Monday, February 28, 2011

The Kids Are Alright - Exploring Religion, Youth and Sexuality (in the UK)


This study was done in the UK, but my guess is that young adults there are not much different than they are in the United States. This press release summarizes the findings of Religion, Youth and Sexuality: Selected Key Findings from a Multi-faith Exploration - the link takes you to a full PDF of the study summary.

I think this is an interesting and highly relevant study - and I like that they allow the young people to speak for themselves - a more open-ended qualitative approach rather than using a pre-written measure that shoe-horns them into fixed categories.

In my quick reading of the findings, I am heartened to see an emphasis on monogamous sexuality, a desire to see heterosexuality and homosexuality as equally valid forms of sexual relationship, and "(48.2%) of the participants considered themselves ‘liberal’/‘very liberal’," while only "a quarter of them (25.1%) considered themselves ‘conservative’/‘very conservative’."

Then were the religious views (a mixed bag):
In terms of religious participation, the majority of the participants (65.1%) were involved in a religious community .... Religious faith was by far the most important source of information for the participants’ sexual values/attitudes and sexual practices. Religious texts, parents/caregivers, friends, the internet and the media also played a role in this respect, but less significantly.
The entire executive summary is posted at the bottom, after the press release. There is a also a video presentation on the study and its findings:

And here is the press release summary (just the beginning - follow the link to read the whole thing):

Exploring religion, youth and sexuality

28 February 2011 Nottingham, University of

Sexuality and religion are generally considered uncomfortable bedfellows. Now, for the first time, a team of researchers from Nottingham have carried out a detailed study around these issues and how they affect and influence the lives of British 18 to 25 year olds.

Led by The University of Nottingham, in collaboration with Nottingham Trent University, experts spent two years investigating the attitudes, values and experiences of sex and religion among young adults.

The study, which involved nearly 700 young people from six different religious traditions; Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism as well as young adults of mixed-faith, highlights the challenges they face in reconciling their sexuality and their religion and the concerns they have about the stigmatisation of religion and the increasingly sexualised culture in British society today.

The project Religion, Youth and Sexuality: a Multi-faith Exploration received funding of nearly £250,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council.

Dr Andrew Kam-Tuck Yip and Dr Sarah-Jane Page, in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at The University of Nottingham and Dr Michael Keenan from Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences asked all the participants to fill in online questionnaires. Some were also interviewed individually and recorded week-long video diaries.

Young adults were asked to talk about their sexual and religious values, attitudes, experiences and identities. As well as looking at their family background, social and cultural expectations and participation in religious communities the researchers also examined young people’s experiences of living in British society and how they understood and managed their gender identity in relation to their religious faith.

Executive Summary (from the PDF of the study outcomes and analysis.

1. This report presents selected key findings from an AHRC/ESRC-funded project entitled Religion, Youth and Sexuality: A Multi-faith Exploration, undertaken between January 2009 and February 2011. The research team are committed to data dissemination within academic and non-academic user communities. This report is written primarily with non-academic users in mind. Academic outputs have been planned for the near future, including a book provisionally titled Religious and Sexual Journeys: A Multi-faith Exploration of Young Believers (Yip, Keenan and Page, Forthcoming). Up-to-date information about the project is available at

2. The research set out to explore the lives and identities of religious young adults, aged between 18 and 25. Specifically, it studied the sexual and religious values, attitudes, experiences and identities of young adults from different religious traditions, namely Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism. The research also investigated the significant factors (for example family, social and cultural expectations, religious institution) that inform their decision-making in these areas, and the diverse ways they managed their religious faith and sexuality. In addition, the research also aimed to examine these young adults’ experiences of living in British society; and how they understood and managed their gender identity in relation to their religious faith.

3. The research consisted of three stages: (i) An online questionnaire was completed by 693 participants between May 2009 and June 2010; (ii) 61 participants of diverse religious faiths and sexual orientations were interviewed individually between November 2009 and June 2010; (iii) 24 participants respectively recorded a video diary over a period of approximately seven days between February and November 2010.

4. 455 (65.7%) participants were female, 237 (34.2%) were male, and one participant was transgendered. Further, 57.1% of participants were Christian, 16.6% Muslim, 7.5% Jewish, 6.8% Hindu, 4.5% Buddhist, 3.8% Sikh and 3.7% identified with more than one religious tradition. In terms of sexuality, 74.3% were heterosexual, 10% were lesbian, gay or homosexual and 7.5% were bisexual.

5. 64.9% of participants self-identified as white, followed by those who self-defined as Indian (11.3%) and Pakistani (5.8%). 82.4% of participants were British citizens. With reference to participants’ geographic location, 83.8% lived in England, 7.6% in Scotland, 3.2% in Wales and 1.7% in Northern Ireland.

6. The majority of participants (65.8%) were single; 3.3% were married and 0.3% were in a civil partnership. Further, 25.4% were in an unmarried heterosexual relationship and 4.2% were in an unregistered same-sex relationship. 72.4% of the sample were students, 20.2% were employed and 4.6% were unemployed. In terms of highest academic qualification, the majority of the sample (60.3%) had achieved A-level qualifications, 25.4% had a degree, and 6.3% had a postgraduate qualification.

7. The participants held different meanings regarding their religious faith. These meanings were not mutually exclusive. Many considered being religious as having a belief in, and a relationship with, a personal God or a divine power. To them, this belief and relationship gave strength and meaning to life. In addition, some participants considered religious faith as a form of personalised spirituality and philosophy for life that promoted self-improvement and enlightenment.

