you always use to connect with your peers -- the Internet, text messages, and gatherings at the mall or the park, for example.

3. Reach out to adults! They are the voters, the taxpayers, the ones with political power who are supposed to have your best interests in mind. Make sure they understand how you feel. Show them how health education gives you what they want for you. Get adults talking with each other, too.

4. Contact the press -- the local papers, in print and online, are major venues for debates about public education. Use them to make your voice heard.

5. Convince the school committee. The school committee consists of elected adults from your city. It's their decision, ultimately. Show them what you want and why you want it, and make them work for you the way they are supposed to.

To my students and to teenagers everywhere: Fight for the information, resources and support that you need in order to take great care of your health.

I believe in you.

With hope,

Ms. Arbeit

Friday, June 12, 2009

A Letter to my Students

To my dear students,

I'm not coming back to teach health next year. In fact, you won't have health class next year the way you have it this year. Your city government decided they can't give the schools the money needed to keep everything like it is now. Faced with the need to make cuts, the school committee decided not to have health teachers in the schools anymore. Instead, physical education teachers will teach about health in gym class. I'm not quite sure what that will be like or what they will teach.

I really wish that you could still have health class next year. I'm worried that you won't get the health education you deserve; I'm scared that without this education you won't have the knowledge, skills and attitude that you need to take care of yourself. I'm angry at the school committee for taking away health class because I believe in the value of learning about and talking about our health. I'm frustrated that not many members of our community are fighting for your right to in-depth health education. I'm also very sad that I won't personally get to teach you next year -- I'll miss you!

How can I inspire you to continue educating yourselves about health? Who will you go to with your questions? How will you figure out the difference between the myths and truths you come across? What will you do when puberty becomes overwhelming, confusing and frightening? What will you think and feel as you come face to face with desire, pressure and risk?

I want you to understand that health isn't something that you have, it's something that you do. Living a healthful life is a constant process that you are just beginning. You will continue that process in physical education next year, and you must also continue on your own, both during and after middle school. I hope that you keep practicing all the amazing healthy behaviors you have impressed me with this year. Remember my goals for you: (1) love and respect your body; (2) express your emotions; and (3) build relationships based on open and honest communication.

If you start to feel that all this is too much or too hard, you're not alone. The process of living a healthful life does not start and end with you in isolation -- in order for us all to be truly healthy, we need to make some changes in our society. Your awareness and acceptance of your own needs, your hunger for accurate information, and your courage to ask questions will help you figure out what changes you need. Then, make yourselves heard. Make demands. In order for us all to be the healthiest and happiest people we can possibly be, we need a lot of change. We need you to make that change.

Love always,
Ms. Arbeit

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

I should not teach gym, so why should they teach sex ed?

Sexuality education has a long history of being put into other classes, specifically science and physical education. While I strongly support integrating a discussion of sexuality, sexual development and sexual health into many areas of the curriculum, I also believe that adolescents need a specific safe and supportive class in which to learn, think, and ask questions about this sensitive topic.

Does it matter what teachers’ backgrounds are once they've taken on the task of teaching sex ed? Technically, their particular degree might not matter as much as their knowledge of and enthusiasm for the subject matter. I offer my support and commendation to any teachers excited to bring discussion of sexuality into their classrooms. But I get a very different image from friends’ stories from about hesitant, awkward and grossed out teachers who just had to do the sex ed unit.

Not only the teaching style but also the curriculum changes depending on where the school puts sex ed. The aspects of the sexuality that are emphasized depend on the context in which the material is presented. While science classes might focus specifically on the reproductive system, a physical education class might stress how to take care of a growing body. Furthermore, students will expect the lessons to take on these tones and may not even think to ask questions about the social and emotional aspects of their sexual development.

How will students feel when they're told that today's gym lesson has been canceled due to the sex ed requirement? What attitude will they take toward sex ed and sexual health? What will they perceive about the value of sex ed and its importance in their lives? What will they do when they have questions or need help?

