Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 16, June 20, 2013


Memorable Familial Messages about Sex:
A Qualitative Content Analysis of College Student Narratives

Lydia Kauffman
School of Communication, Western Michigan University

Mark P. Orbe
School of Communication, Western Michigan University

Amber L. Johnson
Department of Language and Communication, Prairie View A & M University

Angela Cooke-Jackson
Department of Communication Studies, Emerson College

All correspondence and request for additional information should be sent to: Dr. Mark P. Orbe, School of Communication, Western Michigan University, 1903 W. Michigan Avenue, Kalamazoo, MI 49008-5318; orbe@wmich.edu


This exploratory qualitative content analysis examined young adult familial memorable message narratives regarding sex that were described as most influential on sexual activity. More specifically, the study explores the descriptions from 101 participants who were attending college on one of three diverse campuses. From the texts provided, the source, message, frame, and communication type of each memorable message narrative was analyzed. Then, through established thematization processes, five major themes emerged that contributed to the perception of sexual practices and behaviors: (1) practice safe sex; (2) premarital sex as wrong; (3) Wait until you are ready/for the right person; (4) Sex as natural and/or pleasurable; and (5) Sex as negative, abusive and/or taboo. Following an explication of how these memorable message narratives work individually, and collectively, to influence adolescent sexual behavior, directions for future research and implications for practice are provided.


For many, sexual activity starts in early adulthood (Goins, Garcia, & Barger, J., 2013; Mosher, Chandra & Jones, 2005). It is widely acknowledged that memorable experiences about sex shape and dictate one’s sexual behaviors. Yet, it is a complex task to pinpoint exactly how, and to what extent, these messages impact one’s sex life (Medved Brogan, McClanahan, Morris & Shepard, 2006). Familial influences are one of the main sources that affect young adults’ communicative decisions, including those related to sexual activity (Guo & Nathanson, 2011). According to Hutchinson and Cederbaum (2011), both parents play a large role in the socialization of their children and fathers may even have a larger influence on their daughter’s future sex decisions. Other research emphasizes the importance of mother’s communication with both daughters and sons (Coffelt, 2010; Morman & Whitely, 2012). An important dynamic to parent-child communication about sex is that of the manner in which the messages are sent. According to Morgan, Zurbriggen, and Thorn (2010), males report different types of memorable messages than females. For example, messages to males focus more on pleasure and exploration, while messages about sex to females seem to be geared more towards measures of precaution and consequences of sex. Given the high prevalence of sexual activity for young adults and the physical and psychological costs that come with it, calls for theoretically informed research that produces practical recommendations abound in various arenas (e.g., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011). Consequently, a study examining memorable message narratives that focuses on the particulars of the message – source, theme, framing and communication type – is important in further enhancing existing knowledge.

Amidst a significant amount of literature (e.g., Guo & Nathanson, 2011), two major themes appear throughout existing literature on family communication about sex. First, as described by Bleakley, Hennessy, Fishbein, Coles and Jordan (2009), the interaction of parental figures and religious background influences the messages that are communicated to children. Specifically, Bleakley at al. found that mothers focused on the physical consequences of sex as well as the social outcomes that accompanied premature sexual activity. In this familial context, individuals describe feeling ashamed or guilty of their first sexual experiences because of their family values and religious beliefs. Consequently, parental comfort has been demonstrated to impact parent-child communication regarding sex (Jerman & Constantine, 2010). More specifically, when mothers approached sex as a natural topic, more positive feelings occurred (Coffelt, 2010). Second, open and early communication regarding adolescent sexual activity was found to create positive, safe sex practices in young adults (Moore & Chase-Lansdale, 2001; Morman & Whitely, 2012). According to a study done by Townsend (2008), socialization messages are not always explicit and frequently are communicated via implicit “colorful colloquialisms” that help form young people’s ideas about how sexual experiences should happen. Townsend also describes a process called armoring, the socialization process that draws from the parents’ own experiences. Through armoring, a parent’s worldview dictates how they will socialize their children regarding sexual practices. Given this, it is important to recognize that many of the narratives can be attributed to the personal, social, and cultural experiences of the parent when analyzing the child’s perspective on sex (Gallegos, Villarruel, & Gomez, 2007; Randolph et al., 2013; Tobey et al., 2011).

Non-familial influences must also be taken into account when searching for insight into the sexual socialization of young adults. In this regard, memorable messages from peers (Busse, Fishbein, Bleakley, & Hennessy, 2010), personal experiences (Ellis & Smith, 2004), and media texts (Hust, Brown, & L’Engle, 2008) also must be acknowledged. These messages, more specifically, must be understood in regards to how they negotiated alongside familial messages. Richardson’s (2009) study of the socialization of young African American women, for example, found that certain familial memorable messages appeared to be based on mass mediated sources. Her research concluded that socialization is formed partially by sources outside of the family, but are likely reiterated by family members.

