Moving Beyond a Risk-Based Framing: UK Adolescents' Understanding of Sexuality, Healthy Development and Risky Behaviour
Adolescent sexuality is frequently associated with ‘risk’, while early pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are highlighted as ‘negative’ outcomes of sexual risk-taking behaviour. Children and adolescents are also framed as ‘at risk’ of sexual abuse and exploitation. This risk-based framing has impacted government policy and research priorities (Gillen, Guy and Banim, 2004:43). Meanwhile, there has been little exploration of what might constitute normal or healthy sexuality (McKee et al., 2010: 14-15).
The paper reports on an investigation of the perceptions of sexual behaviour and risk-taking among adolescents attending six secondary schools and one college offering access courses in England. We explored perceptions of risky and normal/healthy sexual behaviour
The Brook version of the Traffic Light Tool developed by Family Planning Queensland was used in focus-group workshops with nine small groups of adolescents in classroom settings with a teacher or learning mentor present. Ethical procedures were cleared at multiple levels. The focus group exercise involved participants considering 19 scenarios to reach a consensus on whether they were healthy (green), potentially risky (amber), or dangerous (red), first assuming the protagonist was aged between 13-15 and then aged 16-18. The discussion was taped, transcribed and analysed based on key themes. McKee et al’s framework of 15 domains of healthy development was used to interpret the data (McKee, 2010).
Regardless of the group, a consensus was more readily achieved with scenarios involving coercive, aggressive, humiliating behaviours or acts transgressing public/private boundaries. Meeting a consensus around behaviours that were consensual and pleasurable, or where behaviour was recognised as risky but ‘normal’, appeared to be more challenging. Consensus was more easily reached for the older age-group scenarios and more were frequently coded green.
The groups demonstrated a complex, ethical and will reasoned assessment of risk.
Girls generally were more articulate than boys.