This paper is drawn from a mixed-method ethnographic project in Detroit funded by the Ford Foundation (through the “Sexuality, Health and Rights among Youth in the US” initiative) which aims to examine the structural influences on youth sexual vulnerability --- the political, economic, and social influences — by studying the uses and meanings of youth sexual spaces or geographies. As the city that is often described as quintessentially de-industrialized, Detroit is an urban center in which youth struggle to make use of space as well as respond to the structural decay and often misguided policy initiatives that aspire to remake those spaces. Using sexual space as a metaphor for understanding links between social structure and sexuality, our project explored -- via ethnographic mapping, qualitative interviews, and participatory photography -- the ways that youth understand and interact with sexual spaces in Detroit.
Drawing on our ethnographic mapping, the paper aims to describe how particular geographic features of urban space – such as the uses of abandoned buildings, areas with heightened raids by the authorities, or business for negotiating transactional sex – relate to youth sexual spaces and practices on the ground. Participatory photography was used to initiate difficult and often marginalizing conversations by empowering youth to become “experts” in this world. These photos were then shared, discussed, and analyzed using photo voice methods. Finally, in-depth qualitative interviews were done to examine the intersections of neighborhood sexualized spaces and youth perceptions.
The success of the methods employed in this study varied. To illustrate this, we draw on the extent to which spatially-oriented methods contributed to understanding of one of the substantive themes emerging from the data: understandings and practices of parenting norms in the neighborhoods. The complexity and uncertainty of daily neighborhood threats filtered through parenting practices to directly impact youth sexual behaviors. Research methods allowed researchers to understand the extent of variation in the perception of parenting norms across the study areas. Positive and negative parenting cultures are perceived by residents and local practitioners as being formulated in and through local community interactions, inter-generational factors, the physical environment and material resources. Similarities and differences between minority and non-minority youth are discussed.
Conclusions and Implications
Much of the research on sexual vulnerabilities among youth — such as rates of HIV/AIDS, STIs, unintended pregnancies, and sexual violence—has focused on characteristics of individual youth, who may lack the information or self-efficacy to enact health-promoting behaviors. Our approach argues for the development of intersectional approaches that examine sexual health outcomes not as expressions of individual characteristics, but as the reconfiguration of sexual spaces resulting from large-scale structural and social transformations.