Many researchers who try to understand sexual development from a public health perspective have two choices for framing their research agenda: prevention of risk behaviors or promotion of positive behaviors. I’m interested in combining the two. I aim to understand how young people both prevent pregnancy, STIs, sexual assault, and teen dating violence as well as promote positive body image, pleasurable and satisfying relationships, and sexual agency to make the sexual choices they want to make on their own terms. More than half of all individuals are sexually active by age 18 (1), which suggests we should be more focused on sexual behavior as normative and therefore in need of understanding, instead of in need of preventing. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence (2).
Thus, I’m interested in how people develop sexual health from a psychological perspective. One of the ways in which people do this, is by developing a sense of their sexual self, or what is known as sexual esteem (3). This is likely not a very conscious decision process and one that we are rarely given permission to even consider in our culture. It may be obvious to most that men and women act or are expected to act differently when it comes to sexual attitudes and behaviors and thus, we may hypothesize that men and women would think differently about appraising their sexual self. However, when we tested gender differences in sexual esteem we didn’t find any. We did find differences in theassociations between sexual behaviors and sexual esteem between genders though.
We surveyed college students on a wide range of measures related to students’ demographic, behavioral, and relationship characteristics across 7 semesters of college. The survey we used to measure sexual esteem contained 10 items such as “I am a good sexual partner” and “I sometimes have doubts about my sexual competence.”
Overall, participants reported a moderate level of sexual esteem (mean, 2.5 on a scale of 0–4). They reported in the previous 12 weeks on average, they had kissed a partner on the lips 24 times, engaged in oral sex 4 times and engaged in penetrative sex (vaginal or anal) eight times. On average they had 1.4 kissing partners, but fewer partners for oral or penetrative sex. Between the first and fifth semesters, students had spent an average of 1.5 semesters in a romantic relationship.
Contraceptive use was common: Eighty-five percent of those who had penetrative sex in the past 12 weeks had used a method at least some of the time. Although sexual esteem was unrelated to gender, introducing gender interaction terms revealed that the number of penetrative sex partners in the last 12 weeks was significant only for men; the average level of sexual esteem rose from about 2.5 among those reporting no such partners to nearly 3.5 for those reporting approximately two.
Most notably, contraceptive use was associated with sexual esteem in different ways for women and men. Sexual esteem was lower among women who reported no contraceptive use during penetrative sex in the last 12 weeks than among those who reported use. Whereas, sexual esteem was higher among men reporting no contraception use than among those reporting any contraception use. Through the lens of hegemonic masculinity, men are more privileged sexually and therefore can insist on experiencing pleasure and passion over responsibility, whereas women bear the responsibilities of unwanted pregnancy and negative sexual stereotyping, making their sexual choices more burdensome (4, 5). We need to study this construct long term to see which develops first for men: no contraception use or higher sexual esteem in order to align prevention efforts to either ‘reel the boys sexual esteem in’ to promote safer behaviors, or to reconstruct what it means to be a sexual person for a young man.
We believe sexual esteem is an integral part of the development of physical, emotional, and social sexual health competencies. If we further explore which aspects of positive sexuality are associated with more sexual health behaviors and fewer sexual risk-taking behaviors, we could potentially transform approaches to prevention of sexual risk taking.
This study was published in the Journal of Sex Research:
Megan K. Maas & Eva S. Lefkowitz (2014): Sexual esteem in emerging adulthood: Associations with sexual behavior, contraception use, and romantic relationships, The Journal of Sex Research.
Working as a sexuality educator, I am often asked questions like, “How do I talk to my child about sex?” and “What do I say to my child about pornography?” Yet, there really is no right or wrong way to answer those questions. There are (of course) better answers and worse answers to those questions, and evidence-based answers to those questions, which I will share in a later post. But the advice I am most comfortable doling out, is to prioritize becoming an approachable parent. In other words, you want to learn how to listen to your kids talk about sex, not just learn what to say to them about sex.
If your child does not already come to you with their emotional and relational concerns about friends and romance, it is likely that your child does not perceive you as an approachable parent. It could also be that your child is introverted or something, but because you only have control over your own behavior, let’s start there first.
With the exception of masturbation, sexual behavior is relational behavior. Although we typically research sexual behavior on an individual level, sex primarily involves two people deciding to engage in some type of sexual behavior together. So, whether that means your child will be negotiating condom use with a short-term partner (who will buy it, who will put it on, when will he/she put it on) or negotiating satisfying sex with a long-term partner (discussing what he/she likes, asking what his/her partner likes, what he/she doesn’t like), learning how to comfortably initiate and execute sexual conversations is a life skill that is better mastered sooner rather than later. Regardless of your pre-marital sex beliefs.
