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.]

PF Anderson October 12, 2012 at 2:25 pm

Well done! Interesting topic, nice opening. I like the personal touch in the post, the sense of personality. The logistics are also well done – proper citation, attribution of images, all the little touches that lend to credibility.

Michael Grisafe October 12, 2012 at 11:17 pm

I forgot that there was a direct reply button. Thanks!

Michael Grisafe October 12, 2012 at 4:08 pm

Thanks for reading! I appreciate the feedback!

Liam.lah October 12, 2012 at 5:32 pm

It goes to show (at least in this instance) that teens aren’t as ignorant as we may sometimes think, and talking to them like adults is a better way to reach them than consecendingly trying to appear ‘hip’.

Michael Grisafe October 12, 2012 at 7:48 pm

It sure looks like that for this group. I’d be interesting to see if this holds for a larger study that looked at sexual orientation, age, and country of residence of the subjects.

Nedra Weinreich October 12, 2012 at 5:54 pm

Great post! The research results are definitely not surprising, given that teens can detect grown-up inauthenticity from a mile away. It shows how important pretesting of materials for a campaign can be – ideally PRIOR to investing many hours in going in a particular direction.

The main concern for me with the results of the research is that, as you noted, their sample size was only 36. For a qualitative study, that’s reasonable, but you’re right that it’s not necessarily generalizable. I would love to see as a follow-up a quantitative study of teens rating several different styles of sex ed websites to get some numbers to back up these observations. And I’m very curious whether there would be a difference between American and Canadian teens (I suspect not so much, but there are definitely cultural differences that could play into their responses).

Michael Grisafe October 12, 2012 at 7:51 pm

Hi Nedra,

This study is pretty new (it came out just this month), so I’ll keep my eyes peeled to see if there is a follow-up quantitative study on its heels that looks at the issues you mentioned. If I find one, I’ll make sure to write about it.


Brian Zikmund-Fisher October 14, 2012 at 5:15 pm


While I totally agree with this study, it’s important to note that it IS useful to listen to a target audience (e.g., teens) to understand the terms and phrases and language they use to discuss a topic. It’s not being a “wannabe” if the voice of the message is clearly public health but it uses plain, real-world language to describe and inform. It’s a delicate balance, but we shouldn’t give up good communication skills and practice when we avoid being wannabes.


Andrew Maynard October 15, 2012 at 6:40 am

Absolutely agree Brian – except there also has to be authenticity. Think the term my teen daughter would probably use here instead of wannabe is “phony”, and teens are pretty good at detecting phonys in my experience!

Michael Grisafe October 16, 2012 at 10:49 am

Hi Andrew,

Sooo, ironically me using the term “wannabe” would be reverse discourse fail (“epic fail”?). Sigh. Maybe the next time I write an article on teens I should get my nieces and nephews to inform me on the latest slang.

Michael Grisafe October 16, 2012 at 10:42 am

Hi Brian,

I agree, and so did the teens. In the study they tended to like the plain, regular-English communication of sexual health messages over very clinical/technical messages or the ones that tried too hard. Nedra (who commented right above you) was wondering if there was a larger quantitative study done which examines reverse discourse and how favorable (unfavorable) it is for communicating messages to teens. Do you happen to know of any such study? Thanks for commenting!

Margaret October 16, 2012 at 5:27 pm

Good topic, and I think that it works for a lot of different communication issues. I have had several doctors lately who think they need to “dumb down their language” to make it more understandable.
Oddly enough I find using the correct vocabulary and then explaining what that means in plain language, be it slang or not is a much better way to educate me at least in new topics.

I don’t have a study for it though. I will admit your starting story made your post a little harder to read. I had a hard time connecting it to your true topic.


Michael Grisafe October 16, 2012 at 6:25 pm

Hi Margaret,

You bring up an interesting point that the study doesn’t really address: Are there different educational contexts in which such reverse discourse would work? As you said, in certain situations using plain language or slang helps you to understand a topic. It’s possible that people do prefer slang and reverse discourse when they are completely unfamiliar topic and then switch to their preference to a more formal tone of authority once they are initiated to the topic (perhaps teens who had never experienced sex education would have reacted differently than those in the study who had).

Thanks for the advice on the story start up. I wasn’t sure if I made the lead-in too long. I may actually have to cut down the lead-in on my next post….

Angela October 17, 2012 at 8:30 pm

I really liked your post. It made me wonder whether sex advice websites using ‘teen speak’ might have a different use. If they are ‘weird’ or ’embarrassing’ enough, they might generate an audience that goes there out of curiosity (for a ‘freak show’ kind of experience). If you wanted this audience to talk about certain things, this might do the trick in a ‘reverse’ kind of way. Or not… : )

Rick October 20, 2012 at 3:16 am

Great article. There are a few parts that you might want to proofread more carefully:

how these terms were first used pejoratives
they hope appeal to youth
like advice from trusted friend
a subjective coding patterns
the researchers they really aren’t working with any hard numbers

Michael Grisafe October 20, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Hi Rick,

I really appreciate your suggestions on the edits! I corrected all of them per your suggestions. I’ll have to hire you as an editor (although on my grad school budget you might only get a free lunch!).

Rick October 20, 2012 at 3:26 am

This article reminds me of a Hollywood comedy I saw once, in which the group of protagonists contained several black men and one white man. One gag involved the white man calling one of the black men the n-word, imitating the way the black men addressed each other. That strikes me as an interesting example of the issue of race combining with the question of reverse discourse. I’m afraid I don’t remember the name of the movie, nor the actors involved, though it’s possible it’s one of the Wesley Snipes/Woody Harrelson collaborations.

Michael Grisafe October 20, 2012 at 12:35 pm

Hmmm… that does sound like it could be a bit of reverse discourse. However, Hollywood tends to turn something that could be genuine reverse discourse into racial and cultural mimicry (in this case, maybe an updated version of “black face” stereotyping). I don’t know though, because I don’t know the film (although there is a similar scene in “Nothing to Lose” with Martin Lawrence and Tim Robbins.

Sadi January 1, 2013 at 11:46 am

I’m really benefit from this post.

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