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December 20, 2004

Comments

Elisabeth

Is it your job to mentor her at all? I would have been horrified if any of my lecturers had offered an opinion on any aspect of my personal life. If this girl's course is wrong for her, she'll find out in her own time and her own way, in the same way that you changed some of your views as you got older. That's part of the growing up process, isn't it?

Hugo

Well, yes and no -- in a course like women's studies (as at least some of us teach it), there is a deliberate blurring of the line between the personal and historical, between public and private.

By "menot", I don't mean call the Jeanines of the world into my office and say "Look here, do this another way." But in lecturing about birth control history, or the 1960s, it is crucial that I pay attention to how my students will receive what I am saying. They will -- or at least they should -- make a connection between their own lives and the material. Women's studies is premised on that -- at least as it was taught to me, and as I teach it.

lis

I agree with the first poster: Just because the student shared her beliefs with you in her journal doesn't mean you need to act on them in any way.

Regarding early pregnancy and "do-overs": Decades after being a teen mom, I can see where I clearly benefited by that "mistake" and its consequences. Getting a "do-over" -- learning that mistakes can simply be erased and therefore my actions really don't matter -- would have been much more damaging than having to grow up quickly and be a good mother to my child.

Elisabeth

Mightn't it also be that her beliefs, while genuinely held, are a rationalisation for not doing something that she isn't ready for yet? In which case "gently pushing" her towards Planned Parenthood would be rushing her steps? One of my best friends in college (and not, that's not a euphemism for me!) said steadfastly that she didn't believe in sex outside marriage until she was in her mid twenties when she met a man she loved and changed her views. If you asked her now, she'd say that a lot of that was to do with the fact that she wasn't ready before and felt the need to justify it to herself and those around her, but I don't think that realising that now has made her regret waiting.

Anyway, I don't know enough about her, you, or your class to contribute a really meaningful opinion, so I'll shut up now! It was just a thought.

La Lubu

When you're talking about sex and sexuality, you're definitely in intimate territory. Tread lightly. It's difficult to approach those subjects with people you know quite well; you know most of your students only superficially, really. Considering the gulf in background, gender, age and experience between you and this young woman you refer to, I think it would be hard for either of you to really understand in your bones where the other is coming from. And you already know this Hugo, but anything you said would be fertile ground for misinterpretation.

Last year, Brainchild magazine had a good article on teenage motherhood (unfortunately, not available online); it was mentioned that regardless of whether a teen girl becomes a mother, she is likely to end up in the same social class she was born in. Teenage motherhood is a struggle for middle class girls, and it usually takes them more time to complete their education, but by and large they still end up middle class in adulthood.

Young women who don't have this advantage are well aware of the limitations they face in case the birth control fails. I made the same choice that these young women made. My reasons varied from not wanting premature motherhood to put a cramp in my future, to not seeing any potential male partners who wanted anything other than sex. And I wanted more out of a relationship than just sex. For me, the right to say no was liberating. I had the prototypical Sicilian mother lecture about teenage sex (meaning, don't have any, delivered in a certain inimitable style), but my choice didn't really have anything to do with tradition or religion. I did learn rather quickly that people did not question that choice if it was grounded in tradition or religion; they only questioned it when I asserted my choice as coming from within.

Food for thought.

Fred Vincy

I agree with Elisabeth and Lis that I would not directly advise this student on this issue -- or any student on issues implicating core beliefs -- unless the student sought my advice or was a danger to herself or others. However, it is certainly appropriate to use her concerns in framing readings and lectures that will allow future students in her position to critically evaluate their own thinking -- though I'm sure you already do that.

Hugo

Whoa, folks, let me explain here:

Students are asked to journal about their own lives -- and the feedback I give is within that journal context.

Second of all, mentoring happens in many ways -- and it can happen in a lecture setting. I don't presume to know all of the various pressures that descend on adolescents of either sex, though I think I know them better than many of my peers. I do think I can put their own personal struggles in a larger context, expose them to options, and so forth.

zuzu

Personally, I've had bad experiences with journals as part of class exercises. Both times I had to submit them, I got psychoanalyzed by the professor about a stray comment (the first, and more egregious, occurred when I was a freshman in college and I had to keep a journal. When I wrote three entries about a rather disgusting act of vandalism that happened in my dorm and affected us for a week -- someone had deliberately defecated in the laundry room and it had not been cleaned up until a week later -- the professor gave me an F and told me that I seemed to be obsessed with excrement. This was for English class). The second time, in law school, the lecturer talked to me about my "drinking problem" because I had mentioned not being able to sleep and taking a beer and a shot of Nyquil to get to sleep the night before a court appearance.

So. I come at this from the perspective of someone who has had rather uncomfortable experiences of feedback from journals. I would so much have preferred that my professors NOT do that to me. The idea of assigning some readings or talking in general in class about issues raised in the journals is a good one. These students would probably be mortified if you talked with them directly, but might be open to a classroom discussion about virginity.

My concern with the virginity corps is, when they freight virginity with so much meaning, what happens if they lose it prior to marriage? How well prepared are they for that?

Hugo

Girls should be married at 14 to older men. Their virginity will then be intact for marraige.

NOTE: THIS IS NOT Hugo Schwyzer, but some troll.

Lisa

Wow, another great post Hugo. I was a virgin when I married, ten years ago, at the age of twenty. It all worked out well for me. It was the accepted norm (both the virginity and the young marriage) in my culture. It's so interesting to hear about your very different experiences.

