Given and Chosen: Talking to Family About Sexuality

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #14 in April 2014]

Participatory Action Research on Family-Supported Conversations About Sexuality

From October 2012 through June 2013, youth at the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health (ICAH) set out to expand dominant notions of family to better address their sexuality-related needs. ICAH’s Youth Leadership Council (YLC) conducted a Participatory Action Research study focusing on family-supported conversations about sexual health, rights, and identities. ICAH is a network of empowered youth and allied adults who transform public consciousness and increase the capacity of school, family, and healthcare systems to support the sexual health, rights, and identities of youth. The Youth Leadership Council is ICAH’s education, advocacy, and organizing youth cohort. ICAH YLC members implemented a Participatory Action Research (PAR) process in order to act as the primary investigators of their own lives and communities. They wanted to tell their stories of forming families in a way that hadn’t yet been told with youth as central authors of their own narratives.

What is PAR?

Participatory Action Research is a process of engaging a community in defining questions important and meaningful to their lives, gathering information and ideas about those questions and coming to an understanding that generates insights that can be used to create social change.  ICAH believes that youth are the experts of their own experiences and are most capable at analyzing these experiences. ICAH hosted this PAR project to support families in understanding a core value: that young people need to be safe, affirmed and healthy. This report outlines the YLC research process and findings, calling for a clear need to support healthier conversations between youth and their given and chosen families around sex and sexuality.

Defining Our Question

During the first months of YLC programming, ICAH youth leaders explored a wide array of family-focused questions surrounding adolescent sexual health, rights, and identities. At the start of the research, ICAH youth were already engaging in systems-change work in schools (through peer education workshops) and healthcare settings (through clinic-friendliness projects). For this reason, the group intentionally focused on investigating families as a third space for systems-change work, noting that families of origin and choice are significant influencers in navigating sexual identity, health and rights. The YLC asked broad questions about what family meant to them, and how this differed from dominant cultural definitions. Diverting from dominant notions of family as the support system a person is born into, the YLC began investigating the difference between chosen and given families. They defined each as such:

Given Family: the family you live at home with and/or the family you were born into such as your parents, grandparents, siblings, etc.
Chosen Family:the supportive community you put together outside of the family you were given. This can sometimes include friends, but also adult allies, boyfriends, girlfriends, etc.

After defining the difference between given and chosen families, YLC youth developed their research question. In connecting family-related questions to adolescent sexual health, rights, and identities, the youth asserted that the most significant barrier they experienced (and that they perceived their peers experienced) to making healthy sexual decisions was not having familial support to talk about sex. This lack of support looked different for each youth—sometimes it was caused by judgment around a young person’s sexual identity, sometimes it was caused by awkwardness in having the conversation—but it was a consistent barrier experienced by youth across given and chosen families. This led the YLC to craft their question:

What starts or stops youth from talking with their given and chosen families about sex and sexuality?

YLC members identified their research topic in December 2012, hoping to understand where youth go when they can’t talk to their given families about sex. The research began by investigating the conversations that youth had or didn’t have with people they live at home with. It continued by investigating who youth talk to about sexuality outside of their given families. Linked to this question are the primary research goal and objectives.

Beginning Our Research

ICAH youth combined qualitative (conversations and observations) and quantitative (survey and demographic responses) data collection. In order to meet the research goal of assessing the perceived barriers and benefits among youth in starting family-supported conversations about sexuality, the following methods were utilized:

  • 80 Individual Interviews: Questions for the interviews were created collectively by the Youth Leadership Council. Youth identified four of their peers (convenience sample) in the 16–22 age range who they could interview for the project.
  • 387 Online Surveys: Questions for the survey were created collectively by the Youth Leadership Council, taking into account relevant discoveries about the research questions during the one-on-one interviews. Youth disseminated the survey to their personal networks, including schools and colleges, and ICAH disseminated to national networks, including partnering organizations, movement-building organizations, and school systems across the country that ICAH works with (convenience sample).
  • One Focus Group with Twenty Youth Leaders: After analyzing the demographic breakdown of the population that completed the online survey, YLC members participated in a focus group on their primary responses to the research (convenience sample).

