How Do Messages About Sex Affect African American Youth?

A teen girl with her mother.

Will It Help? Identifying Socialization Discourses That Promote Sexual Risk and Sexual Health Among African American Youth” (abstract). Kyla Day Fletcher, L. Monique Ward, Khia Thomas, Monica Foust, Dana Levin, and Sarah Trinh. Journal of Sex Research, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2015).

What it’s about: The authors wanted to know how African American youths' communication with parents and peers influenced their decisions about sexual health and risk taking. To find out, the researchers collected data from 631 African American students at a large midwestern university as part of a larger study.

The authors asked whether young people had talked to parents or peers about topics such as the following: sexual abstinence, sex in a relationship, positive feelings about sex even if it isn't within a relationship (referred to as "sex positivity"), and gendered sexual roles (or “traditional sexual roles and expectations proscribed for women and men”).

The researchers also asked participants about their level of sexual experience, their feelings about their sexual experiences, and their comfort level with using contraception.

Why read it: Prior studies have looked at the releationship between African  American young people's demographics (such as age, education, socioeconomic status, and geography) and their likelihood of taking risks such as having sex at an early age or not using contraception. But few studies have explored the influences on African American young people's sexual health. In this study, Day Fletcher and her colleagues seek to shed light on factors, such as communication, that promote sexual health.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Of the young people in the study, 53 percent said they'd had vaginal intercourse. Young people were 16.9 years old, on average, the first time they had sex. Of youth with sexual experience, about a third had one partner and another third had two or three partners. Most reported feeling good about their experiences.

Day Fletcher et al. say young people in the study most often received messages about abstinence and sex within relationships from their parents. They most often received messages about sex positivity and gendered sexual roles from their peers.

Youth who had discussed abstinence with their parents or their peers had less sexual experience and fewer partners, compared to other young people in the study. Youth who had heard from their parents or peers about gendered sex roles and sex positivity were more likely to date and have sexual experience. Youth who had heard from their peers about gendered sex roles and sex positivity also had a greater number of partners and were more likely to have had sex with a partner they had just met.

Young people who talked to their parents about sex in relationships felt better about their sexual status, were more sexually assertive, and were more confident about using contraception.

Young people who talked to their peers about abstinence or sex in relationships were more likely to feel good about their sexual status. But youth who talked to their peers about sex positivity or gendered sex roles were more likely to feel shameful about sex.

In other words, different messages about sex from different people affect youth's behavior in different ways. Understanding those nuances, the authors say, may enable educators to design interventions that help youth develop healthy sexual beliefs and behaviors.

Additional references: Look for more articles about pregnancy prevention and sexual health in NCFY’s research library.

Learn why some young women choose not to have sex and why some homeless youth are more likely to follow through on condom use.

And find out how homeless teens can learn to protect themselves from HIV.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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