Thursday, November 18, 2010

The 2010 Teen Pregnancy Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can such a world exist?

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

All Dressed Up and Nowhere Safe to Party


Dear Eve,

I know what you mean. I know, and it breaks my heart. I know because I once studied, slept and partied on a college campus, and I know because I have read about other college campuses. I know that college can be a time of extreme empowerment and extreme disempowerment.

I know because this morning I got an email from my university with news that a sexual assault taking place in a fraternity house was reported this weekend.

The Golf Pros/ Tennis Hos party theme is clearly sexist and objectifying of women. However, when the fraternity advertises a party by saying, “Everyone makes mistakes, but not all mistakes are bad,” that is evidence of rape culture. That is part of a culture in which unwanted sex is actively expected of girls and then dismissed as a “mistake” and promoted as “good.”

I know that evidence of rape culture is ubiquitous on college campuses.

What I don’t know is how, why, and what can we do about it?

I apologize for my silence since you posted on my blog one month ago. Your post upset me and moved me from the moment I read it, and I have thought about you and your words regularly since then. i am sorry that I have been silent. We cannot be silent.

How did you feel when you saw the advertisement for that party? What do you think went through the minds of girls who had friends in that fraternity, who were looking forward to that party, who talked for hours with their friends about what tennis ho outfits they could wear, but who noticed their friends made no comments about whether or not mistakes would be made that night, and what makes a mistake good or bad, and how to choose for yourself what mistakes to make.

It’s hard to be a woman on a college campus these days. It’s hard to find sexual agency and to feel safe. I don’t feel we are safe when I see those posters. I don’t feel safe, and I don’t feel that any woman who attends that party is safe. At the same time, that doesn’t mean that woman should not attend those parties. Because we should dance and drink with the best of them, and make great friends and great memories. But we should be able to go to parties and still have our bodies and decisions respected…

we should, but that is not yet the case for most women at most parties.  

Eve- what can I do for you and your friends? What can the health services staff and the women's center staff and other people on campus who want to help you feel safe and help you access empowerment--what can they do for you? What can I do for the girls at fraternity parties at my own university, to help them?

Furthermore, what can we say to the frat boys who made those posters and hosted that party?

Thank you, Eve, for sharing. I encourage you to share more.

Yours,
Mimi

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Making Mistakes

I made a mistake today.  I left my reading glasses behind at the gym and had to go back to get them.  I’ll probably make a mistake tomorrow too, although I don’t know yet what it will be.  In fact, I’m going to make tons of mistakes this year, and actually I find that thought pretty frightening, given that it’s my first year of graduate school and my first year sharing a home with my partner.  Those are some huge responsibilities, and I shouldn’t be going around making so many mistakes.

Given the inevitability of mistake-making, the meaningful question is not whether I will make mistakes, but rather, which mistakes will I make?  Although mistakes are, by nature, accidental, I can still engage in a practice of intentional mistake management, choosing to increase my risk for making some mistakes while decreasing my risk for others.

In my mere two weeks as a graduate student, I’ve already made mistakes—for example, I responded to a question in class with the wrong answer.  But I’m ok with the risk of making that kind of mistake again because I’m in this program for the purpose of learning.  Others mistakes, however, I don’t want to repeat, like when I wore casual clothes to visit colleagues at another university.  I felt awkward and out of place.  Next time I’ll err on the side of dressing up.

Intentional mistake management could be a powerful concept for sexual health, as it offers a approach with more potential to promote sex-positive values in combination with risk reduction practices.

Since we all make so many mistakes, we’re going to make mistakes in our sex lives as well.  A person might kiss someone and later decide just to be friends. Another person might invite a date to stay overnight and in the morning yearn for solitude.

As an educator, I would ask people to consider which mistakes they are not willing to risk and which mistakes they could willingly leave themselves vulnerable to making.  Once people decide they are unwilling to mistakenly contract HIV, they can commit to using caution.  Once people decide they unwilling to mistakenly violate someone else’s boundaries, they can make a habit of asking for consent.

Most mistakes are tolerable.  Some are not.  To what extent do you think we can commit to preventing intolerable mistakes, in sex and in life? How do we discern which mistakes we can tolerate and which we cannot? Furthermore, how can sexuality education support individuals in making that determination for themselves?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I'm studying adolescent sexuality!

About a year and a half ago, I began pursuit of a new stage of my career. As I spoke with other sexuality educators and activists, I became acutely aware of the need for research on adolescent sexuality that can inform effective sexuality education programs. I decided to apply to graduate school so that I could do this research.

I am honored to say that I just began a Ph.D. program in Child Development at Tufts University. Throughout my five years as a student at Tufts, I will be working as a research assistant at the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development, directed by Dr. Richard Lerner.

