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Try out PMC Labs and tell us what you think. Learn More. Research assistant at the University of Washington; and William H. Single-sex focus groups were conducted and analyzed for themes. Major themes included gender differences in communication of sexual interest, with men reportedly perceiving more sexualized intentions than women intended to communicate. Gender similarities were observed related to preferring indirect and nonverbal communication and to having more freedom to pursue sexual goals in college.

Men focused more intently on casual sex goals, whereas women reported more relationship goals and concerns about reputation. Most research on college student sexuality, including sexual decision-making, risky sexual behavior, and sexual assault, is quantitative. As a result, the voices of college students themselves are underrepresented in the scientific literature, and, as with any field that is dominated by quantitative methodology, it is unclear whether or how much researchers may be imposing their interpretations on the population.

In addition, existing research tends to focus on problematic sexual outcomes e. This emphasis on quantitative approaches and on problematic outcomes has direct implications for college student development and health care professionals who rely on such findings to develop, provide, and evaluate education, prevention, and intervention programs.

Accordingly, this paper uses a qualitative approach to investigate college student sexuality, focusing on the communication of sexual interest and sexual goals about consensual sexual behaviors. Echoing researchers on adolescent sexuality e. Although sexual and romantic relationships are of great interest and importance to college students, the communication of such interest can be quite difficult.

Such findings highlight the importance of, and need for, research that identifies the cues linked to misperceptions and sexual assault and, thus, determines how to frame interventions. In addition, this line of research has been primarily quantitative in de. Further, the particular cues that have been investigated have largely been identified by researchers rather than participants. Qualitative research strategies allow for in-depth exploration of these issues.

This is particularly important in light of research demonstrating that communication about other aspects of sexuality, such as condom use, abstinence, and consent, has been associated with safer-sex behavior and sexual assault Foubert et al. In addition to having differences in both communication and perception of sexual interest, male and female college students may also differ with respect to sexual goals.

For example, young people whose primary sexual goal is obtaining casual sex may represent different challenges for STI prevention programs than may those whose primary sexual goal is a long-term relationship. For adolescents, entering college typically brings about more freedom relative to high school and is a time of exploration and expansion. Profound developmental changes that affect romantic and other intimate relationships occur during the transition from high school to college e.

College can provide new sources of sexual partners, increased chances for engaging in sexual behavior, and new opportunities to test out different identities and behaviors e. As noted by Arnett , traditional age college students i. In particular, this transition and period can bring increased risk for problematic sexual behaviors. All identified as heterosexual. Seventy-six percent of the sample reported being in their first year of college. Focus groups were held during winter quarter. Thus, most participants had experienced only 3 months of college before they ed the study.

There were four groups in the study: two all male groups and two all female groups. Each session lasted 90 minutes and was audio taped. The focus group portion lasted about 70 minutes. The remaining time was used to administer written informed consent documents and a brief demographic questionnaire, review group rules for the discussion, and conduct an icebreaker exercise.

All focus groups were led by a gender-matched graduate student and undergraduate research assistant pair. Each focus group comprised 6 to 8 same-sex participants. Ground rules, which were intended to maximize privacy and confidentiality, were reviewed with all participants. Participants were instructed: a not to discuss specific personal sexual experiences but to discuss how, in general, individuals their age talk about sex; b never to use names; c to talk one at a time; and d not to talk about the session after it was completed. No names were transcribed, real or fictitious.

As recommended by Morgan , groups began with an icebreaker exercise to serve as a general introduction to the topic, model for the student our reliance on their expertise and experiences, and acclimate them to the group context. Participants then discussed what aspects of the scenes presented were realistic versus not realistic. One clip was intended to be relatively realistic i. The clips took 5 minutes to watch and discussion lasted approximately 10 minutes. Focus group discussion began immediately after the ice breaker exercise.

Questions were intended to clarify particular aspects of sexual communication, including gender differences, verbal versus nonverbal communication, sending versus receiving messages, communication strategies for indicating comfort or lack of comfort with sexual activities, communication strategies for short-term and long-term relationships, and the role of alcohol.

Focus group questions were drawn from the literature on sexuality, sexual intentions, and dating, which spans psychology, communication, and sexuality fields e. Participants were asked to explain, elaborate on, or dispute any comments that were made during the session in order to allow participants to clarify their responses and, thus, enhance the breadth and depth of the group discussions.