One of the ways your child will become comfortable having sexual conversations now or in the future, is through practicing with you. The majority of research finds that parent-child communication about sexuality yields safer sexual behaviors in adolescents such as condom use, contraception use, and delayed onset of intercourse (1, 2, 3). Most likely because it increases efficacy in your child to take the necessary steps to prioritize their health (4). But it can be difficult to initiate conversations about sex. So, how does one get started? You start by listening to what your child is already saying. Really listening. And then you can start talking, once your child feels heard. Even if you have some embarrassing moments, even if you don’t have all the answers, even if you say something that is incorrect and need to correct yourself, your child is better off because you’re prioritizing listening over lecturing to her.
If you are concerned that your child may be pregnant, may have gotten someone else pregnant, may have been sexually abused or assaulted, or may have sexually abused or assaulted someone else, you need to address your concerns immediately. You can access resources to do so here. If you do not have any of these concerns, you’re ready to prioritize ‘becoming approachable’. Here are 7 ways to try approachable parenting on for size:
1. Know your own perspective on sexuality. Are you comfortable talking about sex? Are you confident in your own sexuality? If not, practice sexual conversations with a partner, relative, or friend. If you waiver at all when you say these words or phrases: “Penis, vagina, vulva, testes, oral sex, anal sex, vaginal sex, fellatio, cunnilingus, or penetration,” you may lose some of your credibility. Like a shark to blood in the water, your kid will sniff this discomfort out so quickly, that he or she will do anything in his or her power to avoid such an awkward situation ever again. A fun way to tackle this issue in your family is to play a little game I like to call “Dramatic Anatomy”. You can print out a list of anatomically correct body parts here and as a family compete against each other to win in all of the categories. You end up saying: uterus, penis, fallopian tube, perineum, etc. in scared, happy, disappointed, excited, embarrassed, etc. voices. Then you vote on who did the best “depressed perineum” or “happy uterus”.
2. Act calmly even if you aren’t. Imagine you are watching a TV show with your child and there is a steamy sex scene between two characters who don’t know each other and obviously did not use a condom. Do not react. You may be sweating it, thinking, “This is a teachable moment! Oh crap. What am I supposed to teach here?” Instead, just breathe. After the show is over you can ask your child “What did you think about John having sex with that random girl?” Hopefully, your child will say something like, “I know! They barely knew each other!” or will give you some indicator of risk. But he or she will probably shrug and annoyingly say “I don’t know.” You can then respond with something like, “It just seemed so out of character for him, they barely knew each other.” And leave it at that. This doesn’t mean that you condone unprotected or uncommitted sex, it just conveys to your child that if these subjects arise, you will remain calm. Believe it or not, you just capitalized on a teachable moment by establishing yourself as approachable. You initiated a sexual conversation, and when your child responded to your question, you did not punish him for his opinion or lack thereof. After you’re sure your child perceives you as approachable you can go more into depth about safety when those moments arise.
3. Practice active listening skills. Don’t focus on what you should be asking your child. For example, the worst way to start a conversation would be with either of these questions: “Are you having sex?’” or “Are you watching pornography on the internet?” Instead, focus on how you respond when your child is talking to you about any emotionally charged issue. This means nodding your head, saying “uh-huh”, or giving other verbal or non-verbal cues that you really are listening to understand, not listening just to respond. The other biggie-no interrupting! Research shows that mothers become more authoritative during sexual conversations (5), but you actually do not want to do this if you want to encourage an on-going dialogue about sexuality with your child.
4. Don’t assume heterosexuality. This is a big one and unfortunately, a new one for our culture. This may be something you’ve already been doing since your child was young, but if you have been assuming your child is heterosexual his whole life, it is ok to change your tune. This can be as easy as saying “romantic partner” instead of “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” or “Do you have a crush on anyone?” instead of “Do you have a crush on a particular boy/girl?” For more information on becoming a sensitive parent for LGBT youth, check out my resource page here.
5. Prioritize support over judgment. If your daughter comes to you because she is afraid she is pregnant, tell her something like, “Wow. I am so glad you came to me about this. Although this is not easy for me to hear, I am more worried about you. How are you feeling about this?” Then try your best to assure your child you will be there every step of the way to manage the outcomes of her decisions. The worst way you could react
is with judgment. “How could you do this?” or “You know this against our beliefs!” Now is not the time for that. Your job is to establish yourself as the safest place in this journey.