Our Findings

The following analysis outlines the relevant data from the YLC Participatory Action Research, connected to each research objective. The statistics are compiled from the online and offline interviews. The quotes were pulled from the YLC focus group.

Youth are more comfortable talking with their chosen families about sexuality than their given families, but both groups lack the skills necessary to host informed, accurate conversations. 50% of youth perceived that the information presented to them by both their given and chosen families was only somewhat accurate.

  • Alfredo—“You feel more comfortable with your chosen family because you’ve known your given family for longer and you remember when these conversations were awkward before. So you’re always thinking back to the time when you were judged or it felt weird.”
  • Anthony— “The social problems were different when our parents were growing up. Now, we think about gay marriage, equal rights among trans people, that kind of stuff. When they were kids, racism was the huge thing. They aren’t as ready to talk about sexuality as we are, or as our chosen families are.”
  • Conversations between youth and their given families must be normalized and expected at a cultural level, increasing youth comfort in talking with their given families.

63.2% of youth indicated that they feel more comfortable talking with their chosen families about sex and sexuality, compared to 9.7% who said they felt more comfortable talking with their given families14.5% who said they felt comfortable talking with both families, and 4.2% who said they felt comfortable with neither.

  • Ranita—“When parents say, ‘I’ve been there, done that,’ you feel like they won’t understand you. Chosen families are going through the same stuff as you right now—it’s not like they already did it. This can be positive.”
  • Jacob—“Given families have a different understanding than chosen families and might not be able to connect. Their problems were different than ours. We’re still dealing with the stuff they dealt with but also have to worry about gender identity and sexuality.”
  • Youth utilize their given and chosen families for different types of support, so both families must collaborate on sexuality-related conversations.

When asked to list the top three types of support provided by each family, the majority of youth listed Emotional, Advice, and Intellectual support for their chosen families. For their givenfamilies, the majority of youth listed Educational, Financial, and Emotional as the main types of support provided.

  • Jessica— “We want to talk to both of our families about sex. When you talk to another person it gives you emotional support that you can’t get from the internet.”
  • Kami— “We depend on both families in thinking about what we need emotionally or socially. It’s easier to point out what’s wrong or what needs to be added, which is when chosen families come in- they give us what our given families don’t.”
  • Because chosen families are uniquely situated to host conversations on sexuality, youth should be encouraged to educate their chosen families about their bodies and health in informal settings, especially those who already have accurate sexuality information.

When asked, “What CAN’T you talk to your chosen family about?” 75.7% of youth responded, “Nothing, I can talk to my chosen family about anything.”

  • The concept of chosen families is relevant and necessary in building resilience strategies for youth, with 80.7% of youth responding that they had formed a chosen family. Programs and policies in family support systems need to affirm youth in building chosen families to plant seeds for healthy support structures in their lives.
  • Erica—“You expect them to have your back— it’s a survival game. It’s a game of being out the “normal” box and trying to run away as fast as possible while others try to throw you in. Your chosen families are in that game with you.”
  • Kami—“A lot of chosen families are made as a survival mechanism. I go to them first instead of my given family because I’m surviving with them—these are the people who helped you overcome something that you didn’t necessarily express.”
    Noting the drastic amount of youth that reported having adult allies in their Chosen Families (33.5% of youth) opens a large opportunity for adults to support safe, accessible conversations with youth about sex and sexuality.

What’s Next

This research will help ICAH’s YLC create action to change the way youth talk about sex with their given and chosen families and help ICAH build the capacity of adult decision-makers to better talk to, support, and advocate for youth about their sexual health, identities and rights. From the findings on family-supported conversations about sexuality, ICAH will better understand how to craft sexual health, rights, and identities trainings and campaigns for youth and the adults in their lives. The YLC will take each recommendation in the discussion portion of this report to build concrete action next year. They will focus on the research objectives to shape cultural advocacy and education strategies to transform the way youth and their families talk about sex and sexuality. Stay tuned for what’s to come in the YLC 2013–14 programming year as we transform public consciousness and build capacity for systems to better support youth around our research findings.

Find the final report Given and Chosen: Talking to Family About Sexuality here.


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