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.