Naomi Sobel is a 30-year-old writer, organizer, educator and queer femme with roots in New York, a soft spot for Chicago, family in the Bay Area, and a home base in Jamaica Plain, Mass. She has deep roots in progressive Judaism and a burgeoning interest in harnessing her class privilege for radical social change. She works as a donor engagement coordinator at the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, raising money and building relationships to advance lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) human rights around the globe. Before joining Astraea’s staff, Naomi spent two years running the teen program at Temple Israel of Boston; she has also held positions at The Nation and Boston Review magazines, and at Jewish Funds for Justice (now Bend the Arc).
I spent this whole last weekend with four teenagers, which is something I used to do frequently but has been a rarer occurrence since I left the Jewish education world. I highly recommend it to anyone who is starting to despair for the state of the world. Two of the teens were visiting me for the weekend and two live near enough that I really should see them more often than I do.
Over a period of two days, I got to hear their perspectives on their friends’ relationships and their own (two of them were a couple and had been dating for several months). Their commentary was laced with pop culture references and brutal honesty. They all know that I’m queer, and not just queer but professionally queer—I work in fundraising for an LGBTQI rights organization—which seems to get me some totally unearned street cred. They make a point of telling me about gender non-conforming classmates and about same-sex couples in their friend groups, and when I’m lucky they ask me great questions about sex, gender, sexuality, bodies and dating.
These are teens I love dearly, but not ones I see regularly, and I got to wondering who else they go to when they have these kinds of questions, and where they look when they want answers.
I started being sexually active just as the Internet was getting going, and I remember the first time I found a website that had queer-friendly advice for young people trying to navigate this stuff. Scarleteen kept me from a few truly bad decisions and helped me find my way out of some very tough places. It’s still around, and during the few years I worked as a teen educator, I recommended it to a lot of teens, youth workers and parents as a reliable source of facts and advice without the all-too-common accompaniment of slut-shaming, gender policing or ableism.
I wonder where other Debrief readers went for this kind of information when you were a young person. Did you have a resource like Scarleteen? Or a trusted adult you could ask for direction? My cousin Lisa says she used to look in the Yellow Pages—not a tactic she recommends—and my friend Graham said all he had to count on were James Dobson’s “Preparing for Adolescence” cassette tapes, courtesy of Focus on the Family.
Last month, Scarleteen put out a PSA that if they couldn’t raise enough to cover their operating expenses of $3,000 per month, 50 percent over their current funding stream, they were going to go on strike. In their case, that means ceasing creation of any new content beyond a “strike blog,” and shutting down their message boards, SMS service, live chat and advice columns. Though their website gets a heavy stream of traffic, few users of their site are able to “give back”—remember, it’s a sex-ed site aimed at teens, after all. I’m interested to see what the “strike” threat yields, but at the very least it’s a powerful way for the Scarleteen team to make a critical point that I certainly needed reminding about:
“If good sexuality education is something people earnestly want—not just something they want to give lip service to—it’s got to be something everyone actively pitches in to support. If it’s something you want right now, or in at least the next couple of decades, you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is.”
How did, and how do you, get your sexuality education? How did you find that person, book, website? And how do you make sure those kinds of resources continue to exist for the long term?
As mentioned last week, April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). This year’s SAAM campaign is promoting healthy adolescent sexual development. Promoting healthy sexual development and preventing sexual violence are intricately linked. Adults, schools and synagogues can all provide important spaces for conversation and communication about sexuality, and an accurate and teen-friendly source of information online can be a great complement to those in-person connections.