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.

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*The Academic Feminist: Using the Past to Reimagine the Present with Imani Perry

Originally posted in Feministing

Welcome back to The Academic Feminist, a series that aims to bridge the blogging/academic divide by linking discussions in feminist academia to those taking place online. Today’s interviewee is Imani Perry, Professor at the Center for African American Studies at Princeton. You can learn more about Perry’s work on her website . All comments on the series and suggestions for future interviewees can be sent here. And thank you to all the Feministing readers who have offered suggestions and positive feedback on the series so far!

*Editor’s note: Due to concerns raised that there might be confusion with Barnard Center for Research on Women’s awesome The Scholar and Feminist Conference and S&F Journal, we have renamed The Scholarly Feminist to The Academic Feminist.

1) Your work lies at the intersection of law, history, culture, and literature.  You wrote a 2007 law journal article that combines these elements to argue that third wave feminists understand sexual harassment in different ways than their predecessors. Can you describe the main points of this article and how your views may have shifted (or not)?

In that piece I wanted to consider how the concept of sexual harassment can at times work to punish rituals of courting, and not simply harassment. I wanted to fine tune an understanding of what harassment is, because we sometimes talk about it in ways that cast the net too wide. So I tried to develop a basis for distinguishing between harassment and an acceptable expression of romantic interest. Then I tried to offer an way of thinking about how people ought to respond to indicate they aren’t interested, at which point we need to see how interested party replies to the rejection: do they persist, or do they accept that response and move on? I think this is important to consider in what we deem harassment. In particular, I was thinking about the way that “hollering” commonplace African American practices of approach in public spaces, is frequently universally called “harassment” when there are significant variations in how it is performed.

Additionally, part of what I wanted to do with that piece was to revive the second wave feminist language of “talking back” or “taking back the night” or “speaking out” in ways that are useful for today. Unfortunately, in legal terms, the way feminist causes are sometimes recognized depends upon an idea of victimization that can discourage or implicitly punish assertiveness.

This is related to my interest in the gender dynamics that don’t fit into clear legal categories. For example, I think there is an under-discussed area of sexual trauma and woundedness that comes from women “going along” with sexual encounters. This is significantly different from rape and sexual assault, but still necessary to address. I’m thinking of instances in which they haven’t said no, and may have even explicitly said yes, but really don’t want to. I recall a conversation with two friends, many years ago, explaining how they’d both said yes a number of times because they were afraid that if they didn’t that they might be raped. That is technically consensual, but emotionally tragic. I find this heartbreaking, and the fact that we have a culture that socializes women into this kind of acceptance, infuriating. So I believe that it is good idea to encourage young women and men to feel empowered to say, “No, I’m not interested in you.” Or “No I don’t want this.” We want to create a feminist culture in which speaking out and claiming power is valued, and a society in which talking back and being assertive is safe.

A point also about my thoughts about the “waves” of feminism: I came of age during the third wave of feminism, and I think there were some important interventions: we were talking about feminisms in plural, about multiple women’s experiences, about how gender coexisted with race and class and sexuality, identities and experiences. However, somewhere along the way, certain branches of third (and fourth) wave feminism got caught up in the neoliberal fixation on personal choice and the individual experience, embracing sexiness without challenging the larger power relations that socialize the very ideas about what sexy is. We need to keep what is good about third and fourth wave interventions, but also keep alive the second wave focus on broader liberation and justice, alongside the truths from non-mainstream feminist and queer thought and activism.

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My Student Debt Story – At the Intersections of Rape, Class, and Money

Originally posted in Community Blog

I read Natalia’s own story about student debt and it got me mad. It reminded me of my own story and I thought I could share to show why good sexual assault policies matter. How rape changes lives. Why schools need to act responsibly and be held accountable for their reaction to rape survivors. The impact can go way beyond academics.

Setting the stage.

I was fortunate enough to be able to go to prep school for grades 8 through 12. My family did not pay full tuition; I was one of those A Better Chance alums who got a good education thanks to a good dose of financial aid. I struggled during those years (what adolescent doesn’t?!) I worked hard and got into 8 of the 9 schools to which I applied.

