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Beyond the Birds and the Bees:  Adolescent Sex-Based Communication
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Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Adolescent Sex-Based Communication

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  • 1. Adolescent Sex-Based Communication 1Running head: ADOLESCENT SEX-BASED COMMUNICATION Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Adolescent Sex-Based Communication Danielle Singleton Dr. Greg Paul Comm. 301 01 April 30, 2010
  • 2. Adolescent Sex-Based Communication 2 Abstract Sex-based communication with adolescents is a very touchy topic to many families, andhas been for many generations. Major developments have been made recently, but the full effectand appreciation of establishing healthy sex-based communication with one’s adolescent has yetto truly be felt by most. This study will provide an insight into the world of sex-basedcommunication with adolescents, through a cross-sectional survey dealing specifically with thefollowing key points: frequency, directness, basis, and effectiveness of communication. Thisstudy aims to explore those four variables along with the communication factor from the parents’and adolescents’ points of view.
  • 3. Adolescent Sex-Based Communication 3 Problem Statement A ‘taboo’ topic is defined as something “prescribed by society as improper orunacceptable”. Many subjects are considered ‘taboo’ in today’s society. One of the most taboocommunication topics is sex. Some people are very open to discussing sex and sexual acts,while others are extremely closed off. In some countries, it is heinous to even think aboutmentioning sex in conversation with anyone. Even in the United States, a very well-developedand seemingly open-minded country, sex is still a foreboding subject. There are many factors that contribute to the definition of sexuality as a whole. The firstand most obvious one would be someone’s sexual orientation. There is no true definition ofwhat causes a person to be of a certain sexual orientation. Genetics and human nature play largeroles regarding sex and sexuality. The communication phenomenon of why sex is such a taboodabbles briefly in the subjects previously mentioned. Another large factor of the taboo lies in thefact that humans by nature are sexual creatures. The cultural and societal training human beings receive as they go through the stages oflife shape their relationship to sex. Much scholarly and societal benefit can come fromdiscussing the taboo of sex. A large part of the benefit lies in discussing sex with young childrenas they grow up. Very few parents correctly and thoroughly teach their children about sexenough to prepare them for the teenage years and all of life. Due to this, they may not teach theirchildren in the future, and the taboo grows. Erasing the taboo of sex, and freely discussing thetopic within families can help shape current and future generations as well as form a betterrelationship with themselves and communication in general. Literature Review
  • 4. Adolescent Sex-Based Communication 4 The highest rates of teen pregnancy belong to the United States, and some scholars arguethat television and other media are key sources of information for many young people(Pinkleton, Austin, Cohen, Chen & Fitzgerald, 2008). There are many different factors thataffect communication with adolescents regarding sex. Two main variables are self-efficacy andoutcome expectancies regarding sex-based communication (DiIorio et al., 2005). Self-efficacy isthe conviction that one is capable of achieving certain goals. In this case, self-efficacy relates tocommunication about sex. Other factors that play a main role in adolescent sex-basedcommunication include both parties comfort with the subject and content being discussed, aswell as the directness of parent’s expectations within the discussion (Sneed, 2008). It is nosurprise that adolescents are affected by other’s opinions and influences about sex. Some ofthose could be friends, parents, or social media outlets as previously mentioned. Many factorscan also predict the amount of sex-based communication an adolescent has with someone,including beliefs, social normative, gender, ethnicity, religion, and general education (Schouten,Van Den Putte, Pasmans, Meeuwesen, 2007). Generally speaking, many different dynamicsinfluence how much if any at all communication happens regarding sex between adolescents andparents. There are many outcomes of parental-adolescent communication about sex. However, asadolescents and teens grow up, the facts about all faces of sexual activity are necessary. Havingthe knowledge helps adolescents grow better in all facets of life, from mentally and emotionallyto physically (Halpern-Felsher, Reznik, 2009). Although a positive outcome may not be the casefor all growing adolescents, there is still some change brought about by adolescent-parental sex-based communication. It has been found that children who communicate with their parentsabout sex are less likely to have sex at an early age, but also that the communication is tied to a
