Rewriting the script of love
Stanford's Donnovan Yisrael helps young people build a solid foundation for love, sex and relationships
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, who manages Stanford University's relationship and sexual health programs.
Since he began his work in the 1990s, he said, people have only become more consistently saturated by unhealthy media portrayals of sex and relationships.
For more than a decade, he has helped Stanford students grapple with relationship issues. The lessons they learn during his twice-weekly talks could make the difference between a happy long-term relationships and a lifetime of disasters.
Mr. 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.
A Stanford alumnus, Mr. 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.
During his casual evening talks, he gains student attention 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."
Cultural ideals and media portrayals of relationships, be it from movies and teen books such as the "Twilight" series or classic "princess" fairytales, can have a harmful effect, perpetuating such stereotypes as the aforementioned "studs and sluts" and reinforcing dangerous gender norms of how masculinity and femininity should be expressed, he said.
"The more you buy into traditional gender roles the less likely you will be sexually safe and healthy," he 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.
Mr. 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 such as drugs, drunken driving, infidelity, and trouble with the law, he said.
"'Bad boys' or 'wild girls' are seen as these intriguing, attractive, dark figures" whom admirers think they can "tame." That impossible task generally leads to heartbreak, he said.
He also tackles the idea of being "cool" — playing hard to get, acting uncaring or uninterested, and not worrying about health risks.
"Why would you 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.
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, Mr. 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"), he and members of the student group Men Against Abuse Now grew moustaches to raise awareness about relationship violence.
His 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.