Sexuality isn't dangerous
Since the early 2000s, the idea that sexuality is better understood as just part of being human has grown. [Tolman D., McClelland S. Normative Sexuality Development in Adolescence: A Decade in Review, 2000-2009. Journal of Research on Adolescence.] Curiosity and exploration of sex and sexual identity is seen more and more as a natural process for children and youth. These ideas are challenging for parents in a world where children have online access to sex and sexual imagery from young ages. It’s hard not to see danger everywhere and to want to protect children by keeping them out of harms way. But the reality is that most children find their way to the internet and are curious. There is evidence that encourages adults to take a more ‘sex-positive’ approach and to have plain talk with children and youth about sex and safety.
It may be hard to accept, but young people are engaging in sexual activities. Recent research has looked at teen sexuality development in three main areas:
1. Sexual Behaviours: What counts as sex for teens?
- Oral sex is seen by youth as being less risky, more acceptable, less of a threat to their beliefs, more common among their peers than vaginal sex.
- Some youth perceive oral sex as ‘not’ sex.
- Teens engaging only in oral sex versus both oral and vaginal sex were less likely to become pregnant or have an STI, feel guilty or used, or get in trouble with their parents about sex.
- Oral sex has become less of a ‘choice’ behaviour and more of an expected behaviour, especially fellatio.
- Girls more than boys report engaging in sexual activities (oral and anal sex) they disliked (12% vs 3%).
- Teens do not consider abstinence and sexual activity to be opposing behaviours
- Positive abstinence attitudes and intentions do not prevent sexual activity.
2. Sexual Selfhood
There has been a paradigm shift since the early 2000s in how teens see their sexual identities.
- Development of a sexual self-concept for girls is about self-esteem and resistance to sexual double-standards.
- Many young people are exploring across traditional categories of heterosexual and same-sex identities and activities.
- Labels of gay, lesbian and bisexual remain relevant for teens.
- Teens are actively deciding to have sex for the first time, often before the age of 16 as part of a more expansive developmental process.
- They are usually motivated toward sexual activity as part of their sexual identity – how they see themselves and want to be seen by others.
- Female identified teens who seek a greater sense of well-being through sex report that they are less motivated by intimacy or desire.
- Male identified teens more often decide to have sex to enhance their sense of self-esteem and are less likely to use a condom.
There is no evidence that says sexuality education leads to sexual behaviour in young people. There is evidence that says sexuality education builds confidence in youth and supports better relationships with their parents.
Dr. Dr. V. Chandra-Mouli, World Health Organization
3. Sexual Socialization
Sexual risk for teens is impacted by parental communication, religion and the overall culture. Sexuality development is a highly social process that can be supported to help young people mature.
- Young people are highly influenced by what their peers think and what they believe is ‘normal’ in society. This is true to all adolescents, not just those considered “high risk”.
- Hooking up is often understand in the public to mean casual sex outside a relationship – half of sexually active teens had sexual partners they were not dating, but they were friends or ‘exes’. One third of these hook ups were associated with hopes that a relationship would start or resume.
- Teens who pledge abstinence and actually delay intercourse see themselves as being part of a group that has an identity in the school. Membership in the group is a motivator to be abstinent.
- “Promise-breakers”, pledgers who do not wait until marriage for sex, are less likely to use contraception than their peers the first time and just as likely over time to contract an STI.
- Chat rooms can provide safer spaces than their home or school environments for some youth to find information and explore emerging sexuality.
- Sexual education youth get from porn can make it difficult for them to develop healthy romantic relationships or to be turned on by anything other than images on a screen. [See: Robinson, M. and Wilson, G. (2011). Porn-Induced Sexual Dysfunction: A Growing Problem. Psychology Today, July 11]
- No relationship has been found between self-esteem and early sexual activity.
The leap for many parents is toward understanding how sexuality develops during the teen years in a positive sense. Ideally, we want to support young people in imagining themselves as healthy sexual beings capable of intimacy and pleasure, responsible and accountable for their choices, cautious about danger and aware of risks.
If we focus only on the risks in a dangerous ‘outside’ world, the pressure to monitor and control on the part of parents, schools and policies is increased. The idea that young people are safer and less sexual under tight controls is actually not true. Perhaps the most radical idea to consider is that you can trust that with even modest support, young people are resilient and have what they need to find their way and be successful in life.
- Watch Dr. V. Chandra-Mouli from the World Health Organization talk about the importance of talking to young people about sex and sexuality.
- Watch Sanderijn van der Doef speak about children and sexuality: protection or education?
- Watch Ross Jacobs, Reach-Out clinician talk about LGB sexuality.