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Researching perceptions of childhood sexuality: Using vignettes in interviews with teachers, counsellors, parents and young children

Adults interpret children’s actions from their own positionings within culture and gender discourses. Children’s ‘sexual’ actions or ‘sexualised behaviour’ is responded to from ideas of innocence and indifference to moral panics and protective interventions. Adults express discomfort and uncertainty about how to understand and respond to young children acting this way. Researching sexuality traverses social and cultural environments in which people live. Frayser (2003) refers to ‘shifting cultural maps’ as constructions of sexuality move from reproductive to relational and recreational understandings. “An expanded view of sexuality has meant an expanded interpretation of what is sexual; Words, looks, touches, pictures, and movements can all be construed in sexual ways” (Frayser, 2003, p. 267). Mitchell (2005), researching children’s sexuality in the Australian context, noted limitations in the literature, including the conceptualisation of sexuality; the difficulty of defining ‘normal’ sexual development when children’s sexuality is not considered in a wider, social and cultural context; and the dearth of research about children’s understandings of sexuality. This paper describes a New Zealand doctoral study exploring discourses shaping constructions of sexuality in childhood. In particular, the paper focuses on the methodological approach of using vignettes. Primary school teachers, parents, counsellors and children responded to a series of vignettes within focus groups and semi-structured interviews. The use of vignettes produced a context of safe participation for participants. This method supported participants’ confidence and trust with both the research process and their relationship with the researcher. As understandings were shared, enquiry brought forward further ideas and experiences from participants. Many readily disclosed more personal information, telling stories of child sexual activity: about themselves; their own children; family members; or stories of other children known to them. A social constructionist framework underpins this research: children’s experiences are multi-storied and multiple meanings are available in understandings of sexuality. Foucault’s concepts of the genealogical method are used in the analysis of the literature, policies and practices on childhood sexuality, together with discursive positioning from the participants’ narratives. Vignettes gave a safe entry into discussions about childhood sexuality, beginning with less problematic stories and then further examples of developing complexity. They provided stories to be viewed at a distance, then allowing for closer and more personal sharing of experiences. Awareness and understanding multiple social and cultural discourses shaping constructions of childhood sexuality is useful for teachers, parents and counsellors.
Conference Contribution
Type of thesis
Flanagan, P. (2014). Researching perceptions of childhood sexuality: Using vignettes in interviews with teachers, counsellors, parents and young children. Presented at the British Educational Research Association (BERA) Annual Conference, London, UK.
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