Dr. Lerner's work appeals to me because of his strength-based approach to the study of adolescence, known as positive youth development (PYD). As the wording suggests, PYD is to the concept of adolescence what sex-positivity is to sexuality. What is “adolescent negativity,” you might ask? Dr. Lerner cites the stereotyping of adolescence as a period of “storm and stress,” one crisis followed by another, in which all that parents can do is make sure their kids aren’t on drugs or dropping out of school. But that’s not the whole story, nor is it the most healthy and helpful perspective. In fact, adolescents have all sorts of strengths and tons of potential.

Having a positive view on the potential of adolescents to be happy, healthy and productive people is a prerequisite to believing in the benefits of educating adolescents in a sex-positive way.

I plan to use the positive youth development approach for the study of adolescent sexual development, focusing on how school-based curricula and programs can proactively support adolescents in developing sexual agency, sexual ethics, and the social, emotional, and cognitive skills relevant to making healthy decisions and engaging in fulfilling relationships.

I face many challenges in pursuing this research, not the least of which is managing the sex-negativity that impedes even preliminary attempts to gather data from adolescents about their sexual beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. But I’m going to figure it out, and it will be worth it!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Agency, Objectivity, and a Vision of Sexual Justice: Part Two, on Hookups

How do we define risky or inappropriate behavior? I think that sometimes we cast these categories too broadly. To explore this question, I will return to the issue of hooking up that I previously addressed through my comments on the work of Shannon Boodram and Nancy Bauer.

In responding to the chapter in Boodram’s book about “Hookups that Fell Down,” I expressed my feeling that many of the experiences described in this chapter include evidence that suggests they were sexual assaults, not simply bad hookups. Although I could defend this statement further using the examples in the book, I've actually chosen not to explicate these stories on my blog at this point because it is not my desire to place labels on someone else's experience.

More specifically, I'd like to refer to the disagreement as an example of what I see as the need to be more specific about the boundary of the categories that we're using to discuss sexuality. The title of the chapter blurs the line between hookups and assaults, including many assaults under the category of a bad hookup. I think this is dangerous because it fails to recognize the role of human agency in our sexuality. Having a sexual experience that “falls down,” or that one later regrets, necessitates having made a choice initially to engage in sexual activity. On the other hand, when a person is pushed, pressured, tricked, or otherwise made to engage in un-consensual sexual activity, that is sexual assault.

In Bauer’s work, I find the opposite tension. She critiqued all hookups as objectifying and violent—no hookup, it seems, could then be entered out of one’s own agency. I fear that clumping all hookups together as inherently unhealthy and inevitably unhappy experiences makes it so much harder to differentiate between hookups and sexual assaults. Furthermore, if we state ahead of time that all hookups are objectifying, then we are laying the groundwork for victim-blaming when someone does in fact experience sexual violence during the course of pursuing a hookup.

Unhealthy, unhappy and nonconsensual after all too often come hand-in-hand. Furthermore, we justify blaming the victim by lowering expectations below the line of respectable, consensual treatment.

Assault, objectification and manipulation come in all shapes and sizes. What we label every hookups as negative, and when we dismiss nonconsensual hookups as normative, we blur our vision and sacrifice our ability to identify violence, on the one hand, and strive for consensual pleasure, on the other.

Maybe no two people on earth have ever successfully had a healthy, positive, safe hookup together that both of them still, to this day, remember with a joyful smile. Maybe such a hookup has never happened. I think it has happened and does happen, but even if it has not, we need to believe it to be possible. We need to believe in this high standard because without this high standard, we blind ourselves. If we set this high standard, we broaden the spectrum on which we can understand hookups and we increase the number of ways in which we can describe hookups, acknowledging them to have either been amazing, pleasing, fun, sweet, mediocre, a bummer, a regret, inappropriate, not consensual, traumatizing, violent . . .

I want a way to talk about different hookup experiences not just in terms of the stereotypes we've used so far, but in terms of a vast range of real experiences and a fabulous image of safe, consensual joy. I’m frustrated by what feels to me like a lack of differentiation and a turning away from the challenge of enthusiastic consent.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Body Positivity: What Does it Really Mean?


On my way to work yesterday, I was thinking about the meaning of sex-positivity.

To be sex-positive means to have an active sexual ethic that counters the dominant sex-negative, patriarchal, rape culture. In contrast, sex-positivity involves values such as knowledge, consent, agency, pleasure, and queerness.

As I thought about this conception of sex-positivity, I asked myself what, specifically, are the parallel values of body-positivity. What values do we want to promote in the place of body-negative, thin-obsessed, food-obsessed, fat phobia?

I realized that during my Body Positive Challenge (see past blog posts with this tag), I was doing something every day that felt like a positive step in caring for and enjoying my body. I knew I needed to do something active rather than just have a thought or feeling about it. However, now I’m thinking about it, and I’m looking for more of a theory, a conceptual goal for the process.

What are body-positive values? Can you name some? What knowledge, skills and attitudes to we need in order to effectively lead body-positive lives?

For years I proceeded with the goal of avoiding body-negativity by avoiding the topic of bodies. I clearly reversed that approach when I started the Body Positive Challenge! But now that I’ve entered the conversation, often I still don’t know quite what to say.

