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Messaging that supports Aboriginal self-determination promotes Aboriginal young people’s sexual health and wellbeing, say social researchers from UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture. 

Acknowledging the strengths of Aboriginal young people and their communities is essential for supporting their sexual health, according to a new study. Aboriginal young people draw on pride in culture and their Aboriginal identity to see themselves as strong and deserving of respectful and healthy relationships, says Professor Joanne Bryant, a non-Aboriginal researcher from the UNSW School of Social Sciences

“Young participants reported that the way you talk about yourself in terms of self-respect and self-care is an important strategy for staying healthy and safe in sexual relationships,” says the Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellow.

“This was expressed in both individual terms where young people were seen to act on an internalised and positive sense of self and articulated in terms of pride in ‘Blakness’, culture and self-determination.”

Olivia, a 26-year-old Aboriginal woman, talked about assertiveness in sexual relationships in terms of Aboriginal young people “taking pride in themselves, just in the way that they walk ... in their Blakness as well, and their ability not to stand down ... being able to kind of speak up and be assertive when they feel like things are going wrong”. 

The research, Fostering the sexual well-being of Aboriginal young people by building on social, cultural and personal strengths and resources, examined how urban Aboriginal young people foster sexual health and wellbeing for themselves and others. 

The project, funded by an ARC linkage grant, was a partnership between South Western Sydney Local Health District, Nepean Blue Mountains Local Health District and Family Planning NSW with UNSW Sydney, Charles Darwin University, University of Sydney, University of Melbourne, University of Queensland and the University of British Columbia. 

The research explored how Aboriginal young people’s sexual beliefs and understandings guide their sexual decision-making and behaviours. It examined the strengths and resources they use to reduce their sexual risk, build positive relationships and advance their sexual wellbeing. The study asked how their values and practices were supported by families, communities and culture and by existing sexual health programs.  

The team conducted in-depth interviews with 51 young people (35 women and 16 men, aged 16-26 years old) and 16 adults (10 women and six men) across two local communities. All participants identified as Aboriginal, with the majority identifying affiliations with specific or multiple Aboriginal Nations, the most common being the Wiradjuri, Kamilaroi, Dunghatti, and Dharawal Nations.  

Young participants, both men and women, highly valued intimate, loving, respectful relationships where there is safety, consent and responsibility, the research found. Trust and honesty were considered important.

The research responds to a need for more qualitative research on Aboriginal young people’s sexual health, particularly in metropolitan areas, says Prof. Bryant. “Most studies about sex and relationships among Aboriginal people in Australia have been based in remote areas. However, the largest population of Aboriginal people in Australia is in Western Sydney and in New South Wales.” 

The study contributes to growing evidence of the agency and capability of Aboriginal young people. “We conducted this research to counter a dominant narrative concerning Aboriginal young people and their sexual health that positions them as necessarily risky and in need of help,” says Prof. Bryant. 

“While Aboriginal young people are disproportionately affected by sexually transmitted infections (STIs), the existing research literature on their sexual health has been dominated by problem-oriented studies reporting on risky sexual practices, poor STI prevention, teenage pregnancy and lack of access to health services.”  

These studies can provide important insights into young people’s sexual practices; however, they also reinforce deficit views of Aboriginal young people, she says. The study adopted a strengths-based approach that considered the role that Aboriginal culture and identity play in Aboriginal young people's lives.

Strengths-based approaches highlight the capacity, skills, knowledge and connections within individuals and communities. “Strengths-based approaches don’t ignore the challenges and difficulties within a community but instead focus on the resources within the community that can be used to promote wellbeing,” says research officer Ms Kacey Martin from the Centre for Social Research in Health (CSRH).

“Our project applies a strengths-based approach in multiple ways. Fourteen young Aboriginal people were trained as peer interviewers and the research team worked closely with a community-based Aboriginal service, local workers and the community.”

The project foregrounded partnership, built research skills and capacity, and prioritised cultural safety and control. An Aboriginal Advisory Committee oversaw the implementation of the project, providing feedback on culturally sensitive issues in both engagement and research outputs. 

