Aspects of children’s sexuality may develop during early and middle childhood, but during adolescence their sexuality is brought into sharper focus. Sexual desires and arousal, sexual experimentation, and the formation of a sexual identity are more pronounced in adolescence. These events may occur as a result of puberty, how one’s friends and family respond to a more adultlike appearance, social mores regarding time and place spent with romantic partners, and cultural messages that shape one’s view of oneself as a sexual being (Graber & Brooks-Gunn, 2002).
Puberty and Sexuality
The process of puberty encourages the release of specific hormones that are primarily responsible for the development of secondary sex characteristics and for the emergence of reproductive capabilities. The relationship between pubertal change and adolescent sexuality may not only be hormonal but may also include how the teen and others respond to changes in secondary sex characteristics. For example, researchers have found that adolescent boys who demonstrated higher levels of testosterone also reported higher levels of sexual activity (i.e., coitus) (Udry, 1985; Halpern, Udry, & Suchindran, 1998; Finkelstein et al., 1998).
Researchers have also linked hormonal changes at puberty and increased sexual/emotional arousal (Brooks-Gunn et al., 1994). However, higher levels of androgens in adolescent females were not related to higher rates of sexual behavior, but rather were predictive of their anticipation of future sexual involvement. The best predictor of coital behavior in these girls was whether their friends were sexually active or at least supportive of sexual experimentation (Udry, Talbert, & Morris, 1986). More recent research continues to support a mediated model between puberty and sexual behavior (Udry & Campbell, 1994; Halpern et al., 1997). In other words, hormones may enhance feelings of sexual arousal in adolescents but how they act on those feelings is very much determined by multiple internal and external variables.
Noncoital Sexual Behavior
These increased “feelings of arousal” or “desire” manifest themselves in a variety of noncoital and coital thoughts and behaviors (Halpern et al., 1993).
Having erotic fantasies was acknowledged by 72% of 13- to 18-year-olds (Coles & Stokes, 1985). Sexual fantasies may allow for a safe and nonthreatening way to experience sexual arousal and provide insight into sexual desires and preferences (Katchadourian, 1990).
When surveyed, 81% of males and 45% of females report masturbating, or bringing themselves to orgasm, by age 18. Adolescent males masturbate three times as often as females, and it is usually their earliest sexual experience. Females usually experience sexual contact with another person before they masturbate. The high prevalence rate suggests that it is a “normative” adolescent sexual experience. However, masturbation is still perceived as “taboo” in the United States and other countries, such as Finland, Sweden, Estonia, and Russia (Kontula & Haavio-Mannila, 2002). It appears that parents rarely talk to their teens about masturbation as a normal sexual outlet and that it is perceived by teens to be less desirable than sex with a partner. As the result of a study comparing young adult males’ reports of their own adolescent masturbation practices to self-reports collected when they were teens, researchers suggested that most studies underestimate the percentage who masturbate by as much as one-third (Halpern et al., 2000).
Petting and oral sex.
When asked about sexual activity, most White adolescents report a continuum of noncoital activity that begins with kissing and French kissing and proceeds to fondling genitalia over and then under clothing, followed by oral sex, and then intercourse (Boyce, Doherty, Fortin, & MacKinnon, 2003). This sexual continuum may not represent the noncoital sexual experiences of all adolescents (Smith & Udry, 1985).
Survey data suggest that overall rates of reported oral sex have increased over the past decade. In a study of over 11,000 students in grades 7, 9, and 11, 32% of grade 9 males and 28% of grade 9 females, as well as 53% of grade 11 males and 52% of Grade 11 females reported that they had engaged in oral sex at least once (Boyce et al., 2003). Another study found that girls are more likely to give rather than to receive from their partner (Gates & Sonenstein, 2000). Adolescents report that oral sex has become a more “normative” aspect of their sexuality and is perceived as a “safe” method of sexual pleasure (McKay, 2004).
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