The Academic Feminist: Transforming Sex Education with Mimi Arbeit

Welcome back to The Academic Feminist, the series that bridges the blogging/academic divide by linking discussions in feminist academia to those taking place online. Today’s interviewee is Mimi Arbeit, a doctoral student in Child Development at Tufts University. You can learn more about Arbeit’s work on her blog.  All comments and suggestions for The Academic Feminist can sent to the editor here or on Twitter @gwendolynb.

Can you talk a little about your main research interests, and what led you to choose this area? 

I study adolescent sexuality using a positive approach, which means I believe sex and sexuality are important, meaningful, and potentially positive elements of adolescent development. I’m interested in how school-based and out-of-school-time programs can help adolescents develop a sense of embodiment and sexual agency, and cultivate the social, emotional, and cognitive skills they need to make healthy decisions and engage in fulfilling relationships.

My whole life has led me to choose this area of research! In high school, I taught workshops to eighth grade students about gender stereotypes, sexual harassment, and gender violence. My classroom experience helped me frame my analysis of my own problems, and the problems I saw in the world, through a lens of gender.  In college, I provided education and counseling to students seeking HIV tests. I’ll never forget when they told us at our training, “We are pro-sex and pro-gay.” The idea was that it’s good for people to have sex, and it’s good for them to choose with whom to do so.  It seems obvious, right? But at the time, I was just starting to learn the meaning of sex positivity. Then, as a counselor, I heard people’s stories. I am so grateful to all of them for showing me that window into their lived experiences. What I heard from them solidified my desire to do prevention work, to focus on education, and to get it started at as early an age as possible.

These experiences shaped my current work, which is about promoting positive possibilities for adolescent sexuality development. I’m thinking about what positive sexuality development in adolescence could look like—what are the key elements? What people, institutions, and experiences could or should be involved? How can we, as a society, prioritize healthy sexuality, and what steps can we take to make positive change?

You are now working towards a degree in Applied Child Development.  What was behind your decision to work on sex education from that perspective?

I didn’t always expect to go the academic route. After college, all I wanted to do was teach. I taught health and sexuality education at a middle school in a city near Boston. I loved lesson planning, and I adored my students. I wanted more time to hone my sex ed lessons and weave them into a great curriculum. But the debate around abstinence-only versus comprehensive sex education has all but stifled more nuanced conversation about differing visions for “comprehensive” sex ed. I want to do cutting-edge work, and I felt the need to spend time developing my own knowledge and skills about adolescent development and adolescents’ lives in all their wondrous complexity.

Studying in an applied department was really important to me. To me, sex and sexuality are lusciously personal aspects of our lives that reveal how utterly politicized our world is. Human sexuality is strongly shaped by socialization, prescribed by patriarchy and fought for through generations of resistance. History matters. Politics matter. How we treat youth matters. Applied Child Development takes all of that into account.

I think that sexuality education and youth development can do a lot for each other. Youth development is about nourishing the strengths of diverse youth, connecting youth and adults, building life skills, and providing opportunities for leadership and civic engagement. Sex ed should be all of those things, too. I would love to see more sex ed programs built through a youth development approach. Furthermore, I think the youth development approach can be invigorated by an infusion of feminist and sex-positive values. Some of that is happening already, some of that is on its way, and some of that we need to be working on for a long time coming. I named my blog “Sex Ed Transforms” in order to play on that duality. I write about how we can transform sex ed; I also write about how sex ed can transform how we live our lives and how we run the world.

As you know, Jessica Valenti recently published The Purity Myth, a book which exposed some pretty disturbing trends in sex education (or lack thereof!) nationwide.  She also talks about the lack of a comprehensive sex education standard, something that I know that you’re working on.  Can you describe your vision for such a program?

The way I think about it now, I see three essential elements to a comprehensive, medically-accurate, age-appropriate sex education program: safe space, critical analysis, and positive possibilities.