I chose this topic because I've been told to expect official notice that the school district I currently work in will not need me next year. Instead of hiring teachers specifically to teach health, they will instead require physical education teachers to cover my topic. While upset, I'm not that worried about myself and my career. But what will become of my students?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Teaching Values

I’m writing to respond to CG’s comments on my last post. CG wrote that a major point of contention around sexuality education is the question of values: can we teach values in schools, or do parents have a monopoly on imparting values to young people? If we can’t teach values, which values are and are not acceptable to teach? Who gets to decide? As teachers all over attempt to manage student behavior and establish school culture, they teach values such as respect, obedience and getting work done, and very few people question these teachers’ right to do so. However, sex education is seen as different in that it can be a site for teaching students quite specific values. Indeed, I think part of the amazing power of sex education is its potential for teaching progressive, transformative values. But CG is right – the other disciplines can and should embrace this power as well.

Science classes teach values – in some senses adherence to the scientific method is itself a value, for believe in the Biblical creation story has long been pitted against belief in evolution in a struggle over science curriculum. Science teaches the values of objectivity, inquiry, and integrity. Scientists also like to categorize and theorize, and categories and theories of past scientists have the potential to become common scientific values as teachers pass them on to their students. And in so many scientific studies, one can see how the values of scientists color their interpretation of their findings.

We definitely teach values through the ways in which we explain history and social studies. Racial tensions might be deemphasized by the topic of multiculturalism. On the other hand, the same racial tensions might be explored through a critical view of slavery, segregation and immigration policies. Students can be empowered by learning about abolitionists, the civil rights movement, or feminism. And again the same topics can be used to emphasize nationalism, democracy and capitalism. Biases in the textbook and in teaching methods send value-laden messages that the students will absorb.

If it weren’t for my passion for sexuality and health, I would happily teach English for the very reason that I believe English classes serve as fabulous venues for teaching values. Character, emotions, relationships, conflicts, challenges and other aspects of life can all be explored through careful and appropriate selection of reading material. Through writing, students find value in expressing their feelings, voicing their opinions, and exploring new ideas.

Values matter, by definition. Values are the core of what we hold near and dear. What we don’t carefully select the values we want to teach, we risk teaching students values that can mislead, confuse or injure them as they develop. We must select core values with intention and care, and impart them to our students by all means possible.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Sex Ed before Text Ed

The New York Times fashion section ran a very telling feature this weekend on “The Birds and the Bees Text Line,” a North Carolina public health program. As cool as all this texting might seem, teenagers would gain a lot more from living in a society full of adults they could discuss these issues with face to face.

According to the article, North Carolina public schools must teach abstinence only sex ed (although the legislature is debating an endorsement of comprehensive sex ed). Meanwhile, as teen pregnancy and STIs remain a problem, the public health officials freak out and are forced outside the schools for answers because all the programs within the schools are doomed to failure by law. I've got to say it again: The state restricts sex education in the public schools, which is arguably the best possible means of educating teenagers, and consequently the state encounters a health crisis and pours money into a much less-than-ideal means of reaching the same teenagers whom the state also spends money on actively not reaching in sex ed class. Why can't they just spend money on providing effective education the first time around -- in class?

One of the teen texters said that before texting the hotline she had asked her question to her health teacher, but was made to “feel ashamed.” What if her health teacher had been empowered to provide comprehensive information, and had been trained to discuss touchy subjects without judgment? What if her health teacher had approached sex education with the same pro-health, pro-teen attitude with which the adult texters treat their anonymous questioners?

What if the government put money into ensuring that every public high school has a staff member who encourages teenagers to ask all their questions in person? Such a staff member could use the process of sex education as a means of developing teenagers and emotional and social understanding of sexuality. Such a staff member could start conversations that allow teenagers to act on the “longing to unburden themselves.” Such a staff member could build long-lasting relationships with teenagers who need more loving adults in their lives.

The staff members of the text-education line offer important support to the teenagers of North Carolina. However, the support they offer should be available face-to-face in the public schools. Teenagers deserve adults in their schools who help them ask anything they want to without feeling shame. Teenagers deserve adults who provide them with positive feedback, accurate information and helpful referrals in person.

