Negotiation in teenage girls' sexually motivated situations: achievement of intentions using different negotiation strategies.

Author:Suvivuo, Pia


Adolescence is a period of complex and multidimensional transition between childhood and adulthood that involves many biological, cognitive, and socio-emotional changes. The developmental process of early adolescence corresponds roughly to the junior high school years and includes most pubertal changes (Santrock, 2008). One of the important tasks in adolescence is to "process" sexuality, sexual roles, and healthy sexual behavior. During early adolescence, girls work up personal interests, goals, and values, and they learn and practice achievement of intention and negotiation in their relationships. In the promotion of sexual health, adolescents are enabled to increase their control over, identify, and realize their intentions and desires, satisfy their needs, and improve their sexual health (Aggleton & Campbell, 2000; WHO, 2010).

Adolescent girls' ability to communicate and negotiate effectively about their sexual desires and intentions is necessary for their sexual health and satisfying sexual experiences. Failure to do so may place them at risk of unintended pregnancy, STDs, sexual violence, and other negative sexual experiences (Rickert et al., 2002). It has been asserted that adolescent girls' communication and negotiation strategies with their partner also significantly affect their safe sex practices, like condom use. Many previous researchers support this assumption (Catania et al., 1989; Weissman et al., 1989; Strader et al., 1992; Sheeran et al., 1999; Kordoutis et al., 2000; Stone & Ingham, 2002; Holschneider & Alexander, 2003; Manlove et al., 2003, 2004; Noar et al., 2006; Widman et al., 2006). However, some studies (e.g. Lock et al., 1998) have shown different results; communication does not automatically lead to safe sex practices.

Negotiation differs from general communication. In negotiation, two partners try to work out a solution to a concrete question, like sexual activity, and try to attune their personal intentions. Negotiation includes reciprocity and statement of clear personal intentions, which means letting the partner know what is desired, and discussing the matter with him/her. A person's intention in performing an action is his/her specific purpose in doing so, the goal he/she is aiming for or intends to accomplish; this element distinguishes negotiation from communication, dialogue, and discussion. Negotiation about sexual issues is a complex social interaction where the individual's as well as the partner's dynamics need to be taken into account along with the specific circumstances. It requires special skills and knowledge, like assertiveness, it contains impression management, and it requires constant effort, even among those who have made the most progress in incorporating it (Lear, 1995; Ridge, 2004, 2007). Negotiation is necessary particularly when sexual partners are unaware of each other's intentions or when they have different intentions, for example, concerning contraception (DeVisser, 2004).

The "girlpower" movement in the twentieth century has produced a "new" girlhood in Western culture. Girls have defined themselves as independent, successful, and self-inventing participants of society. This change in youth culture enables young girls to empower themselves, be more assertive, show their aggression, and take their place in different forums. Being heard and seen by others has become one of the most important socio-political objectives for adolescent girls in society as well as in their social relationships (Harris, 2004; Aapola et al., 2005). Young girls expect good-quality interactions in their dating relationships. They desire reciprocal contact, and a relationship that enables sharing of thoughts and feelings (Nare, 2005).

In Finland, attitudes towards sexuality and sex education are positive. Sex education has been offered in schools since the 1970s, nowadays as part of the national curriculum (FNBE, 2004). Adolescents' sexual and reproductive health in Finland has been considered good internationally. The median age in female sexual initiation in Finland is close to what has been found in other Western European countries (Kontula, 2003, 2010). Thirty percent of Finnish girls had their first coitus before the age of 16. More than half of them (52%) have had one sexual partner and 76% had not used alcohol before their last intercourse. Eighty-six percent used modern contraceptives (condoms or pills) at the age of 15 ( Finnish School Health Promotion Study, 2009). Finnish 9th grade girls have a positive presumption about their ability to control sexual situations and suggest contraception. Almost all (95%) felt it was easy to refuse unpleasant sexual behavior, and 83% felt it was easy even when drunken. Likewise, most girls (94%) estimated that it would be easy to suggest or even require condom use. Eighty-five percent of girls thought it would be easy to talk openly about sex with their partner (Finnish School Health Promotion Study, 2009).

