Mimi Arbeit, a recent graduate of the Applied Child Development Ph.D. program within the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, centers her work on a very specific yet complex topic: adolescent sexuality development.
"So often, development is heard as meaning 'child development,' but in fact we continue to develop as human beings throughout all of life, there is great diversity and plasticity in how we learn to be people," says Arbeit. She has taken frameworks commonly used to understand adolescent development and explores how to use them in classrooms to promote positive sexual health and development.
"Sex education [in the context of health education] is going in the direction of teaching children skills in addition to knowledge," says Arbeit. She defines skills as a coordinated set of behaviors: "emotional, social, cognitive, personal, interpersonal… the capacity to act in an organized way," which is needed in addition to understanding the basics of human anatomy and safer sex practices. In 2014, she published a paper in the journal Human Development that presents a skills-based model for promoting positive adolescent sexuality development.
While at Tufts, Arbeit engaged in applied work in the city of Boston and beyond. She served on the AIDS Advisory Panel, the sexual health education advisory board for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. She has also worked with The Fenway Institute on a project funded by the National Institute for Health called "Connect to Protect," a nation-wide effort to prevent HIV transmission among young people. "Our Boston site is focused on young black men who have sex with men, and black transgender youth," says Arbeit. She facilitated a subcommittee focused on sex education and school-based policy.
Arbeit's work in Boston, and her publication of a skills-based model for sexuality development, laid the foundation for her dissertation research, which applied that framework to preventing sexual violence and understanding sexual consent.
Part of her dissertation research included an independent study with Nancy Bauer, philosophy professor and Dean of Academic Affairs for the School of Arts and Sciences, to examine theories on sexual consent. Dean Bauer is familiar with the academic approaches to sexual topics—her recently published book, How to Do Things With Pornography (Harvard University Press, 2015), explores new feminist frameworks for philosophical methodologies.
Understanding the philosophy behind consent, in addition to the developmental realities of the adolescent experience, was very important to Arbeit's process. In order to understand consent, Arbeit and Bauer explored the areas where consent is in use. "I call them personal transformation, institutional transformation, and political transformation," says Arbeit. "For personal transformation, we are talking about consent as a skill," or how the message of consent is taught through interactions with other people.
Institutional transformation has to do with how consent is handled within legal frameworks ranging from the American legal system to an educational institution's own policies. Arbeit says that as a result of Title IX, "educational institutions, places like Tufts, are responsible for asking themselves, what is our policy? What are our responses?"
The third transformation, political, examines the aspects of our historical and present social structures that led us to our current consent issues. "This is where we look at discussions of rape culture," says Arbeit, "histories of sexism, histories of the use of sexual violence to perpetuate other forms of violence, racism, colonialism, heterosexism, heteronormativity, the pressure to marry, the shame of virginity, the shame of losing virginity, all the different pieces of our historical and present social system that are part of why we have a rape problem."
When it comes to teaching consent skills, these three transformations help explain why it is so difficult to reach a consensus on the definition of consent, and yet, the concept is so fundamentally important to healthy relationships and promoting nonviolence. "I think it is really important to continue examining how we conceptualize sexual violence from a legal standpoint, however, I think it is also important to have high personal and institutional standards for how we interact with people and negotiate consent," says Arbeit.
Arbeit has been examining these frameworks in the field through her work at Tufts Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development led by Professor Richard Lerner. Professor Lerner, Arbeit's graduate advisor, focuses on positive youth development and character development. One of his projects is a collaboration with the United States Military Academy at West Point. As a result, Arbeit's dissertation addressed sexuality in this distinct environment.
"At West Point, they have a specific commitment to addressing sexual assault and sexual harassment, which are behaviors that we want to prevent," says Arbeit. But, she points out; they are also dedicated to developing leaders of character. For her dissertation, she takes values such as respect, humility, honor, and courage, and examines what it means to apply them to the domain of sexuality.
Building on these positive attributes is part of the mission of Lerner's lab. "In a lot of health and youth development contexts, there's a desire to prevent the negative outcomes, and I have been trained at Tufts to ask, what is going right in the lives of youth?" says Arbeit.
West Point is a great place to start when thinking about promoting skills and preventing sexual violence, but Arbeit notes that they have a more structured character model than most educational institutions. "There is a lot of opportunity for parallel work with universities that are addressing sexual violence and promoting sexuality skills for college students," says Arbeit.
Theoretical frameworks, skill sets, and models of transformation can be difficult to navigate in any context, but Arbeit notes that it all comes down to humanity. "Once you acknowledge the complexity, that's where the humanity comes in," says Arbeit. "Sexism is a system of trauma—where our humanity gets separated from us or we don't have access to our humanity. We need to do a lot of work on emotionally reconnecting to ourselves and to the people we are in relationships with and our community in order to feel our way through all of these complexities, and start developing skills to enact our values."
Mimi Arbeit spoke at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Doctoral Hooding Ceremony on Saturday, May 16, 2015. Her speech, "What are we ready to risk? Academia, advocacy, and activism," is available on her blog,Sex Ed Transforms.
Arbeit is now a Postdoctoral Fellow and Program Administrator at the Center for Ethics Education at Fordham University. She is working on a grant from the National Institute on Minority Health Disparities (NIMHD) on Ethics in HIV Prevention Research Involving LGBT Youth (1R01MD009561-01). Learn more >