Memorable familial messages about sex: a qualitative content analysis of college student narratives.

Author:Kauffman, Lydia
Position:Author abstract

For many, sexual activity starts in early adulthood (Goins, Garcia, & Barger, J., 2013; Mosher, Chandra & Jones, 2005). It is widely acknowledged that memorable experiences about sex shape and dictate one's sexual behaviors. Yet, it is a complex task to pinpoint exactly how, and to what extent, these messages impact one's sex life (Medved Brogan, McClanahan, Morris & Shepard, 2006). Familial influences are one of the main sources that affect young adults' communicative decisions, including those related to sexual activity (Guo & Nathanson, 2011). According to Hutchinson and Cederbaum (2011), both parents play a large role in the socialization of their children and fathers may even have a larger influence on their daughter's future sex decisions. Other research emphasizes the importance of mother's communication with both daughters and sons (Coffelt, 2010; Morman & Whitely, 2012). An important dynamic to parent-child communication about sex is that of the manner in which the messages are sent. According to Morgan, Zurbriggen, and Thorn (2010), males report different types of memorable messages than females. For example, messages to males focus more on pleasure and exploration, while messages about sex to females seem to be geared more towards measures of precaution and consequences of sex. Given the high prevalence of sexual activity for young adults and the physical and psychological costs that come with it, calls for theoretically informed research that produces practical recommendations abound in various arenas (e.g., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011). Consequently, a study examining memorable message narratives that focuses on the particulars of the message--source, theme, framing and communication type--is important in further enhancing existing knowledge.

Amidst a significant amount of literature (e.g., Guo & Nathanson, 2011), two major themes appear throughout existing literature on family communication about sex. First, as described by Bleakley, Hennessy, Fishbein, Coles and Jordan (2009), the interaction of parental figures and religious background influences the messages that are communicated to children. Specifically, Bleakley at al. found that mothers focused on the physical consequences of sex as well as the social outcomes that accompanied premature sexual activity. In this familial context, individuals describe feeling ashamed or guilty of their first sexual experiences because of their family values and religious beliefs. Consequently, parental comfort has been demonstrated to impact parent-child communication regarding sex (Jerman & Constantine, 2010). More specifically, when mothers approached sex as a natural topic, more positive feelings occurred (Coffelt, 2010). Second, open and early communication regarding adolescent sexual activity was found to create positive, safe sex practices in young adults (Moore & Chase-Lansdale, 2001; Morman & Whitely, 2012). According to a study done by Townsend (2008), socialization messages are not always explicit and frequently are communicated via implicit "colorful colloquialisms" that help form young people's ideas about how sexual experiences should happen. Townsend also describes a process called armoring, the socialization process that draws from the parents' own experiences. Through armoring, a parent's worldview dictates how they will socialize their children regarding sexual practices. Given this, it is important to recognize that many of the narratives can be attributed to the personal, social, and cultural experiences of the parent when analyzing the child's perspective on sex (Gallegos, Villarruel, & Gomez, 2007; Randolph et al., 2013; Tobey et al., 2011).

Non-familial influences must also be taken into account when searching for insight into the sexual socialization of young adults. In this regard, memorable messages from peers (Busse, Fishbein, Bleakley, & Hennessy, 2010), personal experiences (Ellis & Smith, 2004), and media texts (Hust, Brown, & L'Engle, 2008) also must be acknowledged. These messages, more specifically, must be understood in regards to how they negotiated alongside familial messages. Richardson's (2009) study of the socialization of young African American women, for example, found that certain familial memorable messages appeared to be based on mass mediated sources. Her research concluded that socialization is formed partially by sources outside of the family, but are likely reiterated by family members.

The Narratology of Memorable Messages About Sex

Individuals receive hundreds, if not thousands, of messages from various sources every day; yet the vast majority of these messages remain on the fringes of short-term memory (Smith, Ellis & Yoo, 2001). Only a select few of these messages become "memorable," meaning that they are remembered for an extended period of time and continue to have a profound influence on a person's life (Knapp, Stohl & Reardon, 1981). Memorable messages are personal and legitimate messages (Stohl, 1986), internalized and taken to heart (Knapp et al., 1981) that become a lasting influence on people's lives (Ellis & Smith, 2004). Consequently, they represent "rich sources of information about ourselves, our society, and our ways of communicating" (Knapp, 1981, p. 40).

