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Sara Villanueva Ph.D.
Sara Villanueva Ph.D.

Teens and Sex

Part III in a three-part series on teenage dating, love, and sex.

Courtney Carmody/flickr, used with permission from Creative Commons
Source: Courtney Carmody/flickr, used with permission from Creative Commons

In the teen social world, sex is more visible, more acceptable, and more available, given the opportunities afforded teens in their social contexts. Teens are now spending more time with friends, often of the opposite sex, and are often unsupervised by parents or other adults; so yes, opportunities arise. They are now also much better at reading social cues and nonverbal messages like the look from across the room that says, “Hey, I like you ... I mean, I really like you (wink, wink) ... are you interested?” Is this our signal to lock up our teens and never allow them to spend unsupervised time alone with a girlfriend/boyfriend?

Clearly not, because as we all know (likely from our own experiences), if we draw a line in the sand and make definitive statements like, “You are absolutely not allowed to see that boy, especially alone ...” Let’s just say we’d be asking for the much-dreaded teenage rebellion.

I realize that this is one of the most difficult topics that parents have to deal with when it comes to their children, but know that I am right there with you. It’s tough, but informing ourselves is not only good for us as parents (more informational tools for the parenting toolbox), it is most definitely beneficial for our teens. To that end, I would like to present you with some background and context on what teens are actually doing when it comes to sexual activity. But first, some good news: despite media portrayals, which cause our fears and imaginations to run wild, sexual promiscuity in adolescence is rare. I can hear the collective sigh of relief now.

Most of us begin our sexual explorations and activity in stages. The first stage is engaging in what scientists and researchers call autoerotic behavior. That is, sexual behavior that is experienced alone (e.g., having erotic fantasies, masturbation, nocturnal orgasms). As our teens reach high school, they typically begin an orderly progression to sexual activity involving another person. Interestingly, because most people tend to believe that boys and men corner the proverbial market on masturbation, they also believe that only boys go through these stages of sexual activity. Not so. Various studies have shown that both males and females engage in a very similar sequence; it’s just that boys engage in these activities at a somewhat earlier age than girls do.

Here is another piece of good news, parents: in terms of the prevalence of sexual intercourse among teens, slightly fewer adolescents are having sex today when we compare them with teens in previous decades. Having said this, the reality we must all face is that sexual intercourse during high school is now a part of the normative experience of adolescence in America. A bit scary, but true. And this is precisely why we need to arm our teens with knowledge and information—we want them to make smart and informed decisions when it comes to sex.

Because of the awkward nature of this subject, not all parents discuss sexuality with their children. As such, many teens are left in the dark about salient issues that will inevitably play a big role in their lives. This is a real problem. But, the good news is that today we live in a world where we have an abundance of information literally at our fingertips. There are tons of accurate and reliable books, websites, and other resources to help us find out the information we need to help us communicate with our teens. I’d like to help get you started on your quest to become informed and motivated to talk to your teen about these tough topics by providing some facts that all parents should know. We’ll call these the nitty-gritty, the 411, the scoopage of pubertal development and sexuality that you can now carry around with you in your communication toolbox.

  • The average age for adolescents to start puberty in the United States still hovers around twelve years. However, puberty is occurring earlier for both girls and boys for various reasons.
  • Girls start the pubertal process about two years earlier than boys do.
  • One of the first signs of puberty is the adolescent growth spurt, where teens reach peak height velocity, followed by the development of the primary sex characteristics (gonads—testes and ovaries) and secondary sex characteristics (breasts and facial and body hair).
  • Pubertal onset can begin as early as 7 in girls and 9.5 in boys and as late as 13 in girls and 13.5 in boys, and the time between the first sign of puberty and complete physical maturation can be as short as one and a half years or as long as six years.
  • There are some differences in pubertal onset between ethnic groups: in the U.S., black teens begin puberty earliest, followed by Latino teens, followed by white teens.
  • Early maturation can bring social advantages (attention from prospective partners, popularity, proficiency in certain sports), but “early maturers” are also at risk for various issues such as more drug and alcohol use, delinquency, and early sexual activity.
  • Some factors implicated in early pubertal maturation (especially in girls) include:
    • growing up in less cohesive families with more conflict;
    • growing up in households with no natural father, instead having a stepfather or other male not biologically related present (pheromones);
    • stress (small amounts of stress can speed up the pubertal process and a great deal of stress can slow it down).
  • Once puberty has occurred, sexual intercourse can lead to pregnancy. Physically mature male and female adolescents are more likely to be involved in romantic activities with the opposite sex than less mature peers.
  • Body fat composition can affect pubertal onset: obesity has been linked to early pubertal maturation, whereas extremely low body weight and/or excessive exercise can slow or even halt the pubertal process (for example, in ballet dancers, gymnasts, people with anorexia nervosa).
  • Nocturnal emissions (aka wet dreams) are a type of spontaneous orgasm involving either ejaculation during sleep for a male or lubrication of the vagina for a female. They are most common during the early pubertal stages, but can continue past adolescence.
  • Masturbation is completely normal and can actually be a healthy way by which young people can get to know their own bodies. Unlike what many think, men and boys do not corner the market on masturbation. Both males and females of all ages masturbate—we just don’t talk about it!
  • Most boys have experienced orgasm via masturbation before they have sex with another person. The data is less clear for girls. The behavioral sequence for most American teens is: holding hands, kissing, making out, feeling breasts through clothes, feeling breasts under clothes, feeling a penis through clothes, feeling a penis under clothes or while naked, feeling a vagina through clothes, feeling a vagina under clothes or while naked, and intercourse or oral sex.
  • There are many forms of birth control available, but the only way to protect against both pregnancy and any sexually transmitted infection is by using a protective barrier (condoms) or to remain completely abstinent.
  • growing up in less cohesive families with more conflict;
  • growing up in households with no natural father, instead having a stepfather or other male not biologically related present (pheromones);
  • stress (small amounts of stress can speed up the pubertal process and a great deal of stress can slow it down).

Here is the bottom line, parents. Our babies are inevitably going to go through puberty, and they will become interested in sex. This is an undeniably beautiful and scary fact that we must accept. And we all know that if teens really want to find something out, they will turn to friends or the web to get answers, and often the “knowledge” they acquire from these sources is not exactly accurate or reliable. Why would they not turn to their parents, the people who presumably know a thing or two about the topics, given their lifelong experiences? After all, their parents have invested heart, soul, and finances into them their whole lives. Teens turn to other sources for information because, despite their parents’ status as well-informed, intelligent, and experienced adults, the thought of having these types of conversations with their mother evokes in teens both emotional distress and physical disgust.

My own daughter’s response to me bringing up these topics: “Ewww, mom!” My son’s response: “Mom, please don’t ... not again.” But we should not let our kids’ teen angst about tough talks with mom or dad deter us, for we are fierce warriors who do not back down from a challenge. And this, my friends, is the key: talk to your children. Talk to them early and talk to them often. It may be insanely awkward for all parties involved, but you’ll be glad you did!

About the Author
Sara Villanueva Ph.D.

Sara Villanueva, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, is the author of The Angst of Adolescence: How to Parent Your Teen and Live to Laugh About It.