If you have teenage boys and are unsure about what topics to cover when discussing 'the birds and bees' with them, it may be worth reading the latest piece of research about sexual communication and teenage boys by Marina Epstein and L. Monique Ward from The University of Michigan. The study,1 just published in Springer's Journal of Youth and Adolescence, shows that parental communication, if indeed there is any, more often than not focuses on the negative aspects of sex compared to the rather more positive sexual messages teenage boys receive from the media and their peers.
A total of 286 male undergraduates aged 18-24 were asked to recall who had had the greatest influence on their sexual education and, more specifically, who had discussed or been responsible for which aspects. The authors' goal was to determine whether there is a difference in the information gleaned from parents, peers, and the media, and if the information provided by each group differed in the types of sexual values expressed.
In line with prior studies, the researchers found that most parents had provided some education, but that the type of information provided contrasted sharply to that given by peers and the media. Parents were the strongest supporters of abstinence and provided most information about pregnancy and fertilization. However, for all other topics, parents were seen as having contributed the least.
Communication from peers, conversely, encouraged nonrelational sex and provided models of dating and sexual behavior and information on being 'cool'. The media appeared to be equally influential and was strongest in promoting gendered sexual stereotypes and in giving messages promoting sexual freedom. However, the authors point out that there was a great variation between the subjects in what had been covered by which source. For example, the media was also seen as providing the most information on AIDS, STDs, and condoms. Issues of love and homosexuality did not appear to be addressed by any of the sources.
The authors conclude that this study raises several important questions, namely: How do young men negotiate these conflicting opinions" What messages win" What might make men heed their parents' advice and not the sexual advice of their peers and the media" But perhaps the most important question for future research is: Which types of messages from which sources are the most influential" Once these questions are answered, we may have some idea of the complex processes of adolescent development and decision making. Thus, we may be better at influencing our teenage sons to make choices that are right for them and help them negotiate peer and media pressure that encourages them to conform to unhealthy stereotypes.
1. Epstein M, Ward M (2007). 'Always use protection': Communication boys receive about sex from parents, peers and the media. Journal of Youth and Adolescence (DOI 10.1007/s10964-007-9187-1)
Full-text article is available to journalists as a pdf on request.