Psychological Development Across the Lifespan

Adolescence (12–18)

What role does sexuality play in adolescence?

One of the greatest changes adolescents undergo involves sexuality. In puberty they transition from pre-sexual children into sexually mature individuals who are capable of conceiving and/or bearing children. In general, sexual maturity precedes emotional maturity, and young teens are often faced with feelings and social demands that they are not emotionally ready for. The age of puberty has come earlier and earlier over the past century. Initially, this development reflected improvements in nutrition and adolescent health. In more recent years, however, the earlier timing of puberty may have more to do with changes in the environment, specifically with hormones in the food. Moreover, in our highly complex, industrialized society, the full adult role is reached far later than in simpler societies. Thus, the period during which an adolescent is sexually mature but not yet inhabiting a fully adult role has greatly lengthened over time.

Adolescents receive many conflicting messages about sexuality. Boys may be under pressure to prove their manhood, and possibly to be sexually active before they feel ready for it. Likewise, the intense sex drive of the adolescent male along with their concern with promoting a masculine identity may lead to irresponsible and dangerous sexual behavior, or behavior that is inadequately sensitive to the needs of the partner. Girls, in particular, face conflicting sexual messages. There is pressure to engage in sexual activity in order to “be cool,” to maintain male attention, or to prove that one is not a child. There is also pressure to avoid being labeled as promiscuous.

Despite many changes in sex roles over the past few decades, the sexually promiscuous female is often still stigmatized. Alternatively, adolescents may feel ready to engage in sexual behavior but face restrictions on their behavior from parents, peers, or culture. Sexual mores for adolescents have undergone many changes in recent decades. Because of this cultural flux, sexual development in adolescents can present many challenges. Adolescents benefit most from careful, thoughtful, and open discussion with adults about the risks and rewards of sexual activity.


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