  • 5. Adolescent Sex-Based Communication 5higher probability of sexually active adolescents (Sneed, 2008). Not all communication needs tobe direct either. Many things a parent does convey messages to a child regarding sex, such asphysical expression between parents, physical information or books provided on the topic, aswell as parents attitudes toward subjects such as nudity all influence a child directly (Lefkowitz,2002). All the ways a young person can be influenced will be the basis for my research. Sex-Based Communication with Adolescents Sex-based communication with adolescents goes far beyond a simple yes or no answerfor whether it happens or not between the two parties. There are four key aspects to research ofthis kind that have been more fully developed lately. Scholars have developed questionnairesand ways of measurement than explore a very broad definition of what constitutes sex-basedcommunication, developed ways to include varying viewpoints, began including sex-basedcommunication in a large framework relating to parent-child communication in general, andfinally using very innovative measures such as video-tape, narrative interviews, and ethnographyto fully understand the extent of these conversations (Lefkowitz, 2002). Many social cognitivevariables also play a role in sex-based communication between parents and adolescents (DiIorio,Resnicow, Dudley, Thomas, Dongqing, Van Marter, 2005). Many variables are prominently associated with the initiation of sex-basedcommunication between adolescents and parents. Just as with many things in life, if onebelieves they have the power to accomplish something, or self-efficacy, plays a very large role inwhether or not they will do it. A study regarding mothers discussing sexual topics with theirchildren reported those with high confidence levels in discussing the topic were more likely to doso (DiIorio, Resnicow, Dudley, Thomas, Dongqing, Van Marter, 2005). Aside from personalconfidence, ethnicity, gender, and religion were also found to influence sex-based
  • 6. Adolescent Sex-Based Communication 6communication. Mothers of African American and Latina heritage highlight the negative aspectsof sex to their children, and the importance of contraceptives (Sneed, 2008). Muchdevelopmental standing, such as puberty, a father’s sex-based values, education, andcommunication with his own father represent almost 40 percent of sex-based information sharingbetween fathers and sons (Lehr, Demi, DiIorio, Facteau, 2005). While types of communicationmay vary depending on certain classifications, across the board comfort of the subject and thespecific content discussed seem to always affect the likelihood of adolescent conversation(Sneed, 2008). It is clear that parents’ communication about sex with their adolescents has mostlypositive impacts. Studies have gone both ways on the spectrum, but overall communicationhelps adolescents recognize and practice safe sex (Lehr, Demi, DiIorio, Facteau, 2005). Dr.William A. Block breaks down sexual behaviors into three different stages, or “ages ofsexuality” as he refers to them. The first age is what Block calls the “Dormant Period ofSexuality”, age five to nine. A child’s moods at this time period are determined by outsideenvironment, and this can be considered a very malleable period for the child regardingsexuality. The next stage, ages 10 to 14, is known as the “Awakened Period of Sexuality”.These ages see an abundance of questions and concerns regarding sexuality. For many, thisstage is a coming alive time period. The final age is the “Active Period of Sexuality”, ages 15 to19. Teens in this stage are exploring, but are still in need of answers and direction, possiblymore than ever. Those in the final active stage may be more welcoming of parental guidancethan ever before (Block, 1972). As you can see, sex education begins very early in a child’s life.Parents need to be very open to their own physical expression, as well as their child’s. It isimportant to let a child explore their own body, and communicate with them about it in due time
