Attitudes and behaviours of young Indigenous people in Townsville concerning relationships, sex and contraception: the “U Mob Yarn Up” project

Sarah L Larkins, R Priscilla Page, Kathryn S Panaretto, Robert Scott, Melvina R Mitchell, Valerie Alberts, P Craig Veitch and Suzanne McGinty
Med J Aust 2007; 186 (10): 513-518.


Objective: To gain some understanding of the attitudes and behaviours of Indigenous young people in Townsville concerning relationships, contraception and safe sex.

Design: Cross-sectional study using a computer-assisted self-administered survey and single-sex focus group discussions designed by a Young Mums’ Group operating on participatory action principles and acting as peer interviewers.

Participants and setting: 171 Indigenous students in Years 9–11 at three high schools and 15 residents of a homeless youth shelter in Townsville, Queensland, 27 April – 8 December 2004.

Main outcome measures: Self-reported attitudes and behaviour about relationships, sexual intercourse and contraception.

Results: 84/183 participants (45.9%) reported past sexual intercourse, with 56.1% commencing intercourse at age 13–14 years. The likelihood of having had sex increased with being male (P = 0.001), increasing age, increased perceived sexual activity of peer group (both P = 0.000), and drinking alcohol at least weekly (P = 0.015). Young women were more likely to report unwanted sexual touching (P = 0.031), and less likely to report enjoying sexual intercourse (P = 0.001). The main qualitative themes concerned females’ reputations, coercion, and denial of female desire. Only 49/80 participants (61.3%) reported always using condoms. The main reasons for not using contraception were “just not thinking about it”, shame, and problems with access. Despite having reasonable knowledge about contraception, most lacked the confidence and negotiation skills to communicate with partners about condom use.

Conclusions: Like teenagers elsewhere, Indigenous teenagers in Townsville are becoming sexually active at a young age, and not practising safe sex reliably. The need to protect their reputations puts young women at risk by not being prepared for safe sex by carrying condoms.

  • Sarah L Larkins1,2
  • R Priscilla Page3
  • Kathryn S Panaretto1
  • Robert Scott1
  • Melvina R Mitchell1
  • Valerie Alberts2
  • P Craig Veitch2
  • Suzanne McGinty2

  • 1 Townsville Aboriginal and Islander Health Services, Townsville, QLD.
  • 2 James Cook University, Townsville, QLD.
  • 3 Tropical Medical Training, Townsville, QLD.



We thank all the young Indigenous people who participated so openly in the project, and in particular, the Young Mums who gave so generously of their time and experience in making this project a success. Thanks to staff and the Board of Directors of Townsville Aboriginal and Islander Health Services and staff of participating schools. The project was supported by a National Health and Medical Research Council Public Health Postgraduate Scholarship (Grant ID: 233516), and funding from the General Practice Education and Training Registrar Scholarship and Research Fund, and the Primary Health Care Research, Education and Development Program Queensland.

Competing interests:

None identified.

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