The adolescent – Sexual behaviour

The adolescent years see the flowering of sexuality and the first faltering steps following sexual awareness, although sexuality has probably been increasing slowly since birth. Early adolescent attachments, worship of pop stars and other unattainables, and the painful episodes of ‘puppy love’ or ‘calf love’ make the early teenage years a time of stormy relationships and heart-searching. Hopefully by the end of adolescence the individual has developed a more stable identity, and has come to realize that love life is not always as blissfully rosy as depicted in the teenage magazines.

At the beginning of adolescence the teenager is inundated with sexual emotions which are still difficult to deal with. Homosexual emotions and experiences are not uncommon during this stage and hardly ever indicate a lasting preference. They function mainly as a means of gaining some sexual experience, and also satisfy the natural curiosity about the sexual organs. During adolescence the sex hormones, oestrogen in girls and testosterone in boys, increase in amount, and these stimulate the sexual instinct. This sexual desire is more a longing for or the urge towards all kinds of sexual activities than the ability to have sexual intercourse.

The first experiences with sexual intercourse are usually gained during late adolescence or as a young adult. Because of the tension, anxiety about inexperience or high expectations, the first time usually ends in ‘failure’.

Moreover, the young people are probably so engrossed by the novelty that there is hardly room for additional emotions.

Attitudes to sex

As well as being triggered hormonally, a person’s upbringing has much to do with his or her sex drive. In Western society, girls generally end up more inhibited about sex than boys do. Adolescent girls may be expected by their parents to remain a virgin until marriage; there may be grave consequences if they fail to do so. Parents may also discourage girls from sex because of the fear of pregnancy; this overprotective attitude may instil fear in their daughter. Another parental fear is that a daughter will be emotionally damaged by too-early sex. Girls may themselves have a fear of sex if they are still virgins. To boys, many parents have a different attitude. Western society tends to accept that some adolescent boys sleep with girls, but adolescent girls are often unfairly labelled as immoral ‘sluts’ for doing the same thing. This double standard is still prevalent, though less so than it was.

Choosing a partner

In relative terms, adolescents have never had so much money in their pockets as in the last two decades, and have probably never been so aware of fashion and the image they present to the world. Many adolescents are acutely self-conscious, with firm ideas of what they consider to be ‘in’ and what constitutes ‘yesterday’s news’. Their choice of a partner, or someone to ‘fancy’, is consequently often based on what their peer group considers desirable rather than on a more considered personal preference. Despite loud protestations to the contrary, the adolescent – in the view of many parents – seems merely to look and behave like one of the crowd.

Some parents become disturbed when their offspring’s choice of dress and idea of attractiveness verges, in their opinion, on the bizarre. Many teenage fashions embrace the principle of cross-dressing: boys often wear jewellery – such as one or more earrings -and make-up, and girls may prefer heavily-studded leather jackets and jeans. Hairstyle, too, may seem ‘sexless’, with both boys and girls sporting the same, sometimes even multi-coloured, cut. For the teenagers themselves, their mode of dress is as much a way of signalling individual taste and style as one of drawing attention to their collective identity and separation from other social groups. Not surprisingly, in just the same way as fashion, sexual behaviour is frequently dictated by what a teenager’s close circle of friends judge to be the “norm’. Consequently, he or she may feel pressurized into becoming sexually active before being personally ready, or lay claim to sexual experience that he or she has not actually had. Barring unwanted pregnancy or abortion, most adolescents survive any early unpleasant sexual encounters without emotional scarring. Given the misgivings that many parents have over the thought that their adolescent children may be sexually active, it is all too easy to forget that most teenagers are quite capable of forming responsible, mutually satisfying relationships that do not necessarily have to “end in tears’.

The experience of sex

The sex feelings of boys become very strong when they enter puberty. Their sexual drives can be easily aroused, creating much tension, by the sight or even the thought of an attractive girl or woman. A manifestation of this is the sex dream: the young male dreams of an erotic fantasy involving women and may ejaculate in his sleep. These ‘wet dreams’ are thought to be related to the surges of testosterone that occur at puberty, and are not uncommon in adolescent boys. Although boys experience a sudden jump in sexual desire at puberty, for girls the onset of menstruation is only the start of a gradual increase in sex drive. Initially, girls want the admiration of boys and like to feel that they are attractive. Whereas boys’ sexual feelings are predominantly physical at first, the physical demands of girls are not usually strong. However, as with boys, girls’ physical desires increase once stimulated by kissing or caressing. The act of sexual intercourse is also different for girls and boys. Girls are more slowly aroused. If the boy, who can be satisfied sexually more quickly, is not aware of this, then the girl involved may not find pleasure but only disappointment and pain. Boys tend to be able to enjoy sex with any girl who arouses their physical desire, although they may not have any deeper personal feelings for the girl. Few girls behave in this way. For the young woman sexual arousal almost always involves a personal relationship if she is to find it satisfying. Cultural influences are involved: many, if not most, young women are brought up believing that you have to be in love before you can have sex; consequently they tend to overstate their loving feelings so as to legitimize their quite natural sexual drives. For boys, cultural pressures may act in the opposite direction; they often seek sexual experience while deliberately avoiding emotional commitment.


For adolescent boys who for the most part do not have regular sex, masturbation is the earliest and most common outlet, although girls also indulge. By the age of 15 virtually all boys have masturbated at some time. Around three-quarters of women have masturbated by the age of 21. Most adolescents fantasize during masturbation to bring about or increase the degree of pleasure.

Masturbation is a normal part of sexual development. Contrary to the myths, it does no harm at all. Some adolescents fear their parents will punish them for masturbating, and this can lead to anxiety. However, this parental attitude has declined in recent times. Some non-Western cultures accept masturbation more easily than Western ones do. The reasons for the shame and guilt associated with masturbation tend to be illogical. Some people say masturbating shows poor character, or that it leads to