The Development of Adolescent Sexuality

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Human sexuality is much more complex than the biological forces that initiate the sexual maturation process. As such, the development of adolescent sexuality includes not only physical development but also cognitive, emotional, social, and moral development. Yet, as emphasized throughout this article, these developmental areas do not uniformly advance at the same rate. This is particularly problematic with respect to adolescent sexuality because poor decisions, due to a lack of cognitive and/or emotional maturity, can have dire, life-long consequences. Thus, it is important for caregivers to be prepared to discuss all aspects of sexuality (i.e., the physical, cognitive, emotional, social, and moral aspects of sexuality) so that they can best assist their teens to make wise and thoughtful decisions. When parents understand the process of adolescent sexual development they are in a better position to assist their children. In addition, knowledge of this information enables caregivers to know when to intervene if necessary.

This portion of the article will describe the average, natural evolution of adolescent sexuality: their sexual thoughts and questions; their sexual feelings and concerns; and their sexual behavior and choices. Some youth may choose to remain entirely abstinent from sexual activity due to their personal values and beliefs; even so, they will still experience similar thoughts, feelings, and desires, as their sexually active peers. <!---While this article is primarily descriptive in nature, the Adolescent Parenting article LINK to future article and the Adolescent article on Sexuality LINK to future article provide more detailed information for parents about adolescent sexuality including: how to talk to teens about sex while incorporating family values and religious beliefs; and how to help teens to make difficult personal decisions. ---> Parents are cautioned to remember that every youth is unique. Children may reach these developmental milestones at ages that are different from averages listed here and still be considered "normal."


Early adolescence (ages 12-15): The age of curiosity and experimentation

Early adolescence is a precarious period in youths' sexual development because of the inter-relationship between sexual development, cognitive development, and emotional development. Youth at this age lack the cognitive and emotional maturity that is necessary to make wise and healthy decisions regarding their sexuality and are ill-prepared to cope with consequences of sexual activity. This is particularly unfortunate as today's adolescents are becoming sexually active sooner than previous generations. According to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published in 2010, 46% of high school students were reported have sexual intercourse (Eaton, Kann, Kinchen, et al., 2010). This stands in contrast to the 1940's when only 10% of women ages 16-17 reported having had sex, while 50-60% of men of the same age, reported having had sex (Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948; Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin, & Gebbard, 1953). Since sexual development begins during Puberty, the reader may wish to review the Middle Childhood article on Puberty for more detailed information and for specific advice regarding menstruation, erections, etc.

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When teens are approximately 12-13 years of age, they begin to show a general interest in sexual topics. Youth may try to satisfy their curiosity by reading information about sex, and viewing images with a sexual content. This may include drawings in anatomy books, photographs of naked people, images of animal sexual behavior, and pornographic materials. Youth can readily find these images at the library, in an older sibling's biology text book, watching certain television programs, viewing adult magazines, or searching on the Internet. Some youth may attempt to satisfy their curiosity by "peeping;" i.e., to secretly observe people when they are naked such as when they are bathing or changing clothes. It is normal for youth to want to avoid the embarrassment of being discovered doing any of these things so they may attempt to deny or conceal what they are doing.

During early adolescence boys will experience frequent erections since this is the normal response of the male body to sexual excitement. Erections can also occur spontaneously for no apparent reason at all as boys' bodies adjust to the extreme chemical and hormonal changes initiated during puberty. Similarly, girls may find they produce vaginal secretions for no apparent reason, even when they're not menstruating. Sometimes, these secretions are caused by sexual arousal, but increased vaginal secretions can also be caused by normal hormonal fluctuations during their monthly cycle.

By ages 13-14 years, guys will have a more obvious interest in sex than girls do, but girls are interested in sex as well. Guys will have even more frequent erections at this age. It's quite normal for guys to experiment with their erections and their sexual arousal through masturbation. Because sexual pleasure is a new experience, boys may want to masturbate quite frequently. Since indicators of girls' sexual arousal are not as overtly obvious as boys' erections, girls may not masturbate as frequently because they may be less aware of their sexual arousal. <!---More information about talking to youth about masturbation can be found in the Adolescent article on Sexuality (LINK to future article).--->

Although sexual behavior is usually limited to masturbation at this age, both guys and girls may start to experiment with sexual arousal through flirting, hugging, and playfully hitting or tickling other youth they are romantically interested in. They may also start kissing or "making out" with other teens. This may occur between two teens in private or it may occur in the context of a larger group, such as a party, where youth might play a kissing game like spin-the-bottle.

Youth at this age may also begin to experiment with vocalizing their sexual thoughts when they are with other teens. They may begin telling sexual jokes or using sexual double entendres, which are comments that can have two meanings: the usual or customary meaning, and a subtly inferred sexual meaning. Teens may also begin hinting about their own sexual activity to gauge others' reactions and readiness to talk about sex.

As discussed in the cognitive development section, teens begin to become concerned with other people's opinions and judgments of them. Therefore, it makes sense that both guys and girls will become more modest about their own nudity, even around people of the same gender. For instance, a father and son may have routinely enjoyed going to the gym together to play basketball, and comfortably dressed next to each other in the locker room. But suddenly, the son seems highly uncomfortable with this arrangement, and may attempt to dress in another row of the locker room, or may even make excuses to avoid going to the gym altogether. This increased sense of modesty is due to youths' own uncertainty about their new adult-like bodies and their concerns about how others might judge their body. Family members will need to remember to adjust to this increased need for privacy.

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