Episode 43: Professor Spring Cooper on the importance of sexual health and agency
Either podcast listeners, welcome to gendered the show that features stories that explore the systems practices and policies that enable gender-based violence and oppression and the solutions to end it. We use gender as a lens to understand power and oppression teach feminism and decolonize hearts and minds. One story at a time and gender sponsored by CANDU. It spelled K A. N D U, I T, and I'm your host Terry. You're in. Our guest today is professor spring Cooper, a social researcher with academe expertise and public health health promotion and sexuality, professor Cooper's PHD focused on the sexual health education implications of minstrel attitudes. Knowledge, amongst women of varying socio economic status in the United States. Her current research interests are an adolescent, sexual health at a lesson, and online and offline social networks health, promotion, health, communication, and prevention of diseases through behavior change in vaccination. We'll be speaking with professor Cooper about all of these topics, especially as it relates to the students that she works with at the City University of New York. In addition, will be speaking with professor Cooper about her podcast, the sex rap, the podcast, that covers everything you are too afraid to ask at home to embarrass to ask it school os, just too hard to ask a partner. Professor Cooper will also share her thoughts. About near states revenge porn law, which comes at the heels of New York City's law passed in twenty eighteen. Welcome Dr Cooper, I wanna say welcome to try office. Thank you for speaking with us today. I love to start with your background. How did you become interested in the areas sexual health, health promotion and health, communication? Well, I had a good friend in high school who was issue positive. She had contracted HIV from a blood transfusion when she was young. And she had experienced a lot of stigma through her life from other students and their parents. And so I felt very strongly that, that was unfair everything that she had been there. And I felt very upset and very kind of motivated to want to help in some way. So when I went to college at Penn State for undergrad I started volunteering at the local aids project and got really into helping people reduce their risk, and think, through strategies for condom negotiation and things like that. I had so much fun doing that. I thought I guess this is what I'm gonna do for the rest of my life. And in terms of your Picchi thesis, how did you become interested in that ministration in the body, female body? Well, I was mostly interested in the first conversations they end people have about sex with our parents. I was always interested in sex education and these stigmas in these ideas that are created in our society, and how they kind of come about. So that's like I introduction to sexuality that people get from their parents was what I really wanted to explore and for women that often occurs at the same time as. I period though when a woman gets first period, there's often some sort of sex talk that happens from the parents and that's like a very comments Denson. So I was really interested in kind of that time in women's life, the first period, specifically Minardi in what kind of happened from there. And so that's, that's where the interest in periods front from is. It's not how you personally learned about it. When you first got your period, or known about had you gotten the sex talk before, then I had been sent to a sex, Ed weekend, thing by parents when I was maybe ten or eleven was held at a local church, and it was a very open minded vary. Fact base very great sex, Ed program, and I remember being terrified because I felt felt too young. It was it was aimed at people may high. Hi, with, like I am not curious. Like it's very scary to me at the time. That's very parents must have been very progressive in the church. They may spring. That's true. Which city was this? My dad was military. So we moved around a lot. So that was in California, southern California. Wow. I've never heard of the church teaching anything about sex, Ed, it was like a whole weekend. It was a judge. And so, by the time, you, you got your period. You of course, were prepared in terms of having the factual knowledge I had so understand it. I still was very surprised when I got my period. I think about the logistics of everything. But I think that's pretty normal. So when you did your thesis was it difficult to get approval and support for the topic. No, my supervisor did a lot of research in sexuality. And so she was very practiced in she and I worked closely on all everything that we did there. So that was crazy. Dr Patricia coke shoutout to favorite mentor. And what about now? Now that you're professor at CUNY school of public health. What are your thoughts on the interest and the support for the kinds of research that you do? Well, there's two different types of support from research, one is kind of a generalized yet that's great. And then there's also monetary support. And so when you're talking about monetary support, and finding grants that are available to fund general research about sexuality and maybe something that isn't as directly tied to sexual health. It is very difficult and so finding organizations or agencies that will provide funding that is very difficult. So a lot of times researches framed in more disease, or anted way. So that, that's, that's how sexuality research exist is. Framing it in terms of how bad specific STI is or something like that. But, but in general, I feel very supported may research, and it is always a bit of work to get a study approved by