  • 7. Adolescent Sex-Based Communication 7(Gordon, 1973). Frequency of Communication There are several clues that can instigate sex-based communication. Some of those maybe an adolescent in a relationship, spending a lot of time unsupervised, and maturation. There isalso evidence that a sexually active adolescent may be more likely to see out sex-basedconversation from their parental figures (Sneed, 2008). The frequency of sexual intercoursebefore marriage is increasing, and a study done by the National Commission on PopulationGrowth and the American Future reported that by the age of 19, 75 percent of African Americanfemales and 40 percent of other races have had sex. The study also revealed a disturbing lack ofknowledge about pregnancy and birth control (Gordon, 1973). Sex-based communication isintroduced and integrated at a very young age, with the stereotypical blue and pink blankets andclothing for newborn babies. Boys and girls are expected to act differently, and are frequentlyexposed to these differences. The communication messages form a child’s identity as well astheir communication with everyone around them (Berryman-Fink, Ballard-Reisch & Newman,1993). The frequency with which sex-based communication is induced into an adolescent’s lifefrom such an early point forward only increases the need for parental figures to communicationwith them as well. It is a fact in society today that many teens are ignorant about sexual activity. Increasedsexual experience brings about a decrease in factual knowledge of sex. Experiencing sexualactivities at an early age seems to make adolescents averse to communicating about sex (Gordon,1973). It is important to make adolescents feel like they are in control of their sexual destiny.Parental support of contraceptive methods and sexual activity decisions needs to be felt, andfrequently. Parents must convey supporting messages to their children, covering all aspects of
  • 8. Adolescent Sex-Based Communication 8sexuality, ranging from sexual thoughts and masturbation to diseases and pornography (Gordon,1973). There are many ways to measure the frequency of sex-based communication. A fewoften-used ways include discussing the general frequency of sex, using an array of yes-noquestionnaires, also known as frequency scales. It is important in these frequency studies to gobeyond a simple yes-no question of whether a pair has talked about sex, and in depth into whatconstitutes sex and measure when the occurrences take place as well (Lefkowitz, 2002). Anotherlevel that goes in hand with frequency of the communication is the actual communicationcontent. Quality of Communication There are many different types of sex-based communication that have been discussed. Aprominent setting for this type of communication is an educational institution. Research hasshown that sexual knowledge programs led by peers are often believed to be more effective thanadult leaders (Pinkleton, Austin, Cohen, Chen & Fitzgerald, 2008). Referring back to Gordon’sthree ages of sexuality mentioned before, specific content for each stage can be broken down.Children in the Dormant Age wish to be uninhibited by sexual desires, look for friends opposedto lovers, and relate better to animals over people. The Awakened Age wishes to knoweverything, in great detail, and looks for leadership and guidance. The Active Age shuns thebook knowledge, acts out and discovers on their own, and is very contradictory (Gordon, 1973).As a child grows, the quality of the sex-based communication must change with the tides. There are many topics concerning sexual behavior that can be discussed and studied. Aparticular study focused on 14 different topics, and drew conclusions regarding the quality ofsex-based communication. It was found that the majority of communication did not directlyaddress the act of sex, but rather other topics just brushing with the main act. For example,
  • 9. Adolescent Sex-Based Communication 9around 30 percent of discussants each talked about topics such as abstaining from sex untilmarriage and only going so far sexually; whereas roughly 70-80 percent discussed “safer” topicslike dating and relationships, and cautions of diseases (Sneed, 2008). It is also true that onlyuntil recently, most sex-education materials: books, pamphlets, commercials, and more wereaimed mostly at white middle-class youth and not other lower-income adolescents (Gordon,1973). This single-class aimed quality is not as prominent an issue today as it once was, but stillan issue nevertheless. Areas of Interest & Hypotheses The issue of sexual communication has