Adolescence is a period of complex changes, where some of the behaviors and attitudes that will guide the beginning of adulthood are established. The hormonal explosion will have a lot to say in these changes and in your emotional experience, but its influence is not definitive.
The development of new forms of reasoning will allow the increase and variety of interests that are the result of years of previous learning. But there is an area that is beginning to be experienced in a different way and that generates new feelings: sexuality and relationships.
These new emotions and experiences that are generated around the development of sexuality can be experienced with anxiety and bewilderment or with confidence in one’s own abilities and decision-making.
This will depend, on the one hand, on the people they have to express their fears or doubts (mainly parents and teachers). On the other, the education received in the field of sexuality and affectivity. All this mediated by variables and personal styles that have been developed throughout childhood.
At what age do we start thinking about sexuality?
Interest in sexuality is present from the first years of life. For example, from an early age we are curious about the genital difference, how babies are made or the physical sensations felt when hugging or caressing.
In addition, children play to maintain affective relationships (role games such as “to dads and moms” or “to the doctors”). They learn through these entertainments and internalize the roles that our society assigns to each sex. In the meantime, let’s remember: sexual curiosity will be increased by what is not talked about.
On the other hand, during adolescence, interest in exploring sexual behavior both in personal stimulation and in relationships with other people increases. Also for affective relationships.
The adolescent person will experiment with what they have learned up to that moment. It is common for them to become radicalized, especially in the expression of their masculinity or femininity. But it is also common for them to express doubts about their identity or orientation. In the same way, they may express fear of not living up to what they believe should be expected of them in the sexual field.
Masturbation, our first (and fundamental) sexual experience
The need to know and explore the sensations offered by the body itself is also growing. Genital stimulation is not new, since it occurs throughout childhood, although the intention of this exploration is.
Masturbation thus becomes the first truly sexual experience and the best way to discover sensations and learn the capabilities of our body. Let us remember that the absence of masturbatory learning is related to the presence of some sexual dysfunctions in adulthood.
On this issue, we still find differences between boys and girls. Among them it becomes a practically universal behavior, expected and understood by the increase in sexual desire. Meanwhile, among girls, despite the substantial increase in the number of them who admit to masturbating, it is not an issue that is openly discussed, probably because the expression of female desire is still socially punished.
These first experiences with one’s own body are tremendously important as a way of learning and fuel the need to share them with other people. It is common for adolescent boys and girls to experience their first crush, begin to share kisses and more or less intimate caresses and feel sexual desire awaken.
Most Western teens have many sexual experiences (masturbation, kissing, and fondling) before engaging in penetrative sex.
However, approximately half do not begin to have this type of sexual relations until they are 17 or 18 years old, with a much lower percentage of those who begin to have them at earlier ages (at 15-16 years old it only reaches 20%).
What do adolescents look for or what do they expect from sex?
We might think that the main goal of teen sex would be a quick release of the tension caused by desire and biological drive. However, in adolescence it is already learned that other emotional needs are also covered through sex, such as receiving and giving affection, gaining acceptance and recognition, confirming sexual orientation or identity, improving self-esteem or simply escaping boredom.
However, all this will depend on the previous training they have on sexuality. In general, we find that they continue to present important shortcomings regarding the subject, especially in relation to affective and emotional aspects.
Frequently, the information provided to them in formal contexts (mainly school) refers to the dangers of sexuality (unwanted pregnancies and STIs) and contraceptive methods.
However, their curiosity and need for information about love, desire, pleasure, identity or sexual orientation are still not topics that are usually worked on from school or that are addressed regularly in most families. Neither do the fears and anxieties that arise from not knowing if one is acting well or searching for the most appropriate person or moment.
Dangers of sexual information without evidence
All this makes them receive contradictory messages. On the one hand, they are informed about the dangers of sexual behavior and, on the other, the media and peers report the pleasures and the influence of sex on leadership and self-esteem.
It is typical of adolescence to explore new experiences, to be less aware of the risks, not to feel vulnerable in the face of dangers and to question what the adults of reference say, putting the values and ideas of the peer group first.
The variety of messages and these age-specific characteristics together with overexposure to unstructured sexual information and without evidence can lead them to engage in risky sexual behavior (unprotected or under the influence of alcohol, for example).
Therefore, throughout this process, the family and the school play a fundamental role. At home, the family must recognize its modeling role in the expression of affection and not avoid those topics that, due to lack of specific training, may be uncomfortable.
For their part, educational laws must include, once and for all, content that favors training in a full and healthy sexuality, based on scientific evidence and that enables the development of safe people. Thus, in addition, they could recognize and report situations of abuse and express their doubts and fears to people of reference and trust.
Carmen Santín Vilariño, University Professor in the Department of Clinical and Experimental Psychology. Knowledge area Personality, Psychological Evaluation and Treatment, University of Huelva
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original.