Five minutes with: a teen-sex researcher

*Watch the full interview in the video player above*

In the sixth of a series of interviews with young and mid-career researchers, Eloise Gibson talks to criminologist Claire Meehan about how we can better prepare teens for the reality of grown-up life, and why she sometimes receives Lego phalluses at work.

When Claire Meehan tells people at parties what she does for a job, the conversation turns awkward.

Meehan researches internet pornography, especially young people’s experiences watching it – and people’s blushing responses might help explain why many teens are under-prepared for what they see online.

“If we, as adults, can’t have those conversations with each another then what are we doing with the young people?” she says.

Since many teens will see pornography, their reactions can leave them feeling distressed if they don’t know how to make sense of it, or how to separate porn from real relationships, she says.

Meehan comes across very distressed young people in her work looking at online help forums. “They are very stressed and...[often] the issue isn’t what they were watching, the issue is that we as a society aren’t really preparing them for grown-up life. They are having problems accessing help, support and advice.”

Meehan says that adults tend to simultaneously over-dramatise the risks of online sexual activity for teens, while failing to educate them properly about the real dangers that a small minority will experience – like losing control of their own nude photographs.

Much of the research relied on by New Zealand sex educators comes from overseas, so, to gain a better understanding of what New Zealand teenagers are doing, she’s been interviewing 14- and 15-year olds. Now she’s about to embark on a new, Netsafe-funded project surveying over-16s about their experiences.

Meehan says that if she wasn’t un-shockable before she started her research, she is now. In interviews with young people: “I challenge them to make me blush and I haven’t blushed yet.”

“It is awkward but you have to be prepared to hear what they want to tell you.”

Meehan’s work is serious, but it can also be amusing. To distract her interviewees from the sensitive subject, she sometimes gives them Lego to play with, leading to some, possibly unintentionally, phallic sculptures. “I have had quite a few Lego penises by now. I have a laugh and I dismantle them,” she says.

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Five minutes with: a Kaupapa Māori researcher

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