In sex-positivity I have found not only values, but a whole language that allows me to discuss the pleasures, pains and challenges of sex and sexuality. I’m yearning for an analogous—and overlapping, definitely—set of words and values to use to talk about both our own and others’ bodies: how we feel about them, how we think about them, and how we treat them.

I’m eager to hear your thoughts and suggestions, and I look forward to sharing more with you as I ponder this key realm of sexuality.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Agency, Objectivity, and a Vision of Sexual Justice: Part One

Let’s “sketch a vision of a just world seductive enough to compete with the allures of the present one.”

These are the words with which Nancy Bauer ended her recent New York Times piece, “Lady Power.”

I agree; this is our call: To promote a sex positive culture, a place in which everyone's integrity and agency and sexuality are validated and celebrated in consensual, pleasurable and diverse ways. This vision of justice sure has seduced me! Has it got you yet?

I found many gems in Bauer’s piece, and I also disagreed with some aspects. She discusses Lady Gaga, college hookups, and Simone de Beauvoir -- all fascinating, if not controversial, topics. Some highlights:

• Lady Gaga uses her position as a sexualized female pop star to critique feminine sexuality and celebrity. Bauer asks, where is the line between self empowerment and self objectification?

•Bauer uses the same question to analyze an infamous college-campus phenomenon: For women, is hooking up an act of wielding power or a na├»ve giving-in to self objectification? Numerous bloggers have written extensively on this topic. I certainly have opinions of my own -- and I'd love to hear yours, too.

• I do take issue with some ways in which Bauer critiques hooking up. First of all, she contrasts Lady Gaga with “real young women” who “feel torn” after a hookup. Is Lady Gaga not real? Not torn? If I'm not torn, am I not real? How do I get to be real? I’m concerned that this tone erases the complexity of the story. Some college women hook up and do not express feeling torn. Where are their voices?

• The philosophy that Bauer brings in towards the end of her piece sheds light on the impact of gender socialization. We experience tension between ourselves as subjects and ourselves as objects. To cheaply resolve this tension, men get to be subjects and women objects, particularly when it comes to sex. However, Beauvoir “thought that truly successful erotic encounters positively demand that we be ‘in-itself-for-itself,’ with one another, mutually recognizing ourselves and our partners as both subjects and objects.” So, “successful” sex requires that we surpass gender stereotypes.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I'm all for promoting sex in which everyone involved can claim both subjectivity and objectivity. But where does that leave hooking up? Can a one night hookup be mutually positive and affirming? Can an objectifying hookup also be empowering? I need room for individual agency in my vision of sexual justice. But I also need for objectification to be recognized and named. What do you think? What do you need?

I’m eager for your responses to Bauer’s words and mine, and I will write more myself on this topic soon.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sex Ed for Young Adults, Take Two: It’s Time for Outreach!

A summary of Sex Ed, Take One:
The Sex Ed class for young adults that I was teaching ended in May. I loved and learned from each one of our 14 sessions, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to facilitate these sessions and for the time and energy of each one of the participants. We achieved a lot: 14 evenings together reveling in the Our Whole Lives curriculum; 4 community members trained in facilitating both the Adult and Young Adult versions of this curriculum; and 1 community-wide Sex Ed Shabbat, including prayer services themed on the four Our Whole Lives values and four break-out sessions on various sex ed topics. To wrap up our semester, we joined Keshet in a celebration of Boston Queer Pride. Special shout-outs go to our community leaders at the Moishe/ Kavod House for supporting and participating in this project, to the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ for their fabulous sex ed curricula and trainings, and to the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel (BYFI) grant program for a grant that provided the funds for our work.

An introduction to Sex Ed, Take Two:
Literally the day after our closing session for the class, I started writing a second grant to fund the next stage of our project. And I’m happy to announce that we got the grant! The BYFI Alumni Venture Fund has provided us with a grant to do local outreach around issues of human sexuality. As we continue to provide sex education and community-building programming at the Moishe/ Kavod House, we will also reach out to leaders at local synagogues, university Hillels, and other Jewish community organizations. We will engage them in conversation about the needs of their own communities and the interest in their in experiencing and supporting comprehensive sex education. We will develop materials to serve as the foundation for building these relationships, particularly in the form of workshops we can offer in these other communities. The materials will cover topics such as consent, relationships and communication, gender identity, sexual orientation, family, sexual violence, body image, sexual health, and advocacy. We will explore these topics both on their own terms and as Jews, in conversation with our own Jewish experiences and with Jewish texts.