Safe space: How youth feel when they learn about sex will impact how they feel about sex. Building a safe space involves both the behavior of the teacher and the behavior of the students. It means that all questions are important, all individuals are taken seriously and respected, and everyone is held accountable. Boundaries should be clear and reinforced; students and teachers should practice giving and getting consent during classroom activities. The skills involved in building these safe spaces together are essential lessons to be learned from sex education.

Critical analysis: Great sex education encourages students to think critically about the world around them. Students need words and strategies with which to identify messages and practices that constrain them. They need to have words for sexism, homophobia, and racism. They need to talk about media images that conflate sexuality with violence, that sexualize women and girls, and that cast men as sexual predators. They need to discuss with each other the messages they get from family, friends, religion, and other institutions, and then they need to share their methods of resistance. They need to learn to question, and from there they need to learn to communicate, to cooperate and to create.

Promoting positive possibilities: With a safe space and a critical approach, sex ed can help youth strive for positive experiences of embodiment, relationship, and citizenship. They can identify good and beauty in themselves and in others that defies narrow, unrealistic standards. They can build the skills they need to engage in authentic relationships—practicing assertive communication, identifying their emotions, and sharing with each other. They can actually talk about pleasure and the capacity for pleasure in one’s body, mind, and relationships. They can explore different kinds of desire, including desire for friendship, desire for love, and desire for sex. And, through pursuing their own desires, they can change the world. Empowerment means having agency in one’s personal life and fighting for what matters: imagining a sex-positive, sexually healthy world, and finding ways to work towards that world for oneself and for others.

That said, each sex ed program needs to be carefully and creatively attuned to the needs and interests of the community and the particular group of youth involved. I have learned through my own experiences working with youth of different backgrounds that there is no single curriculum or program that will work for all youth or in all schools. We must use an intersectional lens to appreciate how race, class, nationality, gender, and other aspects of young people’s lives and their positions in relation to power and privilege impact their experience of sexuality. It’s important to get to know young people: to work with them, listen to them, and respect their input and their leadership. We must also strengthen and perhaps transform our social institutions that serve youth: justice in our public education system and in our health care system is essential for the achievement of health equity, especially for promoting adolescent sexual health.

4. Where can people – young people as well as those who interact with younger folks – go to get reliable information on sex education now (before your work is published)?

Here are three great Sex Ed websites for teens:

 

Also, Planned Parenthood has resources for teens, parents, and educators. Although national and state laws have a huge impact on rules and resources available for sex education, most of the decisions are made at the local level. Call your school principal or your district superintendent to find out what kind of sex education, if any, is available to students in your neighborhood. Ask a lot of questions about when sex ed is taught, where, to whom, by whom, for how long, and how often. Ask to see a copy of the textbook or other materials used. Ask about the core messages or the objectives of the lessons. And if you’re not fully satisfied with what you find, take action. For more resources, check out:

 

Extra Credit

Below is a list of resources taken from the above conversation, where those interested in some of the topics discussed here can go to find out more. Add relevant resources in comments.

  • Diamond, L. M. & Savin-Williams, R. C. (2009). Adolescent sexuality. In R. M. Lerner & L. Steinberg (Eds.), Handbook of Adolescent Psychology (3rd ed.) (pp. 479-523). New York: John Wiley and Sons.
  • Fine, F. & McClelland, S. (2006). Sexuality education and desire: Still missing after all these years. Harvard Educational Review, 76(3), 297-338.
  • Tolman, D. L. & McClelland, S. (2011). Normative sexuality development in adolescence: A decade in review. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21(1), 242-255.
  • Get Real: Comprehensive Sex Education that Works (PPLM curriculum)
  • Our Whole Lives (UUA, UCC curriculum)

 

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One Comment

  1. Posted February 21, 2012 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    Can I just say I love this series? This interview was very interesting in that, you moved away from the abstinence only versus comprehensive sex ed debate, and talked about the best ways to teach comprehensive sex ed. I think sometimes we just get so caught up in defending the principles of comprehensive sex ed over the abstinence only principles, that we don’t focus as much on making sex education programs as nuanced and informative as they should be. Promoting safety and prevention of pregnancy is clearly important, but we shouldn’t lose sight of developing the three elements discussed here. Great post.

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