I do think it would be really cool to continue exploring how technology can help us promote sexual health, but we can't do this without teenagers and adults engaging conversation, in person and explicit, at times challenging and at times awkward, but always caring, truthful and attentive to the teenagers’ spoken and unspoken needs. They may ask a lot over text, but they will never ask enough in those short lines. We need to be there in person to help them understand what they cannot yet put into words.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Please comment on my blog!

I'd like to take a step back and explain why I'm blogging in the first place.
* I love talking about sex ed, and I'm excited for any venue that helps me do so.
* I find it helpful to have an outlet for my own weekly opinions and reflections.
* I want to tell you what I'm thinking about! Well, I'd actually rather have a conversation with each of you face-to-face, but blogging at least seems like a good way to start a conversation.

Those are three things that I get from blogging -- but I want things from you, too.

***I want you to comment! Is this too much to ask? I've been patient for the past two months, not pushing any of you. But I'm asking all of you, publicly, right now.

Please comment on my blog. I want to share my ideas and opinions -- but more than that, I want to read your ideas and opinions. If you want to share something privately, you can e-mail me.

Your comments can describe whatever thoughts or feelings you have while reading the posts, or other ideas you have on the topic. Sorry, now I feel like I'm giving you a prompt for a writing assignment. Ah, teaching. But really, I didn't intend for this to be such a one-way thing. I think there is much more transformational potential in processes of interaction.

I'm really enjoying the process of gathering my thoughts and expressing them, but I'd love even more to involve some interaction in this process. What do you want to read about? What kinds of things don't you want to read?

Okay, there is my shameless plea.

Once a term I send out a worksheet asking my students and their families for feedback. Every day I'm paying attention to the more subtle ways in which my students react to my tone of voice, my lesson plans, and my assignments. Maybe I'm just not used to discussing sex education without constant feedback and judgment. What do you think?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


I want my students to grow up valuing community. I want them to identify as members of a community, and I want them to experience the power of community as a site for developing love, health and activism. Understanding ourselves as in community with each other can profoundly affect the way we function in our professional, personal and sexual lives. However, before I can use the concept of community as an educational tool, I want to understand how this value manifests in my own life.

These days, I think a lot about what it means to be growing up. The gendered aspects of growing up are the first to pop out at me, but that's another blog post. Lately, I've been hearing a lot of friends talking about wanting to achieve something they call independence. What is this independence of which you speak, and what makes it so cool? I seem to remember talk of such a thing back in high school, when I wanted to start buying my own clothes and driving myself around. But these days, I will only go clothes shopping with my mom, and if I can't get a ride with friends then I just take public transit.

I enjoy these acts of dependence. The concept of dependence has been pathologized -- if I wrote here that I feel dependent on a my mom, my friends, or my dating partner, many readers might judge that as unhealthy. But I do not desire independence. I am deeply connected to the people in my life, and they affect me emotionally, physically, professionally, and financially. I'm sensitive to the ebb and flow of these relationships, and I feel powerfully my potential to receive both pain and pleasure from my interactions with these people.

Wait... I started this argument with the concept of community, and now I'm at the concept of dependence. Let's get back to community.

Just as I do not experience myself as an individual striving for independence, so too do I recognize that healthy relationships involve more than two people. All of my relationships have developed, healthy or not, in the context of a community. And just as I grow from embracing my dependence on my relationships, I believe that my relationships can grow from our mutual embracing of our dependence on community. For relationships to be healthy, the community that supports them must seek health as well . . .

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Homophobic Bullying As a Sign and Symptom

Judith Warner just posted a blog about the topic I brought up two weeks ago -- kids calling each other gay. The article and many of the online comments provided me with insight into multiple perspectives on this issue: addressing it either as a sign of homophobia, a symptom of patriarchy, or one of many acts of childhood bullying. In my opinion, we can understand the “that’s so gay” epidemic as a sign and symptom of all of these problems, and seek to eradicate it using a social transformation perspective.