institutional review board are ethical process just because there are a lot of protections. We want in place when doing work with young people. In all of my work in research is with people under twenty five and so specifically, if they're under eighteen there are a lot of extra precautions that we put in place and various to doing that. But every time I send location to the IRA be there's always different people looking at it in different concerns. There's always a lot of work to make sure that everybody agrees that it's a call. And as fully protective of young people. Would you say that part of the if there is institutional resistance to this kind of research that it's gender-based? Or is there also potentially opposition from religious, conservative groups that no see this as part of the reproductive Justice kind of movement and want to quash that? Yeah. I mean, I would say, not specifically in my experience in CUNY or in any university system rarely, but in the broader funding system for sure and getting things funded by big organizations, like national institutes for health is traditionally difficult anyway. But they're is very tied to how they're kind of allowed to spend their money. And that goes. Listen to what the president decides they're allowed to spend their money on. And so that means that it is very difficult to find money for the type of research, I wanna do because that's not a spin Sata's priority area. You were involved in the healthy CUNY initiative. Can you talk about your role and describe for listeners without is and its goals? Yeah. Healthy CUNY is and glamorization of several researchers at CUNY school of public health, and everyone at the school of public health is interested in increasing the health, specifically of New Yorkers were very urban New York City based school of public house, which makes us very unique. And but specifically healthy CUNY is our researchers from around our school that are interested in supporting specifically young people's health. And so we aim to take the research that we and others are doing and actually put it into practice for the CUNY population. And so that means that any thing that I'm working on that directly relates to sexual health of young people than I would try to reimplement through healthy CUNY to try to actually bring healthy changes to kidney students, and a report came out early last year with some findings around the gaps in health at CUNY students faced can you talk about those, please? I mean, I think you need students are amazing and so resilient. And we have the most verse body of students, and that means that we have people from every type of socio economic background of every race ethnicity and religion. And gender and sexual orientation. And the diversity of our student body is really reflective of the diversity of New York, and New York City, I mean, and so we have this lick cross cut like amazing group of people, and they're all, you know, from all these different backgrounds working really hard to get an education into further cells than further potential in their lives. And when people come specifically from very lowest, he has backgrounds with not a lot of support for education. Maybe it can be very difficult to be challenging those norms and the places they come from the family as they come from to get higher education. And so we do have a lot of I think, health concerns for students and specifically even housing stability. And access to regular your food security. And that is something that we don't see kind of in the general college population like if you were doing research with at typical for your sleep away, college, so we do have the needs that our students like our very real needs that have to be met so that they can continue to get an education. And we've also seen one of my colleagues here professor sweet had some research about looking at the gender based violence, that can actually occur as a result of further in someone's education. So specifically some women that were going to Uni schools felt that, that actually increased the violence. They were receiving from a partner because they were trying to lift themselves out of their situation by occasion in that way. Was not okay with our partners. And so we know that there are very real issues that our students face in. We have that through that healthy CUNY report through a lot of our own individual research, and we know that what we need to address. That's what healthy CUNY is trying to do trying to put into place interventions across CUNY campuses to really support our students in the way they need it most in full disclosure to our listeners. I was very much proponent of CUNY adopting, the recommendations that were in that report. And I think well for my experience. I've always felt that college persistence academic persistence should be looked at holistically and that these variables that the research was evaluating with something that was left out of the conversation, so subsequent to that report being published can you talk about with the institutional responses been? To the findings have are people just paying lip service to supporting it. Or is there really an effort to understand and incorporate institutionalized the recommendations that are in it? I mean, I think that's an interesting question that I can't really answer it seems like there's real interest. And. And CUNY is a huge Crecy of a lot of tape to find your way around and that some I mean, it's, it's pro and con of CUNY that we're so big and that we serve over half a million students. I mean that's amazing. And that means that the levels of accuracy win trying to implement her. Do anything are. Multifaceted and several layers. So I feel like