Sex and Risk – Its Fun but …

This is the first of a series of posts I’ll be writing about my research results.  A number of interesting results came out the survey and interviews and a web discussion group.  Many are too large to be dealt with in a single posting – TMI – so I’ll tackle them piece by piece.  Feel free to offer comments or email me about what you’ve read.

My first major research finding is something I call the Sexual Risk Script.  One of the theoretical frameworks I used in the thesis is called Script Theory –we learn a number of scripts about how to behaviour in various social situations and bring these out in various circumstances and use them as they are or adapt them to the context and/or who we are and what we believe.  It’s a useful framework for providing some explanatory and descriptive information about behaviour.

The Sexual Risk Script is based in the large number of conditional statements that participants gave during their interviews and within the survey.  “It’s fun to hook up as long as you …” or “It’s fine to have casual sex as long as you …”   There was such a predominance of these kinds of statements that I began to see a pattern in the kinds of conditions (the ‘as long as you do x’ part of the statement) that many participants adhered to.  The Script therefore ended up looking like a list of rules or guidelines that should be considered when thinking about flashing your boobs at a bar, hooking up with a new guy, having casual sex, or starting a fuck buddy relationship.  Predominantly these conditions were risk-avoidant advice snippets, centring on sexual health, emotional/mental safety, partner-related safety, reputational safety, and self-control.

On a personal note, this was a difficult Script for me to come to grips with.  When I was growing up the dialogue around sex for young women involved a lot of scare tactics.  I was coming of age as AIDS began to be part of the sexual lexicon, and a huge mythology was circulating about how you could catch it and what it would do to you.  Sex ed focused on pictures of oozing sores and herpes blisters, and the ‘evils’ of STDs.  The shame of becoming pregnant in your early teens was also a weighty dialogue.  Sex education for me was an effective program of terror, basically.  How any of us ever managed to have sex … ?

Coming to this research I presumed that this fear-focus in education and social dialogue would have changed.  Young women are apparently having more sex with more partners, with greater frequency.  Surely young women are less fearful or risk-averse than I felt at similar ages.  Of course, that’s a purely subjective assessment.  It’s not something I could really know for sure.  But the appearance of the Sexual Risk Script out of all the statements and conversations had with participants during my research suggested that risk-focus is still a major orientation for young women, one that is not off-set by a pleasure-based dialogue that paints sex as something beyond risk – namely as something that can be fun, enjoyable, esteem-building, and subjectively satisfying.   This was a disappointing realisation for me.  I had hoped that our sexual culture had become more balanced in its treatment of female sexuality, that ‘sex=risk’ had evolved into something more.   What movement beyond this I came across was driven by participants and their personal experiences, and their own self-discoveries, rather than our social context.   Society still seems to be pedalling the same old stories.

Thinking about sex as risk is of course important, and that so many young women focused on this aspect of their sex lives highlights the efficacy of sex education and social messages around being safe sexually and protecting yourself against disease and ‘dangerous’ partners.  The importance of these aspects should not be undercut.  However, that there are few opportunities for young women to engage in alternative conversations about sex and their own desires and pleasures appeared to tip the balance towards danger-thinking at the expense of many other pleasurable aspects.   The only chat in town that many participants suggested was OK to talk about with respect to sex, was risk-oriented, despite many wishing they could talk more honestly and openly about sex and their sex lives.

This orientation towards sex – that risk-avoidance is central – was obvious in how participants talked about what they were OK with doing, what was OK for others to do, and what would happen if boundaries were crossed.  Basically, participants noted that young women could have a limited amount of fun.  There were certain things they could do safely without for example damaging their reputations, getting used, catching something, losing control and being slutty (or unfeminine), or being violated somehow.  Borderline behaviours could be done but carefully – be discrete, hide them away, tell people you were drunk or say it was only a hook up and hide it behind some ambiguity –caution and careful consideration was necessary.  Other behaviours were guaranteed to end in STIs and unwanted pregnancies, feelings of being used, getting coerced, being vulnerable to crazy guys, and being labelled a slut or a bitch or a skank.

Safe behaviours weren’t always guaranteed to be safe either.  Stigma and reputational damage were serious consequences for many participants, and due to the nature of judgemental observers, something as simple as making out with someone could have serious impacts, of which many participants were aware.   The Script’s cautionary nature therefore suggested that being sexual in any way outside of a relationship was a tricky undertaking.   The usefulness of the Sexual Risk Script was therefore obvious, as a way to help minimise negative consequences.    But it also had the not so great impact of significantly curtailing the kinds of things young women were able to do, narrowing the list of permitted behaviours to little more than kissing and erotic dancing.   Beyond, this, activities were potentially risky and could only be done within certain circumstances.

In my next post I’ll discuss the limits to behaviour more, and the kinds of conditional statements participants offered, that helped illustrate those limits.

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