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Healthy Living

Sex and the Adolescent

The term adolescence comes from the Latin word adolescere, which means, to grow up. The adolescent years are the link between childhood and maturity, and are often marked by turmoil, confusion and stress. It has been observed that this is the phase when there is a search for a sense of personal identity, the time when the adolescent is expected to develop and accept emotional independence and autonomy from parents.

Adolescence has many facets to its stormy nature, one of which is the little understood, widely controversial, adolescent sexuality. While talking about adolescent sexuality and its associated concerns, we have to distinguish between those arising out of innate biological drives and those that arise out of a conflict between the demands of these drives and their surrounding psychosocial forces.

Biological Changes

  1. Variations in attaining pubertal land marks. These include menstruation and breast development in girls, facial hair, muscle development and deepening of the voice in boys and development of pubic hair in both. (Refer Puberty)
  2. Nocturnal emissions
  3. Tendency to masturbate
  4. Acne. Adolescents feel the urge to be attractive to the opposite sex. Acne threatens the prospect. Hence the fear and resultant anxiety about it.

Peer Group Culture

It is during puberty that boys and girls feel the onset of adulthood. They question the sources of authority such as parents and teachers. They feel closer to people of their own age and interests, in other words, their peers. In school or college, in their teens, adolescents learn many things apart from what is taught in classrooms. Out of this emerges the peer group culture - where the likes, dislikes and values adopted by the most adventurous, the most dynamic and the most admired tend to be the accepted norm. Very often, in their anxiety to conform to this norm, an adolescent’s individuality and the sense of self-worth is curbed. The strong need to belong to the peer group leads most youngsters to experiment with cigarettes, alcohol and drugs. The urge for freedom from adult authority and the need to establish some kind of an image or identity, further pushes the adolescent in these directions.

Cult figures and personalities with sex appeal projected by the media make a strong impression on adolescents. A beefy masculine figure, smoking a cigarette, or a debonair socialite, drinking whisky, gains an iconic status. In teenagers whose personality development is marred by insecurity, distrust, fear and anger a blind following of roles may lead to addiction.

Sexual Drive

While one’s sexual drive is the strongest between the mid-teens and the early twenties, the sexual expression is not governed by one’s biological make up. Rather, it is largely influenced by such factors as parental authority, schools or colleges, peer group, religion, books and movies.

In their early teens, boys and girls tend to develop strong emotional attachments towards members of the same sex. For example, a shy introverted girl may be attracted to an aggressive extroverted girl. This homosexual phase (to be distinguished from homosexuality as a form of adult sexual behaviour) is soon followed by the heterosexual phase (between age 15-18). During this phase, there is an attraction towards members of the opposite sex resulting in strong infatuations or deep passionate feelings. Romantic entanglements, eloping and suicide pacts are more common during this stage than any other. During this period, boys develop an interest in nude figures, pornography etc. to satisfy their erotic impulses. Girls, on the other hand, develop a thirst for passionate love stories, romantic movies etc.


Fantasising plays an important role in sexual development. Male fantasies usually revolve around physical urges, whereas female fantasies are largely romantic and emotional in nature. There is often a tendency to assume that the member of the opposite sex thinks and feels the same as oneself. This assumption, which is far removed from reality, results in a lot of confusion, misunderstanding and tension. especially during the process of dating.

Preoccupation with Body Image

During adolescence, the body growth is rapid when compared to the emotional development. Often, the suddenness of these changes undermines the adolescents’ self-confidence. Not having sufficient skills to adjust to changes, they often become pre-occupied with themselves, their looks, clothes etc. This may lead them to spend hours admiring themselves in the mirror or worrying about their pimples, height, figure, hairstyles etc. Day-dreaming becomes excessive and they often turn self-centred, much to the annoyance of elders.


The strong emotions of early puberty continue into the later stages. However, the focus switches from self to interpersonal relationships. In the initial stages, the emotional excitement lies in thinking about the other - the yearning for a special person in one’s life (we mainly have novels and movies to thank for this). Though dating is not very common in India, the more adventurous youngsters venture to date each other, sometimes with much initial self-consciousness.

Casual relationships wear off, but serious ones persist. At this time, the couple’s decision whether to meet openly or resort to clandestine meetings is dependent on the social context. The boy may be anxious to be seen in public as a boost to his image, whereas the girl worries about her reputation. Thus, there is a struggle between the desire for sexual expression and the socio-ethical code.

Premarital Sex

Despite the taboo on it, premarital sex is not unheard of in India.

Greater mobility, greater anonymity, influence of the movies, peer group culture, and decline in parental authority are factors that have led to a reduction in inhibitions and thereby a greater incidence of premarital sex. It would be erroneous to assume that boys and girls indulge in sex for physical pleasure alone.

Social psychologist, Dr. R. C. Sorenson, states that youngsters indulge in sexual activities for variety of reasons such as:

  1. Physical pleasure
  2. A means of communication
  3. A search for a new experience
  4. An index of personal maturity
  5. A need to conform to peers
  6. A challenge parents or society
  7. Reward or punishment
  8. An escape from loneliness
  9. An escape from other pressures

An unfortunate outcome of premarital sex is the poor show of responsibility thereafter, by the youngsters in question. Boys are often unconcerned about the consequences to the girls and some girls are not fully aware of the problems they may have to encounter. The orthodoxy of the Indian society prevents them from seeking adequate protection. This emphasises the strong need for proper sex education.

Teenage Pregnancies

Premarital sex often leads to teenage pregnancies. This poses a serious health hazard, both physical and emotional. The teenage mother is not emotionally ready for the responsibilities of parenthood. Further, she has the social stigma to contend with. The traumatic experience may also hamper sexual adjustment, in the event of marriage, later in life.

Delayed Marriages

Today’s formal education extends well into the early twenties. The struggle for employment necessitates a further delay in marriage. Moreover, today’s economic and social standards require that both husband and wife be employed. The sex urge, a natural consequence of sexual maturation, is at its peak during these unsettled years. It is the pull of divergent forces - the biological and emotional on one side and the social and economic requirements on the other, which gives rise to many problems that surround adolescent sexuality.

Sexually Transmitted diseases (STD)

Unsafe sexual practices carry a high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Some of these STDs can irreversibly damage the reproductive organs and debilitate them for life.

Disinterest in Studies

It is paradoxical that an acute problem of adolescent sexuality is non-sexual in nature - a flagging interest in academic work. However, sexual development does play its role in the manifestation of this problem. This is more evident between the ages of 14-18. That more boys than girls are affected, fits in with the fact that the latter have by this age, due to their earlier pubertal onset, come to terms with their body changes.

Though parental concern over this problem is justifiable (that is, their anxiety about their offspring scoring good marks and consequently getting admitted into colleges), their methods of dealing with the problem, appear by and large irrational. Parental outbursts, angry criticism, and constant nagging only serve to alienate and perhaps provoke the impulsive and immature adolescent to give up studies. Some may run away from home. The most depressed of the lot may even contemplate suicide.

The adolescent has drawn very little attention in India till recently and the sexuality of the adolescent, even less. Except for a small number of social workers, teachers, psychologists, counsellors and doctors, by and large the policy makers, the educationists and unfortunately most parents have turned a blind eye to the problems faced by the average adolescent, during the adolescent’s most turbulent period of development and transition.

A significant elder, be it a parent, teacher or a counsellor, who is not only equipped with the knowledge, but is also comfortable in dealing with matters of sexuality, can guide an adolescent to face the future with confidence.


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