Sexual health education that’s “more than the science”

The recommendations report, What we do well: stories of love, sex and relationships, identifies key recommendations for policy and practice that move beyond biomedical-focused sex education to include discussions about respect, consent and the skills required for healthy communication. 

Aboriginal peoples possess a strong sense of community, culture and connection to the Land, says research co-lead Professor Reuben Bolt, Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Leadership and Regional Outreach, Charles Sturt University. “They view health as a broad holistic concept – which includes the physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of a person, their community and Country,” he says.

Building messaging pathways that go beyond online-based platforms to include personal communication is therefore integral, the research found. “While young participants described a range of practical strategies, including obtaining and using protective technologies, managing drug and alcohol use, carefully selecting sexual partners, they often returned to yarning as an effective oral communication strategy,” Prof. Bolt says. 

More information about how to talk about sexual health – both intergenerational and peer to peer – would support their existing strategies, he says. Peer education approaches and local community consultation on sexual health matters are also recommended. 

Image: Nikita Ridgeway at Creative Boss Lady Design.

Positive messaging to foster sexual agency and counter shame

Sexual health messaging that addresses shame about sex is also important, recognising that this shame is racialised, gendered and generationally different, the research found. Shame was identified by both young people and adults as the main barrier for talking about sex and relationships. 

Young people identified that their families and communities can be “closed” about matters of sexual health, says Prof. Bryant. “Adults [also] identified that their generations experienced shame about sex and relationships. They wanted to better understand young people’s sexual culture and experiences.” 

However, both young people and adults wanted ‘positive’ messages about sex and relationships, the research found. Young participants described how sexual agency was being cultivated and shame addressed in Aboriginal communities through broader cultural discourses of self-determination and pride in culture. 

Madeline, a 20-year-old woman, identified respect as an issue raised in Aboriginal community discussions about family and domestic violence. These were led by “strong Indigenous women” who were “fixing how we view and think of relationships in our community,” she said. She was inspired by these community-led problem-solving approaches to sex and relationships.

“I think that when it comes to sort of more general like issues and like health advice and things that we should be thinking of, they are on it. Like, they know. They’re talking about it,” she said. “It’s open in the community to talk about those kind of like, how our relationships are going. Like how do we think of each other.”

Young people’s perspectives help challenge shame discourses

Young participants felt they made an important contribution to addressing shame by offering new ways of thinking about sex, gender and relationships, Ms Martin says. For example, Madeline acknowledged Aboriginal histories of queer sexual identities: “we’ve got sistergirls and brotherboys. That’s a part of our culture”. 

By drawing on Aboriginal culture and historical knowledge, they were able to question or resist discourses on gender and sexuality they considered problematic, Ms Martin says. “They spoke about pride and resistance and, in doing so, expressed sentiments that challenged shame-fostering discourses,” she says.

“This is important as self-worth was seen by participants as playing a key role in establishing healthy sexual relationships.”

Leveraging community pathways for greater impact

The focus on local needs and the whole-of-community approach increased the impact of the research, says Jessica Wilms, Aboriginal Health Education Officer in the Nepean Blue Mountains Local Health District (NBMLHD). 

“What we discovered was that young people aren’t accessing health services like ours, but rather turning to community. So [this meant] asking, how do we educate everyone so that the key messages we need to get across are coming through trusted avenues,” she says.

NBMLHD is introducing a peer-education model with some of the young people who carried out the research. “They're having ongoing sexual health training and mentoring so that they can go out into community and have those conversations on a more ongoing basis.”

The research also provided a “stepping stone” to adapt the Yarning quiet ways resource for a NSW context in partnership with NSW Health. “[The resource will provide] a way for families and carers to talk to children and young people about their bodies, puberty, sex and relationships in a really strengths-based way,” Ms Wilms says.

While the research documented a different narrative, it’s not a new narrative, Prof. Bryant says. “This is how Aboriginal communities understand themselves. They don't understand health as necessarily problematic,” Prof. Bryant says. “Partnering with local communities and assuming they’re already engaged in addressing community needs ensures research is both respectful and fit for purpose.”

Lead image: Bobbi Lockyer/Refinery29 Australia - We Are Many Image Gallery, Getty Images.

This article was originally published in 2024.

Written by Kay Harrison