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New thesis: Few young people choose to tell health care professionals about being exposed to violence

Young people’s sexual health is a dynamic process affected by a range of different factors. A new thesis from Linnaeus University emphasises how important it is that health care professionals at youth clinics and the like always ask their young clients about their sexual behaviour, whether they have been exposed to violence, and how they are doing. Such questions need to be asked in a respectful and non-judgmental manner for the young people to feel comfortable sharing their experiences.

Carina Petersson, a licenced midwife and recent PhD graduate at Linnaeus University, is researching young people’s sexual behaviour, their exposure to violence, and their self-rated health, including associations between these aspects. She is also investigating whether young people who have been exposed to violence have chosen to share their experiences, and, if so, how they describe them.

Her research shows that many young people choose to have unprotected sex with a new sex partner despite the risk to their sexual health. A higher proportion of teenagers report early sexual debut, before the age of 15, compared to the group of young adults, aged 20 to 24. This is surprising, considering that the age of sexual debut has been the same for the last forty years. Almost half of the teenagers furthermore say that they have been exposed to violence, which may also have several negative effects on their health.

Carina Petersson has chosen to study three different types of exposure to violence: exposure to emotional violence, which in part can be equated with psychological violence; exposure to physical violence; and exposure to sexual violence. She bases her research on a validated form describing what each of the three types of violence may involve, along with degrees of severity. One of her studies indicated associations between all three types of exposure to violence and having had unprotected sex with a new partner.

Carina Petersson’s thesis includes four studies

The first study was conducted among outbound exchange students, who were asked to fill in an online questionnaire once they returned home, asking about their health and sexual behaviour during their time away.

The second study focused on investigating differences between teenagers and young adults (20–24 years of age) regarding their sexual behaviour and exposure to violence, and associations between these aspects. The study was conducted among visitors to a youth clinic and included only those who had specified in the online questionnaire that they had had their sexual debut with someone else.

The third study surveys the prevalence of exposure to emotional, physical, and sexual violence and the correlation between exposure to violence and self-rated health among visitors to a youth clinic. This study furthermore investigates whether those who have been exposed to violence have shared their experiences with staff at the clinic or with other people.

In the fourth and final study, abused women between 16 and 23 years of age were interviewed about their experience of being exposed to violence.

“My research results can and should be used to increase our understanding of what health risks young people either expose themselves to, or are exposed to by others”, says Carina Petersson. If a young person who engages in risky sexual behaviour or has been exposed to violence is identified at a meeting, they can be offered advice and support tailored to their specific needs and preferences. Their right to good health and their ability to take charge of their own sexuality and enjoy it, either alone or together with someone else, without violence and without risking their health, cannot be emphasised enough.

“I’m also interested in young people’s well-being, and my studies include a question on how they themselves would rate their health. That question is used and followed up in various contexts, in order to predict individuals’ health, morbidity, and mortality. The question is phrased in a general way, asking how the person would rate their health, and the answer is indicated on a scale from bad to excellent – a value that is important to study. So far, I’ve looked at exposure to violence and associations with self-rated health. And I’ve found that there are statistically significant associations, with low values for self-rated health following exposure to violence. No matter what type of violence these young people have been exposed to, they report lower values for self-rated health than those who haven’t been exposed to violence. This is an important finding”, says Carina.

Few share their experiences of being exposed to violence

Those who have been exposed to violence rate their health as worse than those who have not, and few choose to share their experiences with healthcare professionals. Most of them furthermore have a poor understanding of what counts as violence. The research shows that many young people expect to get questions about violence when they visit a youth clinic or the like, but if they feel that the person asking the questions may judge them, they may choose not to share their experiences.

“Hopefully, the findings I present in my thesis will play a significant role in contributing to improving young people’s sexual and reproductive health, while at the same time strengthening their rights in this area. I suggest an increase in accessible clinics for young people’s sexual health. I also believe that free barrier contraceptives – such as condoms and female condoms – until the age of 25 should be something to consider trying, since only girls have access to free contraceptives today.”

“To me, what’s most important is that young people have good sexual health and that they are clear about their limits and enjoy their sexuality. That they themselves decide when, how, and who they have sex with. And that everything should be consensual. Violence is never ok; it’s never ok not to feel good when you have sex. It should feel good, and you should be allowed to decide for yourself how you want to have sex”, Carina Petersson concludes.

Title of the thesis

Kommer du att döma mig om jag berättar? …om ungdomars sexuella beteende och utsatthet för våld (abstract in English)


Carina Petersson
Mobile: + 46 76 840 84 89

Carina Sörgårn
Research communications officer
Phone: +46 470 70 85 52