How you can get involved in this next stage:
We need leaders, and we need doers! Whether you were a participant in the first sex ed class or not, I encourage you to find a way to get involved with our Outreach project. Since this rendition of Sex Ed will combine community education with organizing and outreach, we will need many people to bring a wide variety of skills to the table. Do you want to be involved? What might you be interested in doing? Please be in touch with me to let me know if you’re interested in:
• Joining us over dinner (ie, meetings) to deepen our vision of this work and start planning
• Connecting us with people you know in other local Jewish communities
• Contacting and meeting with leaders in other local Jewish communities
• Finding an analyzing Jewish sources, commentary, and other writings on sexuality
• Helping us develop various workshops that can meet the different needs of our partner communities, including college students, adults and parents
• Researching and producing fact sheets with up-to-date information about local and national sexuality education policies and other policies related to sexual health and justice
• Attending an Our Whole Lives facilitation training (one weekend)
• Bringing any of your favorite skills to the table! Think: cooking, making posters, event planning, writing articles, event turnout, you name it...

I’m really thrilled and excited about moving on to this next stage alongside three other trained facilitators, talented community organizers, and passionate sex education participants. I welcome and encourage any and all feedback, questions or other thoughts and feelings that you may have as you read this news.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

My Personal Goals for Summer 2010

At my new job, I’ve been doing a lot of lesson planning about how to guide adolescents through the process of setting and achieving personal goals. When I write activities, I always like to try them myself. So, please enjoy this initial brainstorm of my summer goals:

• Write more (and post it online; hence this post)

• Demonstrate engagement and success at work

• Achieve and maintain physical health in body-positive ways

• Plan a wedding (the wedding of myself and my partner, to be exact)

• Review the statistics that I learned in college

• Launch a Sex Ed Team at the center where I’ve been teaching

• Strengthen my relationships with my partner, friends and family

All right! That’s a nice list. I’m pretty sure I have a to-do list somewhere, but that’s quite different from a set of overarching goals. Remember that this list is just a brainstorm, and I haven’t prioritized or expanded upon any of these goals. But I’m glad to share them.

I’ll elaborate on the first goal right now. I want to write more. I haven’t posted on this blog in month! I apologize profusely. At the same time, I want to validate that not every time of life is a time for writing. Some times are times for doing and speaking and listening and sleeping. The last few months of this spring, I was reading a lot and feeling a lot and thinking a lot, but I wasn’t pulling it together in writing. Over the course of this summer, I hope to express some of what I’ve been thinking about. But what do you want to hear? This blog is, in a large part, of course, for myself—but I’m also at the point at which I encounter about 5 topics each week about which I would love to write, and clearly they’re not all getting on here.

Do you want to hear my responses to other blog posts about sex ed and related issues? Do you want me to comment on the news? Do you want my reflections on my personal processes? More thoughts about education and how to teach this stuff to teenagers? More about politics, or about personal lives? I’d love some input and guidance.

In addition, I’d love to do some writing about the personal goals I listed above. Are there any of those that you’d like to hear more about? Do you have any suggestions or feedback for me as I explore these goals? Is there anything that I should be working on at this time that I blatantly missed? It’s just a brainstorm, so please forgive me if I did!

Well, I’m glad I started writing again, and I look forward to writing my second summer post next week.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Going on a Second Inter-Date

This is the first time I've gotten a comment filled with such bigotry on my blog. I'm quite upset, and I'm very sorry for my readers who saw the offensive comment before I deleted it.

Interfaith dating does not kill people. In fact, dating, is about people who like and respect each other choosing to celebrate that like and respect. Seems pretty life-affirming to me.

I am pro-love. I think that when people interact with each other in intimate, passionate ways -- especially when they approach the process with kindness and thought -- great things can happen.

Interfaith dating does not necessarily decrease the number of Jews involved in Jewish communities. Condoning the shunning of interfaith couples, on the other hand, greatly decreases those couple’s chances of finding fulfillment within Jewish life.

Why be alienating when we can be welcoming? Why decrease each other's chances of finding home and happiness when we can increase those chances? What about traditions of hospitality, welcoming the stranger, and embracing human variation?

A special thank-you to Tabitha and samanthajess for sharing your stories in the comments section of my last post. I hope to hear more of you choose to share your stories, as well.

I want to highlight the particularly apt metaphor that samanthajess shares at the end of her post: “just say no” education does not work. Interfaith dating is a commonly known phenomenon, and it happens for many reasons. Given that, how can we welcome these couples into our faith communities in a way that promotes embracing and celebrating – yes, actively, positively celebrating—their relationships and partnerships?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Interfaith Dating: Taboo or Not Taboo?

I often reflect on all the reasons I'm really lucky to have the parents that I have. These reasons include the values that my parents have communicated to me around dating. Specifically, I've thought of my parents recently as I grapple with messages I receive about interfaith dating.

My parents were very clear about what they expected of the people my brother and I chose to date: these people should be warm, loving, intelligent, and respectful... nothing in the requirements referred their being of the same religion. And although I mostly dated people of my own faith, my brother and I both did date people of other faiths, and without comment from our parents on that particular issue.

Even during periods when I identified very strongly with my faith, I felt open to dating anyone. For me, it was and is a question of with whom I could best connect and share of myself.

