Young people’s perspectives on the use of reverse discourse in web-based sexual-health interventions

Wendy Marina Davis, Jean Shoveller, John Oliffe, Mark Gilbert

Culture, Health & Sexuality, 2012 Oct;14(9). doi: 10.1080/13691058.2012.714800. Epub 2012 Sep 4.


Web-based sexual-health promotion efforts often utilise reverse discourse – the acknowledgement and rejection of shame associated with stigmatised terms – both to challenge judgments about ‘risky’ behaviours (e.g., casual sex) and to appeal to young people. This study examines the use of reverse discourse in Internet-based sexual-health promotion and analyses young people’s perspectives on this approach. During in-depth interviews and focus groups with young people (aged 15-24), participants shared their perspectives on written (e.g., clinical language; colloquial language) and visual (e.g., generic, stock images; sexualised images) depictions of sexual-health topics on the websites. More explicit styles elicited negative responses from young people in terms of perceived appeal, trust and quality of websites. Negative social mores were associated with some of the more explicit portrayals of young people’s sexual lives on the websites, revealing how reverse discourse re-stigmatises young people by re-emphasising young people’s sexual activity as inherently risky or immoral. Reverse discourse was perceived to have negative effects on the saliency and credibility of online sexual-health information. We discuss the theoretical basis for the operationalisation of reverse discourse in this context, and discuss the importance of considering sociotechnical aspects of Internet-based sexual-health interventions.