Puberty is the experience of sexual maturation for girls and boys; it encompasses certain hormonal, physical, and physiological

Puberty (1894-1895), Edvard Munch. The ambiguous expression on the face of Munch's young model leaves it unclear whether she welcomes or dreads the changes that await her. © 2003 , New York.
The Art Archive/Nasjonal Galleriet Oslo/Album/Joseph Martin

changes that manifest themselves in the lives of young people in all times and places. During puberty, boys and girls experience a rise in hormone levels and undergo an increase in height, known as the growth spurt. The secondary sex characteristics appear and boys and girls develop the potential for reproduction. Within these broad parameters, however, the way the biological process of puberty has been experienced by young people has varied considerably across cultures and historical time periods. One of the most notable changes in the experience of puberty in industrialized countries has been the decline in the average age of MENARCHE, or first menstruation, due to improvements in health care and nutrition. Along with changes in the biological process itself, puberty has been conceptualized differently in different times and places. Such varying views of and expectations for puberty have significantly influenced the ways young people have experienced the process of sexual maturation.

In the West, meanings and experiences of puberty have taken shape in relationship to meanings and experiences of the stage of life known as ADOLESCENCE AND YOUTH. Ancient and medieval views of puberty recognized it as a period of heightened sexual interest, which was associated both with personal vitality and social benefit and, particularly under the rising influence of Christianity, with immorality and social danger. In the turbulent social climate of sixteenth and seventeenth-century England, Puritan moral theologians concerned with the threat posed to the social order by disgruntled urban apprentices decisively linked the sensuality of male youth with sin, temptation, and disruptive behavior and called upon the family, the school, and the church to act as disciplining agents. Colonial New Englanders, in contrast, were more confident about the hold their orderly, hierarchical, and patriarchal society had over youth, and so displayed much less anxiety about puberty, at least during the first generations of settlement. Beginning at the end of the seventeenth century, a confluence of demographic and economic changes, most notably population growth, geographical mobility, and commercial development, began to undermine the stability of many New England families and towns. Some, but not all, of the adult controls over the lives of youth were loosened. The result was a rising conflict in age relations and a new attention by religious authorities to the potentially perilous manifestations of youthful SEXUALITY.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, the emphasis on authoritatively controlling youth during their period of sexual maturation was supplemented by ENLIGHTENMENT views that sanctioned some degree of social and sexual independence, for boys in particular. Ideally, boys would learn to control their powerful passions from within and emerge from their youth as autonomous individuals. Not invested with the same capacity for self-determination, girls were increasingly regarded as pure and passionless, and any expression of female sexual desire was deemed deviant. At the same time, a Romantic sensibility came to associate the volatility of puberty less with danger and destruction than with vigor, creativity, and the awakening of love and compassion. The seminal text here was JEAN-JACQUESROUSSEAU's Émile (1762), which posited that the difficulties puberty seemed to pose were more the artifact of society than nature and were best managed by an educational regimen that allowed for the gradual development of the body, mind, and heart.

During the nineteenth century, scientific theories dominated discussions about puberty, establishing it as the primary determinant of sexual difference, as well as a marker of race and class hierarchy. Physicians and evolutionary theorists maintained that male and female development were largely similar during childhood. The biological changes that occurred with the maturation of the reproductive organs established the ineradicable differences between male and female bodies, minds, behaviors, and social roles and responsibilities. Maintaining such differences among men and women of the white middle class was thought to be essential to preserve social order and ensure the ongoing progress of Western civilization. With the exception of anxieties about the physically and morally depleting effects of MASTURBATION, male puberty was not discussed by scientific authorities with any great specificity. According to the developmental theory of this period, nature intended the growth of the white middle-class male to proceed along a gradual, steady course and endowed such "civilized" boys with the capability of managing the benignly vitalizing physical changes wrought by the onset of puberty. The "civilized" girl, in contrast, was described in medical and evolutionary discourse as being rendered completely vulnerable and passive in the face of the much more volatile, complex, and consequential changes her body experienced during the process of sexual maturation. Female puberty indicated not the onset of sexual desire, but the future capacity for maternity. Any expenditure by the girl of physical, mental, or emotional energy was thought to further compromise an already taxing process, thereby threatening her health, her mental stability, and her ability to fulfill her essential function as reproducer of the "civilized" white race later in her life. While not all doctors regarded female puberty as inherently dangerous, many prominent physicians advanced such a notion as the primary justification for limiting girls' activities during their youth, most especially their access to institutions of higher education, to which women aspired by the second half of the nineteenth century.