In the past, communication scholars have studied memorable messages in terms of organizational socialization (e.g., Dallimore, 2003; Stohl, 1986), influence of family communication (e.g., Ellis & Smith, 2004; Medved et al., 2006), perceptions of illness and healthcare (e.g., Keely, 2004; Lauckner et al., 2012; Smith et al., 2009; Smith et al., 2010), constructions of identity (Heisler & Ellis, 2008; Holladay, 2002) and understandings of discrimination in an increasingly diverse world (Camara & Orbe, 2010). For this particular study, the literature on memorable messages represents a useful conceptual lens through which to study salient influences of current sexual practices (Medved et al., 2006). Specifically, we extend this conceptual frame by focusing on memorable message narratives--the stories that individuals name as most influential to current practices.

Traditionally memorable message research has followed a rational-scientific model whereby memorable messages were measured in terms of their role in self-assessing current and past behaviors (e.g., Ellis & Smith, 2004). Given our interest in participant recollections of memorable messages they received regarding sex, we adopt narrative theory (W. Fisher, 1987) as a theoretical lens to highlight the narratological nature of memorable messages. Narratology, according to Browning (2009), is the "study and theory of narratives, or complex stories--what they are made of, how they are structured, and what we gain from using them as a vehicle for communication" (p. 673). Treating descriptions of memorable messages as narratives is consistent with qualitative methodology that adopts a humanistic approach to communication research (Bute & Jensen, 2011; Manoogian, Harter, & Denham, 2010). Accordingly, we understand memorable messages as stories that hold special meaning and contain important life lessons (Browning, 2009).

According to Knapp et al. (1981), memorable messages are "remembered for extremely long periods of time," and are perceived as "a major influence on the course of [people's] lives" (p. 27). A message is memorable because it provides an answer to an inner conflict or personal problem, prompts a greater understanding of self, or provides a guide to self-assessment of behavior that is analyzed and discussed (Smith, Ellis, & Yoo, 2001). While earlier research found that memorable messages were offered verbally by older people with higher statuses in comparison to the participant (Knapp et al., 1981), more recent studies identify more diverse sources of memorable message including peers (Smith et al., 2010) and those gained from personal experiences (Ellis & Smith, 2004). Interestingly, Morgan and Zurbriggen (2007) found that the negotiation of the first sexual partner has a lasting impact on sexual and relational influences. Their research demonstrated the multidimensional nature of memorable experiences that are formulated from different sources over the course of one's life and the complex ways that they shape ideas and beliefs about current and future sexual encounters. In short, memorable messages are gained through a variety of sources and contexts, and provide a general guideline for what should or should not be done in a given situation, and are recalled when a decision must be made on how to behave.

As demonstrated through this abbreviated literature review, scholars have utilized memorable messages as a conceptual framework to study a variety of communicative contexts. In addition, researchers have engaged this topic, both quantitatively (e.g., Barge & Schlueter, 2004; Holladay, 2002; Smith & Ellis, 2001; Smith et al., 2001) and qualitatively (e.g., Ford & Ellis, 1998; Keeley, 2004; Knapp et al., 1981; Stohl, 1986) in research studies. Unlike existing research, we adopt narratology to study how meaning is generated through memorable message narratives (e.g., Manoogian et al., 2010). Given the exploratory nature of our study on memorable messages about sex, we utilize it as an interpretive lens to gain insight on the following research question: (1) What types of memorable familial messages regarding sex were identified by individuals as most salient to their current sexual practices?, and (2) What were the sources, valence, communicative forms, and meanings of these messages?

An Inductive, Discovery-Oriented Methodological Framework

Study Overview

The data for this study were collected between April 2012-June 2012 as part of a larger research project focusing on HPV knowledge, sexual experiences and knowledge of sexually transmitted infections. The on-line survey contained a few binary questions (e.g., Have you ever had sex?) as well as...

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