I am struggling with these issues, what to teach my daughters and how to teach it. I don't like the way I learned about virginity and sexuality. I don't like the association of sex with loss. But I'm not sure how comfortable I am with the whole do-over mentality either. Reading your thoughts is really valuable to me. Thanks again.

Christy

To quote your student:
"Sex is just too big for me right now. I need to focus on school and my own life."

Sounds like a young woman who knows what is best for her and is acting accordingly. What on earth is wrong with that, and why would you want to point her in any other direction than the one she's going? I don't know anything about her, but I'm gonna guess that she didn't grow up in Carmel.

One thing I've learned over the years from living and working in low-income communities of color is that while middle-class white kids may get to be protected from the consequences of their actions, working class students aren't. They have very little margin for error - they don't get do-overs.

The kids I've known have to work much, much harder than a middle class white kid to get to the same place. To get to college, they have to navigate sub-standard schools, racist teachers and guidance counselors, violence, and a system with low expectations. They have to work long hours at crappy jobs to try and find the money to pay for school. I've lived in neighborhoods where the high school drop out rate is 50%, where less than 10% of the kids in a neighborhood even apply to college, and most of those don't finish. That doesn't include the cultural barriers that some young women face when they want to continue their education past high school, or difficult things that may be happening in their families.

All that - it takes a lot of energy, and maybe this young woman knows she doesn't have any to spare on the emotional drama that being sexually active might add to her life. She has probably seen far too many other smart young women have their lives derailed by babies and bad relationships - Lord knows I have - especially if she knows abortion is not an option for her for cultural and/or religious reasons. There are probably not a whole lot of young men in her world who would support her goals for her life - why add one more obstacle to the ones she already faces?

So I'd fall into the "You go, girl!" camp - Sex is always there for her when she is ready, but this is probably her only shot at college.

OH - I once had a professor tell me that he thought I had a chemical imbalance after reading my journal - so I think professors should be extraordinarily cautious about making any judgments about students' personal lives based on them.

Hugo

I am extraordinarily cautious, Cristy -- fear not -- especially in student journals.

I'm still not sure that there aren't more options on the table for Jeanine than she may have realized. But of course, I honor her commitment to her future and to her community.

NancyP

I fully agree that "do-overs" are the privilege of the well-to-do or at least middle-class. While it may be true that early unwed motherdom may not prevent some women from attaining the class they were born into, it sure is likely to prevent women from rising out of poverty into the solid home-owning, pension-owning well-educated middle class. There just isn't enough time to acquire capital/assets before the financial demands of single parenthood hit. I think it is just fine to put off sexual activity until education is obtained.

It is a mistake to assume that all women have the same reaction to abortion, and that the abortion itself (rather than the circumstances leading up to it, like relative poverty, abusive boyfriend, simply too young) is always regretted. Some women regret the abortion itself, many many are relieved. I would have to say that every woman I know grieves over having surrendered a baby for adoption, though some temper the grief and regret with the thought that they fulfilled a religious duty. Of course, I know mostly birth mothers from the pre-Roe era - I don't know what the reaction would be for current birth mothers and for "open adoptions".

activistgradgal

I wonder if maybe one way to approach the issue (in lecture or something like that I'm assuming) is to talk about sex as something much larger than virginity. I'm very against the use of the word as I think it creates these false social lines, not to mention it defines sexual activity in terms of reproduction and male-oriented heterosexual sex.

Surely it's great that these students are concerned with their future and so cautious about pregnancy and STDs. But lots of sexual activity carries very low risk of these consequences. I sometimes suspect that the whole "think about your future, don't let anything disrupt your plans" line of argument given in favor of abstinence is a bit less than sincere. Because obviously there are lots of kinds of sex that have very, very little chance of doing that even without a visit to Planned Parenthood. Perhaps these students are all aware of this already and so are just refraining from intercourse. However, I largely doubt it. From what I've seen around me in high school and college it was usually the case that people either were having vaginal intercourse, or weren't doing anything at all--there was very little in between. During my last year there was an event held dedicated to learning about the female orgasm (probably the most popular event ever held there!) and many of the women who attended said they were unable to orgasm during sex (i.e. vaginal intercourse) and were looking for tips.

I think that the freedom to explore one's sexuality is very important, and thus it isn't a good thing if one has been led to believe, without good reason, that sex will disrupt one's future ambitions. Talking about sex in all its various forms is one way to neutralize that kind of thinking. Of course, if as others suggested the students truly aren't ready then they should of course be congratulated for making the best choice for themselves--but if they've really made the best choice then giving them reason to doubt their thinking about sex can't do any harm.

Hugo

I agree completely that we make a huge mistake on every level in failing to make distinctions between actual intercourse and other forms of healthy sexual intimacy. Abstinence, after all, can mean different things to different people; it is surely possible to bring others to orgasm without ever engaging in anything that can spread STDs or lead to pregnancy. We need to make sure that that too is part of the message we are sending.

NancyP

There are other risks than STDs and pregnancy. Being abused, or being stalked by an ex, for one. If you are in a demanding school or job, it may make sense not to invest a whole lot of time into a relationship that may turn abusive. Face it, once men have had sex with women, a large percentage of said men think they own those women until the men decide that they are sick of them and want new women. Depending on the women's family backgrounds and cultural backgrounds, refraining from being possessed may be rational health and life saving behavior.

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