Mimi Arbeit is a Ph.D. student at Tufts in Child Development, where she studies adolescent sexuality, sexual health, and sexual violence prevention. She is a freelance sexuality educator and also works locally to promote and strengthen sexuality education in public schools.
The Debrief, Mimi’s column on sex, dating, and relationships, comes out every Wednesday on JewishBoston.com. She loves dancing, taking walks around the city, and listening to people share their stories. Email [email protected] or tweet @MimiArbeit.
Jewschool: What’s the intersection of progressive values, sex ed and Jewish identity for you?
Mimi Arbeit: Progressive values, sex ed, and promoting healthy relationships is at the core of my Jewish involvement. My commitment to feminist and queer values is central to who I am as a person and the work I try to do in the world. I became involved with Judaism as a teenager, but departed from Jewish spaces in college when I realized how much the tradition clung to harmful gender norms and patriarchal practices. For years, I didn’t know what to do. Jewish community can be beautiful and powerful, but I needed a Jewish community in which I could bring all of my passions, and in which my own desire for personhood and my commitment to building a better world would not be eclipsed by a reification of problematic Jewish traditions. The communities I found in Boston allowed me to be a part of exploring the kinds of Judaism that hold more possibility for me – especially the Moishe Kavod House, Keshet, and JewishBoston.com.
JS: Before writing at The Debrief, you wrote a blog called Sex Ed Transforms. What can we find there?
MA: I started Sex Ed Transforms five years ago when I was working in a public school teaching health and sex ed. I used this space to give words to my dream, my work, and my analysis. I discussed my experience with sex ed in public school, my reflections on what I was reading, my own personal growth in activities such as body-positive challenge, and my sex ed for young adults work at the Moishe Kavod House. In the month before my wedding, I wrote extensively about my experience grappling with sexism, materialism, and interpersonal challenges throughout the planning process. Last year, I made it into the final round of the Feministing “So You Think You Can Blog” contest by submitting a post on queer identity and a post on 50 Shades of Grey. Although I did not become a regular contributor to Feministing, I soon after started writing The Debrief weekly at JewishBoston.com, and now I post on Sex Ed Transforms much more rarely.
JS: What’s been the most difficult topic (you can name a few) you’ve handled at The Debrief? What’s your favorite?
MA: The Debrief is a sex, dating, and relationships column posted every Wednesday at JewishBoston.com. I love facilitating this space in which I can invite other community members to share their stories, questions, and reflections, either by name or anonymously. I am honored every time people choose to share their stories with me, and I am deeply moved by what they express.
I also write several pieces myself. The most difficult pieces to write have been the two addressing issues of trauma and violence. I wrote a post connecting the ritual of spilling wine at the Passover seder with the Steubenville rape trial, and soon after that I wrote a post about different kinds of trauma in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. It was a difficult spring.
My favorite posts of the ones I wrote myself are the pieces that push boundaries. One of my earliest posts asked, “Can hookups be holy?,” and I wrote a post about National Masturbation Month in May. I also have enjoyed the opportunity to share some of my own process. Elul, the last month of the Jewish calendar, is a time set aside for reflection. I took the entire month to reflect on sex, dating, relationships, and building community, and continued this tone through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I gained a lot, personally, from working on these posts and sharing them with my readers.
I am always looking for new story ideas and new contributions, so I encourage readers to email me at [email protected] anytime.
JS: What do you think is the current state of the conversation about sex in Jewish communities? Why do you think it is what it is? What advice would you give to folks who want to change the status quo?
MA: I can only hope to learn that a wide variety of dynamic, engaging, critical conversations about sex are currently taking place in Jewish communities worldwide. But I also know that many Jewish communities are not having such conversations. I think we are held back because we are nervous, embarrassed, ashamed, afraid, or we don’t know the words to use to express how we feel. We try to say what we think we are supposed to say, and we try to do what we think we are supposed to do, and when we say or do something different from what’s expected of us, we too often get told to stop.
If we want to change the status quo, and I certainly do, we need to start with deep sharing and listening. Really taking risks to hear each other, understand the complexity of our own and each other’s lived experiences, ask caring and probing questions of each other, and speak. Share. Try to explain even when none of the words we know feel quite right. Name that – say that none of the words feel quite right, and commit to speaking and listening anyway.
With the foundation of a community committed to listening and speaking, speaking and listening, we need to pursue conversations that are inclusive of all voices. Wait, not only inclusive, but structured through a model of equity. Working to merely include marginalized voices will still leave those voices marginalized. We need to find a way to actively structure a new conversation about sex and relationships with people who have previously been marginalized now at the center. As part of that process, we will need trauma-informed ways to talk about sex. So many members of our community are survivors of sexual trauma of different forms – more people than we even realize. When we talk about sex, it can be a wonderful and positive part of our lives, and it can also be a place of violence and violation. We need to find out how to talk about all of that.
JS: What, for you, is at stake in this work?
MA: Acceptance. Humanity. Connection. The possibility of a life lived honestly and powerfully. World peace.