However, negotiation about sexual matters is often (still) dominated by traditional gender roles. Traditionally, girls are usually not expected to assert their own needs in sexual encounters. Girls who are openly sexually active, reveal their needs and desires for sex, and seek their own sexual pleasure are easily defined as "slags." If a girl is too sexually active, her reputation can be questioned because of breaking the expectations of socially accepted and gendered behavior (Holland et al., 1990; Kordoutis et al., 2000; Saarikoski, 2001; Aaltonen & Honkatukia, 2002; Aapola et al., 2005; Aaltonen, 2006). Likewise, girls may lack confidence in sexual matters and may feel unable to ask for what they want. The reason for this may be their embarrassment or their assumption that men are more competent actors in sex. They may also avoid discussing, and for example suggesting condom use, because the discussion itself may be interpreted as consenting to intercourse (Holland et al., 1990; Holland & Ramazanoglu, 1992; DeVisser, 2004). The girl may also believe she does not have the right to communicate about her sexual desires and wishes, refuse to have intercourse, or make decisions about contraception, regardless of her partner's wishes (Rickert et al., 2002; c.f. WHO, 2011).

In previous research (e.g. Vanwesenbeeck, 1997), it has been presented that even though young women are able to say yes or no--i.e. give their consent to sexual intimacy--they are not necessarily able to negotiate further. There can be a mismatch between girls' intellectual empowerment and their capacity to put their intentions into sexual practice. Oftentimes they have knowledge, expectations, and possibilities in a sexual encounter, but they fail in their attempts to take control over their own sexuality. They are not able to bring their expectations and control over sexual situations into practice. For example, some girls may have intended to propose condom use, but for some reason were not able to do so. Likewise, even though a girl may have negotiated and discussed about sex with her dating partner, the outcome of negotiating may have been negative. For example, even though the girl proposed condom use, her partner may have refused (Holland & Ramazanoglu, 1992; Kordoutis et al., 2000; Guzman et al., 2003). Sometimes girls have to be rather assertive in defining their own desires. The girl may get frustrated and discouraged when either her partner did not continue the discussion or he became angry or reacted in some other negative way. She also has to be prepared to lose her boyfriend if his definition of a satisfactory sexual relationship is not achieved (Holland et al., 1990; Lock et al., 1998; Coleman & Ingham, 1999).

Negotiation in heterosexual relationships is a complex process. The language available for communication about sexuality is often limited and gendered. Not only can the topics of the conversation be socially defined according to the speaker's sex, but woman and men often differ in the phrases and words they use. While men can access a public language of instrumental sexuality, women are relegated to accessing a respectable language of romance. Likewise, female talk often involves feelings, and men's talk distances the self from emotions. Additionally, much of the feminine language of sex is constituted in silences. This may cause differences, confusions, and contradictions in communicating about sex and sexuality between women and men (Holland et al. 1998; Marston, 2004).

At least in the early stages of a relationship, sexual encounters often involve very little verbal and open communication. More often communication is nonverbal and coded (Lear, 1995). Previous studies have shown the importance of indirect and nonverbal communication in negotiating sexual issues, for example safe sex or condom use in a sexual encounter. Although direct strategies may be more frequently used and seem to be more effective, for example condom users also employ indirect strategies successfully. Most individuals use multiple strategies when negotiating condom use, for example (Choi et al., 2004; Lam et al., 2004; Lam & Barnhardt, 2006).

Lam et al. (2004), Lam and Barnhardt (2006), and Choi et al. (2004) have found different strategies in females' negotiation about condom use. According to Lam et al. (2004) and Lam and Barnhardt, (2006); young women use verbal-direct, verbal-indirect, nonverbal-direct and nonverbal-indirect strategies. Verbal-direct messages are verbal: the girl is explicit in her request. She discusses openly about sexual issues, (e.g., gives STD or pregnancy as a reason to use condoms), tells her partner directly what she wants, and verbally expresses negative feelings (i.e., objections or complaints) about things she dislikes. She may also verbally threaten (e.g., no condom, no sex) her partner. Verbal-indirect messages are verbal in nature but the girl is more subtle in her requests. She may drop hints ("so and so...

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