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Principal Investigator

  • Gillian Abel

Supported by the Health Research Council


The aim of the research is to reduce unwanted pregnancies and STDs among New Zealand adolescents by exploring the contexts affecting sexual initiation, risk related sexual behaviour and sexual negotiations. The study's origins lie in concerns about the unwanted outcomes of adolescent sexual behaviour, particularly the number of unwanted pregnancies (indicated by the numbers of abortions) and STDs among adolescents, the paucity of knowledge about determinants of sexual uptake, risk taking and negotiation among adolescents, the absence of much rigorous evaluation of sex education, and the need of end users for information to design services for adolescent sexual health.

The methodology is a two year prospective qualitative study of 40 fourth formers aged 14 to 15 years, contacting each participant up to five times during the course of the study in focus groups or personal interviews. The interviews and focus groups discussions were transcribed and the transcripts form the data for analysis. Key research questions focus on three issues.

The first is how and why adolescents initiate sexual activity and the degree to which they are able to exercise autonomy and control in that event.The second area of interest is the factors affecting risk related sexual activity, particularly participants' understandings of risky contexts, 'rules' for sex, and the relationship between behaviour and thinking in relation to risk.The third issue of interest is sexual negotiation as played out in vocabularies, language and sequences of behaviour.

In exploring all these issues, attention is paid to differences of 'culture' particularly as these are made manifest around the dimensions of gender and ethnicity. Structures and processes have been designed to ensure research processes are culturally safe and that Maori have ownership of the findings relating to Maori. End user perspectives as conveyed in deliberations with the Advisory group and the Maori Support Group will guide priorities for research processes and analysis within the broad parameters of the research. Specific analytic techniques will be drawn from discourse analysis, conversation analysis, and on some occasions decision tree analysis.

The significance of the study lies in its contribution to decreasing unwanted pregnancies and STDs among adolescents by informing and improving the resources and practice of those involved in health services and education directed at adolescent sexual behaviour. To this end the applicants intend to ensure that findings are widely disseminated, not only to academic audience and policy makers but also to community-based practitioners, including teachers, of the Health Curriculum.


  • Abel G, Plumridge L and Graham P. Peers, networks or relationships: strategies for understanding social dynamics as determinants of smoking behaviour, Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy 9(4): 325-38, 2002.
  • Plumridge EW, Fitzgerald L and Abel G. Performing coolness: smoking refusal and adolescent identities. Health Education Research 17(2): 167-79, 2002.
  • Abel G and Plumridge L. Network 'norms' or 'styles' of 'drunken comportment'? Health Education Research 19(5): 492-500, 2004.
  • Abel G and Fitzgerald L. "When you come to it you feel like a dork asking a guy to put a condom on": is sex education addressing young people's understandings of risk? Sex Education 6(2): 105-19, 2006
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