Nineteenth-century scientific discourse, under the influence of an evolutionary schema applied to social science, also attended to the timing of puberty as evidence for the existence of natural gender, racial, and class hierarchies. It was widely noted that the white middle-class girl grew more rapidly and reached puberty earlier than her "civilized" brother. Once her body stopped growing, the explanation went, her intellectual and moral development ceased as well, thereby determining her inferior status in relation to the more slowly, but ultimately more fully, maturing boy. Likewise, girls and boys who lived in or were descended from peoples living in tropical regions of the world or who were members of the working class were thought to complete the process of pubertal growth sooner than their "civilized" counterparts (due to the effects of warm climates and a greater tendency to sexual licentiousness), and so were biologically incapable of advancing to the highest stages of evolutionary development. Even so, while all girls and nonwhite and lower-class boys were deemed naturally precocious, and hence developmentally inferior to "civilized" boys, the sexual precocity of the "civilized" girl was restricted, since it was her purity that served as the hallmark of her racial and class superiority. Advice to white middle-class parents abounded about protecting their girls from a whole range of dangerous activities that could excite the sexual passions, including masturbation, reading novels, eating meat or sweets, and, of course, engaging in any sort of physical encounter with men. At the end of the century, campaigns to end the white slave trade and raise the AGE OF CONSENT emerged in further defense of female purity. The sexual precocity of nonwhite and working-class girls was more likely to be expected, though no more tolerated, and the late nineteenth century also saw the foundation of numerous organizations and institutions intending to reform and/or punish the transgressive sexual behaviors of female youth.

In 1904 the pioneering developmental psychologist G. STANLEY HALL published his seminal text Adolescence, which reaffirmed puberty as the originator of sexual differentiation, while also significantly modifying some of the gendered assumptions about the process of sexual maturation. Undermining earlier claims as to the steadiness of male growth, Hall maintained that the biological changes that occurred at puberty universally gave rise to "storm and stress" in the developing adolescent, rendering boys and girls alike somatically vulnerable, emotionally volatile, and socially awkward. Conversely, he enthused about the pubertal awakening of sexual desire in girls as well as boys. However, Hall sanctioned female desire only in so far as it was productive of male pleasure and reserved most of his zealous characterization of the sex instinct for the role it played in furthering the noble purpose of racial regeneration. Moreover, despite his recognition of certain shared qualities of the pubertal experience, Hall depicted the girl as growing into her biological and emotional self at puberty, with the sensibilities and functions then established determining her personality and role for the rest of her life. For his part, the boy's capacity for autonomy and rationality would ultimately enable him to out-grow the physical and psychological vulnerabilities wrought by puberty, so that he could assume his rightful position of leadership in the ongoing quest for social progress.

In the twentieth century, puberty was reinterpreted through the lenses of several new approaches to the study of human development. Psychoanalytic theory pushed the initial experience of sexual desire and the onset of sexual difference back from puberty to infancy and the Oedipal complex of early childhood, respectively. While SIGMUND FREUD deemed the prepubertal stages of psychosexual development to be the most consequential for the health of the personality, he also retained earlier notions of the diminished sexual and psychological capacity of girls. His daughter, psychoanalyst ANNA FREUD, reasserted the significance of puberty, arguing that the emergence of the genital drive gave rise to significant psychological conflicts during adolescence. Challenging the biological determinism that had characterized much of the theorizing about puberty and adolescence, cultural anthropologist MARGARET MEAD's widely read Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) made use of cross-cultural comparison to assert that the difficulties of adolescence were not the result of biological puberty, but of the complex demands placed on youth by modern civilization. Mead also emphasized that the process of sexual maturation did not limit the development of the Western girl in any way. Beginning in the 1920s, the rise of the science of endocrinology provided a new biological framework for conceptualizing puberty. However, in seeking to understand the role of the hormones in shaping pubertal development, researchers increasingly attended to the interaction between biological and social factors in shaping the psychology and behavior of the adolescent, as well as the causes and manifestations of sexual difference. In addition to scientific authority, puberty in the twentieth century was also mediated by the ascendancy of the CONSUMER CULTURE. For girls, especially, the buying of sanitary products, bras, and other beauty items encouraging conformity to dominant cultural standards of femininity have shaped, without ever fully determining, the meaning and experience of the process of sexual maturation.

See also: Adolescent Medicine; Age and Development; Boyhood; Child Development, History of the Concept of; Girl-hood.


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Hall, G. Stanley. 1904. Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education, 2 vols. New York: Appleton.

Mead, Margaret. 1928. Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization. New York: William Morrow and Company.

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