Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Publication Alert: A Skills-Based Model for Promoting Adolescent Sexuality Development

I published a theory paper in the journal Human Development. In the paper, I present a model for thinking about adolescent sexuality in terms of skills – what young people know how to do and how young people act, in and through sexuality. The model explains the following skills…
  • Sexual Selfhood: Desire, Ethics, and Identity
  • Sexual Agency
  • Sexual Negotiation: Consent, Protection, Pleasure
  • Sexual Intimacy
  • Sexual Empowerment: Boundaries, Coping, Analysis
  • Sexual Advocacy

Emphasizing sexuality skills over specific sexual behaviors allows us to remove “intercourse” from the center of a research agenda on adolescent sexuality development. In this way, I decenter concepts such as virginity, marriage, and heterosexuality from how we think and talk about young people and about sex overall. Focusing on skills raises questions about how to facilitate skill development for all young people, whether they are sexually active in particular ways or not.

I am honored to have this article published in Human Development. I am also honored that the journal elicited commentary from two renowned scholars in the field, both of whom expressed support for the model and provided me with inspiring feedback.

  • The need for a cumulative life span approach
  • Expanding the focus on biological processes
  • Grappling with gender variation
  • Gender as a product of sexuality
  • Greater attention to sexual-minority development
  • The meaning of meaning-making

I am particularly moved by Diamond’s suggestions for how to use this model push the interrogation of gender, sexism, and sexual orientation in the study of adolescent sexuality. She writes about the need to research the “interplay between gender and sexual questioning,” particularly for transgender and gender non-conforming youth, saying that the model “provides a framework for reconceptualizing gender questioning as adaptive and even normative” (p. 298). In addition, she suggests attending to the role of binary gender socialization (differential systems of expectations and rewards for men and women) in shaping young people’s skills for sexual negotiation and, in turn, how their experiences of sexual negotiation may shape their sense of their own gender. Furthermore, she provides several examples of how the model can be applied to supporting sexual minority youth not only in their sexual identity but also in being sexual and acting upon their sexual feelings.

  • Developmental change
  • Relational developmental systems
  • Promoting adolescent sexuality development
  • Promoting sexuality development beyond adolescence

Specifically, Moshman discussed the value of the model for expanding the notion of sexuality education, given that “secondary schools can and should contribute to sexuality development” (p. 290). Moshman also asserts that the model can be applied to colleges and universities addressing sexual assault, in order to not only respond to sexual assaults as they occur, but also “to reconcile such responsibilities with the responsibility to educate and promote development” (p. 291). Sex ed in schools and campus sexual violence prevention have long been personal and professional interests of mine, and I am excited to apply the skills-based model to these pursuits.

Here is the Table of Contents for this issue, which contains my article as well the two commentaries. Please contact me if you have any questions, or if you have trouble finding the full text article.

I look forward to drawing upon this article in my future research and applied work, as I enthusiastically explore the implications of this work for understanding and addressing sexism; for supporting both gender and sexual exploration for queer, trans, and questioning youth; and for transforming the ways in which educational institutions constrain and facilitate the sexuality development of the young people in their care.


Arbeit, M. R. (2014). What does healthy sex look like among youth? Towards a skills-based model for promoting adolescent sexuality development. Human Development, 57(5), 259-286.

Diamond, L. M. (2014). Expanding the scope of a dynamic perspective on positive adolescent sexual development. Human Development, 57(5), 292-304.

Moshman, D. (2014). Sexuality development in adolescence and beyond. Human Development, 57(5), 287-291.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Publication Alert!

I published original empirical research, as a first author!

I am currently a PhD Candidate in Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University. Throughout my time here, I have worked as a research assistant at the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development. One of our flagship projects is the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development. I recently used data from 6th through 12th grade participants in this study to assess the relationship between potentially problematic behaviors and indicators of positive development.

You can find the article here, or email me if you’re having trouble.

Here is a passage in which we discuss our findings related to sexual activity:
“We found a distinction between youth who had sex with protection and youth who had unprotected sex: members of the Low Risk group were increasingly likely to engage in protected sex as they got older, but had a very low probability of engaging in unprotected sex; in contrast, members of the High Risk group were likely to engage in unprotected sex but not protected sex. Other research has shown that two-thirds of adolescents will have sex before they are 18 years old, making sexual activity a normative behavior during adolescence (Crockett et al. 2006). Unprotected and/or unwanted sex is problematic, but sexual activity per se is not always linked to negative outcomes” (p. 987).

In simple terms, when we talk about teenagers having sex, let’s focus on what goes on in the sexual activity, for example, whether or not they are using protection. Sex itself, particularly sexual activity characterized by positive attributes such as the use of protection, can be part of overall positive development for young people. But it depends what happens and how it is experienced.

However, this study only differentiated between protected sex and unprotected sex. I would advocate for additional research that assesses the degree and kind of consent involved in a sexual encounter, in conjunction with other variables and other aspects of the process. I hope to design and implement such research myself, in the future.