come a long way from what it previously was,but it is still in need of much improvement. The metatheory that will guide my research isontology, due to the nature of “what” exactly the research is examining. It will also be guided bya social constructivist branch, because reality doesn’t start out real, but is after discussion and/oruse. A phenomenological paradigm of communication will also be used, due to the extent theresearch relies on experience. The separate actions that define sexual activity are also constantlygrowing, which provides a complication in research on this topic. One such grouping methodused related sexual communication to outside factors, and identified four separate categories, oneof which was safer sex communication. Within that focus HIV, STDs, safe sex, andcontraception were studied (Lefkowitz, 2002). This example is only one such breakdown of onetype of sex-based communication. The broad research question derived from this review is thefollowing: How does that amount of communication about sex between adolescents and parentsaffect the decisions of the child? The main hypotheses I intend to study are the following:
  • 10. Adolescent Sex-Based Communication 10Hypotheses 1: The more communication about sex between adolescents and parents there is themore educated the child’s decisions will be.Hypotheses 2: The more directly communication about sex between adolescents and parentsconcerns the act of sex and more explicit topics, the more effective it will be.Hypotheses 3: The less communication about sex between adolescents and parents is based offof gendered stereotypes, the more effective it will be. MethodDesign This study will strive to answer the proposed research question and will focus morespecifically on the main hypotheses previously stated. The variables of interest in Hypothesisone are communication about sex (independent variable), and decisions of the child (dependentvariable). For Hypothesis two the independent variable is the directness of sex-basedcommunication, and the dependent variable is the effectiveness of the communication.Hypothesis three’s independent variable is the level communication is based on genderedstereotypes, and the effectiveness is again the dependent variable. These variables are allcontinuous variables, due to them mostly being levels and having values. Because the variablesdeal with ranges, they will be operationalized using ratio Semantic Differential Scales. Forinstance, the level of communication as well as its’ directness, basis, and effectiveness will bemeasured. Those indicators are the most essential in this study.
  • 11. Adolescent Sex-Based Communication 11 Research has shown that sexual knowledge programs led by peers are often believed tobe more effective than adult leaders (Pinkleton, Austin, Cohen, Chen & Fitzgerald, 2008). Basedon that knowledge, a younger generation wave of peers will run the study rather than adultresearchers. This is a core theory guiding my hypotheses and research question. This study willalso be conducted using phenomenological review strategies. This type of design allows formore universal conclusions based heavily on the reviewers’ personal experience, as well asexisting theories (Campbell Collaboration, 2001). This analysis will strive to be verycomprehensive. Steps will be taken to ensure the selection of participants for the study is donefairly and accurately.Participants The participants for the study will be selected using random sampling. A stratifiedsample will be done by families with children in adolescence: ages 8 to 15. Each age will be thestratum that families will be randomly selected from. The families within the sample size will befrom the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area. While I realize this demographic does not represent theentire world, it is more realistic than saying I will send letters to everyone around the countrytrying to get them to participate in my study. The families that are randomly selected out of mystratified sample will be notified of being chosen to participate in a study concerning adolescentsex-based communication. They will be sent the cross-sectional survey with a letter ofexplanation. The letter will explain the study a bit and say that they were randomly selected toparticipate. An optional survey will also be sent in the packet for the adolescent to take, if theparent or guardian judges it okay for the child to fill out. Selected participants will be offered a$50 visa gift card for participating, as well as an entry into a raffle for a variety of giftcards/family-based prize baskets.
