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It’s a family affair

October 24th, 2005

Dr Petra

Yesterday’s Boston Globe carried the story ‘Parents press for consent before school sex surveys’.

The piece explained how some parents in Massachusetts were worried that their children might be asked to participate in sex research, and were putting pressure on the state to ensure parental permission is sought before research occurs.

That isn’t unreasonable, most concerned parents would want to know if their child or teenager was being enrolled into research – whatever it’s topic.

And perhaps unsurprising given the Globe piece got a little carried away with itself, listing ‘sex survey’ questions like:
”During the past three months, with how many people did you have sexual intercourse?”
”Have you ever given or received oral sex?”
”Which of the following best describes you: heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian, not sure, or none of the above?”

The sort of thing that would cause concern for most parents or guardians.

Whilst the piece outlines these questions would be asked in anonymous surveys conducted for health or social research projects in order to understand sexual behaviour, prevent disease or improve education, it doesn’t really make the research process clear – which may lead to parents blocking their child from answering survey questions. It also implies that all sex research is focused on adult sexual behaviour – which isn’t necessarily true.

Whether you’re a parent, schoolteacher or young person, here’s some background information about sex surveys that should help you decide about participation if you’re ever asked to be in a study.

I’m a parent; can my child be in a survey without my knowledge or consent?

If you are a parent of a child who is younger than the age of sexual consent in your state or country then your child’s school should inform you if any research (whatever it’s content) is planned. This may be a letter from the head teacher and/or lead researcher on the planned study. This should tell you who will be conducting the research, what it will be used for, what it will involve, topics or areas to be covered and the role of you/your child in the study.

Just because the school has agreed to support the research doesn’t mean you have to agree to your child being in the research.

Questions or tasks in the research should be appropriate to your child’s age and abilities. You should be offered the opportunity to decide whether your child can be part of the research and you and your child should suffer no penalties for refusing to participate. Even if you give your consent your child still has the right to refuse before or during the research. They can also say if they want their responses pulled from the research after participating if they feel upset by the research.

You have every right to ask more information from the research team behind the study. Their letter to you or the school ought to provide a contact phone number or email. You can ask to see any interview or survey questions they plan to ask, and copies of ethics approval of their work. This should be provided promptly and without question. In many cases researchers may offer an open evening at your child’s school where you can ask questions. If not, ask for this to be offered (your head teacher or lead researcher should be willing to provide this).

On some large-scale studies, particularly those run across different countries, it might be more difficult to arrange a meeting – however you should still be able to speak to a lead/principal researcher – and they ought to call or email you with information required to reassure you.

If your child is older than the age of consent in your state or country then you can’t prevent them from taking part in a study.

When a child (who you’ve consented into research) or teen completes any form of research (not just sex research) their responses will anonymised and treated confidentially. That means that no other child, teacher or you can see what they’ve written.

For young children you may have to consent for them. However this sort of research will be suited to the child’s developmental level and will not contain sexually explicit content of any kind. Most sex research is conducted on those in their late teens. Younger children may be asked about their understanding of the body but certainly not sexual practices.

Can I prevent sex research being conducted at my child’s school?

You’ve every right to challenge the research if you think it could harm your child. If it’s a reputable study and the school has already decided to allow research to be conducted it may be more difficult to prevent it. It depends on the sort of research being conducted and your views. You may disagree because of your religion or opinions about sex, but if the study is for a health or social study you may decide to prevent your child from participating rather deciding all the children at the school can’t be in the study. Talk to other parents, the school and the researchers – find out the point of the research (see below). You have every right to voice your concerns but do so once you’ve found out about the research and the researchers, not just say no because you think it’s about sex. The questions mentioned in the Boston Globe feature are not representative of the average sex survey given to adults, let alone teens – so check the study before you decide.

I’m a teen and I’d like to be in a sex survey, must I tell my parents?

If you are under the age of consent for your state or country your school will probably ask for parental permission. If you are over the age of consent you can decide whether to take part without asking your parents or guardian. Anything run through your school, youth club, place of worship etc will require a parent’s permission. Some magazines or websites invite participation without you having to check for parental permission, but these may not be reputable or ethical.

What sort of things are asked in sex surveys – will it put my child at risk?

Sex surveys are based on the ability and age of your child. As mentioned above sex research is not conducted on very young children. Most research is carried out on children from puberty onwards. Studies can cover things like awareness of puberty, experiences of menstruation, body image, eating disorders, friendships and relationships, and questions about sexual attitudes and behaviours. These latter surveys often ask if young people have heard about different sexual activities and also if they have tried them. If a young person doesn’t know about the activity they are able to say so. The reason people carry out sex and relationship surveys is to identify risky sexual behaviour, areas where teens or young people could be at risk (e.g. of coercion or exploitation), knowledge of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections, and attitudes to safer sex. Results can be used to inform sex education, increase young people’s knowledge and confidence, or help prevent unwanted pregnancy or sexual exploitation.

