Addressing the Effects of Peer Pressure on Teen Intimacy

When it comes to teaching sex to youth, there are plenty of resources to help educators address anatomy, physiological responses, orientations, diseasecontraception, and recognizing unhealthy relationships.  The Circles of Sexuality diagram has been helpful in separating the different aspects of sexuality.  I would like to examine how intimacy is being addressed in lessons.  It seems easy when, or if, the idea of intimacy comes up, it is lumped in with the equally vague and mystifying concept of love.  Avoiding the topic of intimacy in the classroom could come from not having a clear assessment rubric or general discomfort around the subject.

Intimacy map - The word "intimacy" surrounded by different types of intimacies

Here, I not only want to address some examples of lessons on intimacy but also suggest ways they could be more applicable to modern teen intimacy.  Specifically, I want to look at how peer pressure –  often present in drug and alcohol curriculum – is not explored in much depth.

In one 25-minute lesson on “Intimacy and Affection”, students brainstorm different expressions of intimacy from cuddling, to talking, to intercourse.  The objective of the lesson is “Participants will identify ways of showing love, intimacy, and affection that do not involve a risk of pregnancy or STI.”  There are about seven follow up discussion questions although realistically, only one or two could be covered in the time allotted.

While I like this exercise, there is not much reflection on peer pressure or internalized societal expectations.  It has been researched that comprehensive sex education delays sexual initiation but I believe that really pushing the intimacy agenda would delay it further.  Through this inductive model  students will be able to achieve the objective (identify ways of showing love, intimacy, and affection that do not involve a risk of pregnancy or STI) but below I’ve written some other possible discussion topics that would facilitate broader reflection and affective learning.

  • What are outside influences that dictate expressions of intimacy?
  • How aware are you of the sexual behaviors of your peers?
  • Does the potential reaction of others impact intimate behavior?

Stylistic picture of a male-female couple being pressured by friendsHere is another lesson plan on Emotional and Sexual Intimacy that I think does a better job of addressing insecurities though not quite getting into peer pressure specifically.  The objective is, “Students will develop an awareness of elements that are important to the experiences of emotional and sexual intimacy. They will gain an understanding of the importance of self-awareness, respect for oneself and for others, as well as communication between partners.” Through a group activity where students brainstorm an ideal relationship and a personal reflection assignment students explore their needs in an intimate relationship and insecurities that impact relationships.

My biggest criticism of this lesson is that it doesn’t seem to make the connection between what fuels insecurities and what types of intimate expression we prefer.  This could be part of the inductive process but there could be at least one or two discussion topics that would guide the lesson in that direction.  To add to personal reflection activity on insecurity, I would have the students reflect on why they are insecure and who or what provokes that insecurity.

When working with teens it is important to remember how peer relationships are just as much part of their learning experience as the classroom, if not more.  It is important to incorporate “life learning” (media, friends, family etc.) in classroom learning in order to combat any negative influence and enrich the experience.

I like this lesson on Peer Pressure for Middle School Students  could also be applied to a sexual health class.  I also think this lesson on Media Literacy and Body Image is relevant when trying to address and unravel outside influences that would “teach” a student how to behave.

Life learning is about reaching the students by not only accomplishing the learning objective but also by developing strategies to overcome everyday obstacles (social, family, internalized expectations) that would impede the objective from long-term effectiveness.

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6 responses to “Addressing the Effects of Peer Pressure on Teen Intimacy

  1. This is so wonderful and really appreciated Sarah!! I also have not seen many lessons that address in any significant depth the effects of peer pressure on sexual intimacy. In my work in HIV & AIDS in the Caribbean and with working with European organisations, I have come across lesson plans or topics entitled “Sexual Decision-Making” which I think does a relatively decent job of addressing some of the issues you have raised, because it looks at what influences decision-making when it comes to sexual activities and also seeks to impart decision-making skills to students. I came across on website that has a few of these lessons. Perhaps you may find it useful (?): http://teachers.teachingsexualhealth.ca/lesson-plans/decision-making/

  2. Sarah this is great. I do agree with you that intimacy is something that is not taught in classroom nor in non-formal education setting. Within our society, males are taught not to show their feelings and many male do not know how to express or show their feelings. Intimacy curriculum can help show males that expressing feelings is a good thing and helps with communication skills.

    Have formal education on intimacy, can expose students to intimacy and help them form their own opinion and standards about intimacy.
    Teaching intimacy also forces students to set goals and expectations for relationships (current and future). Knowing what you need and want out of a relationship helps people communication their expectations as well as their needs and wants from the relationship. As a teenager, peer pressure can be detrimental to a student, and peer pressure within a relationship can cause a student to be pressured into doing things things they do not want to do or experience.
    The idea of forming lesson plans for intimacy can force students to do some self reflection as well as develop communication skills to help them express what they want and need. I think intimacy can be the base of a true comprehensive sex ed class because it forces people to communicate and do some self reflection.

  3. I think this is such an important topic! I often take for granted the relative social ease of adulthood. But I remember that awkward feeling that my social connections were (almost) ALL that mattered as a teen. And of course that can have a profound impact on learning and decision-making.

    That said, I think many teens are sick and tired of hearing messages about how they need to stand up to peer pressure and be their own person. First of all, it’s a message that’s been overplayed. Second, much easier said than done, right? So, I think lesson plans in sexuality education should absolutely be addressing peer pressure and intimacy – but we as educators need to be constantly reinventing ourselves, being innovative and adaptive to changing youth cultures. I wonder how we can best package messages about peer pressure that will provoke critical thinking in youngsters?

    • I meant to mention my appreciation for your reminder that “when working with teens it is important to remember how peer relationships are just as much part of their learning experience as the classroom.” That’s so incredibly true and important, if not hard for me to digest sometimes as a parent.

  4. This was a really informative post, Sarah!
    Intimacy is something that is so seldom brought up in middle and high schools. My sexuality education was quite awful, so you can bet there was no mention about intimacy. Even when I took a couple of courses in undergrad, intimacy was so rarely addressed, and the focus tended to be on the identity and health circles of sexuality.
    I also liked that you mentioned how peer groups are probably more important to teens than their actual education. This is so true, and not teaching about intimacy and relationships does them a real disservice.
    Great post, and thanks for mentioning those different exercises and activities and what you liked/didn’t like about that. Now, I want to look into them for myself to figure out if I would ever use them!

  5. I enjoyed reading your post. I agree, there needs to be more discussion about intimacy. I think there should be some alteration between intimacy lessons and abstinence. Teaching learners about ways to show intimacy without intercourse is better than saying don’t have sex or intercourse. I also think using visual aids could help. Have learners look for media that displays their idea of intimacy and facilitate a discussion around that.

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