Author: Kempadoo, K.; Dunn, L. L.; Centre for Gender and Development Studies
This study on adolescent sexuality is part of a broader study on adolescent development and rights in Jamaica. It was commissioned by the UNFPA Caribbean Office and UNICEF-Jamaica, and funded by the United Nations Fund for International Partnership (UNFIP).
Purpose / Objective
The main purpose of this sub-study was to investigate and determine the factors that shape the initiation of early sexual activity among adolescent boys and girls. The results would guide the development of programs to support healthy adolescent development.
Using focus groups as the main methodology, the report presents the findings from focus group interviews with 170 boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 19 years, attending schools in Montego Bay, Clarks Town and Maxfield Park in Kingston. The majority of adolescents were from low socio-economic groups.
The report highlights several major issues:
- Factors that encourage and others that delay young men and women in Jamaica into early sexual activity; their first sexual partner, where they had their first sexual experience and the consequences
- Adolescents' perceptions of what society expects of them and what it imparts to them about sex (messages)
- Adolescents' ideas about appropriate sexual health, sexual behavior, sexual orientation and sexual practices
- The role of sexuality in forming the gender identities of young people
Key Findings and Conclusions
The findings showed that the main motivating factors for early adolescent sexuality were: poor economic conditions, peer pressure to be sexually active to prove one's gender identity; the centrality of sexual activity to definitions and practices of adult masculinity, and gendered inequalities of power. The research also confirmed that together, these factors often place young people in conflict with dominant social ideals and values about adolescent sexuality. These factors are mediated by adult family members, the school, and church leaders; however, to some extent, they are shared by the young people themselves and put young people, particularly girls, at great health and developmental risks. This occurs although young people have considerable knowledge about protection against disease, abuse, and unwanted pregnancy.
The report points out that adolescents do not always desire early sexual activity. However, few messages enable them to gain knowledge about their sexual rights or about positive alternatives to existing patterns of gendered sexual behavior and identity. Adult discourses on adolescent sexuality tend to stress negative aspects of sexual activity, emphasizing danger and harm. The media tends to reinforce existing patterns and ideals of gendered sexuality. Within this context, many young people are grappling with the psychological, physical, intellectual, and emotional changes happening in their lives. They construct meanings about their own sexuality and their sexual realities that may not always conform to dominant ideas and values.
One important difference between adult and young people's notions of adolescent sexuality that emerged related to the reasons given for adolescent girls to engage in sexual activity. Earlier studies and messages from adults have often centered on girls' desire to have children, love, marriage, and sometimes abuse. The study, however, showed that adolescent girls identified money, fun, and pleasure as important factors. They often accorded these greater priority than the factors usually identified by adults.
In conclusion, the study confirmed that peer pressure linked to establishing a perceived sex and gender identity, demands of adult males (and some females) as well as meeting economic and social needs were important factors motivating adolescents in low socio-economic circumstances to engage in sexual activity. The mass media also stimulated adolescents through erotic visual images, music, soap operas and pornographic (blue) movies. However, the media also educated them about sexual health, safe sex and inter-personal relationships, which influenced their behavior.
Recommendations revolved around using a rights-based approach to programming, adolescent participation in interventions, public education, training, research, and strengthening the legal and institutional framework to support children's rights. Specific recommendations focused on programs to support healthy adolescent sexual development. These would also help to bridge the gaps between adults and adolescents as there are two opposing forces: those that propel young people into early sexual activity and adult notions of adolescent sexuality and others that promote youth rights, needs and desires.
Specific recommendations were made to increase academic research on sexuality especially as it relates to the construction of adolescent gender identities, incest and sexual abuse in the family, home and community. Better targeting of poverty alleviation programs to promote sustainable economic development were encouraged. Increasing adolescents' awareness of their legal, social, and sexual rights and improving the content of Family Life Education in schools were also recommended. An alternative focus on sexuality as a fundamental aspect of human social behavior and gender identity were suggested. Diversifying media programming to offer adolescents alternative ways of conceptualizing and learning about sexuality were outlined.
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