December 19, 2023, Durham, NC – iRT Research Scientists Drs. Christina Dodson and Reina Evans-Paulson presented at The Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality’s (SSSS) conference last month in New Orleans, Louisiana to discuss some of iRT’s research related to sexual health and media literacy education. Every year, SSSS hosts sexual health researchers and professionals interested in the sexual sciences to discuss recent research and issues related to sexuality and sexual health.

Examining Resources to Address Sexual Health at Community Colleges

At this year’s conference, Dr. Dodson gave an oral presentation entitled A Qualitative Study Examining Resources to Address Sexual Health and Sexual Violence at Community Colleges Across the U.S.: Conversations with Administrators, Faculty, and Staff. During this presentation, Dodson described findings and implications from a qualitative study that iRT researchers designed to examine the sexual health resources available to community college students and the barriers and facilitators to providing these resources.

Community college students are a unique population, and some quantitative studies have shown that community college students are less likely to receive sexual health resources, are more likely to experience STIs and unplanned pregnancy, and are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors than four-year college students. However, it is difficult to understand how to support community colleges in their efforts to promote student sexual and relationship health because there is no recent qualitative data on the resources and health promotion approaches that exist at community colleges. iRT researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 33 administrators, faculty, and staff across 23 community colleges in the United States to gain a better understanding of the resources that may exist at community colleges to promote student sexual health and prevent or respond to unplanned pregnancy, STIs, and sexual violence.

During her presentation, Dodson highlighted five major themes that emerged from the interviews with community college personnel. First, interviewees reported that there are limited sexual health resources on campus, especially for community colleges in rural areas, so students are often required to seek sexual health resources outside of their college. Because there are often limited sexual health services and resources available in rural communities, these students face significant barriers to accessing resources for pregnancy, STIs, and sexual assault. Though some community colleges provided on-campus resources for students, interviewees reported that students still relied heavily on sexual health services in their broader community because of limitations in what their on-campus resources could provide.

Second, interviewees reported that regardless of the amount of sexual health resources that exist on their campus, staff often have an active role in helping students find resources related to pregnancy, STIs, and sexual violence. Third, participants reported that college staff often have collaborative partnerships with the off-campus community-based organizations that provide sexual health resources for students, such as local medical clinics, mental health counselors, and more. Fourth, interviewees reported the need for sexual health resources that respect students’ autonomy and are embedded in student and campus culture. For example, participants reported that resources should provide students with choices, be LGBTQ+ inclusive, and relatable to students. Fifth, interviewees reported that community college staff are often provided with extensive and clear procedures for providing resources to students who have experienced sexual assault, but they lack clear instructions to help students who are pregnant or may have an STI.

Dodson concluded her presentation with a discussion of the importance of on-campus and community-based sexual health resources that are inclusive, nonjudgmental, and relatable, as well as the need for increased funding for sexual health resources on community college campuses.

Critical Media Attitudes as a Buffer Against the Harmful Impacts of Pornography

Dr. Evans-Paulson gave an oral presentation entitled Critical Media Attitudes as a Buffer Against the Harmful Effects of Pornography on Beliefs About Sexual and Dating Violence: A Cross-Sectional Study with Early High School Students at this year’s conference. During this presentation, Evans-Paulson outlined findings from a study that examined how critical media attitudes may help protect adolescents from internalizing harmful messages in pornography about sexual and relationship health.

Research has shown that pornography often contains depictions of physical aggression paired with sexuality, representations of harmful traditional gender norms, and few depictions of healthy sexual communication. In addition, a growing amount of literature shows that adolescent pornography use is associated with greater acceptance of dating violence, rape myths, traditional gender role norms, and notions of women as sex objects. As the number of youth exposed to pornography increases, and at increasingly younger ages, it may be important for youth to adopt more critical views of sexual media. Researchers have theorized that when adolescents have feelings of distrust towards media and question how realistic the messages in media really are, they may be less likely to internalize unhealthy media messages. Using data collected from computer-based questionnaires completed by 9th and 10th grade students in the United States, iRT researchers examined how critical media attitudes (i.e., perceived realism of sexual media messages and skepticism of media messages) may moderate the relationship between adolescent pornography use and acceptance of rape myths, traditional gender role norms, and dating violence.

During her presentation, Evans-Paulson discussed how study findings indicated that students who use pornography more frequently were more accepting of traditional gender role norms, rape myths, and dating violence. However, pornography use was only associated with greater acceptance of rape myths and gender norms among adolescents that were less skeptical of media messages about sex. Media skepticism did not moderate the relationship between pornography exposure and acceptance of dating violence; however, adolescents who demonstrated greater skepticism of media messages about sex were less accepting of dating violence. In addition, when students perceived media messages about teenage sexual health to be less realistic, they were less accepting of rape myths and traditional gender role norms.

Evans-Paulson concluded her presentation by discussing how the inclusion of media literacy education programming in sexual health education may help protect adolescents from the harmful impacts of pornography. Though these study findings support efforts with early adolescents to promote media skepticism and reduce perceived realism of media messages about sex, more research is needed to understand the impacts of critical media attitudes on adolescent sexual health and beliefs.

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