The first of this series of articles on Teenagers and Sex concentrated on the context for sex, looking at respect, consent, information and safety. The second article will be built around the general theme of sexuality.
Sexuality is a term that is very flexible in scope, seeming almost to mean whatever an individual wants it to mean. Our first task, then, is to define it for the purposes of this article. In terms of a broad-brush description, Wikipedia’s “the way people experience and express themselves sexually” provides a starting point that would be acceptable to many. Writers generally divide human sexuality into a number of areas. Such lists can be long, but for the purposes of this article we shall focus on four areas with specific reference to how they might impact teenagers specifically. We shall look at sensuality, gender/sexual identity, intimacy and relationships, and sexual health.
Puberty, with its many physical, chemical and emotional changes, brings about an increase in sensuality during the teenage years that is both vast and unavoidable. Teenagers become aware that there is a sexual aspect to adult human life, which they want to explore, experience and understand. There are many levels at which the sensual development of teenagers impacts them, including how they view their own body, how they feel about other people, how they experience and manage their desires, which relationships they choose to pursue and how they foster and develop those relationships.
Basically, gender/sexual identity is about whether we identify ourselves as “male, female, both or neither”. For the current generation of teenagers, this aspect of human sexuality has become more prominent than would have been the case for teenagers merely a decade ago. During that short period of time, some societies have undergone a paradigm shift in public opinion regarding the social acceptability of homosexuality, whereas others have seen a hardening of their traditional approach. Teenagers in the digital age are aware of the range and strength of opinion in this area, yet still have to get to grips with the development of their own bodies, feelings and desires. It is not unusual for teenagers to experience a confusion of heterosexual and homosexual feelings, some of which may be temporary, some of which may be permanent, and some of which they may not comprehend until years later.
The third area of human sexuality concerns intimacy and relationships, and includes the closeness, familiarity and acceptance we show both to ourselves and to others. Intimacy can be emotional, intellectual, physical, sexual, or a combination of all these things; just as relationships can take the form of platonic friendship, close companionship, or involve sexual activity. Teenagers, building on the experiences of their childhood, and in the context of the development of their sensuality and gender identity, are figuring out for themselves what are appropriate levels of intimacy and levels of friendship. This is no easy task; it may involve an element of experimentation; almost certainly there will be mistakes; and it is part of a lifelong process of learning, development and commitments.
The aspect of sexuality focusing on sexual health is as wide and all-embracing as human sexuality itself. A teenager’s self image; the way they respond to their developing body and sexual feelings; the way they embrace or fight what they perceive to be their gender identity; how they manage their sexual desires; the levels of intimacy they decide it appropriate to pursue; the relationships they attempt to build with others; the precautions they adopt against sexually transmitted infections – all these (and more) combine to determine whether an individual’s sexuality develops in a healthy way and whether or not it remains healthy.
In what follows, I assume the overall aim of parents, teachers and schools to be the creation of a climate that is likely to yield the best opportunity for a healthy development of sexuality in the teenagers with whom they live, engage and work.
Advice for parents
Within the field of human sexuality, there will be for some parents areas about which they feel particularly strongly. We shall touch on some of those areas below with the help of three keywords: honesty, openness and acceptance.
Ultimately, the teenager’s developing sexuality will be a determining factor in the adult they become, which is why it is so important for their sexuality to be genuine for them as an individual. The best means to ensure a genuine outcome is to ensure honesty about the exploration. It is important to be clear here about what is happening as a teenager’s sexuality develops. It is not a case of teenagers exploring a range of possibilities and choosing the one that appeals to them most or which will make them popular with their friends. Rather, discovering their sexuality is about uncovering something that already exists and is developing within them. Teenagers are essentially discovering who they are and parents can play an important role here by reassuring their teenager that they have nothing to fear from an honest exploration of who they are at the core of their being.
I believe parents make a big mistake if they seek to impose their own understanding of sexuality on their children, or if they communicate the message that certain expressions of sexuality are unacceptable from the outset. Parents can best encourage their teenagers to adopt an honest approach to exploring their sexuality by being honest themselves with their teenagers. At a simple level, that means being honest about their own ignorance if teenagers have questions that they (the parents) cannot answer, and then searching for answers, either together with their teenagers or separately and then comparing answers. Where there is a fear that teenagers might discover about themselves things that the parents will find difficult to accept, they should be honest about that too, but with the assurance that if there are outcomes that the parent finds difficult they will work with their teenager to find a way forward. Trying to force a teenager in a certain direction with regard to their sexuality, has the potential to result in a life built on deceit, as the teenager tries to hide who they really are from their parents; or on denial, as the teenager tries to force themselves to become the “ideal” held by their parents whilst they know deep-down that their efforts are determined to fail because that is not who they really are.
Parents can help their teenagers a great deal in this regard if they can offer reassurance of their openness to what the teenager might discover about themselves. Sometimes, parents are fearful that their own reputation might suffer with their friends, or within the wider family or their faith community, if their teenager declares a certain gender identity, for example. Rather than trying to force their teenager to conform for the sake of their own reputation, I would encourage parents to support their teenagers through times of opposition to who they are. I recognise that this is not likely to be an easy course for parents to adopt, but ultimately it is the course I advocate for the sake of the teenager. Of course, for the majority of parents they way their teenager’s sexuality develops will create no such difficulties, but the fact that the parent assured them that they would have stood by their side if difficulties had emerged will have been an enormous confidence boost on their road to adulthood.
What this all boils down to, is that teenagers need to be reassured of their parents’ acceptance. This might come as a surprise to some, but it remains the case that the vast majority of teenagers, although they may not be prepared to admit it face to face, actually want the approval of their parents. Parents are in the process of setting their teenagers free to become autonomous adults, helping them to understand their sexuality by guaranteeing them acceptance is an important element of what it means to parent a teenager in today’s world.
Advice for teachers and schools
The development of student sexuality is one area where it is of paramount importance that teachers and schools offer protection against bullying. Adolescent feelings run deep and lasting damage can be incurred if students find any aspect of their developing sexuality held up to ridicule. Bullying takes many forms: verbal, physical, online, overt, hidden; so teachers have a vital role to play in remaining aware of what is happening within the student community, and students need to know where to turn if they need help.
I would encourage schools, also, to develop curricula that address the many aspects of teenage sexuality. Fear and mockery have their roots in the unknown as individuals and groups try to protect themselves from those they perceive as different or from things they do not understand. Schools are about education, so ensuring the educational programme addresses issues that go to the heart of what it means to be human should be an important priority. Where appropriate, I would suggest schools encourage student involvement in the formation and delivery of such educational programmes.