I also believe that others should make decisions about dating based on their own feelings and values. But I’ve noticed that not all of my peers feel the same. Some have various strong opinions about their own faith-based dating practices. Others, to my surprise and sadness, have expressed judgment of our friends’ interfaith dating practices. I want to ask how this plays out in your experience -- as young adults, do we judge each other for inter-dating? Is there pressure to date only people of our own faith? Why? How does that feel for you, and how do you think it feels for others?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Let's Call It What It Is

I'm in the middle of reading LAID by Shannon T. Boodram -- fabulous project, by the way, in which teenage and young adult contributors relate stories of their specific sexual encounters. The stories are divided into chapters based on theme, and they each start with an introduction and end with FAQs and a self survey. It's a great read -- and designed to work pretty well as a sex ed text!

I want to respond to the first chapter: Hookups That Fell Down. What do you think it would mean for hookup to fall down? I thought maybe it meant that hookups are hard to negotiate and often end in confusion, hurt, and conflict.

Actually, the so-called hookups described in each story were full of confusion and hurt from the start. The thoughts and actions described in each tale demonstrate an apparent lack of consent. I didn't really want to... I said let's slow down... I figured I might as well go along with it... followed up by lots of bad feelings and other negative results.

In my line of work, we don't just call that a hookup. That is potentially rape and sexual assault.

However, I don't want to label other people's experiences. It wouldn't help the writers of these stories to feel pressured to identify as rape survivors. But if the point of the book is to educate others, which it is, then the author has a responsibility to educate accurately.

When someone tries to hookup with you without your explicit and enthusiastic consent, that's not okay.

A post for another day: in order to keep hookups from falling down this badly, we need to teach and promote better communication skills, clearly.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Transitioning to Middle School

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 8, 2010

Blogging for International Women's Day

Judith Butler wrote about the imperative to recognize all bodies as human. Today, for International Women's Day and as a new installment of my body positive series, I write about the need to recognize all bodies as deserving.


What does "equal rights for all" mean to you? To me, having equal rights means deserving. To have a right to something means to deserve it without having to prove yourself or earn it or live up to some set standard.


Among other things, all people deserve pleasure. During the body positive challenge, I have discovered how important it is to find healthy ways to act on my body's desire for pleasure. But I'm not always able to perceive myself as deserving of such pleasure, and neither are many people I know.


Often we use pleasure as a reward for children. As a teacher, I know it's useful, and I'm guilty of this trap myself. Students earn candy, extra snacks, a party, or a chance to listen to music. We teach children that pleasure is a reward for hard work and success.


The media continues this lesson when it comes to gender or sexual dynamics. Men deserve pleasure if they’re rich, if they're assertive, if they're convincing. Women, well, women rarely deserve pleasure, but at the very least she must be thin and buxom if she wants a chance.


Equal rights for all means we all deserve pleasure, no matter how much money, weight, or homework we may have. The pursuit of equal rights for all means that we must empower each other to pursue pleasure. We must validate desire as important and informative. We must want and seek more, together.


To conclude, I return to my students -- to adolescents. Instead of teaching them that pleasure is a reward doled out by others, how about teaching that pleasure is something they deserve to ask for?


Learning and teaching sexuality education has helped me connect to myself as a person among all people deserving of equal rights. Furthermore, I see sexuality education as a potential site for teaching adolescents to exercise agency -- to identify how they feel and what they want, and to communicate their desires effectively. Such education includes learning to ask explicitly for consent and understanding that yes means yes and is just as valid a response as no, which means no.


In order to counter the ways in which the psychology of sexism and patriarchy prevent us from feeling deserving and accessing or equal rights, we need to turn to conversation and education amongst ourselves, with our neighbors, and especially with teenagers. Let’s empower the next generation to get theirs.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Gender Jungle Gym

What is gender? Without using gender categories like boy, girl, woman or man, the term is hard to define. Here's my attempt:
  • Gender is a structure of social systems that teach, elicit and reward different behaviors from different people depending on a person's sex classification, age, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.
Historically, the systems of gender have been structured according to two boxes, one bound as boy/man and the other as girl/woman.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

The idea of gender as a box, a role, a stereotype is familiar to many of us. We often feel nudged, shove, or pressured into these boxes, resulting in alienation from ourselves and from each other.

And there's potential for something better.

Sometimes I like to think of myself as on a gender jungle gym. I use my upper body strength to pull myself out of the box, and I swing my body around in order to perch on top, pause, and view the horizon. From here, I can see all of you pull yourselves up and swing yourselves around, from sports to skirts to tears to engineering. Sometimes graceful, sometimes awkward, you are consistently courageous. You inspire me, and I want to know your stories. I want to know how you feel.

I invite you and encourage you to post in the comments section and tell some of your stories, some of your feelings about the gender boxes and the gender spectrums and the gender jungle gyms that structure our lives.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Reflections on Why I Teach Adult Sex Ed

I teach a sex education class for young adults in our 20s and 30s. Today, I want to tell you about the class and explain my belief that learning about sex is an act of healing the world.