Bullying is not and never has been separate from sexism. When children bully each other, they're reflecting society's prejudices -- they are re-creating the same systems of violence that torment the adult world. To get rid of this behavior among children we need to model healthy alternatives, teach preventive behaviors, and discuss issues as they arise.

All that my students know about bullying is that on the one hand, they shouldn't do it because they might get in trouble, even though if adults get involved they do not always effectively stop the bullying. My students also believe that “respect” and “being nice” are the opposite of bullying. Maybe respect is just not a strong enough concept to encompass the alternative and preventative behavior we all need to practice.

Calling a classmate gay is not simply disrespect -- it is participation in the violent, deeply rooted systems of sexism and heterosexism. We need to actively work to counter the systems that define our worth based on how effectively we fit into certain social categories and how fully we meet certain social expectations. We need to counter children's urge to use cruelty to “police” their own in each other's behavior. We need to teach our children processes of support and affirmation so that they don't need to fear who they are and who their friends are. We need to find out why they put each other down and replace that behavior with its opposite.

Gender and the pressures that come with it intervene in children's lives with pervasive and contradictory expectations. What would happen if children didn't need to worry about being the perfect boy or girl and instead worried about reaching a standard of humanity -- being loving, caring, and kind? And what if other roles children reach for, such as student, athlete and partner, were no longer differentiated by gender and instead everyone had the same encouragement and guidance as well as the same expectations for success and achievement within these roles?

What if children were taught to be their whole selves, and nothing but themselves, in order to achieve happiness and success? What if they were taught to help others do the same? How can we teach them to do so?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Remember the Teenagers. A response to the abstinence-or-comprehensive sex ed fight

I support comprehensive sex education -- programs that provide teenagers with information and options in the context of teaching emotional and social processes of self-care and empowerment. But today I'm not writing for the sole purpose of arguing my position. I read yesterday's Boston Globe editorial on this topic and the comments that other readers have posted. I have many responses and opinions of my own that I will, down the line, articulate. Today, I'm writing because I want to remember the teenagers.

Where are the voices of the teenagers? I didn't read their words, and no one seems to be advocating for them. The people commenting miss the fact that they are debating the education of real people -- people that feel, think and do, every day. Yesterday, while adults fought on the Internet, teenagers across the country said yes to sex, said no to sex, asked to wait, asked for more, showed off their virginity pledges, showed off their hickeys, had their first kiss, gave birth, broke hearts, pledged their love, watched foreplay on television, saw rape in a movie, lied about their age on the Internet, lied about their sexual history, told the truth about their sexual history, viewed cleavage while flipping through a magazine, took a birth control pill, used a condom correctly, used a condom incorrectly, hated sex, enjoyed sex...

Yes, reading those comments from fighting adults, I just really missed teenagers and the intensity of their daily realities. Teenagers are real people, with bodies, sexualities, lives, and multiple senses -- and they take in a lot more than they let on.

Most importantly, teenagers are a lot more diverse as a group and a lot more complex as individuals than these adults seem to give them credit for. We learned a while ago in education that we can't approach all 20 or so students in one room as if they have the same needs. Instead, we practice differentiated instruction, working as much as possible to help students achieve according to their own level, style and potential.

Not all teenagers will decide to abstain, nor will all teenagers decide to have sex. But one theme that I did find in many of the comments from both “sides” of the fight was the desire for teenagers to learn to respect themselves and others.

Teenagers will only have a chance to learn respect when the so-called adults in this situation model such behavior for them. We need to respect each other. More importantly, we need to respect the very teenagers for whom we claim to feel concern. In order to respect teenagers, we must recognize them as full human beings with their own thoughts and feelings and dreams. They can't vote, which immediately renders them less-than-relevant in any debate over policy. But this policy is about their lives, and this debate puts their right to their own humanity on the line. They are more-than-relevant, and we must treat them as such. We must respect, include, and listen to the teenagers themselves.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

A More Specific Question

What are the best ways of responding to students who called something “so gay” in order to cast it apart as weird or wrong? The best response will entail having a conversation -- communicating with the students, engaging them, challenging them.

