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Sexual Health Educator Joins MIT Medical Team

By Manisha Padi
STAFF REPORTER

“My favorite was when this guy pulled down his pants at a cocktail party and was like ‘What is this?’,” laughed Divya B. Kumar, MIT’s new sexual health educator. “I get some really crazy stories.”

Ensconced in her comfortable office, it’s hard to tell that she isn’t a long established member of the MIT community. Only the colorful sign on the door which reads “Welcome Divya!” shows that she arrived on campus just last week to replace Laura Stuart in the Center for Health Promotion and Wellness.

Kumar, who received her undergraduate degree in psychology and sociology in 1999 from Wesleyan University, and her Masters in Public Health from Harvard University in 2003, has previously worked for the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and most recently at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.

“I worked with incarcerated kids [in the past],” Kumar said. “With boys, we had to work on what language was appropriate and what was the right way to view women, but many of them were wonderful people.”

Kumar is not entirely a stranger to the MIT community. Before she was hired here, she worked with MIT on some programs as a representative of BARCC.

“She has helped in training students for our MedLink program,” said Maryanne Kirkbride, the Clinical Director of Campus Life. “She also worked with us as a community partner concerning the Violence Against Women Act grant that MIT received from the Department of Justice.” The $200,000 grant, received in August 2005, is intended to raise awareness about sexual assault and interpersonal violence, and will figure prominently in Kumar’s work at MIT.

“I’ll be working primarily in two fields,” Kumar said. “I’ll be offering resources and information to students with questions about sexual health and relationships, relating to dating issues, contraception, and sexually transmitted diseases. However, I’ll also be dealing with prevention and advice regarding sexual assault and relationship violence. I’m particularly excited about using the VAWA grant to expand programs to raise awareness about what sexual assault is, how to prevent it from happening, and to promote resources for survivors.”

Sexual assault is a crime that is disproportionately underreported, both at MIT and other universities. According to Kumar, one in four women and one in seven men are assaulted at some point in their lives, and college is a particularly dangerous time. Up to 90 percent of college age victims know the perpetrator personally, and in such cases reporting the crime can be even more difficult, considering the social consequences.

“Though we are focusing on preventing sexual assault and increasing the percentages of people who report such crimes, we’re also working towards a more fundamental goal,” said Kumar. “Sexual assault is the use of sex as a weapon to assert dominance over someone else, and this can only be truly prevented by changing society’s perception of sex and gender relations. I want to work with the medical staff, the campus police, and other groups to create an environment where people not only feel safe reporting sexual assaults, but also feel safe standing up to friends who make sexist remarks.”

Misconceptions about women are of particular concern, and Kumar has made it a priority to try and chip away at some of the deep seated gender biases that are factors in abuse.

“The lack of men in the public health profession is definitely an issue,” said Susanna Barry, the educator specializing in stress management and mental health at the Center for Health Promotion and Wellness. “We’re lucky to have Chad [Waxman, a part time educator who provides health advice to FSILGs] here because people should have a choice to see a male or a female educator, just as they can choose to see a male or female doctor.”

Julie Banda, the educator specializing in fitness and nutrition, agreed, saying that either due to natural inclinations or social pressures, women tend to go into “helping” fields like teaching, social work, or nursing.

“In my opinion, women tend to derive satisfaction from improving the lives of others in a qualitative manner, while men tend to do it more quantitatively,” she said. “Many men I know in the public health field decided to go into the statistical or clinical side of things, as opposed to doing the actual counseling.”

“A lot of these jobs also don’t pay very well,” added Kumar. “Though it’s personally rewarding, many nonprofits that do this kind of work can barely afford printer toner, and jobs like this one are rare. [The pay disparity] tends to reaffirm traditional social structure by saying the man is the breadwinner, while the woman can do more work that relates to helping others since it’s more acceptable for her to earn less money.”

Kumar also knows there are barriers that discourage minorities from entering such fields because of cultural mores.

“Though my Indian parents are liberal enough to embrace my career, many of their friends are shocked when they hear that my job is basically talking about sex. They would be more accepting of traditional careers like medicine and law.”

Despite these discrepancies, there’s no reason to believe that women are more qualified to do “helping” jobs than men, or that men are more qualified to do mathematical jobs than women, since the hiring criteria for a new educator relates much more to the personality and the qualifications of each individual, said Banda.

“We look for good listeners,” said Barry. “We need people who listen not only to the students, but also to the pulse of MIT to get a good feel for what the community wants. Of course, they also need to be highly educated and not easily fazed by tough situations.”

Kumar can certainly handle intensity due to her background, where she worked with girls who had been sexually abused as young children, and with incarcerated adolescent men who do not see their children.

“It’s easy to burn out in this field if you give too much of yourself to it,” she said. “I try to separate my personal life from work, and when I go home, I … focus on spending time with family and friends.”

So far Kumar has been embraced by her new colleagues. “Divya is great for this job because she can really apply her knowledge to each person she works with,” said Banda.

Kumar can be reached at kumar@med.mit.edu.