The Narratology of Memorable Messages About Sex

Individuals receive hundreds, if not thousands, of messages from various sources every day; yet the vast majority of these messages remain on the fringes of short-term memory (Smith, Ellis & Yoo, 2001).  Only a select few of these messages become “memorable,” meaning that they are remembered for an extended period of time and continue to have a profound influence on a person’s life (Knapp, Stohl & Reardon, 1981).  Memorable messages are personal and legitimate messages (Stohl, 1986), internalized and taken to heart (Knapp et al., 1981) that become a lasting influence on people’s lives (Ellis & Smith, 2004). Consequently, they represent “rich sources of information about ourselves, our society, and our ways of communicating” (Knapp, 1981, p. 40).

In the past, communication scholars have studied memorable messages in terms of organizational socialization (e.g., Dallimore, 2003; Stohl, 1986), influence of family communication (e.g., Ellis & Smith, 2004; Medved et al., 2006), perceptions of illness and healthcare (e.g., Keely, 2004; Lauckner et al., 2012; Smith et al., 2009; Smith et al., 2010), constructions of identity (Heisler & Ellis, 2008; Holladay, 2002) and understandings of discrimination in an increasingly diverse world (Camara & Orbe, 2010). For this particular study, the literature on memorable messages represents a useful conceptual lens through which to study salient influences of current sexual practices (Medved et al., 2006). Specifically, we extend this conceptual frame by focusing on memorable message narratives – the stories that individuals name as most influential to current practices.

Traditionally memorable message research has followed a rational-scientific model whereby memorable messages were measured in terms of their role in self-assessing current and past behaviors (e.g., Ellis & Smith, 2004). Given our interest in participant recollections of memorable messages they received regarding sex, we adopt narrative theory (W. Fisher, 1987) as a theoretical lens to highlight the narratological nature of memorable messages. Narratology, according to Browning (2009), is the “study and theory of narratives, or complex stories – what they are made of, how they are structured, and what we gain from using them as a vehicle for communication” (p. 673). Treating descriptions of memorable messages as narratives is consistent with qualitative methodology that adopts a humanistic approach to communication research (Bute & Jensen, 2011; Manoogian, Harter, & Denham, 2010). Accordingly, we understand memorable messages as stories that hold special meaning and contain important life lessons (Browning, 2009).

According to Knapp et al. (1981), memorable messages are “remembered for extremely long periods of time,” and are perceived as “a major influence on the course of [people’s] lives” (p. 27). A message is memorable because it provides an answer to an inner conflict or personal problem, prompts a greater understanding of self, or provides a guide to self-assessment of behavior that is analyzed and discussed (Smith, Ellis, & Yoo, 2001). While earlier research found that memorable messages were offered verbally by older people with higher statuses in comparison to the participant (Knapp et al., 1981), more recent studies identify more diverse sources of memorable message including peers (Smith et al., 2010) and those gained from personal experiences (Ellis & Smith, 2004). Interestingly, Morgan and Zurbriggen (2007) found that the negotiation of the first sexual partner has a lasting impact on sexual and relational influences. Their research demonstrated the multidimensional nature of memorable experiences that are formulated from different sources over the course of one’s life and the complex ways that they shape ideas and beliefs about current and future sexual encounters. In short, memorable messages are gained through a variety of sources and contexts, and provide a general guideline for what should or should not be done in a given situation, and are recalled when a decision must be made on how to behave.

As demonstrated through this abbreviated literature review, scholars have utilized memorable messages as a conceptual framework to study a variety of communicative contexts. In addition, researchers have engaged this topic, both quantitatively (e.g., Barge & Schlueter, 2004; Holladay, 2002; Smith & Ellis, 2001; Smith et al., 2001) and qualitatively (e.g., Ford & Ellis, 1998; Keeley, 2004; Knapp et al., 1981; Stohl, 1986) in research studies. Unlike existing research, we adopt narratology to study how meaning is generated through memorable message narratives (e.g., Manoogian et al., 2010). Given the exploratory nature of our study on memorable messages about sex, we utilize it as an interpretive lens to gain insight on the following research question: (1) What types of memorable familial messages regarding sex were identified by individuals as most salient to their current sexual practices?, and (2) What were the sources, valence, communicative forms, and meanings of these messages?

