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.