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!