  • 12. Adolescent Sex-Based Communication 12 This unique style of survey questions will result in rich data. Many researchers have usedunique collection techniques in studies on this same topic, including Yowell (1997), whoinstructed mothers and daughters to discuss sexual topics while being taped, and interviewedthem about the experience afterwards (Lefkowitz, 2002). The more participants in this study thebetter, so there is really no set number at this point in time. Logically, not every family with achild age 8-15 in the Lancaster area will respond positively about participating in the focusgroup. However, a 40 percent return rate is required for surveys to be valid, so I will aim for thatsame percentage of response rate to my selected participants.Procedures One researcher concluded that the best research in the area of adolescent sex-basedcommunication is rooted in a combination of many different techniques including but not limitedto: multifaceted measures, multi-methods such as interviews, observations, surveys, and focusgroups, and multiple reporters (Lefkowitz, 2002). So obviously, there is a focus on the “multi”or “many”. This particular study will strive to take that into account and use it to an advantage.A cross sectional survey will be given in this study. This type of survey describes the sample atone point in time, similar to a snapshot. The circumstances tend to influence the responses,which is why the survey will be mailed to the participant; so they can take it on their own time inthe comfort of their own home. The main questions of the survey will concern the variables inthe hypotheses: frequency, directness, basis, and effectiveness of communication. An examplequestion might be something along the lines of “How often do you discuss sexual topics withyour parent/adolescent?” or “What types of things do you consider sexual communication?”Another question that may be asked specifically on the adolescent’s survey that has proven to beeffective could be “How good a communicator about sex and sex-related issues is your
  • 13. Adolescent Sex-Based Communication 13parent/guardian (Feldman & Rosenthal, 2000)?” The previous question specifically assesses theadolescent’s view, which is equally as important. Following survey, participants will then fill out a seven point Semantic Differential Scalein order to gauge the strength of values of the hypotheses’ ratio level measures. Respondentswill be asked to rate an item on various characteristics to further support the data collected in thenarratives. Each characteristic on the scale, which will include things such as: frequency,directness, basis, and effectiveness of sex-based communication, honesty, and how the situationwas perceived by the individual will be on the scale with bipolar adjective labels. The threebipolar adjectives most commonly found are evaluation (good/bad), potency (strong/weak), andactivity (active/passive). Rather than use a Likert Scale for this data, which measures respondents’ level ofagreement with opinion statements, a Semantic Differential was chosen. I believe the SemanticDifferential Scale will be more helpful in this study utilizing the three adjectives: evaluation,potency, and activity regarding sex-based communication. The scale in general will help testingfor reliability and validity, and will add to the study and data. Demographics questions will alsobe asked of participants, at the end of the survey.Measures The level of measurement for this study will be ratio. Even though it intends to use aSemantic Differential Scale, the data is ratio because you cannot have negative communication.Zero is absolute in this case, and therefore ratio level data. A Semantic Differential Scale willstill be used to justify the findings from the narratives. The Scale will explore meaningsattributed to the main hypotheses points in the study. Previous research measures will also beused, for example the “Communication about Sex Questionnaire” (Somers & Paulson, 2000).
  • 14. Adolescent Sex-Based Communication 14This questionnaire fell short capturing the intensity of data, since there are so many topics to beconsidered (Lefkowitz, 2002). However, questions from the Somers & Paulson questionnairecould still be beneficial to the Semantic Differential and in measuring more data for this study. Another similar measure that will be used to assess and validate the data will be theSexual Communication Scale (SCS). The SCS focuses on the frequency of communicationabout a large number of sexual topics. The list was created using previously created measures.There are 20 different topics measured using a five-point scale and measured for communicationwith both mothers and fathers. A few of the 20 topics that will be integrated into my SemanticDifferential Scale and study include the sexual reproductive system, menstruation, nocturnalemissions, sexual intercourse, sexually transmitting diseases, love and/or marriage, and manymore (Brogan, Fiore, & Wrench, 2009).Proposed Data Analysis Ideally, both the cross sectional survey and the Semantic Differential Scale points willmatch up. The questions taken from the “Communication about Sex Questionnaire” (Somers &Paulson, 2000), and/or the Sexual Communication Scale will also reinforce the analysis. Thescale will be analyzed by exploring the meanings proposed by the three adjectives: evaluation,potency, and activity. The responses should also match up to those adjectives, which will beevaluated thoroughly. The content analysis of this study will focus heavily on the interpretivemeaning in language. Typically content analysis relies on systematic, objective, and quantitativedescriptions, but in order to get the most out of this particular topic, we must induce theinterpretive approach. The data will be coded into categories that strongly correlate to the SexualCommunication Scale’s 20 items. The data analysis will then focus on how frequent mentions ineach category are and how solid and effective the responses seem to be.
