'When you carry condoms all the boys think you want it': Negotiating competing discourses about safe sex

Lynne Hillier, Lyn Harrison, Deborah Warr

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Citations (Scopus)


With the advent of HIV, sexual health campaigns and formal sex education in schools have worked to instil the concept of safe sex into the collective minds of Australia's youth. However the concept in its present guise is a fairly limited one. We argue in this paper that the predominant emphasis in education programmes on safe sex as condom use may be counter-productive for some young heterosexuals for two reasons. First, this strategy is male-focused and may not extrapolate well to young women who face special risks around pregnancy and rigid societal gender norms which govern sexual behaviour. Second, health promotion strategies aimed at young heterosexuals are based on an assumption or rational decision-making in sexual encounters and obscure the non-rational nature of arousal and desire, and the unequal power relations that exist between young men and women engaging in sex. Five hundred and twelve senior rural students participated in the study which included group discussions about sexuality and survey items which focused on the meanings of safe sex and the accessibility and use of condoms. The results showed that though most students identified condoms with safe sex, many were ambivalent about using them. Reasons given related to problems of negotiation, difficulties of access, and the risks which condoms gave no protection from, such as a sullied reputation. Perhaps, partly because of this, some students were looking to less secure methods of protection such as informal history-taking and monogamy. It is argued that successful sexual health promotion strategies must address the broad spectrum of concerns facing young men and women when they become sexually active and that consideration be given to the social context in which young people conduct their sexual lives.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)15-29
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Adolescence
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Feb 1998


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