All focus groups were transcribed fully. Transcripts were structured so that each paragraph represented an individual speaker. To promote consistency and accuracy, transcripts were double-checked for accuracy by independent research assistants. The final transcript was accepted unanimously by researchers. Data collection and analysis was guided by the theory and methods of content analysis Krippendorf, , a standard qualitative paradigm in which the voices of the participants are placed at the center of the analysis. The goal of content analysis is to add to the collective understanding of a given phenomenon by classifying a large amount of relevant text into thematic that represent the central ideas present in the data.

Content analysis involves a close reading of the text to determine relevant codes, , and themes. No codes, , or themes were specified a priori. Two investigators, who also served as the senior focus group facilitators, read the transcripts multiple times. Independently, both highlighted and coded relevant text in all transcripts and gave the code a descriptive label; codes could represent either explicit or inferred communication Krippendorf, Then, the iterative process of reading through each of the transcripts line by line and coding, categorizing, discussing, and refining ideas began.

Codes were given to selected areas of text, indicating content e. Multiple codes, understood together, were grouped into areas of relative agreement i. These themes were aggregated to comprise the theme areas listed below. The use of various forms of triangulation—multiple sources of data i. Using the final coded version of the transcripts, representative quotes were chosen and are reproduced here. Participants gave examples of how sexual interest and disinterest were communicated.

Men and women agreed in some respects. Lying could also be used to express disinterest e. Indirect communication was typically used before direct communication to express disinterest. Verbal communication was described as a last resort, used only if the other party did not pick up on repeated, indirect cues of disinterest:. And [expressing] yourself with body language is not enough. You actually have to say it to the person, that it is not the right thing to do.

Gender differences in sexual communication and perception were also found. In contrast, women did not cite style of dress as a method of communicating sexual interest. Both sexes agreed that men typically saw more sexual intent than women communicated. Men characterized themselves as being more direct than women when expressing sexual interest. Men agreed with the idea that women had more fixed sexual boundaries and noted that, in their experience, some women would not have sex outside of a committed relationship. They characterized women as more likely to seek long-term relationships than casual sex.

In contrast, men were characterized by both sexes as always wanting sex, regardless of relationship status. Thus, women saw themselves as sexual gatekeepers, that is, as responsible for deciding whether and how much sexual interaction would occur. Often this decision was made in advance:. I think the guy kind of has an idea if she is the kind of girl that is down for it, or is sexually active or not. Men described both casual sex and long-term relationships in terms of work. Casual sex was characterized as a challenge or a conquest that was enjoyable, whereas long-term relationships were characterized as work that was more onerous and less exciting than the pursuit of more casual relationships:.

In [the] short term … you have a challenge there. Whatever I gotta do to get this! Men reported manipulating situations to increase the likelihood of having sex. Rarely did a casual sex encounter result in a long-term relationship:. Both men and women discussed changes that occurred between high school and college. Structural differences, such as increased physical freedom and privacy in college relative to high school, were cited as increasing accessibility to sex:. Both sexes reported that these changes, in addition to increased sexual experience by the time they reach college, resulted in more openness and freedom regarding sexuality.

Women reported that sexual conversations were more acceptable in college relative to high school and that they had become less concerned that talking about sex implied promiscuity:. In my experience of listening to people, they are much more unembarrassed and unashamed [when talking about sex in college]. They just view themselves as much more adult, and they expect other people to rise to that level and deal with it in the same way.

Women reported a shift in social influences on their sexual behavior. Casual sex was characterized by both sexes as more acceptable in college relative to high school:. A girl or a guy can do what they want and not worry about hurting their reputation. Sex is more expected in college, I think. Women characterized men as more mature in college as well, stating that men were less afraid of women, more respectful, and more subtle in their pursuit of women than in high school.

Men did not highlight such changes in themselves or remark about any similar changes in women. Sexual goals also evolved with age. As sexual experience increased, motivation for both sexes to have sex simply to gain experience appeared to decrease. Women reported that, in college, both sexes waited longer to have sex and that men were more interested in getting to know women before having sex with them than in high school. They are looking towards marriage or a long term commitment. Dating is different in college in that people get married more often.

Guys will think of ways to get girls into their room [describes several techniques] … usually when the girl [does go] up to his room, they do hook up. The indicate gender similarities and differences in sexual interest communication and perception, sexual goals, and developmental changes in sexual behavior from high school to college.

Congruent with findings from the mostly quantitative literature, we found that indirect approaches were used more often and were preferred to direct, overt approaches to communicate sexual intent. In general, these findings are fairly consistent with qualitative research with college fraternity men by Foubert and colleagues , which indicated that men not only preferred indirect sexual communication strategies but that they were averse to verbal communication related to sexual consent due to concerns about being rejected.

With regard to sexual goals, gender differences, rather than similarities, were most apparent.

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