8. The participants acknowledged the significant social dimension of religious faith which not only illuminated their personal lives, but also helped foster interpersonal and community connections. Some participants also emphasised the sense of ethnic and cultural belonging that their religious identification offered. However, some participants separated personal spirituality from institutional religiosity, considering institutional religion a social control mechanism that excessively regulated gender and sexual behaviour.

9. Almost half (48.2%) of the participants considered themselves ‘liberal’/‘very liberal’, and a quarter of them (25.1%) considered themselves ‘conservative’/‘very conservative’. In terms of religious participation, the majority of the participants (65.1%) were involved in a religious community in one way or another and just over half of the participants (56.7%) attended a public religious gathering at least once a week.

10. While the majority of participants used a particular label to identify their sexual orientation, some deliberately questioned the usefulness and accuracy of such labelling. On the whole, the participants were less reflective and articulate about their sexualities compared to their religious faiths, particularly heterosexual participants.

11. Fewer than half of the participants (43.1%) were sexually active. Further, 12.9% of the participants engaged in casual sex. Just over a quarter of participants who were single (28.7%) were sexually active. Further, 36% of participants in partnered but unmarried heterosexual relationships were not sexually active, perhaps reflecting their commitment to the religious ideal of ‘sex within marriage only’.

12. Most participants thought that the expression of one’s sexuality was desirable, and 29.9% thought that celibacy was fulfilling. While many participants thought that consenting adults should be allowed to express their sexualities, opinions varied on the ways in which they should do so, with some participants believing that consenting adults should be able to express their sexualities however they wished, while others believed sexual expression should be limited to marriage or a committed relationship.

13. The participants were almost equally split on the idea that sex should only occur within marriage, suggesting that some religious young adults had moved from ‘sex in marriage’ as the ideal to ‘meaningful or committed sexual expression’ as the ideal (but in diverse relational contexts). In addition, monogamy within a partnered relationship was highly valued.

14. About one-third of the participants (31.6%) believed that heterosexuality should be the only expression of human sexuality, and a bigger proportion (52.4%) thought that it should be the ideal for human sexuality. 58.1% of the participants were committed to treating heterosexuality and homosexuality on equal terms.

15. Just over half of the participants (54.8%) thought that their religions were positive towards sexuality issues. However, there was also a significant proportion who viewed fairly negatively the knowledge base of priests or religious leaders in relation to sexuality, particularly matters pertaining to youth sexuality. For lesbian, gay and bisexual participants, while some had successfully reconciled their sexuality to their religious faith, some reported the psychological and social costs of ‘coming out’ and managing their sexual and religious identities.

16. Religious faith was by far the most important source of information for the participants’ sexual values/attitudes and sexual practices. Religious texts, parents/caregivers, friends, the internet and the media also played a role in this respect, but less significantly. Only around 1% of the participants considered religious leaders the most important source of influence.

17. Further, in terms of sexual practices in comparison to sexual values/attitudes, the significance of the role of friends and the internet/the media increased, and the role of religious faith, religious texts and parent/caregivers decreased. This is likely due to the fact that friends and the internet/media were perceived to be the safer and more supportive sources to address the specific issues of how to practise one’s sexuality.

18. The participants’ experiences in connecting their religious faith and sexuality were diverse. There are three primary manifestations: (i) tension and conflict due to difficulty in managing these two dimensions; (ii) compartmentalisation of these two dimensions in order to minimise tension and conflict; and (iii) accommodation and harmonious acceptance of these two dimensions.

19. The participants identified a variety of challenges for them as young religious adults in secular society. These included: stigmatisation of religion, sexualised culture, drinking culture and consumer society. However the majority (67.4%) did not believe that being religious made their everyday life more difficult.

20. The majority of participants (68.5%) believed that religious people were stigmatised in Britain. 35.3% thought that it was difficult to talk about their religious faith with non-believers. Further, some felt that references to religion in society often took the form of jokes or gross generalisations.

21. The majority of participants (76.1%) believed there was too much focus on sex in mainstream society. Particularly, they considered sexualised culture and the prevalence of sexual promiscuity significant issues for religious young adults.

22. The majority of participants (63.4%) believed that their religions upheld gender equality in principle. However, some expressed concern that this was not the case in reality, with, for example, perceived gender inequality being evidenced at places of worship.

23. A high number of participants (73.2%) agreed with women being involved in religious leadership. This was particularly important for young women who saw women in leadership as role models.

24. Religious faith was considered the main factor influencing how the participants lived their lives as women or men. Some participants acknowledged that there were discrepant expectations for women and men particularly in the context of relationships and raising children. However, 65.6% of women and 68.1% of men disagreed that women should have primary responsibility for raising children. To them, it should be a shared responsibility.

25. Religious young adults can benefit from hearing the stories of their contemporaries to understand the wide range of experiences and negotiations in their religious and sexual lives. This knowledge could offer help in integrating religious faith and sexuality more successfully. Engagement with mainstream society may also encourage understanding and respect between non-religious and religious young adults.

26. Young religious adults desire an increased openness to discussions of faith and sexuality within their religions. Religious leaders and professionals should be open to such discussions, willing to reflect on young adults’ interactions with secular culture and to engage with secular youth workers and health professionals to find ways of providing support for religious young adults.

27.Training of practitioners working with young adults in secular contexts needs to recognise the role and importance of religious faith in some young adults’ lives. More collaboration is also needed between religious leaders and professionals who work with young adults in secular contexts, in order to formulate policy and practice that provides consistent advice and guidance.

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