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Youth, Religion and Sexuality

15 April 10

A research team from Nottingham’s universities have engaged the interest and help of young volunteers in a study which breaks new ground in understanding how they connect religion and sexuality.

Young people aged 18-25 from 6 major faiths – Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs - volunteered to take part in this Phase 2 Large Grant, responding to an online questionnaire. Out of the 693 respondents who completed the online questionnaire, a diverse sample of 61 were selected for face-to-face interview, and from among these, 24 have been selected to compile video diaries.

The Nottingham team have explored many aspects of the views held by these young people, asking first of all how they described their commitment to their religion. Participants were asked about what they found acceptable in respect of gender role, for instance women in positions of religious authority. They were also asked what they found acceptable in sexual practices. The researchers have been finding strong acceptance of equality between genders, and also of homosexuality, both of which reflect a tension with much religious tradition.

Participants were also asked about their own sexual activity, and about their friendship circles. Around half report friendships extending beyond their faith community, which indicates that many do not choose to live within any kind of insulated religious bubble. They also report their social environments as highly sexualised, so sexuality plays an important part in their thinking and experience.

The interviews have provided opportunities for the researchers to direct their attention to responses from participants which have particularly caught their attention. Those participants who have progressed to the video diary stage are all keen to share their views and particular perspectives, so the researchers have adopted a very open and receptive method. They view their findings not so much as snapshots capturing facts but as personal narratives.

The researchers have used various tools including the social networking site Facebook to recruit volunteers, as well as using more conventional networking and advertising. They have actively sought to ensure that their sampling reflects diversity of faith, sexuality, and social environment. They want to make sure their research is not limited to university students or to the Abrahamic faiths, as some previous studies have been. Rather, the researchers wanted to explore and present the diversity of young believers’ experiences the UK.

One aspect of wider society which appears to be having an impact on many young people is that the demands of education are delaying consideration of permanent partnerships and marriage. In this and other areas the researchers believe that their participants are actively seeking ways to engage creatively in negotiating how to connect the messages they are receiving from their peers, religious authorities, their parents and all their other cultural ties. So, for instance, the young person choosing to remain single and celibate may experience conflict with their religion as much as someone whose sexual activity could be seen as unacceptable.

The team believe the results of their study will be of value in various ways. On a very practical level, it will provide clear research for sexual health practitioners. It will also inform religious leaders about young people’s activity and opinions. For example some participants have said they would welcome much more open talk about sexuality in their religious environment. The findings will also be fed back to young people themselves to present a window on what their age-group is experiencing as the worlds of faith, sex and gender interact.

Dr Andrew Yip of Nottingham University [Associate Professor and Reader in Sociology] has led the team, Dr Michael Keenan of Nottingham Trent University [Lecturer in Sociology] is Co-investigator, and Dr Sarah-Jane Page is the full-time Research Fellow.

For our podcast, recorded in April 2010, Sarah-Jane Page and Michael Keenan were in conversation with Norman Winter.

• Listen to the complete conversation here.

• Listen to an extract of the complete conversation, describing the methods used in the study here.

• Listen to reflections on the findings emerging from the study, and on the value of this research here.

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