there is support. And I feel like there is a potential for a lot of implementation, and it's taking a long time. I mean I see this as Nahla gives to the challenges that New York City or all public school. Teachers face. Rangers lean urban areas where the intersection of poverty, and racism, and, of course, food and income insecurity. Right. Have on the ability for children to really be present and, and learn and those individuals have in historically public schoolteachers resistant of their role as having to be the social worker, and of course, they're very much active in, in the academic growth of students, but not so much the social emotional, or at least that's been subordinated to the academic role. I'm wondering if you think that that's how. How we can address it, if there's this gap in the people who are actually serving the students if there are roles or so specialized, how can we bring in other people who can meet the gaps or how can, we change the system, or as part of what your research is about is, how can we change behavior? Yeah. I mean, I think that there's a lot of infrastructure that we can work to change. That might be the best way to start like some of the what I'll call environmental changes and that includes things like policies, and that includes the actual kind of space for things to happen, like physical space. I mean, just if you want a place where someone can interact with the person in talked to them about their needs, like mute ever private room, like I mean, there's all these environmental and panda logistical things that I think though, having a lot of those met could make a lot more things possible. And to be. Clear that doesn't exist. Currently Uni students advisers are, are already the ratio of advisors students is very high and spaces negligible. Okay. So I think there's just. Yeah. I think there's a lot of things, but the, the infrastructure has to support it. That's the first thing. And otherwise, you're kind of constantly swimming upstream in trying to change things. If you don't have infrastructure, and that kind of top down support for that annoy. And what about in terms of your research on sexual agency, which is a subset of that? What, what can you describe or define what sexual agency is? And what you are assumptions and goals are with the research. Yeah. So sexual agency is a constructive really developed, which I call the short definition as the ability to communicate and negotiate about sex while having empathy for partners once in needs. So I've developed a measure that we can use to assess sexual agency, and young people, where we have several questions that kind of look at their skills around some of these issues in their understanding of some of these things, and the reason that I think sexual agency is so important as a construct is that it is a positive outcome of sexuality that we can look at instead of always trying to prevent. Negative outcomes and sexuality and sexual health and I believe that high sexually gency is tied to lower negative health outcomes as well. So I think that if a young person has high sexually agency, they're more likely to have lower levels of, as KYW's unintended pregnancies. So I think that besides being happier, they will be healthier. And so that's why it's so important to me, as a construct, and I also think that a community with high level of sexual agency would have lower levels of sexual assault. So when you describe empathy for partners wants in needs, I think I missed the definition did that include of one's own once a needs, as well, yet if the ability to communicate negotiate about your wants a needs, while having empathy for the okay. And if if it's one sided if you're able to communicate your needs, but you don't have empathy for the others does not, not lie sexually Jesse just lower on this. Yeah. I mean I wouldn't I wouldn't consider that a healthy level of sexual agency at all. And. I think that. Real communication negotiation. That's always what we mean. But a lot of times that isn't kind of taken into account in in my opinion in the upper is Asian with sword. I wanna say operationalize. Of when you provide the central agency, assessment, do you include other questions that assess the relative balance of meeting each other's needs in the relationship? I mean every study where I'm looking it's actually totally different. So every Sunday has different things that were measuring in what we're kind of trying to assess and understand. And specifically, I'm not measuring sexually gency within relationships. I'm measuring it within individuals and individuals would then might have one partner for part of a study like two studies that we do over time and the other partners at other times. And so it's about their agency in their, these skill levels that they have within any of these relationships in might be lower different times with different people. So those are things that we're looking at looking at how pure networks with online and offline impact the development of. Agency over time and looking at sexually gency in various groups have young people, including homeless men's daily house, young people on how that might look different for them. And looking at house actually agency is related to consent literacy, and the ability to really negotiate and understand what consent is when it isn't. So I think I yeah there's a, a lot of future for development of this field. If anybody wants to study sexual agency, come back to me. I'm just curious if any for studies have come to conclusion where you have findings that you can share because my, my initial thought is if you're if you have a longitudinal study and someone self assessment of their sexual agency changes over time, also, if