Marginalized young people bear disproportionate burden of sexual health disparities. Local studies in Canada on young people found that sexual practices are influenced by both individual factors, such as knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs, and contextual factors, such as peer influences, family support, gendered expectations, social marginalization, and access to sexual health resources. The Youth Engagement Project (YEP) was a study that engaged marginalized young people to identify the personal, social and structural determinants of sexual health and explore their perspectives of relevant sexual health resources.
The design of YEP was informed by critical race, feminist and queer theories. We engaged young people age 16 to 24 living in socially disadvantaged communities, or LGBTQ youth accessing resources in the downtown areas. Using an arts-based and dialogical approach, we explored their gendered and racialized experience growing up in Canada and how these experiences shaped their sexual practices and decision-making. We also explored participants’ perspectives of innovative, strength-based, and youth-driven strategies to reduce sexual health disparities and promote resilience among marginalized young people. Data collection included demographic and sexual practices survey; art-based resonant texts; and a series of two focus groups.
A total of 47 young people, aged 16-24, of diverse ethnoracial backgrounds and sexual orientations took part in the study. Two-third of the participants reported being sexually active in the 12 months prior to the study; over half of them did not practice safer sex consistently. Focus group data showed that (1) participants received mixed and contradictory messages about sexualities at home, at school, in the media and among their peers; (2) heterosexual youth and LGBTQ youth responded to family and religious values and expectations differently; (3) sex education at school tended to be heterosexist and seldom addressed lesbian sexuality; (4) while friends, school and websites were top sources of sexual health information, participants indicated that their needs for sexual health information were not met adequately; and (5) despite the popularity of social media, most participants also desired to engage in face-to-face youth-driven dialogue on sexual health.
Conclusions and Implications:
Young people face tension and conflicts as they navigate between their personal sexual desires/values and the gendered expectations of their families, sociocultural communities and peers. While the use of social media may enhance outreach and easy access to sexual health information, YEP participants indicated a strong need for safe physical space where young people can engage in face-to-face dialogue to make sense of value conflicts and engage in sexual health education that is relevant to their everyday contexts and realities.