The topic for our class is sexuality, broadly conceived. My goal is to facilitate the development of a safe space in which we can analyze our influences, reflect on our experiences and observations, and gain access to important knowledge and skills. Moreover, the basic process of engaging in open and honest conversations about these topics contains in itself extremely powerful moments and opportunities.

Honestly, it's not just that I think it's powerful or important, it's more than that: I crave these conversations. I need them for myself, to help me make sense of my life, my relationships and my community. I need to discuss these issues with others. In college, I volunteered as an HIV test counselor and a peer educator at the Rape Crisis/Antiviolence Support Center, so I was surrounded by warm and enthusiastic conversation about sex and sexuality pretty consistently.

When I graduated, I missed that. I really felt the need for more of these conversations. I wanted people to talk to me about changes, fears and feelings. I wanted to talk about my sexuality and gender since college, about how it felt for some of us to be in couples and some of us not, about the implications of growing older and the expectations on us to be women and men. I wanted to talk about sex.

Then, I got trained to teach Our Whole Lives to middle and high school students as part of my professional development. When I found out that Our Whole Lives also had a curriculum for young adults, I started thinking about teaching my peers.

I spoke with a community leader. She too had felt the need for these conversations in our community, and we made it happen.

So, that's what my sex ed class is and that's why I want it. But why is sex ed an act of healing the world?

1. Because healing the world starts with caring for your self. It may seem to take more time in the short term, but each of us individually will get more done and do it with more integrity in the long term if we're caring for ourselves along the way, physically, emotionally and socially.

2. Because healing the world means engaging in healing relationships. Conversations help us practice understanding each other and communicating with each other in stronger and deeper ways. Intimate relationships, friendships and professional relationships can all benefit from this process.

3. Because our community needs healing. A lot of hurt and violence is perpetuated and covered up because of social norms and structures that sanction it or render it invisible. Talking about these issues can help our community fulfill its potential to be a powerful place of healing, love and celebration.

To demonstrate my claims about our community, I want to play hand up hand down. I'm going to say a statement, all you need to do is raise your hand if this statement applies to you. These statements all include the phrase “our community” – define “our community” as you will, whether you want to think specifically about the people who are already involved in our programs, or you want to think about progressive young adults in Boston, for example.

Let's start playing.

Raise your hand if you know someone in our community who:
• has been in an unhealthy dating relationship
• is coping with an eating disorder or a history of disordered eating patterns
• wonders whether and how to come out
• is a survivor of sexual assault
• grapples with anxiety or depression
• has been hurt by homophobia or heterosexism
• has had a sexually transmitted infection
• has had an unhealthy breakup
• has said yes without meaning it
• has been hurt by sexism or gender discrimination

We have histories; we have pain; we have needs. At the same time, our community has amazing resources.

Raise your hand if you know someone in our community who:
• has been in a healthy, communicative relationship
• can say no when they don't want to do something
• is pro-queer
• is a great listener
• expresses their feelings openly and honestly
• identifies strongly as a feminist
• has many healthy ways of coping with pain
• speaks out against negative media messages
• has a positive attitude towards sex and sexuality
• loves their body

I want us to share our many strengths and many blessings with each other. We need to come together to listen, to validate, and to challenge each other. Through these processes, we can take care of ourselves, build community and heal the world.

A note on self-care: during the first part of the hands up exercise, I mention painful and dramatic experiences that many of us have had. If you feel upset by that activity, please talk to someone you trust. I'm here to support you and help you find the care you need.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Week Seven: And On to the Next Stage

Sunday: had a conversation checking-in about physical boundaries
Monday: chose to stay in and continue to help my injury heal
Tuesday: ate a home-cooked lunch; felt it energize me at work
Wednesday: took a risk trying a new restaurant
Thursday: rolled out a yoga mat to lie on the floor in the office
Friday: lay down to sleep on the train without shame
Saturday: greeted and complemented new people without judging their appearance

I have now filled one poster on my wall with seven weeks of daily body positive acts, and I hereby pronounce the first stage of the body positive challenge to be complete!

Doing something different every day provided me with lots of ideas and allowed me to explore many facets of a body positive lifestyle. What I need next is not to do a different thing every day no but rather to do the same things every day, to learn a routine through which to honor my body. I need to feel more centered in my own life and in my own physical space.

Perhaps a future post will describe how these all fit together, but for now let me just list the gems of the seven-week experiment that was stage one, gems which I now hope to integrate into my daily life:

• get plenty of sleep
• enjoy moderate exercise
• meditate
• drink tea in the morning
• focus on fruits and vegetables
• wear the clothes I most enjoy
• dance

Since I still have many new body positive acts I would like to try, I will write about one new act per week, as well as how I'm doing with maintaining the seven daily processes above.

This part of the body positive challenge is about balance. I will focus on these behaviors to go to every day to remind myself of this commitment I am making to health and a positive, loving attitude towards my body.