it's exclusive from their ability to self advocate in other ways, and their lives. How does that impact the results, for example, because if you're, I think, from at least anecdotally, for my, my own community, people might be more willing to be advocating in a less serious casual sexual relationship than in a mutually fulfilling long-term relationship, because they are they're having other things that they need to negotiate in their relationship, emotional, psychological needs. So living to say all of my research is without a lessons, very young people. So I think that their relations. Ships at those ages are maybe different than what you're thinking about. I do think there are long term relationships, but the definition of a term relationship at sixteen and at thirty six very different kind of the expectations that surround that as well. So I think that what you're saying is true, and I think, in young people, we are seeing a development and sexual agency over time, which we would expect but maybe not necessarily so dependent upon relationships for length of. Okay. And I'm really also curious about the way sexual agency intersects with consent, which because it might be high in one area, but then low in another exercising. The ability to what about consent. Actually, what, what are your thoughts about how enough is enough has come into play as it made a difference as a made a dent in your state. I mean, I think enough is enough as great. And the kind of regulations that go along with it mean that there are educational activities that are happening on college campuses, but I think that. People are universities are kind of meeting, the bare minimum of what they need to do. And that isn't really the spirit of enough is enough that as the kind of okay, we're doing it because we have to do it, and I think that we need a lot more proactive of primary prevention around sexual assault on college campuses, and that isn't happening in most places. Will CUNY on its website, actually has a sexual violence campus climate survey. And in it the survey from twenty eighteen. Correct about one hundred and fifteen thousand students, which I think is amazing around their experiences with regard to sexual assault sexual harassment and intimate partner violence yet. I think that, that was the original sample, but about thirteen to fourteen thousand people actually completed that survey, which is still a lot of people. Yeah. And so looking at the results of that survey, I was really struck by the degree to, which first of all students who had self identified as being in an intimate partner, violence relationship had their academic studies interrupted by the relationship. So, for example, there are former or current partner made physical threats to them and potentially engaged in physical acts of violence against them as well as intimidation, as a result of their going to school, and it directed their ability to study their ability to be able to hand into Simon's on time they misclass- and seven percent of them, actually reported that the IP caused into lead school. I felt like that number was actually probably understated, not knowing what the definition of. TV was that was given to these students if they even were able to identify that those were, you know, relevant situation to describe their own relationship. I'm wondering if you've had heard anything about this survey and could give some context to some of these answers, I didn't feel very surprised by the data. I think that intimate partner violence is very common more common than most of us admit. And I think that having some data about the number of our students that are experiencing is very helpful. I think that, that really builds a stronger case say this is something that we need to address. And. And I think it's something that we need to have much more openly talk about with our students as what to do. How do I defy this how to help from that you can identify as going through this? And I think that we need to I mean, I think we need to do more than we're day. Suggestions on a university setting. What faculty can do, what staff can do, obviously, everybody gets sexual harassment training, which I don't know how long it is these days. But I the last time I took it. I think it was an hour online, and there was no imprison requirement. There's no need or opportunity to engage in case scenarios at cetera to really help build upon that that trading and certainly was something that was ongoing. I'm so how do professors in people on a college campus. Become, you know, fluent in, in identifying student needs around these issues. I kind of feel like I feel, I feel a little, I guess, frustrated with university systems, kind of in trying to think about solutions to that. I feel like the most practical thing that I could say is that students when they start any course of higher education should find professors that they like entrust and start going to their office hours as soon as possible. And what, what that does is allow for a professors, to really get to know their students, personally and to have some level of personal interaction with them and to understand their lives. And then it's those professors that have relationship with the student that are able to actually direct them through this system and help them when these needs are actually brought up in disgust and personal. Experience. I have had a lot of students come to me with various issues in their lives that they didn't feel like they could tell anybody else in the needed assistance, within didn't know where to go. And I think that would allow them to do that was my reception of that. But then, also that kind of relationship that they have built by coming in