In order to plan a caring and effective response, I'll start by applying the very communication skills that I teach in health class. When preparing to have a serious conversation, first determine a good time and place. If I'm not in the middle of teaching a class, I can ask the student to step into the hallway with me and I can address the issue immediately. If I am in the middle of teaching a class, but do not have a class directly following, I can tell the student to speak with me after class. If neither of these options is available, or if the student spoke these words in the context of other disciplinary issues, then I will keep the student in my classroom after school.

That's when the hard part starts. What can I say to help them understand better why they said it, why they shouldn't say it again, and why homophobia hurts all of us? Those are my three objectives. What's my plan?
1. Guide them through taking responsibility for what they said.
2. Ask them why they said it and listen to where it was coming from.
3. Help them think of more effective and respectful ways of expressing their feelings.
4. Use this moment to teach them...

... insert 5-to-10 minute, developmentally appropriate lesson on homophobia here. Any suggestions? I have lots of ideas, but I have yet to determine the best strategy. Right now I'm trying out what I feel is most applicable to the given student in the given situation. But I would love more feedback on planning ahead for this too frequent of challenges, for I'm sorry to say it will come up again.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Towards an Emotionally Intelligent Sex Ed Program

In addition to providing accurate and accessible information, sex ed teaches values, sending explicit or implicit messages to students about who they are, how to relate to others, and what roles to seek in society.

Schools end up teaching values wherever they want to or not. We need to take responsibility for the values and behavioral patterns we instill in students. One recent movement known as Character Education focuses on explaining what it means to have good character and be a good citizen. A new approach that can be called Emotional Education has the capacity to go deeper than that. I read about emotional education recently in the book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, and I'm enthralled.

Emotional education and sexuality education are inextricable from one another. In order to learn how to develop sexual agency, we need to know how to identify our own emotions and figure out what we want. In order to negotiate with potential sexual partners, we need to know how to recognize and respond to other people's emotions. In order to develop healthy relationships, we need to communicate, debate and support each other in emotionally healthy ways.

Emotional education must also be antiracist, feminist education. In order to support all of our students, we must ensure that they receive the instruction and encouragement that they need, intentionally countering legacies of oppression and instead providing them all with opportunities for development as full and complex emotional beings. While the imperative to bring in the political analysis may not seem as obvious, I believe it is an essential basic element of such a curriculum.

I'm excited to continue to explore the potential for teaching about sex in the context of emotional education.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

My analysis

What happens when we put the body at the center of our analysis? What can we learn about our own personal challenges? What can we learn about our relationships? Moreover, how can such an analytical process help us to transform our society?

My analysis centers around the body. All of the issues I address and care about bring me back to the body, and the importance of our having bodies and our having our own power over our own bodies. Through my body, I experienced myself and the world. By hearing about my embodied experience, you can understand my plight.

I learned many different radical critiques that use slightly different lenses for analyzing and critiquing the world’s inequalities. Is it all really about who has the most money? Is it all really about who has the most power over others? I think it's about who has the most power over their own body and over the bodies of others.

My analysis uses the plight of our bodies as a lens for critiquing our society. In advocating for healthy, happy, safe, self-asserted, consensually involved bodies, we can sort through the myriad of oppressions that afflict our world.

We begin and end in our bodies. We feel our bodies constantly. We relate to each other with our bodies, through our bodies, in our bodies.

I'm not trying to make a concluding point in just this one entry. I'm trying to make a starting point. When we started from our bodies, where can that take us?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Talking about talking about sex

Last week, a friend of mine invited a couple people to dinner with the specific intention of discussing sex.

Why did we need a specific event in order to engage that topic? Why is it talking about sex something that happens on its own? I wish it were. I wish I had more frequent and more open conversations about sex with my peers. And even though I don't do it enough, I bet I actually get down to talking about sex more than other people do. But much more than I get to talk about sex directly, I have conversations about the process of talking about sex. Meta-discussions. Discussions about discussions about sex.