An Inductive, Discovery-Oriented Methodological Framework

Study Overview

The data for this study were collected between April 2012 -- June 2012 as part of a larger research project focusing on HPV knowledge, sexual experiences and knowledge of sexually transmitted infections. The on-line survey contained a few binary questions (e.g., Have you ever had sex?) as well as several Likert-style questions that asked participants to report levels of knowledge and awareness of HPV and comfort in discussing sex with family members and romantic partners. The survey also contained a section where each participant was asked to provide a memorable message, a methodological tool known as the Critical Incident Technique (Flanagan, 1954). Specifically, the survey called for “a brief but detailed story that describes something from your past -- a story, memory, experience, and/or message from another source -- that has most impacted your CURRENT SEXUAL PRACTICES.” This open-ended survey item provided a rich source of data regarding the content, source, and circumstances of memorable messages about sex (Stohl, 1986). This self-report methodological strategy (Lauckner et al., 2012) was consistent with our desire to have participants “narrate their own experiences within these interactions as opposed to asking participants to respond to topics chosen by the researchers” (Morgan & Zurbriggen, 2007, p. 519). Within this study, participant stories ranged from those that were 1-2 sentences long to those that were several paragraphs.


Participants for this study were recruited from three different U.S. campuses: a small private urban college located in the Northeast, a large state land grant university located in the upper Midwest, and a mid-sized historically black university in the South.  Initially, three of the four co-authors provided extra credit opportunities to students in their classes who volunteered to complete the 10-minute survey on-line. In order to widen and diversify the participant pool beyond undergraduate students enrolled in communication classes, other students across campus beyond this initial scope were also encouraged to participate. Through this data collection process, 476 surveys were collected; of this larger data set, 101 participants (21%) provided memorable messages that were derived from family members. This smaller data subset, similar in size to other qualitative studies exploring sexual messages (Morgan & Zurbriggen, 2007), is the focus of our current analysis. 

Basic demographic information was collected from participants via an open-ended prompt that asked them to provide a self-description of their identity in ways that captured how individuals “construct and perform complex, heterogeneous communicative lives” (Houston, 2002, p. 37). Because of the inductive nature of this question, reporting the demographic composition of our participants involves a significant amount of “missing data.” Our coding of self-descriptions demonstrates significant diversity in terms of: age (29% under 20; 60% in their 20s; 10% unreported), gender (61% female; 26% male; 13% unreported); race/ethnicity (44% white, 26% black, 4% Hispanic, 4%, multiracial; 21% unreported); and region (45% Midwest campus, 31% northeast campus, 24% southern campus). Our strategy to collect demographic data was utilized to counter existing criticism (Orbe & Everett, 2006) that researchers traditionally force participants to choose among pre-determined categories (which may or may not represent who they are) that are then coded to produce correlations with other variables. In this regard, it provided some agency for participants to articulate what they perceive to be the most salient aspects of their identities (Ting-Toomey et al., 2000) in relation to the memorable messages regarding sex that they shared. In doing so, we sought to avoid an error in traditional research design that assumes that a “single aspect should be conceived as universally ‘more important’ than the others” (Houston, 2002, p. 37). Consequently, demographic identifiers provided by the participants are used to contextualize the narratives shared within the findings section, but not coded for attempts to correlate any one particular identity marker (e.g., race or gender) with any specific theme.

Thematic Analytical Process                                                                                               

In order to explore our two research questions, we conducted a qualitative content analysis (e.g., Dallimore, Hertenstein, & Platt, 2004) of these stories. Content analysis is the methodological approach to “identify, enumerate, and analyze occurrences of specific messages” (Frey, Botan, & Kreps, 2000, p. 236).  According to Krippendorf (1980) content analysis involves four steps including generating data that is illustrative of real phenomenon, data reduction, inference and analysis that leads to standardization of future research. We first separated out familial messages (n=101) from the larger data set of memorable messages regarding sex (n=476). Within the 101 narratives, descriptions of responses were coded in terms of different constructs established through existing memorable message research (e.g., T. Fisher, 1987; Knapp, Stohl, & Reardon, 1981). While an increasingly large number of content analyses have utilized various computer programs, we decided upon traditional human coding in order to maximize the subjectivity (Conway, 2006) that came with researchers who have a familiarity of memorable message research and the large data set.

In order to establish an acceptable level of intercoder reliability, three of the four co-authors of the manuscript coded the entire data set (Lombard, Snyder-Duch, & Bracken, 2004).  Each person coded the data independently; these assessments resulted in intercoder reliability levels ranging from .70 and .80 for source, valence, and communication – all falling within generally acceptable benchmarks (Frey et al., 2000; Lombard et al., 2002).  For the small number of remaining cases, coders discussed the items until they reached a general agreement (Benoit, Pier, & Blaney, 1997). 