and getting to know me, and so the most practical thing I would say is, as a student starting in a higher education program. Is talk to your professors. Get to know them go into their office, and then that is a real strong network of the university of topping into. In, you also address this issue through your podcast, sex rap rains. Oh, do actively, let your students know that the resources available great. Okay. Great. I talk about this extra while the time. Tell us about how did it start and you have a co host as well. Yeah. Who whose idea was it? So we started as a little over two years ago and was about two and a half years ago that I just I get frustrated with things quite often. And then I just try to think of new totally crazy work around. So I was feeling very frustrated with the state of sex, Ed in America, and in most countries around the world. And, and I just felt like how are we ever gonna get really high quality trained sexuality experts in every school all the time. Able to really educate and, and to have sex positive scientific approach to sexually. And then I thought away were not. Let me just do what they totally differ that circumvents that, so that's why I decided to start the extra up and I approached Andrew Andrew porter the university of Miami, he, and I did our PHD's together at Penn State. That's how we doing other in. We both worked with the same supervisor and we both taught the sexuality classes together in he, he was my TA when I was gino's a couple years ahead of him in the program, and, and we'd always worked well together and been friends. And so when I had this idea of wanting to start this podcast I was living in the US at the time, but I had gone back to Sydney for some research into, I was on a run incident. When I had this idea and ice Scaife Andrew and I was like, Andrew, we have to do this, and you have to do it with me, like you would be the perfect person to do this with me. And he was like, what where are you? In New York. Now. No, I just I just had to tell you right now, 'cause I'm so excited about this, and, and he had never elected. Agreed. At first he was anxious about the amount of time and work we would have to put into this. But then, does some Burr twenty sixteen? We recorded our first episode and figured out how to get it uploaded and into the right places on the internet. And then we just kept doing it and we became part of a network and we've grown so much, and we now have lab of students at the university of Miami of undergrads that support all of our social media, and really help that grow and hope our audience grow and working with us to understand how podcast can be a really effective means of health education, and it's, it's amazing. Because we know that we are able to reach young p. People in all of these places that don't have any thank said or high quality spec said we can see the data from, you know, all of these states, that don't even have any potential for her, qualities like at this time. And we, we have listeners, all in all of these places until we know where reaching the people that we wanted to rage, and it's sex education straight into your ears without a shame or embarrassment. Nobody has to know and it's directly questions that young people, I answered every episode is a question. One question we answer for twenty to thirty minutes, and we get all of our questions from young people, and I mean, it's, it's just, you know tackling the problem straight head on instead of trying to figure out all of these logistical issues that would need to change. And yet, it's really available, and that is really important to us. Have you heard? Heard from educators in the country as to whether they've incorporated into their classrooms at all. Yeah. So we've presented at some conferences. And so we've got a lot of sex educators on board as well and actually presenting a few weeks at a conference where we will be giving them lesson plans ahead directly showing them how to use the podcast in an awesome, this high school level, or college level, high school level. Okay. And our podcast is appropriate for anyone really thirteen fourteen in up, meaning where we're using scientific information language, but making sure that people at that age could understand it, and explaining things that might be higher level concepts, but it's also appropriate for people in their forties. Fifties and up for any age and I have a lot. The friends that are in their twenties, and thirties that, listen to it. My parents listen to it and learn things income asked me about. So it was saying, like it's directed at young people, but it's a it's for everybody. And you said that the by the way, love the format. We ask a question, and you focus on that, or they the questions exclusively coming from our listeners or some of them, you're coming up on your own. Sometimes we take listener question and then kind of adapt it a little bit. So it might be a very long personal question. We'll pick more generalized question out of it that we can talk a little bit more about all of the questions, we also have we had a base level of questions generated from undergrad at the university of Miami. And so that it's like where I bunch came from, and, and we've been rolling resents. Can you tell us which episodes were the topics that have been most popular ones that have gotten the moose pushback challenge? If at all. I want to say this out loud, Bill, we haven't had any real challenge. But. The most popular episodes are any episode that has the word sex in the title. I mean we can we can see that people will be starting for things and then find our podcast. And so it's is the most commonly searched word on the internet, and anything related to sex