6.Try self-disclosing about your own sexual experiences during adolescence in an age appropriate way. Research has shown that more maternal disclosure about sexual experiences is linked to adolescents’ more conservative views about pre-marital sex (6). If you weren’t sexually active in adolescence, talk about the pressure you felt to have sex or to remain abstinent. If prom (or the 8th grade graduation dance) is coming up say something like, “Geeze, I remember my prom (or 8th grade graduation dance). I felt so much pressure to have sex (or make out) with Dean. I guess that is just kinda cliché-huh?” There is no guarantee this phrase will get you anywhere, but I’m sure you can think of phrases that would reveal a little bit about your own experience that your child may respond to.
7. Use humor when possible. I wish sex wasn’t embarrassing, but in our culture, it is. So, it’s okay to laugh a little and to try to use humor when possible. Teen pregnancy, STIs, and sexual assault are serious issues, but dating, romance and sexual behavior are quite funny. If you step back and look at the big picture from the awkwardness, to the noises, smells, cultural customs, there is a lot of laughter to find in it all. Laughter will help you and your child both get comfortable about sex and the conversations can flow from there.
(1) Eastman K.L., Corona R., & Schuster MA. (2006). Talking Parents, Healthy Teens: A worksite-based program for parents to promote adolescent sexual health. Prevention of
Chronic Disease, 20, 123-141.
(2) Clawson C.L. & Reese-Weber M. (2003). The amount and timing of parent-adolescent sexual communication as predictors of late adolescent sexual risk-taking. Journal of Sex Research, 40, 256–268.
(3) Miller K.S., Levin M.L., Whitaker D.J., & Xu X. (1998). Patterns of condom use among adolescents: The impact of mother-adolescent communication. American Journal of Public Health, 10, 1542–1544.
(4) Bandura, A. (2004). Health promotion by social cognitive means. Health Education Behaviors, 31, 143-164.
(5) Lefkowitz, E.S., Kahlbaugh, P., & Sigman, M. D. (1996). Turn-taking in mother-adolescent conversations about sexuality and conflict. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 25, 307-321.
(6) Romo, L.F., Lefkowitz, E. S., Sigman, M., & Au, T. K. (2001). Determinants of mother-adolescent communication about sex in Latino families. Journal of Adolescent and Family Health, 2, 72-82.
Photo Source: Dollar Photo Club
Ok folks, I am predicting that Origami Condoms will revolutionize safe sex. Currently, Danny Resnic, has conducted four clinical trials through NIH-funded grants as well as support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to test three types of condoms: a male condom, a female condom and a specialized anal condom which, if it passes, will be the first condom approved for anal sex by the US Food and Drug Administration. What else makes these condoms different? They are made of silicone instead of latex, which means they are better at resisting viruses and bacteria and they provide more pleasurable sensation (1)! Why does that matter? News flash: Research indicates that men do not like to use condoms, mostly because it feels better to have sex without one (2). Among men who do use condoms, many remove the condom before they orgasm (3), often due to a reduction in sensation and loss of an erection (4). The experience of a loss of an erection is very embarrassing (5), and what do we do when we get embarrassed? Avoid every possibility that embarrassment will happen again. Thus, reducing the likelihood of using a condom again.
Many men also describe feeling annoyed when a partner insists on using a condom because of the reduction of pleasure (6). In heterosexual couples, this annoyance often makes the female partner decline her assertion to use a condom because women (being the nurturers of the relationship) often feel the obligation to rescue their partners from embarrassment or dysfunction. This negotiation can put both partners at risk. Heterosexual women also report dislike for the use of male condoms because of annoyances “in putting it on in time” (2). Therefore, the use of a female condom can provide a safe alternative because they are inserted before intercourse and therefore do not disrupt intimacy because they do not have to be rolled onto a penis mid-way through sexual activity.
Origami’s condom that has been designed exclusively for receptive anal sex can also be inserted prior to anal intercourse. This is a major breakthrough in sexual safety. There are rising concerns about the popularity of barebacking among gay men, which is the act of intentional unprotected anal sex(7). Currently, people use male or female condoms during anal sex (both of which are notorious for not staying put) or they don’t use a condom at all during anal sex. It is really important to use a condom during anal penetration regardless of your sexual orientation. Even if you are in a committed relationship and are not using condoms for vaginal sex (when applicable) because both partners are STI-free and you are using a different form of pregnancy prevention (when applicable), you should always use a condom during anal sex.
