Palo Alto Weekly

- February 5, 2010

Rewriting the script of love

Stanford's Donnovan Yisrael helps young people build a solid foundation for love, sex and relationships

by Karla Kane

Bad boys and bad girls, Prince Charmings and Cinderellas — cultural and media representations of love, romance and living "happily ever after" can ruin a relationship, according to Donnovan Yisrael, Stanford University's Relationship and Sexual Health Programs manager.

And people have only become more consistently saturated by unhealthy media portrayals of sex and relationships since he began his work in the 1990s, according to Yisrael.

"The line between fantasy and reality gets blurred," he said.

No matter a person's age or stage in life, "How you think about relationships determines how it goes," Yisrael, who is happily married, added.

Yisrael has helped Stanford students grapple with relationship issues as part of the university's health-promotion services for more than a decade.

The lessons they learn during his twice-weekly talks could make the difference between a happy long-term relationship or a lifetime of disasters.

Yisrael calls his field the "intersection of health and culture." He's interested in helping people understand how social and cultural pressures can lead to unrealistic relationship expectations and risky behaviors, he said.

A Stanford alumnus, Yisrael has degrees in psychology and sociology. A former AIDS-prevention worker for high school students in San Mateo County, he hopes that by talking with students about issues and patterns early, fewer will engage in risky or damaging behavior during their college careers and beyond, he said.

Yisrael gains students' rapt attention in his casual evening talks with titles such as "Studs, sluts, virgins and wimps," "Why I want what I can't have," and, most recently, "Top 10 frustrating 'games' in romantic relationships."

Yisrael addresses issues such as the "bad boy/bad girl" in his "Top 10 frustrating games" talk. Those roles are exemplified by celebrities such as Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan, who glamorize risky behavior, including drugs, drunk driving, infidelity and trouble with the law, he said.

"'Bad boys' or 'wild girls' are seen as these intriguing, attractive, dark figures" whom admirers falsely think they can "tame." That impossible task generally leads to heartbreak, he said.

Yisrael also tackles the idea of being "cool" — playing hard to get, acting uncaring or uninterested, and not worrying about health risks.

"Why want to date someone who doesn't care?" he asks his audience.

Part of why people have unrealistic expectations of their partners has to do with the concept of love, he said.

"In America we only have one word for love. It's problematic. There should be and is a difference between being in love and real love," he said, pointing out that studies have shown brains under the influence of being "in love" or infatuated look similar to those under the influence of cocaine.

But it can be challenging to grasp what real love is when media portrayals of relationships, be they from the "Twilight" series or classic "princess" fairytales, perpetuate stereotypes and reinforcing limited views of how masculinity and femininity should be expressed, he said.

"Gender roles are at the heart of many relationship issues. The more you buy into traditional gender roles the less likely you will be sexually safe and healthy," Yisrael said.

It's not just "Sex and the City" and old fairytales, either, he added.

"Cultural scripts are linked to unhealthy behavior," even in subtle ways, he said.

For real relationship success, he said, couples must have a strong partnership in day-to-day life, even after the initial feelings of butterflies in the stomach, overwhelming attraction and "sparks" have faded.

"Real love is a behavior, not a feeling," he said.

Basing a successful long-term relationship on the swoony feelings of new romance would be like "starting a business with someone because they have nice teeth," he said.

In addition to his talks, Yisrael meets with individual students but emphasizes that he is not a therapist.

"Sometimes students just really need someone to talk to, to ask what is normal or express concerns, and I can be that person. I also serve as a bridge to therapy referral," he said. He also works with student groups to raise awareness for relationship issues.

For the month of January (called "Manuary"), Yisrael and members of the student group Men Against Abuse Now grew moustaches to raise awareness about relationship violence.

Yisrael's message may not kick in until after graduation. He hopes the talks will plant a seed of awareness to challenge relationship stereotypes and make healthy choices, he said.

"I want to help them with critical thinking about nuance and body image, and with getting them to understand how culture is inside us, on an intellectual, psychological and emotional level," he said.

Editorial Assistant Karla Kane can be e-mailed at kkane@paweekly.com.

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