Sunday, April 3, 2011

My first Giant Academic Conference: The Society for Research on Child Development

This post is my attempt to summarize some of my recent thoughts on directions for research with the potential to transform the way we design and implement sex education. I just got back from spending three days in Montreal with lots and lots of developmental scientists. At the conference, I found many sessions that could help me think about—and connect with others who are thinking about—adolescent sexual health and its role in normative, positive development.

Among variables that help us measure adolescent sexual development, age at first sex gets a lot of attention. One aspect of this discussion is whether or not “onset” of sexual activity in middle adolescence can be healthy as opposed to inherently risky. The average age of first sex in the United States is 17, so that means many teens have had sex before age 17, too. Discussing this question in one session gave rise to a magnificent group insight: What if we look at the content of adolescents’ sexual experiences, the meaning they make of sex and the thoughts and feelings they have before and after sex, instead of judging them for engaging in a behavior that can have such a myriad of situation-dependent positive, negative, and neutral consequences?

So the next question is, as researchers, how do we do that? Here are some ideas I had while in Montreal:

1. We need to start asking about the nature of consent in adolescent sexual experiences. I saw many interesting studies that gathered detailed information from college students about their sexual activity and other factors such as body image and sexual satisfaction, for example. However, I did not see any studies that asked college students whether of not the sex they had was consensual—whether they had wanted it, or whether they felt pressured. I want to know.

2.  We need to study sexual activity as if it takes place between two people, as if two people are doing it together. I saw some great research on sexual behavior, and some great research on romantic relationships, but not a whole lot of attention paid to the fact that much sexual behavior takes place in the context of a romantic (or sexual) relationship. Not necessarily a committed, long-term relationship, but some kind of interpersonal dynamic. And that dynamic—the emotional and social content of the interaction between those individuals—is an important part of the immediate context that can directly influence the healthfulness and hurtfulness of sexual activity.

3. We need to study the effects of gender roles and gender socialization on adolescents’ sexual identities and behaviors in more and more complex and nuanced ways. I went to sessions on the sexualization of girls, and I went to sessions on masculinity, and I went to sessions on racial socialization. All the sessions address intertwining themes, but most of the research presented missed some very important points: mainly, what the other researchers were discovering. Extensive collaboration can allow us to study the effects of the systems of power and privilege that structure today’s society. We will need to reach outside of the field of sexuality and sexual health in order to return to these issues with a new perspective and a transformed vision for change.

What else do you think sexual health researchers need to consider? What questions would you like to pose regarding the developmental course of adolescent sexuality?