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.