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Notes From A Workshop: Gender, Dating & Technology

The past several weeks have been super busy for me. Filled with new opportunities to talk with young people, reach out to communities all over the east coast in 3D, and have really important conversations around sexuality and how complex it is for many of us. I want to share some of these experiences, conversations that were created, how I was challenged and what I learned. I’m really interested in hearing others ideas and thoughts about the topics presented here and if you have used similar curricula or activities and the outcomes!

Towards the end of March I was invited to provide a workshop to the students at Saint Peter’s College, a private Catholic college in Jersey City, NJ. Similar in population to the private Catholic college I teach at in the Bronx, I was asked to help participants understand and discuss gender expectations and norms, dating and how technology has challenged and changed courtship. My workshop was called Gender, Dating & Technology.

The preparation for this workshop took some time. I had to have a few conversations with the faculty member that invited me and hear some background as to what led to students requesting such a workshop. I was told that some students were sharing challenges they encountered with potential partners text messaging at late hours of the night asking for a date the next day, not having calls returned, and folks browsing others Facebook page to find potential dates. Then there were ideas about what a partner should and should not do, how they are to behave and challenges to even beginning the conversation about what someone desires in a relationship.

I had some ideas for such a workshop from past sessions I’ve done, but I wanted more options. I headed over to the Advocates For Youth website and checked out what curriculums they share that center around relationships, sexuality, and friendships. Two activities stood out to me: Likes & Dislikes and Body Language from Life Planning Education, Advocates For Youth, 2009. I was inspired by the goals and objectives for these two activities and spent some time thinking about how to use activities targeting high school students with college-aged young adults.

The activity Likes and Dislikes was one I knew I wanted to start with, but a issue I had with the activity the way it is presented is that it supports a gender binary: that there are only people who identify as women or men and nothing more. It took me a moment to think about how I could alter this activity and it was not until about an hour before my presentation that I came up with an idea. Instead of breaking groups up by gender identity as in the curriculum, I provided each participant with a sheet of paper to list likes and dislikes of all genders and I used gender neutral and inclusive language. For example, I said: “list likes and dislikes for men, women, gender non-conforming/queer, and/or trans people.” This allowed participants to self-select how they would identify and offer opportunities for them to not have to be targeted, choose which side of a gender binary they wanted to be on to build a list, and allowed for some introspective writing. The second addendum to this activity I decided to implement was to have groups share their writing and build a list on a piece of newsprint that they would then present to the group.

One of the things I did not expect was having over 75 students present! Saint Peter’s College is not a large campus and has about 3000 students. I was truly surprised and honored to have close to 100 students, and almost all of them students of Color, present for a majority of the workshop. I did have enough paper for folks to do the first part of this activity, but the second part where they work as a group was a challenge.

I had about 8 groups of 15-20 people in stadium style seating, so no moveable chairs. Good thing I was excited and kept a pretty upbeat attitude as I grouped folks together and provided them with markers and paper to write. I then had to keep moving from group to group making sure folks were not excluded because of proximity and that each person was able to share what they wrote and were comfortable including. Usually I would allow students to do things on their own and more independently, but there were specific circumstances where I thought more facilitation in a specific way was needed. I had participants pick a spokesperson to share what they wrote.

Following the original guidelines for sharing lists in the article, I asked folks to refrain from any call and response and to be quiet and listen as each group shared their list. To say the lists and qualities I heard were amazing is an understatement! Many qualities that were desirable and disappointing overlapped. For example, almost each group shared personal hygiene as a quality that is important yet having poor hygiene was a turn off. Other likes included good communication, being supportive, affectionate, and goal-oriented. Dislikes shared included being overly sensitive or expressive (crying often), lack of pride in physical appearance, and one group said street harassment, fatphobia, and misogyny.

Then I asked participants to share how they felt about what they heard and if there were any stereotypes they heard that they challenged. The conversation was really engaging and powerful. Participants were honest with feeling hurt and angry with some of the things shared. Others shared that they simply dismissed some of the comments while other folks started a good conversation about what it means to desire qualities in a partner but go after the opposite thing in someone.