  • 15. Adolescent Sex-Based Communication 15 The responses to the survey will measure the key variables in the hypotheses, which arethe frequency, directness, basis, and effectiveness of communication. The items used to measureeach variable will be the surveys, as well as the categories the data are coded into. Thecategories will be based on the three adjective pairs of the Semantic Differential Scale:evaluation, potency, and activity. Coding categories will also come from the SexualCommunication Scale’s list of items previously mentioned. The minimum agreement requiredfor each coded unit is 70 percent. At least three items are needed to measure a construct, and Ibelieve my study has met that. In order to explore the relationships between the variables of the study a test of regression[R] will be run. A multiple linear regression test would be most appropriate in this case tomeasure the relationship between one continuous DV and multiple continuous IVs. They will belooked at separately and as a group, a very interactive process. These tests will ultimately lendthe data to many productive settings, including clinical studies, gender studies, and a host ofrelationship issues (Brogan, Fiore, & Wrench, 2009).
  • 16. Adolescent Sex-Based Communication 16 ReferencesBerryman-Fink, C., Ballard-Reisch, D., & Newman, L. H. (Eds.). (1993). Communication and sex-role socialization. New York: Garland Publishing, INC.Block, W.A. (1972). What your child really wants to know about sex and why. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, INC.Brogan, S. M., Fiore, A., Wrench, J. S. (2009). Understanding the Psychometric Properties of theSexual Communication Style Scale. Human Communication, 2009, 12, 421-445.Campbell Collaboration (2001). Campbell Collaboration guidelines. Retrieved March 31, 2010from www.campbellcollaboration.orgCollins, A. J. and Fauser, C. J. M. B. (2005). Balancing the strengths of systematic and narrativereviews. Human Reproduction Update, 11, 103-104.DiIorio, C., Resnicow, K., Dudley, W. N., Thomas, S., Dongqing, T.W., Van Marter, D. F., Manteuffel, B., & Lipana, J. (2005). Social cognitive factors associated with mother- adolescent communication about sex. Journal of Health Communication, 5.Feldman, S.S., and Rosenthal, D.A. “The Effect of Communication Characteristics on FamilyMembers’ Perceptions of Parents as Sex Educators.” Journal of Research on Adolescence, 2000,10, 119-150.Gordon, S. (1973). The sexual adolescent. Massachusetts: Duxbury Press.
  • 17. Adolescent Sex-Based Communication 17Halpern-Felsher, B. L., Reznik, Y. (2009). Adolescent sexual attitudes and behaviors: a developmental perspective. Prevention Researcher, 16.Jones, K. (2004). Mission Drift in Qualitative Research, or Moving Toward a Systematic Reviewof Qualitative Studies, Moving Back to a More Systematic Narrative Review. The QualitativeReport, 9, 95-112.Lefkowitz, E.S. (2002). Beyond the yes-no question: measuring parent-adolescent communication about sex. New Directions for Child & Adolescent Development, 2002,97.Lehr, S. T., Demi, A. S., DiIorio, C., Facteau, J. (2005). Predictors of father-son communicationabout sexuality. Journal of Sex Research, 42.Pinkleton, B. E., Austin, E. W., Cohen, M., Chen, Y. C., Fitzgerald, E. (2008). Effects of a peer-led media literacy curriculum on adolescents knowledge and attitudes toward sexual behaviorand media portrayals of sex. Health Communication, 2.Schouten, B.C., Van Den Putte, B., Pasmans, M., Meeuwesen, L. (2007). Parent–adolescentcommunication about sexuality: The role of adolescents’ beliefs, subjective norm and perceivedbehavioral control. Patient Education & Counseling, 66.Sneed, C. D. (2008). Parent-adolescent communication about sex: The impact of content and comfort on adolescent sexual behavior. Journal of HIV/AIDS Prevention in Children & Youth, 9.Wood, J. T. (1994). Gendered lives: Communication, gender, and culture. California,Wadsworth Publishing Company.
  • 18. Adolescent Sex-Based Communication 18Yowell, C. M. “Risks of Communication: Early Adolescent Girls’ Conversations with Mothersand Friends About Sexuality.” Journal of Early Adolescence, 1997, 17, 172-196.