Despite the popularity of ATM (inserting a penis in the anus and then in the mouth) or ATV (inserting a penis in the anus and then in the vagina) in pornography (8), these acts are a huge bacterial no-no because the rectum is a huge bacterial nightmare. You do not want the bacteria that live in the rectum anywhere near the vagina or mouth. If you are a woman who is having sex with another woman and using toys to penetrate the anus, a condom for the toy can also be a good solution to prevent the spread of bacteria after anal play. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with anal penetration, there are just extra efforts that need to be taken in order to engage in anal penetration without spreading bacteria to the mouth or vagina. That being said, I do encounter a lot of heterosexual women and girls in my workshops who feel pressure to engage in anal sex when they do not want to. If you don’t have any interest in anal sex, don’t do it. The majority of pleasure that comes from anal stimulation among women comes from the anus itself, not from penetration of the rectum, because women do not have a prostate gland. Therefore, simply applying pressure to the anus with a finger will provide maximum pleasure without the risk of rectal tearing and stretching-which can lead to problems over time.
Now, this next statement is a stretch: I also think these condoms, if they really do increase pleasure, could potentially combat unhealthy norms of masculine sexuality. Through the lens of heteronormativity, heterosexual men are more sexually privileged than heterosexual women and therefore can insist on experiencing pleasure and passion over responsibility, whereas women bear the responsibilities of unwanted pregnancy and negative sexual stereotyping, making their sexual choices more burdensome (9,10). Since the invention of hormonal birth control in the 1960s, the responsibility for contraception has predominately been delegated to women, which consequently excluded contraception from masculinity norms (11). From this perspective, a man choosing to not use a condom would be a symbol of masculine power and sexual agency because he would be emphasizing pleasure over responsibility. Therefore a condom that increases pleasure for the man or can be used by a receptive partner during penetrative sex, could help to reduce the risk associated with masculinity-induced unprotected sex.
Whatever type of penetrative sex you are into, these new condoms may be of interest to you. Unfortunately, due to FCC restrictions, Origami can’t show their condoms on television or talk about the appropriate anatomy to demonstrate how they work in radio. So, I’m asking you to check ‘em out and pass the word along so that Origami can get the funding they need to bring these revolutionary condoms to market ASAP!
1. Krakauer, H. (2013). See ya, latex: reinventing the condom. New Scientist, 217(2900), 37-39.
2. Brook (2005). The choreography of condom use: how, not just if, young people use condoms. Research conducted by the University of Southampton. Available online at: www.brooks.org.uk (accessed 12 August 2013).
3. Crosby, R. A., Sanders, S. A., Yaber, W. K., Graham, A. C. & Dodge, B. (2000) Condom use: errors and problems among college men, Sexually Transmitted Disease, 29, 552–557.
4. Measor (2006). Condom use: A culture of resistance. Sex Education, 6 (4), 393-402.
5. Wood, A. (1998) Sex education for boys. Health Education, 3, 95–99.
6. Vittellone, N. (2002) Condoms and the making of sexual difference, Body and Society, 8(3), 71–94.
7. Crossley, M. L. (2004). Making sense of ‘barebacking’: Gay men's narratives, unsafe sex and the ‘resistance habitus’. British Journal of Social Psychology, 43(2), 225-244.
8. Jensen, R. (2007). Getting off: Pornography and the end of masculinity. Cambridge: South End Press.
9. Tolman, D. L., & Diamond, L. M. (2001). Desegregating sexuality research: Cultural and biological perspectives on gender and desire. Annual Review of Sex Research, 12, 33-74.
10. Tolman, D. L., Striepe, M. I., & Harmon, T. (2003). Gender matters: Constructing a model of adolescent sexual health. Journal of Sex Research, 40, 4-12.
11. Oudshoorn, N. (2004). “Astronauts in the sperm world”: The renegotiation of masculine identities in discourses on male contraceptives. Men and Masculinities, 6, 349-367.
Photo Source: Origami Condoms
About this Blog:
My intention is to create a forum to critically discuss sexuality, gender, sexual media, and social media by integrating information from academic and mainstream sources. I do this so you can be informed about what is going on in the sex research world and apply the research to your life. I hope this process produces more sexually competent people who raise sexually competent kids.
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