Covering Youth Sexuality: How the Media Can Do Better

“Youth” is just one of many identities we experience during our lives, and stigmatizing or shaming a person because of age fails any social movement fighting against oppression.

“Youth” is just one of many identities we experience during our lives, and stigmatizing or shaming a person because of age fails any social movement fighting against oppression. Shutterstock

We all know there are problems with how the media covers sexuality, broadly speaking. As recent research shows, there aren’t nearly enough women in positions of power at media organizations, not to mention reporters, editors, and senior-level media makers of color, LGBT individuals, people with disabilities who aren’t white and of some means—I could go on. This deficiency makes people without full representation vulnerable to ruthless attacks by privileged journalists and their careless editors and publishers.

Beyond how the media covers female sexuality and the sexuality of individuals whose gender expressions don’t fit neatly into society’s gender binary system, there’s another group that the media fails when it comes to coverage regarding sexuality: youth. It’s important that we think about how the media could be more thoughtful in its coverage of youth sexuality because equality doesn’t start and end with gender. “Youth” is just one of many identities we experience during our lives, and stigmatizing or shaming a person because of age fails any social movement fighting against oppression.

At a recent convening in Detroit, media makers, youth activists and advocates, and researchers got together to discuss the state of the media’s coverage of youth sexuality, where it falls short, and how these stakeholders could better work together. As Alex Kulick, project manager of Detroit Youth Passages, which hosted the event, told Rewire, the Youth Sexuality Media Forum invited groups—including California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance, the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, Camino PR, and Rewire—“to really think more about this process [for developing rich narratives about youth sexuality] that goes along with the types of content that youth-based organizations argue in a recent analysis might be better and more effective in media. But also, how do we generate that content in a long-term, sustainable way.”

Among the issues covered, the 50 or so participants—including young people between the ages of 16 and 24—discussed how articles about youth sexual behavior often do not include quotes from actual youth, that the conversations on these issues seem insular, especially when it comes to the question of young people’s autonomy and reporting on the laws meant to “protect” them, and how the media will focus on individual behavior but not always put that behavior into context.

These issues aren’t new. As Rewire Editor at Large Erin Matson, who manages Rewire’s young writers program, explained, the media “talks about issues of sexuality as well as reproductive rights and LGBT rights in the frame of ‘this is how it’s going to effect young people’ and ‘this is what young people are thinking about it’ without ever consulting with young people themselves.”

While these issues aren’t new, shoddy coverage of youth sexuality persists. The Detroit event—the first of what I’m hoping will be many—brought together a unique group of media makers and activists to reinforce the point that something needs to change, and it’s up to each of us, in our various roles (activist, communications director, or journalist) to improve how we package youth sexuality.

A recent analysis of the messaging the general public receives on youth sexual behavior and youth sexual health will be crucial to these efforts.

A group of six organizations reviewed 100 articles from U.S. sources on related topics and came up with a list of messages that youth-supporting organizations should convey in their work. The analysis, which we received permission to share here, is an effort to get us like-minded adults on the same page about issue-specific framing.

The messages are:

  • Young people are prudent experts about their own wellbeing.
  • Understanding the context in which behaviors occur is necessary for influencing those behaviors.
  • Talking about sexuality brings students, families, and classrooms together.
  • Highlight shared values and experiences before data or policies.
  • Shaming sexual activity can be more harmful than the activity itself.

As the analysis explains, “Current mainstream media coverage does not often convey these messages. Data and policy often lead stories, young people are depicted as being naïve and unruly, and conversations about sexuality and sexual health are portrayed as divisive and controversial.”

Erin McKelle, who recently participated in Rewire’s young writers program, noted in an email, “There’s a lot of fear culturally about young people being sexual or having sex, and this is seen in basically every form of media imaginable.”

She added, “[O]n the other end of the spectrum, young people can be [overly] sexualized when they are shown to be sexual, and realistic expressions of sexuality and young people are hardly ever shown.”

Briana Dixon, a current Rewire young writer, agreed with McKelle, saying in an email:

I think the media often over-sexualizes teenagers and paints their decisions as immature, when the reality is that when young people are provided all the tools to make good decisions, more often than not they do and when they do make a mistake, it’s not just because they are young but because that’s part of the human experience. I also think that the media denies certain demographics good representation period, but when it comes to youth sexuality [it’s exacerbated] because certain groups are either really over-sexualised or denied any sexuality at all.

Talking about youth sexuality can be a challenge, but it doesn’t have to be. It starts with getting youth involved. And when youth are involved, we shouldn’t try to make them into mini versions of ourselves; we should work to help preserve their unique voices and experiences, whether that means including a youth quote in an article or having a young person write an article themselves.

“Another thing [people can do] is mentoring and offering [their time],” said Matson. “So, if you’re someone who either has editorial power or publishing power, or you’re someone who writes, one of the best things you can do is buddy up with young people and offer yourself as a resource and help them not necessarily to have your viewpoint—that’s not the goal—but help them work on how to package their ideas in a way that is likely to get published.”

In addition, news organizations need to provide coverage that represents the multiple identities youth inhabit. One way to do that is to create active, open space for young people to share their views, said Matson. “The fact is that it’s important to source individuals [representing a wide range of backgrounds], but nothing is going to give a comprehensive picture the way that young people themselves can,” she said.

Youth and youth advocates at the forum said they’d like to read, among other things, more articles about bi transgender youth, parenting teens, “young people as experimental with sex,” and men talking about sexual health and sexual behavior in a positive way.

The media could also do more to promote positive sexual experiences. As McKelle explains, “The media also fails by promoting unhealthy sexual practices, doing things like not showing contraceptive use, not showing conversations between the people having sex about the sex [they’re] having, not showing what consent is/looks like, not addressing sexual assault properly, and not ever talking about abortion.”

Context is everything, especially if we aim to have productive conversations on these topics. That includes when we’re talking about race. In just one example, as the analysis explains:

When race was included in news coverage not about statistics, it also completely lacked context. For example, in a story about a mentoring program one reporter wrote, ‘McCaskill, a mental-health counselor in Raleigh, said he joined the mentoship program because he wanted to help young black males learn how to be a man and how to treat women.’ There is no additional discussion of race in the article, but the reader is left to imagine only black men when reading subsequent facts about dating violence.

When discussing sexuality and youth, media outlets should also acknowledge that there are myriad issues related to sexual health, beyond sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. So when looking for a new angle, try talking to youth about less reported issues.

As Matson put it: “Let the young people speak for themselves.”