Several young men shared that they heard the women present say they want certain qualities, that they embody these qualities but are ignored or overlooked for various reasons, mainly connected to class status and ideas of having “swag” or “game” and being “too nice.”  This sparked a conversation about responsibility and friendship. How are we as friends of people who say they want one type of partner but choosing ones that are abusive, hurtful, and the complete opposite, responsible to our friendships and ourselves? This then led into a conversation about technology and communication. How do we share with a potential partner that their personal hygiene is a turn off, or could be altered to appeal to the other partner? Is a text message or phone call appropriate for such a discourse? When is a 3D conversation needed versus something online?

This activity took well over an hour. Yet, it was a good lead into the next activity. I had done this activity almost 15 years ago as an undergrad in a human sexuality college course. My professor at the time was Dr. Robin Sawyer, it was his wife Anne that mentored me into working as a sexuality educator a year later and who helped me realize this is the work I wanted to commit to as a professional. Dr. Sawyer had created an activity called “Can’t Buy Me Love” (find it in this workbook) where he listed several characteristics some folks desire in a relationship (i.e. communication, attractive, supportive, etc.) and added a value to each. The instructions on the activity were that each person was given $100 and could go shopping and spend their $100 to find the partner they desired.

I used this activity for the second part of my presentation and had altered the original a bit to include more characteristics, terminology the community I was working with was familiar with, and to represent and be more inclusive of various types of relationships (i.e. polyamory). I shared with the group that they could not borrow money from someone else’s sheet and that they could spend as much money as they had. This activity took a while as well, and many students had to pair up as I didn’t have enough copies for all participants present.

When I asked the group what they thought of this activity they had varied responses. Many of the students shared that they thought a lot of the characteristics were too expensive. They gave the example of communication being almost $40. This I found interesting, and shared that we had spent almost 20 minutes talking about how important and valuable communication was to them and now they didn’t want to pay so much for that quality. Many laughed at the irony while others rethought their position.

Other students shared how they did the activity with their partner and they both came up with different responses. We talked about what that could mean, how that may alter a relationship or strengthen one. Students shared that it was a good exercise to do with a partner versus alone as it could spark conversation. Others shared that they were unclear about the difference between supporting someone and someone offering security. I shared that for some folks being supported by a partner may mean they will listen to them and help them through difficult times, whereas offering security could mean for others having a home or feeling emotionally secure/open with a partner (being comfortable enough to cry). This offered some clarification and students were able to make the best decision for themselves at that time about what characteristics they desired.

I shared how I’ve used this activity in my own personal dating experiences. My current partner and I did this activity together last summer and had some very interesting conversations. We spoke about how being attracted to your partner is essential and that I did not have enough money to purchase it along with the other things I wanted (I was $5 short). That led to a conversation about what I was willing to give up, if anything, to be attracted to my partner. I argued that I could find some of the other characteristics attractive, and my partner argued that it may not be enough at some times.

That story led me to ask participants what characteristics they would buy if they went on sale, or had a lower value. I also shared that their ideas may change over time. That they could do this activity at various different times in their dating history and have very different outcomes. Some students shared that they planned to do the activity with other friends and potential partners. We spoke about how this may also be useful for when meeting people online through either dating services or via social networks. That meeting in a public space and using this as an “ice breaker” may be a good way to figure out what our priorities are and what type of relationship we seek with specific people.

We finished with the Body Language activity, which ended up being like a game of charades. About six students volunteered to act out the emotions on the card and we had a short conversation about how our body language sends certain messages. We briefly discussed how when we try to show our emotions (i.e. disappointment, anger, discomfort) it may be interpreted other than how we imagine it to be (i.e. participants guessed frustration, sadness, complacency for disappointment).

By this time my two hours were complete and I was exhausted but invigorated. I had put together a powerpoint presentation to include some film clips to use as points of discussion in case they were needed but they were not. The three films I had planned to use were Girlfight (2000) to discuss gender norms and roles, Raising Victor Vargas (2002) to discuss how we are socialized to act out based on gender norms and roles and to discuss body language, and I Like It Like That (1994) to discuss characteristics in a relationship that we desire or do not want. (And yes these films are over a decade old and I think it says something about media and what has been produced and can be used to begin discussion in specific ways).

I want to thank all of the student groups that worked to get me to their campus to provide this workshop, the audio visual and technology folks who recorded this presentation (when video is available I'll share) and Dr. Alex Trillo who reached out to me, discussed the needs of the students, and gave me a ride back to the Path train!

Have others had similar conversations with students? If so, what were the outcomes? How have some of us changed curriculums to be more effective with our specific populations? Are there other ways that you have used similar curriculums and had different outcomes?


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