We talk about why sex is so hard to talk about in the first place. We talk about what holds us back, our fears perhaps, or shyness, or our perception of other people's fears or shyness. And social convention. Oh, social convention. It's not usually done, so it doesn't usually happen. How can we start making it happen?

Part of the issue is that we don't have an easily accessible, already agreed-upon rubric for how such talking about sex could work. Is there such a thing as “too much information” (TMI)? What kinds of comments would be inappropriate? What “ground rules” can we use to build a “safe space” in which everyone feels more comfortable?

How can we honor the feelings that hold us back from talking about sex, and also move forward in seeking the discussions we desire? Please comment, for I would love to read your thoughts and feelings.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Desire, Desire, Desire

I would've benefited from learning about enthusiastic consent in high school. I wish I'd known why to say no every time that I didn't actually really, really, really want it.

But what makes a person enthusiastic? Desire. And what is that desire for? Pleasure. I think that these concepts are essential to transformative sex ed. They are essential to the process of countering rape culture and the epidemic of sexual violence. Recently, I've become more able to articulate these convictions thanks to the new anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape

Once we encourage each other to get in touch with our personal desires for specific pleasures, we can begin planning to fulfill our desires. That’s agency -- being our own advocates.

I'm just beginning to get a sense for how extremely empowering these concepts are in my life and the lives of my friends. I want to figure out how to teach them to my students to empower them, also.

I started the 8th grade unit on sexual violence prevention by defining pressure as trying to get someone else to do something without considering whether the other person actually wants to do it or not. Pressure takes away the other person’s ability to consent by erasing the importance of desire. During the teen dating classes, I've expanded the concept of pressure to the concept of control, which is any use of power to make another person think, feel or act a certain way. Again, control violates the importance of the other person's desire.

Next, I will tackle directly of the issue of rape and sexual assault. I hope the themes that I've developed through the preceding lessons at least somewhat prepare my students for what's about to ensue.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

My Work

I currently teach health in a public middle school, and just today spent two classes with seventh graders explaining the anatomy of the male and female reproductive systems. “Why do we need to learn this?” the students often ask. Variations on this question include, “why do we need to learn about both males and females?” and “why do we need to learn this in school?”

I'm hoping to empower them. I explain that this information will help them care for themselves and their relationships -- that at some point in the future they will want to be familiar with their friend’s and/or their partner's reproductive system. I tell them that I want them to discuss it with me, at school, because I want them to have the opportunity to develop a positive attitude towards bodies, to hear from someone who doesn't consider it weird or gross, and to ask questions of someone who is excited to provide answers.

On, one of my students wrote about me, “She is a little weird how she talks about things with both boys and girls together and it looks like she enjoys it but otherwise she is a good friend?” Today, in a similar vein, a student asked me to my face if I enjoy teaching this topic.

“Yes,” I wanted to shout, “this is the best thing ever! I wish I had more time at you so I can teach you in more detail, make up many more activities, and ensure your mastering the information.” I didn't say all that, but I did clearly affirm that I do enjoy it, and that's why I teach it.

And why shouldn't I? Is it weird to enjoy my students’ discomfort -- or is it thrilling to open up a conversation with them that they've never had before quite this way? Is it wrong to be able to say words like vagina and penis with steady calm, or is it beautiful to make room for young adolescents to air their confusion and concern?

Maybe doing this work is weird in that it's unusual, but I think that is one of its most important qualities. I believe that it's thrilling, beautiful and fun. I'm in the zone while I'm doing it. And I'm convinced that most of the time my students are enjoying it, too.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

My Dream

I believe in sexuality education as a site of social transformation. By talking about our bodies, our relationships, our desires, and the restrictions and pressures on all of these, we have the opportunity to develop new ideas and ways of thinking that will change our lives and our society. In order to embark upon this project, we need to transform our conception of sexuality education. We must move beyond the debate between information and abstinence-based curriculum and reach for new paradigms in structure, pedagogy, and content. We will transform sexuality education so that sexuality education can in turn transform us. We will develop and articulate new values to guide us. We can achieve love, freedom, agency, and a system of support for the health and wellbeing of all. I strive for social change. Please strive with me.