A Turn Off For Teens: When Sexual Health Websites Stop Being Nice and Start to Get “Real”

by Michael Grisafe on October 12, 2012

Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

So you’re at a party and there’s that guy. Not the Creepster. Not Mr. Suave. Not even Mr. Know-it-all.

It’s the worst one of all:

Mr. Wannabe.

Why is he the worst?

Because he has no core. He tries to imitate everyone he meets to fit-in, but always misses the mark by just enough to render the whole charade indescribably pathetic. He’s simultaneously a reflection of everything good and bad in the room. And because he’s a flawed mirror, you get to see everything good and bad about yourself reflected right in front of you, which leads to a completely disconcerting experience (unless you’re in love with every aspect of yourself).

In the end, you dismiss everything Mr. Wannabe says and quickly flee across the room to take the strongest shot you can find during the first break in the conversation.

Which, in an extended metaphor sort of way, is really what researchers found young people are doing when confronted with sexual health websites that try too hard.

In a recently published study, Canadian researchers found that teens and young adults showed a stronger preference for sexual education websites that were relatively straight forward in tone and moderate in sexual imagery, compared to websites that mimicked a stereotypically off-handed, younger tone, with more blatantly risqué imagery.

Angel Girl

Image courtesy of Charisma/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

In the jargon of the article, the more risqué websites embodied a type of “reverse discourse.” Reverse discourse attempts to reclaim a word, image or concept, that has been stigmatized by society and use it as a way to empower an individual or group by disrupting the way others perceive it (e.g. something previously viewed as shameful, is re-conceptualized as a source of pride). The example given in the article is the way that the queer community has reclaimed the terms “fag” and “dyke” as positive or neutral monikers, rather than how these terms were first used as pejoratives.

Jumping off from this concept, some sexual health organizations are employing reverse discourse to reach youth with websites that utilize their projection of how “real” youth speak and perceive sexuality. To do this, the sites often show images of people kissing and touching along with text and terminology which could be considered “explicit” (e.g. “no-strings sex,” “screw around,” “f___ buddy,” etc.). By changing the way sexuality is portrayed from a taboo, risk-driven behavior, to a casual bit of freaky fun, they hope to appeal to youth and gain their confidence.

To see if this is working, males and females 15-24 years of age were recruited for the study and presented with the content from several different sexual education websites. Topics on the sites ranged from masturbation to relationships and were classified as “clinical,” “moderate,” or “colloquial.” The corresponding images followed roughly the same spectrum, ranging from conservative to highly sexualized. The study classified “colloquial language” and “sexualized images” under the umbrella term of “reverse discourse.”

After viewing the text and pictures, the young people were asked what they thought. A large majority of the youth thought that the colloquial text and sexualized images were just trying too hard to reach them. They immediately saw through the content to a suspect public health messenger trying to sound young to appeal to them, but ultimately coming off as an outsider (a wannabe, if you will).

The Site

A screenshot of “The Site” (www.thesite.org), a sexual health resource website examined in the study. To view the full article, click the image.

Instead of gaining the young people’s trust by “speaking their language,” the youth tended to trust the websites less, stating that they didn’t have “an appropriate level of seriousness.” Overall, this lack of “seriousness” pretty much tanked the credibility of the website, with teens openly dismissing the content and preferring websites that provided a more straightforward presentation of sexual health information.

Why was this the case? After all, the websites sounded like “young people,” so wouldn’t these young people trust the information they received like advice from a trusted friend?

As one 21-year-old deftly explained:

[…] when you are looking for an answer you want someone who sounds like they know what they are talking about, not somebody that sounds like the person you are drinking with.

So without that air of serious authenticity and authority, everything just came off as, well, lame.

Many of the images and text of reverse discourse websites were also seen as reinforcing the stigma of sex by making it seem extreme. Subjects in the study expressed concern that the reverse discourse images and text would alienate youth with conservative or religious backgrounds. One perceptive teen also noted that the slang used on the sites would be too difficult for recent immigrants and some minority groups to understand, effectively cutting off large portions of the population.

So did any of the youth like the reverse discourse websites?

A few.

Some of the highly educated college students who self-identified as being informed and comfortable with sex-related topics gave the sites positive reviews (ironically, this subset probably needed these messages the least). However, even these individuals thought that the messages might be off-putting to many other youth.

Does this mean that sexual education websites employing reverse discourse should immediately rush to change all of their content? Not exactly.


The study has a few problems with generalizability.


Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

For one, sample size: The study only looked at 36 individuals, which is pretty dang small. It also wasn’t very diverse. The majority of the participants were Canadians (22 of 32), white (19), and only a few (5) identified as gay or lesbian. It’s also important to remember that these individuals specifically volunteered to be a part of a study on sexual health. It’s quite possible that there might be major differences in the type of person who would volunteer for a study on sexual health and those who would not.

Further, the study is completely qualitative, which is to say the researchers really weren’t working with any hard numbers, just a small group of interviews that were classified by subjective coding patterns (which, in the parlance of reverse discourse, renders it “a bit limp”).

That’s not to say that the study doesn’t highlight an intriguing concept. It’s just that further research really needs to be done before making any reliable generalizations on how to communicate sexual health messages on the web. But it’s a start.

The real take-home message here is that organizations and individuals really need to know their target audience before trying to communicate a message. It’s not enough to assume that the language, slang, and themes that a population uses to communicate to each other are the same as those they prefer to be communicated to.

And this is important whether you are a person at a party or a youth sex education organization… because the last thing you want to be is a wannabe.


Image courtesy of audfriday13 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

1  Wendy M. Davis, Jean A. Shoveller, John L. Oliffe & Mark Gilbert (2012). Young
people’s perspectives on the use of reverse discourse in web-based sexual-health interventions,
Culture, Health & Sexuality: An International Journal for Research, Intervention and Care, 14:9,

[Article Update 10/20/2012 – Corrected the grammatical errors noted by “Rick” in the comments section.]