I remember when I got my acceptance letter – and scholarship offer – from Tufts University. It was spring break of senior year and I excitedly ran around the house alone with the letter in hand. Unfortunately, even with the financial aid + scholarship we had to take out some loans. This is where we made some decisions that would bite us in the ass years later:

  • we used Tufts’ preferred lender (which didn’t mean much for us);
  • the preferred lender was a bank, which means all the rules I read (and improvements that Obama has implemented) about federal student loans do not apply to me;
  • we took out a PLUS loan – so it was really my dad’s loan, meaning his credit takes a hit, which hurts not only me, but my family – my mom, my sister, myself.

Now I went to a high school that was more than $20,000/year per girl (yes it was an all girls’ school). Our college counselors helped us get into college. Not so much pay for college. As being a first generation American, we did not have many resources to know how to make it all work. At our prep school you just went to expensive schools. Because it was the thing you did. Because it was worth it. Read More »

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The Scholarly Feminist: Archiving with Kate Eichhorn

Originally posted in Feministing

EichhornWelcome to the first edition of The Scholarly Feminist, a bi-weekly series featuring interviews with feminist academics.  The aim of the series is to bridge the blogging/academic divide by linking discussions in academia to those taking place online. Today’s interviewee is Kate Eichhorn, Assistant Professor of Culture and Media Studies at  The New School for Liberal Arts.  You can learn more about Eichhorn’s work on her website . You can email any comments or suggestions for future Scholarly Feminist interviewees here. Enjoy!

1) You are currently doing work on feminist archives, tell us about that, and how you became interested in the subject.

My current research reflects an ongoing interest in questions of temporality and history, but my forthcoming book is also a deeply political and personal project. It started with an attempt to off load my own archive of queer feminist materials. First by chance and then somewhat more intentionally, I found myself accumulating a rather substantial collection. It included hundreds of zines collected in the early 1990s, but also six boxes of lesbian small press publications—a “donation” from a former professor. I’m not sure when, but at some point, I realized I was creating an archive of queer feminist print culture and started to look for a public home for my haphazard archive. That’s when I discovered that my archival impulse was not necessarily unique.

By 2006, there were already several substantial collections of girl zines that had been donated to university libraries, including the collections housed at Duke University and Barnard College . I decided to visit these collections. It was quite amazing to me that a zine produced by fifteen-year-old queer girl in 1994 in a print run of 30 or so copies could find its way, only a decade later, to a rare book library half way across the continent. There’s no history of such girls’ voices being remembered or valued, so how were their zines suddenly showing up in rare book libraries and archives? That’s where this project begins—I was interested in exploring why women of my generation, women who grew up during the second wave feminist movement—had not only carefully collected the documentary traces of their activism and cultural production but were, only a decade later, donating their collections to established archives.

So you might read my forthcoming book as a study on feminist archives, but it is also a response to those very tired debates about intergenerational tensions in the feminist movement. While most of us have moved on, these debates are still circulating. Only last year, Susan Faludi’s article published in Harper’s Magazine claimed that “feminism’s heritage is repeatedly hurled onto the scrap heap.” My book argues that this is not the case at all. Women of my generation have always been deeply committed to imagining what might be gained by returning, if only provisionally, to the partially completed social transformations of the 1970s and 1980s, and feminism’s “scrap heap” is one site among many where this work is being carried out. That’s what attracts me to the archival question—it’s partially about history but more crucially, the archive is a place where we can examine contemporary feminist activism in relation to an entire history of feminist thought and action.

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Feministing launches new column on feminism and academia

Originally posted in Feministing

GwendolynWe’re thrilled to announce a very new exciting series starting today on feminism and the academy, The Scholarly Feminist!

As some of y’all may know, there are some amazing feminist academics out there making some serious headway in issues around feminist thought, so our dear Feministing friend and new contributor Gwendolyn Beetham is going to bring them out of their classes and into the blogosphere. A freelance researcher and writer for local and international organizations dedicated to gender justice, Gwendolyn blogs for the Gender Institute at the London School of Economics (where she received her PhD) and is involved in various queer, feminist, and food justice projects. And we’re pumped to have her aboard.

The Scholarly Feminist series will aim to bridge the academic/online divide, allow academics to showcase their important work, connect online conversations that are also taking place in the classroom (and other academic venues), and relate feminist and queer theory to feminist blogosphere discussions. Bring it, brainy feminists! Look out for the first post later today.

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