The Adolescent Sexuality Project

Principal Investigator: Deborah Tolman, Ed.D.

Media Project:

By combining survey data with focus groups and detailed content analyses of the television programs adolescents report watching most often, this project explores the potential influence of television viewing on adolescent sexual behaviors and attitudes. Two cohorts of adolescents from two diverse school districts completed pen and paper questionnaires designed to gather information about their sexual experiences and their experiences using the media—focusing on television viewing practices. Using standard coding procedures, content analyses of television programs popular among the sample were conducted in order to estimate the amount of sexual content (behavior and talk) and the types of gendered messages to which participants were exposed. This is a longitudinal study designed to follow these adolescents over time, allowing the investigation of differential developmental effects of television consumption on sexual outcomes.


National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)

Healthy Relationships

The Healthy Relationships study is a research and action project on adolescent sexuality development and sexual health that has been supported by the Ford Foundation since its inception. This longitudinal interview and survey-based study traces the ways that gender impacts and shapes sexuality and relationships over the course of adolescence, beginning in early adolescence (8th grade) through middle adolescence (10th grade) to later adolescence (12th grade). With this study, we aim to develop innovative models of adolescent girls’ and boys’ sexual health premised on the centrality of gender in sexuality development. Additionally, we continue to explore potential uses for the model to guide research, practice and education.

In the last few years, international research has demonstrated the importance of gender relations, sexism, and conceptions of appropriate female sexuality and sexual rights to women’s individual health, the well-being of families, and thus of society in general. The absence of such a conception of sexual health in the US has, at the same time, been exacerbated, in part due to a dearth of scholarship in this area. The goal of this project is to change public discourse about what is said to be the sexual health of young women and young men during the years when mature sexuality is taking shape. Changing the discourse of what constitutes health opens the way to transform how we support adolescents. In particular, the model will offer a new vision for achieving sexual health more broadly defined.

This project has already provided new insight into the relationship between young people’s gender and their sexuality development. In one paper, published in the Journal of Social Issues we demonstrated how conventional beliefs about gender and gendered sexuality “sow the seeds of dating violence” evident in early adolescent girls’ and boys’ descriptions of their experiences. In an edited volume entitled Adolescent Boys in Context, we offered a different portrayal of early adolescent boys’ experiences with sexuality and relationships, in which we present analysis gleaned from narrative data evidencing boys’ desire for intimacy, friendship and connection. In it we reveal the tension between what boys are “supposed” be like and their actual experiences, and outline the potential developmental trajectory in which this tension is resolved in favor of compliance with norms of masculinity. Our most recent analysis demonstrates the devastating impact of the requirements of femininity on 8th grade girls’ mental health. In particular, girls who subscribe to the strictures of femininity, which require them to objectify their bodies and silence their beliefs, experience higher levels of depression and lower self-esteem than their less conventional counterparts.


The Ford Foundation