What am I missing, and what would you add? What do you try to integrate on a daily or weekly basis to keep yourself feeling physically centered and confident? What suggestions do you have for me as I try to maintain rhythm and balance?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 1, 2010

Week Six: Strength and Weakness

Sunday: took a walk to enjoy the outdoors
Monday: attended a Pilates class
Tuesday: chose to write in my journal instead of a trip to the gym
Wednesday: purchased new exercise sneakers
Thursday: wore comfortable, casual clothes to work
Friday: cared for my foot injury
Saturday: received a lower back massage from a friend

I want to get stronger. I want to build strength in my core muscles because I believe it will lessen my back pain and because I believe it is important to be strong. I've read several feminist books that encourage women to build up their physical strength as an expression of personal power and ability. Valuing our capacity for strength is a feminist move.

Valuing our capacity for weakness is a feminist move as well. Although excited by my return to yoga and Pilates classes, I had quite a busy week last week in which my eagerness to attend extra classes dissipated in my concern over getting things done and the raw fact that I felt I needed to put off exercise until the weekend.

Then, I woke up Friday morning as my right foot pounded in pain. I could barely walk, let alone exercise, and I had to cope with my body's propensity for pain and inflammation as I figured out how to be body positive in this unexpected period of weakness.

Pause for a story about a person I dated briefly my sophomore year of college. This person said that he liked me for my strength: my independence, my confidence, my ability to take care of myself.

But I didn't feel so strong all the time. I especially didn't feel strong that spring as Take Back the Night approached, an event on my college campus which includes a speak out by survivors of sexual violence. I had been to the event the year before, and I anticipated a flood of so-called weak feelings including fear and vulnerability. I tried to picture what it would mean to let this guy who liked me for my strength see me in such weakness.

In looking at this tension between strength and weakness, I learned to see strength more as a skill set than as a state of being. The feelings of fear and vulnerability didn't disprove my confidence and ability to care for myself. In fact, my ability to express those negative emotions and participate actively in a caring community came from that very place of strength that my dating partner so admired.

To bring it back to the topic at hand: physical strength would be great, but taking on the challenge of building physical strength will be most holistically effective and healthy if I simultaneously prioritize that other kind of strength, strength that comes from a body positive attitude, strength that comes from confidence and self-awareness, strength that comes from a balanced perspective.

I'm not there yet. I still have my weakness, and I'm trying to face that weakness in talking about it and writing about it. Holding that weakness, carrying it, accepting it is the process of training my emotional muscles. I want to get stronger.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Teenagers Need Attention -- from You, Even

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 25, 2010

Week Five: Getting Beyond my Body

Sunday: finished reading Locker Room Diaries by Leslie Goodman
Monday: granted myself permission to relax (watched Glee)
Tuesday: voted in favor of my reproductive health
Wednesday: actually got things done on my to-do list
Thursday: attended a yoga class
Friday: meditated
Saturday: went to my parents’ house for family dinner

Sometimes, it's just not about the body. Sometimes, other things are just more important. In the past, I've taken those more important things as opportunities to use and abuse my body, such as not exercising, sleeping, or eating while as I completed a major project or other task.

But this week I tried to take a different approach. What if those more important things helped me mediate my various physical needs and find balance in my body? I took a step back and thought about why I am doing this challenge in the first place.

I have clearly taken on this challenge because I want to develop stronger positive feelings about my body. Having positive feelings about my body is important not just because I like feeling good about myself but also because feeling and being healthy helps me do the things that I care about, for example, teaching, blogging, developing relationships, etc.

That's why staying in on Wednesday night to work on my to do list was a body positive act. I spent a couple hours sitting at my computer, celebrating the physical and creative energy I have and getting to spend that energy on what matters to me.

Do you ever find yourself misusing your body as you stress about other things? What helps you find perspective and balance between your body and other life tasks? What motivates you to be body positive?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Starting Points for Sorting through High School Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caring about you,
Ms. Arbeit

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Week Four: Talking with our Peers

Sunday: started strength training
Monday: bought a sports bra
Tuesday: chose to extend my morning workout
Wednesday: took an extra-long hot shower
Thursday: taught a sex ed class in which we discussed body image
Friday: went out dancing
Saturday: lounged and pampered myself after working out

It just so happens that this week's young adult sex ed curriculum included an activity addressing body image. I was actually really nervous about asking participants to reflect on in their history of feelings about their body -- in a mixed gender setting, and only in our second session. As it happened, the participants rose to the challenge and shared quite meaningfully, given that the activity provided certain measures of anonymity.

I've been reflecting on why I thought that asking young adults to talk about their body image would be too much. I think what I've experienced at times is a certain sense of “all or nothing” in terms of how I'm expected to feel about my body. Either I'm struggling and have issues, or I'm empowered and love myself fully. But my reality includes both parts of this duality. Enjoying a healthy, positive body image is a process just as much as maintaining an active, healthy lifestyle is a process. Every day. Believing that I deserve to love my body is a part of that process, but achieving this one step doesn't mean that I've already completed the journey. And that's totally okay because I'm getting there.

