Building sexual literacy is a critical part of HIV prevention among young women of color, who are at disproportionately high risk in the US. Quantitative studies have demonstrated abstinence-only programs' negative consequences for sexual health. Little qualitative work has been done on young women's sexual literacy development in this social context. This study analyzed young women's reports of how they learned about sex and what they believed other women should know. It examined these accounts for barriers to and facilitators of sexual literacy and well-being in young women's lives.
Eleven 18-25 year old heterosexually active women were recruited via newspaper and online advertisements and paid $20. Six participants were African American and five Latina; most were working class or poor. Minimally structured one hour interviews were digitally recorded and transcribed by the author. Participants were invited to talk about their sexual and relational lives in as much detail as they wished. Among prompts used were “Tell me how you learned about sex and relationships growing up” and “If you had a daughter or a younger sister you were telling about sex and relationships, what would you say?” Accounts of sexual literacy development were coded and text extracts examined for patterns across cases, with an analytic focus on inhibitors and promoters of sexual literacy.
Most participants described learning about sexuality in school-based programs that emphasized abstinence, reproductive anatomy, and the prevention of pregnancy, STIs/ HIV, and child sexual abuse. Child sexual abuse and adolescent sexual assault were major barriers to sexual literacy. Three women described the negative impact of such events on their sexual learning, for example: “What they were teaching me in school, really I felt like I already knew, because, you know, it was already done to me… All that like fallopian tubes… it was new to me, but it didn't really matter.” Another barrier to sexual literacy was parental prohibition of any sexual activity by their daughters.
Conversely, parents who acknowledged that their daughters would become sexually active, and equipped them to do so according to their values, facilitated sexual literacy: “My mom, she'd said it was something special… It wasn't something that I was like, ‘Oh, like losing my virginity, I was just so sinful'… I was never taught that… maybe not something to be giving out to the world, but at the same time it's not a big deal.”
Participants responded powerfully regarding what they would teach girls about sex. One woman, speaking of her daughters, said: “I want to be able to tell them something REAL,” contrasting this to her own sexuality learning. Recommendations stressed HIV and pregnancy prevention and avoiding unwanted sex. Many also emphasized female desire and pleasure.
Conclusions and Implications
Social work practice and policy regarding sexuality education must acknowledge negative sexual outcomes and equip young women to prevent them (and recover when they occur, especially in cases of abuse or assault). It must also promulgate discourses of young women's resiliency and success in achieving sexual health.