Who studies sex? How can I be sure they won’t harm my child?

Sex researchers will usually have undergone a number of checks that will ensure your child or teenager is safe. Firstly they will have been trained to study sex in a sensitive and ethical manner. Secondly they will have had to have their research idea ethically approved by an independent body before they can even approach you, the school or your child/teen. Thirdly in many countries or states they will also have had to be police checked to ensure they have no criminal convictions involving children. Sex research is well vetted within organisations and the researchers will be supervised to ensure they behave appropriately at all times. If you have any questions you can ask the lead researcher, their employer or funding body (this should be provided on request).

Why do we need to study sex – isn’t this ruining childhood?

We need to study sex for several reasons. In many countries young people are having sex at an increasingly early age. Many are taking risks – not using condoms or other contraception, meaning they can catch sexually transmitted infections or have unwanted pregnancies. In many places young people are very ill informed about sex that can put them at risk. In some countries or states gender divisions mean young girls are particularly at risk of exploitation, or young men are encouraged to put their sexual health at risk through a lack of education and masculine bravado. Sex researchers are there to help. They’re finding the answers to the problems we have about sex so we can help build a generation of confident young people.

If we ask young people questions about sex will they start trying the things they’ve read about?

No. There’s no evidence for this. In fact most sex research projects permit a range of responses – meaning if a young person says they aren’t ready for sex yet this is respected and reported. If a young person isn’t interested in or having sex they simply answer no or skip the question. If a young person is having sex they are asked non-judgementally and provided with advice and support should they need it after the study – this means if they are at risk in any way they can be protected and advised.

In all cases researchers will recommend young people do talk to their parent or guardian if they feel able to.

How do you study sex – what will happen in a sex study?

A sex study could take a number of formats. It might be ticking responses on a questionnaire/sex survey. It might be a one to one interview where a researcher talks to the young person about their views and experiences – this could be audio or videotaped (again you or your teenager will be asked to consent to this). It might be young people are interviewed by a researcher or by each other in a group, or they may produce some artwork or other materials about a sex/relationship topic. Alternatively they may answer questions on an online questionnaire or discussion group.

The method will match the topic and the level of ability of the young people being studied. It will also be designed to appeal to young people so may not always seem like research to you, but should seem like fun to them. Overall the methods should be non-threatening, make the young participants feel safe and able to disclose, and also respect any cultural or religious needs (for example girl only interview groups, or male interviews for male participants).

If I’ve got a problem with sex research what can I do about it?

It’s a good idea to find out as much as you can before the study happens. If you or your child were unhappy about the research or have questions after you can ask to speak to the researcher concerned. If you’re still unhappy (or that researcher caused you concern) you can speak to either the lead researcher/principal investigator (who should be named on any correspondence you get about the study) and/or their employer (for example the university or health trust they work for). Ask to speak to the head of their department or chair of their ethics committee.

Below is a list of questions you should ask of any researcher. These questions apply to all research and a professional and experienced researcher will expect you to ask them. Whether you’re a parent or young person deciding on being in a study these questions are okay for you to ask.

Fifteen questions to ask a sex researcher…

1. What are your skills, qualifications, and contact details?
2. Who is leading this research and what are their skills, qualifications and contact details?
3. What is the purpose of this research?
4. What will this study involve?
5. Who is funding this research? What do they want from this study?
6. Do you have ethics approval to carry out this research – where has this permission come from? (If in doubt ask to see a copy of the letter from their ethics committee).
7. Please may I see any materials you plan on using in this research?
8. Has this research been carried out elsewhere? If so, what was the response from other parents/young people?
9. What will I/my child be required to do?
10. Could anything go wrong? How will you ensure my/my child’s physical or psychological welfare during and immediately after this research?
11. What will happen if my child gets upset or wants to stop the study?
12. What will the results of this study be used for? (e.g. a local service improvement or changes to a national health policy).
13. Will the findings be made public? If so how? (For example in a report in a medical journal or an executive summary to the funding body).
14. How will you protect my child’s anonymity and confidentiality?
15. May I see a copy of the research when it is completed?

If you don’t get clear answers to the above questions, or you feel you’re not being taken seriously, or you or your child are just being used to get data for a study then you have every right to refuse to participate.

Most sex research is reputable, reliable and is used to help make us safer, happier and more confident. If you’re a teen or a parent of a child it’s worth giving consent to sex research so we can solve sex and relationship problems and increase well being.

Plus they can help you learn more about yourself – and they can also be really good fun!

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