Academic journal article Family Relations

Family Contexts of Informal Sex Education: Young Men's Perceptions of First Sexual Images

Academic journal article Family Relations

Family Contexts of Informal Sex Education: Young Men's Perceptions of First Sexual Images

Article excerpt

Coming of age sexually is fraught with contradictory societal messages regarding sexual agency, repression, and exploitation. Traditional sexual scripts position boys as more sexual than girls (Giordano, Longmore, & Manning, 2006; Peter & Valkenburg, 2007) and as less in need of protection or guidance in learning about sex (Bragg, Buckingham, Russell, & Willett, 2011). Yet there are consequences of the limited communication and supervision in the sexual discovery phase. These consequences include messages that reinforce the sexual double standard, the sexual objectification of women, and the discomfort and anxieties about what it means to be a responsible sexual adult (Ott, 2010; Tolman, Striepe, & Harmon, 2003; Ward, 2003; West, 1999).

Males are rarely the focus of child and adolescent sexuality research, making the emergence of male sexuality poorly understood (Bragg et al., 2011; Smith, Guthrie, & Oakley, 2005; Tolman et al., 2003). Much of the literature on male sexuality in childhood and adolescence has focused on gender differences in sexual values and attitudes, with the assumption that adolescent males are more permissive than females and more powerful in the context of a romantic dyad (Giordano et al., 2006). Recent research has critiqued the presumption that young males are more permissive, rational, and knowledgeable about sex, reporting that male adolescents are similar to females in desiring closeness and intimacy (Giordano et al., 2006; Ott, 2010) and that they are more driven by the need for emotional closeness than a predatory sense of entitlement (Tolman et al., 2003).

Sexual socialization is a gradual developmental process that occurs throughout life, a notion that is contrary to the idea that parents provide their children with the one-time, verbal "sex talk" (Davies & Gentile, 2012; Ward, 2003). Although most children first learn about sex from their parents in the home environment, as they develop, their understanding is fleshed out by peers and sexualized media. Later middle childhood (ages 8-10) is a critical time in a child's life (Gentile, Nathanson, Rasmussen, Reimer, & Walsh, 2012); during this developmental period a child's sense of self as an individual with a unique personality emerges. Prior to adolescence, same-sex peers are very important in sharing the learning process about sexuality. During adolescence, sexual behavior becomes more normative, particularly with opposite-sex peers. Aspects of adolescent sexual development include readiness for, curiosity about (e.g., wanting to know how it feels), and anticipation of sex (Ott, 2010).

Sexualized media, both implicit and explicit, have become even more critical than parents or peers in influencing a child or adolescent's emerging sense of self and sexual knowledge (Brown & L'Engle, 2009). The Kaiser Family Foundation's (2001) study of young adolescents found that they rated entertainment media as their number one source of information about sex-related topics. Sexual content is pervasive, and young people have many accessible resources (e.g., smartphones, televisions, computers; Kaestle, Halpern, & Brown, 2007; Ward, 2003).

In the current study, we examined young men's reflections on their personal reactions and the social contexts in which they first realized that they were seeing a sexual image. Using a feminist framework, we challenged the prevailing assumptions about how boys internalize and act on familial and societal messages about normative masculinity and sexuality (Allen, Husser, Stone, & Jordal, 2008; Sprague, 2005; Tolman et al., 2003). This critical feminist perspective views gendered identities and relationships as a manifestation of power and is useful for understanding how gendered individuals perceive and make meaning of their sexual experiences within a sociocultural and sociopolitical context. This feminist framework also corresponds with the qualitative nature of our study, in that we asked young men to reflect on the meanings they attributed to seeing a sexual image for the first time. …

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