Our data revealed a variety of narratives regarding memorable familial messages regarding sex. Before explicating the meanings of six different thematic messages, we describe the findings of our qualitative content analysis regarding the source, valence and communication form of memorable message narratives. First, the analysis of source focused on the particular location from which the message originated. Within our analysis, the most frequent familial sources identified by participants within their memorable message narratives were general family references (29.1%), followed by both parents (24.8%), and mothers (21.8%). Other family members, albeit with significantly less frequency, were also the originators of participant’s most memorable messages regarding sex including siblings (8.9%), fathers (6.9%), and extended family members such as cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles (6.7%). Finally, a small percentage of responses (3.9%) referenced “growing up” with certain values without identifying a specific person or persons. Table 1 summarizes the results of this particular point of analysis, and provides example for each category.

Communication form was another focus of our analysis. As presented in Table 2, the vast majority of participants (70.3%) described memorable messages that took the form of verbal messages directly communicated from different familial sources. Existing memorable message research (Stohl, 1986), as well as more recent studies (e.g., Ellis & Smith, 2004) have demonstrated how personal experiences also work to constitute memorable messages. This was evident in our data, as a significant percentage of participants provided narratives that highlighted observations and indirect forms of communication (24.8% and 3.9% respectively). A small percentage of responses (3.9%) did not identify any specific form of communication. Table 2 reports our statistical findings in terms of communication form, and provides an example of each category. 

The third category, valence, also provided an interesting point of analysis regarding memorable message narratives. In particular, data was analyzed in terms of how messages were articulated within the narratives: positively, negatively, or through a neutral frame. Our findings reveal that participant narratives reflected a balance of negative (37.6%), positive (34.7%), and neutrally-framed (27.7%) familial messages about sex. Table 3 provides examples of each of these categories.  Our next section focuses on the meanings situated within the memorable familial message narratives provided by participants and illustrates how these meanings were generated from a variety of familial sources and through different communicative forms.

Meanings of Memorable Message Narratives

While our qualitative analysis of the source, communication form, and valence of narratives was easily summarized through descriptive statistics and select examples, the meanings of memorable message narratives warrant more substantial treatment. In this section, we explicate the emergence of five themes: (1) practice safe sex, (2) premarital sex is wrong, (3) wait until you are ready/for the right person, (4) sex as natural or pleasurable, and (5) sex as negative, abusive, and/or taboo.

Practice safe sex.The most frequently received memorable message from our respondents was focusing on the importance of practicing safe sex (n = 37). Although more evenly distributed than other memorable familial messages, this one seemed to come primarily from the mother figure or from both parents. The following example, provided by a participant who identified as a multiracial woman, is one that shows the strong impact that a mother can have, especially on her daughter.

My mother had an abortion when she was 18 years old. She has always been very open with me about her decision as well has how I should practice safe sex so I would never have to make that decision. Although we don’t talk about sex often she put me on birth control at an early age and was very open with me about getting the HPV shot and her concerns. More than any other experience, my mother’s openness and initiative ha[ve] had the biggest impact on my sex life since I became sexually active.

This response, like a few others, expressed an understanding of young mothers’ struggles and how talking about them serve an influential function in adolescent sexual development.

Of the 37 safe sex messages, 22 were directly communicated. For example, one respondent – a European American young woman – stated, “I have been told by my parents…that I should always keep myself protected…” Overwhelmingly, this message was directly stated and understood through explicit messages.  Yet, several participants did provide narratives that demonstrated how safe sex messages were also gained through observation or personal experience. For example, an African American woman stated:

Just seeing people living with AIDS has impacted my decision, as well as the fact that my mom had me when she was 19 and didn’t get the chance to do everything she wanted to do at that time.

Similar to this example, several of the participants recounted more of an experience or observation in regards to receiving memorable messages from family members. Regardless of the communication form of the message, it still was reported as having a significant impact on future sexual behavior decisions.    
Like most of the responses, a substantial number of the safe sex messages were negatively framed. “I choose to have safe sex because of a close family member contracting the HIV virus,” shared one African American female participant. This response is situated within a negative association of the unwanted consequences related to unsafe sex. In a similar manner, several respondents provided narratives that described how a negative personal experience (e.g., pregnancy scare or possible STI infection) influenced their personal outlook on appropriate sexual behavior.

In contrast, some of the narratives featuring a safe sex message were received in a positive light. For instance, one European American woman stated, “My aunt always gives me reality checks and personal conversations with me all the time about my sexual encounters and how to prevent myself from contracting diseases.” This brief sentence appeared within a larger narrative that illustrates how a positive and direct memorable message (which focused on “the beauty of sex”) from an extended family member can also influence safe sex practices.