is always googled, or searched whatever search engine, you're using. So those are most popular episodes. What about since we talked about consent earlier. How popular are those is that I'm just wondering people are, you know, consciously trying to avoid that topic or engaged our regular listeners listened to all of our episodes, and there's probably a couple thousand I think of those, and then there's this other population of listeners that only like symbols opponent episode or is directed to an episode or something through a search engine. And so I would say that these other topics more kind of serious topics definitely don't get as many lessons. But I think I don't think that's the people are avoiding it. I think it's the, the regulars are listening to it, and we're not getting the extra lessons, that's my hypothesis anyway. Okay. And you've been very candid about being the first person you city who press charges using the New York City revenge porn law. And then just yesterday actually the New York your estate passed. Revenge porn law. Can you tell us how effective New York City's is? And what you think about New York states like a lot of these laws take time obviously to really have any teeth. Yeah. New York City is is okay. There are better laws around the country in my case. It wasn't hard to meet the qualifications of the New York City law. But for some people, it could be because it has a clause about emotional, harm and so- intentional emotional harm on the part of the abuser. And so some instances of revenge porn, it might be hard to show that, so that's a reason that the New York City law isn't a strong, but in my case that wasn't difficult to show. So, so I think that there definitely are stronger winds and I am very grateful than your three has one and I'm grateful. The New York City had one before. Near stated because New York state has been way behind, and that actually there's only eight other states in the US that do not have revenge porn law at this point. So New York state was very far behind in some have had those laws up to ten years or so now, so has taken quite a long time. But I'm very proud that New York has finally voted to pass that and I'm part of the New York City, cyber sexual abuse taskforce, and there are some amazing people in that task force who have been working with legislators actually am clearly advocating for some changes. And so they were able to pull a few of those changes into the New York state Bill is when that we feel pretty good about. So how does that work? If you're a New York City, if the state law is stronger, and has doesn't have that emotional harm requirement? Can we use that law is citizens? I'm not a lawyer. Sorry, I don't understand anything about this until the lawyer tells me. Okay, but and, and this will only be an issue once this is all put into a factory. So as of now, people would have to use New York City still. And then I think then that will be up for discussion win sits actually initial. Okay. Well, this is a great segue into our final set of questions, the engendered questionnaire, which I've adapted from inside the actors studio. First question, what is it stake in the struggle to end gender-based violence and oppression? We have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable react to be able to be vulnerable and open up and have real conversations with each other. And for a lot of people, that's a lot at stake to, to open up to that, and to want to explore these issues of gender and male. Privilege in our society. What gives you hope? A lot of things me ho maternity hopeful. I think you know, seeing strong, powerful women and or trans people in any station in life. Gives me hope I think seeing people that identify as this gender, males wanting to have discussions and to explore issues of toxic masculinity in start to heal that parts of themselves gives me hope a have some friends doing work like that. And it just like it makes me feel so grateful to know them into see them wanting to explore that so, yeah, I feel, I feel a lot of hope I think that there's always hope. In the final question. What can we do more or less of start or stop and gender-based violence and oppression? That's okay. How do we solve the world? Great. I mean, personally all all of my work is, you know, really related to that him. So dedicated to doing this work personally advocating in my life with the revenge porn staff n with getting this getting high quality scientific information out to young people through the sex rap in on all the research that I'm looking at sexual agency in how we can like really facilitate this in as young people are developing like that. It's all that. I put my energy into an I guess, one of the main things we always talk about on our podcast is the answer's always, communication. That's like any question where like, oh talk about it. There we go. We're done. That's the answer. Anything talking about issues of gender-based violence talking about sexual assault. It's talking about cyber sexual assaults being very open having conversations with people is what we have to do. And so I think that I would like encourage everybody to try to have at least when difficult conversation this week. I think that's a great for stop. They keep very much Dr Cooper. Thanks for listening to this episode of engendered the show is sponsored by CANDU at QNA appear base knowledge platform that connects social service providers in advice community in learning. You can join can do it. QNA for free at Q N, A dot K. A N. D U, E dot com. I'd love to get your feedback in here any questions or suggestions. You may have for the show. Please Email us at engendered podcast. A g mail dot com with your questions.