People often ask me how I got into the field – sex education is a pretty fascinating topic from many angles. I even have an e-book coming out this year that will tell many sex educators’ stories of their entrance into the field. But after a conversation with Heather Corinna yesterday, I wanted to write about how I started working with teenagers.
When I was a teenager I was pretty responsible. Some might have pejoratively referred to me (and might still…) as a straight edge. I was in the highest level academic classes available, deeply involved in theater, uninterested in drugs or alcohol, and I had a strong relationship with my mother. I knew what I was about, I was busy, and I didn’t have time or attention for bureaucracy (it might be said that I still don’t). My junior year I intended to spend the spring semester in Berlin, but I couldn’t hack it and came home. I spent the majority of that spring and summer teaching myself things, attending classes at my high school in flagrant disregard of school policy, having my first job, and generally attending to a variety of interesting bits and bobs. The return to school the following year – my senior year – was a shock of cold water. I was thoroughly immersed in the bureaucracy, which had decided it had plenty of time for me. (That’s me, on the left, in my senior year picture, which I was forced to take with that stupid black draping for blahblahblah reasons.)
I had always been outspoken about adolescent rights and the ways in which they were ignored. That I was a second class citizen did not go unnoticed and I was vocal about the issue. I wanted to form my professional career around changing this problematic cultural dynamic. I went into education because I thought I could be useful there – but I was so very wrong. So I went back to graduate school, with the hopes of changing the cultural perception of adolescents through research in the same way that John Bowlby had changed the perception of infants. Before Bowlby and Ainsworth’s research and writing on attachment theory, babies were seen as not-quite-people-yet. They were treated horrifically, on a societal scale. The implications for long term emotional health were entirely misunderstood.
I posited that the ways adolescents were treated also had substantial implications for long term emotional health in similarly distancing, infantilizing, and silencing ways as infants prior to the 20th century. I still work from this basic perspective.
My entrance into sexuality education specifically has its own stories, but this is how I started working with adolescents. The drive for young people to have the space and support to be their own people is, of course, intrinsic to my work with the young people themselves. However, it informs my work with adults more radically. Parents and teachers need help bucking the ideological trend that we adults have the right – the authority – the obligation – to monitor and restrict young people in certain ways. It’s just not true. What we do have is the responsibility to support young people in becoming themselves. It is a far more sacred trust than monitoring and restricting and what adults and youth both get from this other process is far more beautiful.
So I am not doing research in the footprints of giants like Bowlby and Ainsworth. I am changing the world in different ways, practically speaking, but my end goal has not shifted from my own teenage years.
I am a youth ally and I feel very lucky to be here. Youth rights are misunderstood and ignored. We have these magical ages at which rights are suddenly conferred (16, 18, 21) and far too often cognitive and emotional developmental trajectory, decision making skills, individual variance, and so much more are just ignored. Far too often adults believe that love of young people is best expressed as a paternalistic care-taking rather than that safe base that Ainsworth demonstrated that infants need so desperately.
Properly caring for children and teenagers is not doing things or making decisions for them – it is, in fact, the exact opposite.
Life and family are both negotiating tables – and young people have a right to be there with us.