Challenges Associated with Conducting Research on Adolescent Sexuality and Romantic Relationships

Studying romance and sex during adolescence may pose unique challenges to researchers.

Are you interested in conducting academic research on adolescents’ sexuality? If so, you’ll need to consider the unique challenges for researchers of this field. Academic research on this subject is controversial and challenging due to disagreements about a standard definition of sex, ethical and methodological considerations of studying minors, and the inherent sensitivity of the subject matter.  

Among the most salient challenges is the inconsistent definition of “sex” used across research studies. More rigid definitions define sex as when a penis penetrates the vagina. Some researchers have a more lenient definition, and include anything from kissing to penetrative sex. However, even more lenient definitions that ultimately dichotomize “sex” are limiting from a statistical standpoint, as it is generally preferred to have behaviors on a spectrum rather than a dyadic yes/no. This is because a continuous variable allows for greater variability in analyses. A continuous alternative to asking about sexual behaviors would be to ask how many times a participant has engaged in different sexual behaviors, including zero times. When designing scales and considering the definition of sex, other behaviors should also be taken into account to be more inclusive of  LGBT populations, those with physical limitations, or non-Western cultural contexts.

Additionally, a unique problem exists for studying romantic relationships and sexual behavior in adolescents. Participants under the age of 18 may be less likely to have been in a romantic relationship or engage in sexual behaviors, when compared to adults over the age of 18. For example, only about 30% of adolescents have engaged in sexual behaviors. This problem makes it difficult to compare data at all, as it may dramatically reduce sample size.

Furthermore, parental consent is also required to collect surveys from those under 18 years old. This may skew data, as parents who have a more conservative outlook on sexual behaviors and romantic relationships may be less likely to let their children participate, in an effort to protect childhood innocence. A parent may not want to expose their child to information about sex, even in a research context, because they may feel that they are condoning that behavior. A parent may also not feel like their child’s participation is important because they do not believe their child is sexually active. Whether or not a child is actually sexually active, their participation is always welcome.

The individual researcher must also be taken into account when studying this particular field. Some researchers focus on the negative outcomes of dating and sex during adolescence is important, while others frame these experiences as normative, important developmental milestones. Objective research, by definition, focuses on all sides of the issue. It is crucial to recognize the risks with certain behaviors while also acknowledging that these same behaviors are important to development.
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Jenna L. McPherson received her M.A. in Psychology from the University of North Carolina Wilmington in Spring 2017. She is currently working with Dr. Graciela Espinosa-Hernández as she prepares to apply for Ph.D. programs in the fall. Her research interests include romantic relationship initiation.