"My mum wants me to be a 40 year old virgin!": Managing the Active Avoidance and Acknowledgement of Young People´s Emerging Sexual Identities
School of Sociology and Social Policy University of Leeds Leeds, United Kingdom
Childhood and youth are a key formative period in determining emerging sexual identities and research highlights how routine silencing practices reproduce sexual behaviour across various sites. The family remains an influential site in the management of growing up and research shows that sexuality is frequently used to create boundaries of appropriate behaviour and communication which both parents and children avoid overstepping. Research also shows that communication between friends and amongst "equals" offers scope for the expression of sexual identities unconstrained by family sanctions. Solomon and colleagues (2002) and Kirkman and colleagues (2005) suggest two factors contribute to silence around sexuality in the family: "mutual ignorance" and the "incest taboo" which silence family communication. Expressing sexual identity is, however, a much more complex process than the idea of "ignorance" encapsulates for it suggests individuals are unaware of developing sexualities. The role the family and friends play in regulating young people´s sexual identities remains poorly understood in much research yet these are crucial to how young people can develop a positive sexual identity for themselves.
This research reports findings from an ESRC funded doctoral investigation into the interface between Sex and Relationship Education and young people´s lived experiences in the UK. The data is drawn from interviews with 38 young people aged between 15-21 years with a further 31 participating in focus groups. Data revealed that despite strong kinship and friendship relationships, complex patterns of surveillance and negotiation means parents and children monitor and control situations related to expressing sexual identities. Instead of "passive" mutual ignorance operating to manage sexual identity, I argue that parents and young people draw on more sophisticated processes of what I have conceptually termed "active avoidance" and "active acknowledgement". While research indicates adults and adolescents desire open communication which facilitates the development of sexual identity, there is a disjunction between the contradictory discourses about sexual identity, the quest for sexual knowledge and the silences around these matters. This data offers new insights into how we theorise young people?s sexual identities and holds significant implications for offering encompassing sexual health messages to young people.