Arbeit, M. R., Johnson, S. K., Champine, R. B., Greenman, K. G., Lerner, J. V., & Lerner, R. M. (2014). Risk in Many Shapes and Sizes: Profiles of Potentially Problematic Behaviors across Adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 43(6), 971-990.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

“Benign” Rape

Warning – this story contains explicit descriptions of sexual violence.

The writer of this piece wishes to remain anonymous. She sent her story to me to share publicly in case her reflections can help someone else. I’m sharing an edited version in my weekly column, The Debrief, as part of a series for April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The editors of that site requested that I remove the explicit details before posting it there. To remain true to the story as the writer wanted it told, I am posting the full piece below.

I thought after my first experience that it would be over. That I would be smart enough to not put myself in those situations again. I would no longer be naïve; I would no longer be desperate. I would no longer be that girl. Yet, as I have grown older, as I became less desperate and less naïve, it still happened.

I was 20 the first time. It was Halloween and I dressed up as Loki from Dogma with one of my best friends as Bartleby. It was actually a pretty good costume. We went to a party hosted by friends of friends, and I met him. He had longer hair than I would have preferred, but he wasn’t unattractive, and I liked the attention at the moment. We talked, invited him to the Rocky Horror Show event that I managed at college, and things kind of moved forward after that. I cannot actually remember if we ever went on any dates, but at one point I went over to his apartment for dinner and a double date with his roommate.

As the night drew to a close, we went into his bedroom. Clothes came off, things started to happen. Then the question came. “Are you ready? Do you want to do it?” My body was telling me yes, my heart and head were screaming, “Is this the man I want to lose it to?” I said yes. He went into the bathroom to get a condom and while he was gone, I realized that I wasn’t ready. That he wasn’t the one I wanted to lose it to and basically: what the fuck am I doing here. When he came back from the bathroom I told him that I’m sorry, I can’t do it. I’m not ready and you could tell—at least I thought you could tell—that I was freaking out a bit. He told me it was okay, and we started making out again.

As we were making out, with him on top of me, he started trying to have sex with me. I remember trying to push him away and of course not succeeding. This man had way more power than I did. All of a sudden he pushed in. But I realized he pushed in a different spot. He raped me anally. Now I didn’t scream, I didn’t push him off me, I didn’t say anything. I didn’t even sink my teeth in somewhere to get him off me. No, instead, my mind left my body. I was in so much pain, I was crying and all I could think of were shining rainbows and bunnies. I kept thinking to myself: “find your happy place”.

He finished. Got off me and went to the bathroom. I just laid there. My eyes had no more life. I felt like my spirit was gone. It was as if not just my body was raped, not just me as a person, but also my soul. He came back from the bathroom to tell me the condom had broken and that he would pray for me. All I could think was, “Jewish people don’t say that, and I’m Jewish.”

For six weeks after that, I stuck with it. Having him force me to have sex every night he came over, finding ways to push him physically off me even though he was stronger than me. Trying to deny and deny what was happening to me. Until finally he put my head against the dashboard and stood up, stuck his penis in my mouth and made me give him a blow job. Suddenly I couldn’t breathe. I tried to get him off me, and all he wanted was to finish. I finally realized: “Who am I? This isn’t me. I am not that girl who gets sexually abused.” Soon the flashes of reality came back to me, the choking, the helplessness as he holds down my arms and my only weapon are my legs, my fear, it just kept hitting me. Finally he came, I started chocking, and I kicked him out. Told him to get out of my life.

I felt like I learned my lesson, and I would never let that happen again. I would be stronger, no more fear. I would stand up for myself.

Well that turned out to be true bullshit. Things kept happening. Men forcing sex on me, men forcing their penis inside the ass when I didn’t want it. I would repeatedly say no, no, I don’t want it… and then my favorite line: “Oh honey, you know you’ll like it. How do you know unless you try it?” Then of course lube is on and it’s in. As they grunt and move back and forth, I am again in excruciating pain, almost in tears. They can’t understand why I bleed so profusely during and after.

When I explained my rape to someone they said: “Oh, so it was a benign rape.” Why was it benign? Because my clothes weren’t ripped off? Because I didn’t kick and scream at the top of my lungs? Because I did not tear my nails in his skin while running to the cops?

No, I didn’t report my rape or my abuse. No, I haven’t reported anything I have gone through with these men. 

There is nothing about my rape that is benign. Benign rape is just as bad as “bad” rape. If that is even a term.

Questions run rampant: Can I ever find a relationship that is normal? A relationship that is healthy? A man who won’t force anything? Someone who will respect me? Give me the love that I deserve?

I don’t know the answers. But I am tired of these situations. I am tired of constantly feeling like maybe it will be all right in the end. It’s not all right.  None of this is okay.

The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center provides free and confidential services to victims of sexual assault, survivors of sexual assault, and their friends and family. The hotline is a 24-hour service provided to help anyone affected by sexual assault: (800) 841-8371.