Premarital sex as wrong.  Unlike the message to practice safe sex, many of our participants described being socialized with the message that premarital sex is wrong and abstinence should be practiced until marriage (n = 24). Of all of the messages in this category, the vast majority (n = 18) reported that the source of the message was a general family reference. For example, one man who self-identified as Hispanic stated nothing other than, “My family probably would not like that I had sex.” There seems to be an overtone with many of our participants as they describe being “raised” or “taught” but include no specific family member descriptions. For this message type specifically, the general family reference seems to be extremely common and powerful – possibly because the message was communicated through multiple family members at multiple times.

Still, other participants reported receiving a message of abstinence before marriage from both parents. One respondent (European American female) simply stated, “I was told by my parents to not have sex until marriage, and I agree with that idea.” Here, there does not seem to be much explanation or logic as to why abstinence is the best way, but the respondent doesn’t seem to question the issue outside of what her parents have said. This particular message, although seemingly ambiguous in nature, was primarily direct in delivery. Out of the 24 narratives within this category, 19 individuals reported direct forms of communication. One participant, for example, had a direct message partly from her mother, a general family reference, and a first sexual partner as demonstrated with this narrative:

My most recent ex boyfriend was my first sexual experience. He was extremely comfortable with talking about anything sexual and encouraged me to feel comfortable as well without being forceful. From my mother and others I was always told to wait until I was married to have sex—I was actually kind of scared out of it completely—I also have an anxiety disorder. But my last partner made it a very positive experience. I don’t know if I will be as comfortable with future partners.

Memorable messages that premarital sex is wrong were also gained through personal experiences or observations of others. One African American man’s response included, “…I have watched too many of my close friends go through pregnancy scares, two of whom are currently pregnant…That’s what happens when you do what you’re not supposed to be doing.” This example, like parts of the previous ones, conveyed a negative association with the act of sex prior to marriage.  Interestingly, other narratives steeped in the same message were equally framed positively (“Everyone in my family is Christian, so sex is something special that should be saved for marriage”) and neutrally (“My dad always told me to wait to have sex until marriage”). Interestingly, a few participants negotiated how they defined sex within the context of their family religious values, like the African American woman who wrote: “I was born and raised Christian and want to continue following this faith so I will not participate in any penetration until marriage, I will only go as far as oral.”

Wait until ready or for right person.The third memorable familial message theme that emerged from our thematic analysis of participant narratives was to wait until they felt ready or rather for the right person in order to partake in sexual activity (n = 14). The primary source of this message was that of both parents and general family references, both of whom highlighted core family values. A European American woman explains, “My own family values made me want to wait until I found the right person.” This example alluded to a general family reference having positively impacted the respondent’s decision to abstain until personally ready for sexual activity. In another example, a promise to an extended family member, made the female respondent wait until the right person was introduced into their life.

I have decided to sustain from any sexual activity until I am in a committed relationship because of a promise I made to my aunt. My aunt Crystal and I are extremely close and my promise to her will remain sacred until I am in a committed and respectable relationship.

Like this narrative, most of the participants that received this message received it directly (12 of the 14). For example, one European American male shared: “My parents instilled strong morals in me to make it so that I would wait to have sex until I was truly in love with my partner.” This instruction is direct and was clearly a part of the individual’s socialization around appropriate sexual behaviors. Through teaching certain morals and values, some parents were effective in leaving a lasting message to their children. Other participant narratives featured memorable sexual experiences that carried a “wait” message through multiple sources, including the observations of some family members. This was the case with the following response:

I am from a very conservative small town, attended a private Catholic grade school , and an all girls private Catholic high school. Because of this, I feel that I am very conscious of who I have sex with. I only have sex with people who I am in a serious relationship with that being said I have only had sex with one person whom I am in a serious relationship. I think sex is a very special and sacred bond between two people that shouldn’t be taken lightly, however I do not believe in saving sex before marriage. I’ve watched my parents who divorced go through many relationships with people that have been on and off. [Having] seen that, what I want for myself is something more. (European American female participant)

Interestingly, this narrative includes a variety of messages that appear to be framed, positively, neutrally and slightly negative. Yet, unlike this particular narrative, the majority of remaining descriptions expressed a positively framed message. For instance, one individual – an African American female – simply stated: “My mom always told me that sex is the ‘crowning culmination of love.’ She said this in many ways and many times throughout my adolescence…” Most of the individuals that provided positive experiences with conversations around sexual activity described an openness with the source of the message and an overall positive outlook on how they view sex and sexual behavior. This particular theme is explicated next.