My hope is that by recognizing positive body image as a process, we can help each other discuss the bumps and bonuses along the way, distancing ourselves from labels and comparison.

As part of Thursday's class, participants wrote how they hope to feel about their bodies in the future. What does a positive body image mean to you? How would it feel, what would you say, and how would you act? What are you working towards?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Week Three: Listening to Desire

Sunday: finally got a full night’s sleep
Monday: bought lots of fresh fruit and vegetables
Tuesday: grazed all day; ate what I felt I needed, when I needed it
Wednesday: wrote an email describing my body image and feelings
Thursday: enjoyed my favorite meal at my favorite restaurant
Friday: packed for a weekend away without packing any makeup
Saturday: ate dinner earlier than everyone else because I was hungry

Desire. How often do we actually get to listen to our bodies, giving ourselves and what we want right when we want it? And, when it comes to food, how often do we actually believe that listening to desire is the right way to eat? I spent a lot of this week trying to attend to my bodily desires -- for rest, movement, warmth, protein, salts, vegetables, etc. and it felt good.

I teach the same methods of self-awareness in terms of sexuality: Listen to yourself, sort through your influences, identify your desires, and then ask for what you want. Having confidence in sexual desire is the basis of consensual sexual activity. Self-awareness -- the ability to pause, reflect, and be true to oneself -- is key both sexual consent and what we might think of as nutritional consent.

But in my experience, self-awareness plays a much different role with my nutritional choices than with my sexual choices. My schedule consistently gets in the way of my following my own physical desires. Either I can’t take a nap because it's time to leave for work, or I don't want to eat because I have dinner plans in an hour. The way that we commit and schedule ourselves physically complicates the process of listening to our desires.

Maybe that's why I feel better on the weekends, particularly when I haven't committed to meals at certain hours. Seems more natural to feed myself when I feel it's time. But I like being social, in fact I love it and need it and thrive from it. So how can I reconcile what my body is telling me with what my calendar is telling me?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Week Two: Vacation (The Body Positive New Year Challenge)

Sunday: cooked food to freeze for lunches/ dinners in January
Monday: went to the gym first thing in the morning
Tuesday: shopped for and purchased a bathing suit
Wednesday: wore a bathing suit as I packed and cleaned
Thursday: left for vacation!

I took a break from tracking daily body positive actions over my vacation. But I did not stop exploring body positive habits and feelings! Actually, I found vacation to be a fabulous way to reconnect with myself physically.

Mostly, just feeling more relaxed and happy makes my body more easy to listen to and makes me more eager to respond accordingly. I ate when I felt hungry and didn't eat when I didn't want to. I showered twice a day and dressed nicely -- well, given the clothes that I packed. I slept, but did not track my hours; I walked, but did not track my miles. I lived in my body instead of in my head.

I could do all these things because I was on vacation. How can I bring this connection with myself back to my working life? That's always a question for me when I enter a new year or a new semester. How soon am I going to get stressed out and unhealthy again?

I think I need to drop the false division I'm making between relaxed and stressed. I didn't get stressed over vacation -- oh my. But I said to myself, “I'm on vacation, so it's okay, I'll work it out.” I felt entitled to relax and enjoy my vacation, so I focused on it.

I hope this New Year's resolution will help me bring that sense of being entitled to joy and relaxation into my everyday awareness. Through small and large daily actions, I'll tell myself that I deserve to take care of myself and enjoy being in my body here and now even as I push myself and get stressed and strive to accomplish and achieve.

Let the challenge continue!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Kid-Tested, Teacher-Approved

The Boston Public Health Commission has come out with a great new innovation in sex positive music -- the Sound Relationships Nutrition Label. Playing off the idea of a food nutrition label, this one serves as a worksheet for assessing the messages that a song sends about relationships. They even had teenagers rate the current most popular 100 songs and published a top 10 list of popular songs with unhealthy and healthy messages.

I took these 10 songs and made a mix CD that I gave to my sixth-grade students as part of their end of the semester president. I hope they're listening to it and enjoying it right now -- and absorbing lots of positive messages! (I really liked the CD myself.)

I do understand that they might not be enjoying every song. But I told them that they'd have a chance in January to nominate their favorite songs for our next team mix CD.

What they don't know is that in order to nominate a song, they will have to analyze the song lyrics using the BPHC’s Sound Relationships Nutrition Label.

I'm really looking forward to engaging my students in exploring the effects of the music we listen to and dance to. I'm still working out the details of the process to make sure that my students meet the learning objectives and also feel fully engaged and excited. Additionally, you need to figure out how much I want to adjust the Sound Relationships Nutrition Label in order to make it age-appropriate for sixth-graders and the extent to which we have and have not discussed healthy relationships so far.

What characteristics do you look for in songs that make them feel healthy, positive, or simply like something that want to internalize? What criteria would you use in choosing which songs to play for children? How would you explain to children and adolescents how to analyze messages in the media and make healthy choices about media consumption?