“Netflix and Chill”: Young People’s Understandings of Sex and Relationships

Dean, Amy (2023). “Netflix and Chill”: Young People’s Understandings of Sex and Relationships. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.00015fc7


This thesis examines how and where a group of young people learnt about sex and relationships within England before the mandatory implementation of RSE (relationships and sex education) within the school curriculum. This study focused on how the educational and social contexts of learning, both inside and outside of school, influence young people’s knowledge and how they discuss sex and relationships. The contexts that are explored in this thesis include formal SRE school learning, social interactions with friends and family, and engagement with digital and cultural representations.
The study utilised a multi-method approach to collect data around young people’s understandings of learning about sex and relationships: Q-methodology, focus group and individual interviews with young people aged 14-18. Interview data were analysed thematically and paid attention to discursive features. The findings of this thesis project suggest that risk prevention discourses predominantly guided the topics of discussion in school sex education lessons. For example, young people typically acknowledged that sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and pregnancy prevention dominated lessons, to the detriment and exclusion of other important topics such as pleasure and desire. Formal SRE lessons were constructed in young people’s talk as largely heteronormative which served to reinforce the notion of gender as binary and to normalise opposite-sex relationships. Beyond the school environment, the research explored how young people engaged (or did not) in conversations about sex and relationships with friends and family members, and how this dialogue further reinforced assumptions around heteronormativity and the binary construction of gender.
In the interview data, particular content on digital platforms (e.g., Instagram and digital fan fiction) were described as a site for learning about sex and relationships. While some content on digital platforms were often characterised by the young people as heteronormative, digital engagements and representations also served as a counterpoint to the dominant heterosexualisation of sex and relationships. Specifically, this offered LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer/questioning) young people spaces for inclusive learning around sex and relationships that were not available to them in formal school SRE lessons. The implications of these findings for young people’s learning about sex and relationships are discussed.

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