Sex as natural or pleasurable. Another major theme that emerged through our analysis was the idea that sex is natural and or pleasurable (n = 14). Responses that reflected this message were pretty evenly distributed between different sources, including mothers, fathers, and siblings. One European American female respondent described a memorable experience at a young age:

When I was 9 years old I wanted to sleep in my mother’s bed. She allowed it and after a minute I felt something weird. I had a used condom stuck to my leg. My mother called her boyfriend and they laughed hysterically. I guess I learned early that sex is fun and lighthearted.

This example conveys an easy-going approach to the idea of sex, that it is a natural part of life and something that can be laughed about. This particular narrative reflects more of an observed, or experienced, familial memorable message that carries an implicit message. Similarly, another respondent explains, “I’ve always been attracted to girls and my dad was always having women and sometimes at night as a kid I ran across pornos on TV” (African American male participant). In this context, the message that sex is natural and pleasurable was observed and conveyed to the respondent through indirect means of communication.      

Older siblings also were a source for memorable message narratives that communicated that sex was a natural human pleasure. One European American male participant, for example, described the messages that he received from older siblings. Specifically, he wrote:

When I was younger, my older siblings would tell me about their sex lives. This got me curious about it at a younger than average age and has caused me to have a longer sexual history than my friends now.

From his perspective, explicit verbal communication about sex described it as a natural part of adolescence, something that facilitated an early desire to engage in sexual activity.

Interestingly, the positive frame of this particular theme was not exclusively situated within positive experiences. Although most of these messages were positively framed, one female respondent shared a negative experience concerning sex that taught her that it was a natural and important part of life. In particular, she explained how her single mother’s loneliness led to that particular lesson: “The fact that my father was never there when I was young made me believe sex was a very important part of a relationship.” Even though it was framed negatively, the idea that sex was an important pleasure natural to healthy relationships was still communicated through personal familial experience.

Nearly ten percent of our participants wrote about the importance of open communication with family members regarding sex, and its influence on viewing sex as natural. This point was seen in the response of one European American female participant who described the transparency of her communication with her mother:

My mom and I have always had a very close relationship. If I ever had any questions about anything she was open to talk about them. Including things that she has done in the past with boyfriends. It helped me understand more about sex and feel comfortable talking about it with my boyfriend. She also was okay with me getting on birth control.

Several participants, like this one, who reported having had open conversations about sex and appropriate behavior concerning sex during adolescence, also seem to have had it communicated directly and positively. For example, a European American woman explained,

My mother and father have always taught me to be open, honest and respectful of sex. From a young age we talked about sex openly and it was never a topic that made me feel uncomfortable. I feel that now I am able to easily communicate with my partner about sex because I was taught to be so open.

This respondent’s narrative describes communication that is open and positively framed; accordingly the talks with her mother created an influential foundation that shapes her current communication about sex with significant others.

Sex as negative, abusive, and/or taboo. Of the 101 participant narratives describing memorable familial messages about sex, almost a tenth offered descriptions that situated sex as something negative, abusive, and/or taboo (n = 9). Most often this theme was seen in the narratives of women who described how a traumatic experience early on in life established a painful first impression of sex. For some participants, the experience was steeped in the experience of being sexually abused by older male relatives (e.g., fathers, cousins). In the case of one African American woman, her description of the family member was vague (“sexually molested as a 5 year old child by a family member at my grandmother’s house”) but the powerful impact of the experience could be seen throughout her life – early sexual activity with peers, significant promiscuity as an adolescent, and unhealthy, non-committal relationships as a young adult.  In this regard, this initial forced introduction to sex ultimately shaped the ideas and values that this respondent had around what sexual behavior was appropriate as an adolescent.

For other female participants, early socializing familial experiences were not explicitly conscious; however, they were instrumental shaping current attitudes to sex nonetheless. The over-arching implicit meta-message consistent throughout all of the narratives included in this section is the characterization of sex as a taboo topic, one that is not spoken about directly or explicitly unless absolutely necessary. For instance, one European American woman wrote,

My father was arrested for a sexual offense when I was ten years old. He had solicited a girl just three years older than me online, sent her explicit material, and made plans to meet. During the custody battle, my sister and I had to endure a rape kit. Although I have no recollection of sexual abuse, the tests revealed heavy sexual abuse from extraneous objects, which revealed why I had been ridden with infection as a young child. The wounds were mostly healed, and despite no memory of the indicated events, to this day it takes me a very long time and a lot of trust to take steps towards more intimacy. Having to hear about the abuse in explicit detail in court and from my mother, makes me very careful in my sexual behavior and very protective about engaging in sexual activity.

This particular narrative focuses more on the negative connotations associated with a set of circumstances that resulted in significant psychological damage (compared to the actual memories of the abuse/rape itself). Other narratives also highlighted the salient role that communicating about sex through negative framing in creating memorable messages. Although these responses are a small portion of the larger data sample, they demonstrate a large detrimental impact on the respondents’ lifelong attitudes toward sex. This also was seen within a narrative provided by one female respondent who expressed a negative association with sex as a result of a father’s alcoholism and constant accusations.

I decided to start having sex after I turned 16. My father was an alcoholic and every weekend he would get drunk and accuse me of it, and I am the type of person who believes that I’m going to be accused for it I might as well do it. So, that is why I decided to start.


Our study was designed to determine the themes within memorable message narratives that involved various forms of family communication. Our data was comprised of self-generated narratives, those in which participants identified family communication as having the greatest saliency in terms of current sexual practices. Studying the narratology of memorable messages as memorable experiences, we found five general themes (practice safe sex, premarital sex is wrong, wait until you are ready/for the right person, sex as natural or pleasurable, and sex as negative, abusive, and/or taboo) that came most often in the form of direct communication, equally framed positively, negatively, and neutrally, from a variety of family members.
While we acknowledge the polyvocality of participant narratives (Lyotard, 1984), our findings provide valuable insight into the complex ways in which memorable messages involve important life experiences (Knapp et al., 1981), as well as making an important contribution to the study of family, sex, and communication.

A significant outcome of our study lies within the ways it extends existing research on how young adults describe the impact of family communication in their decisions regarding sexual activity. Like other recent research (e.g., Coffett, 2010), it helps to challenge some existing generalizations that offer simplistic conceptualizations of the family communication about sex. For instance, while a majority of memorable message narratives highlighted the ways in which family members encouraged participants to practice safe sex or to remain abstinent until they were in a committed relationship, our data revealed that young adults are not necessarily defining sex in ways that are always consistent. Formal definitions of abstinence reflect an individual’s choice to refrain from engaging in sexual activity, which refers to “any type of genital contact or sexual stimulation between two persons including, but not limited to sexual intercourse” (Sawyer et al., 2007, p. 47). Despite the general acceptance of this definition, and those related to what constitutes “virginity” and “sex,” for scholars and practitioners, we found that young adults vary in the ways in which they characterize their sexual behaviors in regard to these terms (see also, Bersamin et al., 2007; Pitts & Rahman, 2001; Rosenbaum, 2006). Like Sawyer et al. (2007), we found a significant number of participants whose narratives contained descriptions that reflect a belief that engaging in mutual masturbation and oral sex is characteristic of abstinence – and not officially “sex.” Such instances seemed to be most explicit within our data for individuals who negotiated their current sexual activity within familial expectations of abstinence based on religious beliefs.

As demonstrated through our explication and discussion of thematic findings, this study is valuable in providing scholarly insight into how family communication influences young adults’ sexual activity. However, the project is not without its limitations, two of which seem most relevant. The first limitation relates to our participant pool. While we utilized on-line surveys to engage a large, diverse participant pool on a sensitive (if not taboo) topic such as sex, the amount of data focusing on familial memorable messages was relatively small. Future research would be wise to engage a larger cross-section of young adults, with a specific focus on including participants who vary in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, spirituality, socio-economic status, and sexuality.

Our second limitation relates to the depth of data that was gathered via one open-ended survey question. While much of the data was frank, honest, and uncompromising, collecting data in this way was limiting in that a significant a number of responses were short and lacking in much detail. This made analysis of different issues (e.g., impact memorable message on current sexual activity) difficult. In addition, the open-ended question did not present us with any opportunities to directly engage with participants, something that hindered our ability to ask follow-up clarifying questions. Future research on sexual memorable messages, like that which we’ve outlined in this discussion section, would be wise to facilitate data collection strategies that allow for extended exchanges that can provide greater depth and contextualization. Conducting such research on-line (e.g., via personal or group chats) exists as a distinct possibility (see, for example, Grabner-Kranter & Kaluscha, 2003). Engaging participants through communicative channels that foster trust and confidentiality is crucial to maximizing the depth and richness of data.

Through a multidimensional examination of memorable message narratives, including messages, source, valence, and communication form, our findings also demonstrate the complex ways in which critical life experiences impact future behavior. For instance, while readers might assume that all positively-framed familial narratives lead to enhanced positive attitudes, the opposite was not always the case. This was seen more clearly within a couple of the memorable memorable narratives that included sexual abuse or observations of other family members in unhealthy relationships. The participants who provided these descriptions described the negative characteristics of the situation; yet, within these accounts, they also defined them as memorable experiences in terms of what sex should not involve. As such, future research can add considerable depth to the existing literature by examining how current behaviors are informed by clusters of memorable messages – broadly defined – that are oftentimes complementary and oppositional. Consequently, a more macro-level line of research will explore how individuals negotiate competing memorable messages that come from a variety of sources including the family, peers, and the media (Busse et al., 2010; Coffelt, 2010; Guo & Nathanson, 2011). Scholars interested in this line of research might draw from the concept of sensemaking as articulated by Weick (1995). Grounded in both individual and social activities, sensemaking “involves turning circumstances into a situation that is comprehended explicitly in words and that serves as a springboard into action” (Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld, 2005, p. 409). Such a theoretically-informed examination of memorable message narratives could provide valuable insight into the processes through which individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds may “make sense” of familial messages in different ways [see, for example, research on family communication and race (Socha & Diggs, 1999)].

Our study also lays the foundation for future research that reflects both theoretical and conceptual innovations. A major contribution of our exploratory study was the productive ways in which we investigated the narratives of memorable messages broadly defined, given the powerful ways in which they serve as a template for understanding human life (Browning, 2009). This epistemological shift away from a rational-scientific paradigm (W. Fisher, 1987) seen in traditional memorable message research (Knapp et al., 1981; Smith et al., 2010) provides a valuable opportunity to study memorable messages as determined by participant narratives rather than existing conceptualizations. From the perspective of students at three diverse colleges and universities, memorable familial messages about sex were gained through direct talks, but also through personal experiences and observations of others – two sources of memorable messages that appear in existing literature but are relatively unexplored (Ellis & Smith, 2004). As such, our findings highlight memorable experiences through which messages are implicitly gained outside of traditional conceptualizations.

Studying the narratives that individuals tell about memorable experiences – and the messages associated with these experiences – represents a heuristically rich area for future research and theorizing. As such, our study highlights the ways that “messages” are generated through a variety of contexts, some of which that do not stem directly from explicit verbal content. Future research can continue to explore the communicative features that turn everyday communicative interactions into memorable experiences that carry life-long messages that are used to self-assess current and future behaviors (Ellis & Smith, 2004).

Table1: Source *




General Family


“I choose to have safe sex because of a close family member contracting the HIV virus.”

Both Parents


“I can say that I do have sex; according to my religion (Christianity) and parents I should wait until marriage. I am not proud that I have sex, I just do.”



“The one consistent message I have received from my mother is to always learn and know who you lay with before you commit to the act of sex.”



“My sister works for an AIDS foundation in Chicago, so at the start of every semester she gives me “The Talk,” i.e. the importance of condoms and watching who I kiss/sleep with.”



“The fact that my father was never there when I was young made me believe sex was a very important part of a relationship.”

Extended Family (Cousins, Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents, etc.)


“Ever since I can remember I have heard that I should only have sexual encounters when I am in love and married. I heard this from my whole family. Because of this and my religious beliefs my sexual experiences have been with two men in which I thought I was in love.”



“Growing up Catholic, all I ever learned was abstinence and they did not inform us of other alternatives, such as birth control and condoms. This made me unaware until I was in college and learned a lot more about safe sex.”

*Some narratives included more than one source, and were coded accordingly. Consequently, percentages total more than 100%.

Table 2: Communication Form*

Communication Form





“I have been told by my parents from the age in which sex became a viable option for me that I should always keep myself protected and be committed to the person I am sleeping with.”



“I have a cousin who has had multiple sex partners since the age of 16 who is now 19. She would have unprotected sex with all of them until she caught an STD from one of the men. She does not have sex with random people now and from seeing her go through what she went through I always make sure I use protection with my boyfriend when having sex.



“When I was 9 years old I wanted to sleep in my mother’s bed. She allowed it and after a minute I felt something weird. I had a used condom stuck to my leg. My mother called her boyfriend and they laughed hysterically. I guess I learned early that sex is fun and lighthearted.”



“My family is Catholic so we don’t believe in sex before marriage.”

*Some narratives included more than one communication form, and were coded accordingly. Consequently, percentages total more than 100%.

Table 3: Valence*






“Just seeing people living with AIDS has impacted my decision, as well as the fact that my mom had me when she was 19 and didn’t get the chance to do everything she wanted to do at the time.”



“My parents instilled strong morals in me to make it so that I would wait to have sex until I was truly in love with my partner.”



“I was born and raised Christian and want to continue following this faith so I will not participate in any penetration until marriage, I will only go as far as oral.”

*Some narratives included more than one reference to valence, and were coded accordingly. Consequently, percentages total more than 100%.


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