Social and Sexual Maturation - Relationships with the opposite sex
First teenage contacts with the opposite sex tend to be awkward and sometimes embarrassing despite the best efforts and intentions of parents. The meetings may be at school dances or movie dates, perhaps in the presence of a chaperon who is a teacher or parent.
Some youngsters will feel more secure than others in social gatherings; those who feel insecure may not participate at all when such opportunities first arise. As the youngsters grow older, however, they find that more and more of their friends are dating or going to dances or parties to meet members of the opposite sex.
Some boys or girls who feel insecure may find that they are more gregarious or less ill-at-ease if they fortify themselves with a couple of drinks of an alcoholic beverage, or with drugs, before they join their friends. Youngsters who feel the need for stimulants or depressants in order to enjoy parties usually can be helped with psychological counseling to overcome their fears of inadequacy.
Young people should be assured that getting together at parties of mixed sexes is a natural thing to do. It has been going on for generations and although an individual youngster may feel ill-at-ease at his first few dances or parties, he probably will survive. As the boy or girl attends more parties the chances increase that he or she will meet a person of the opposite sex who is particularly attractive. If the feeling is mutual, the acquaintanceship may develop into more or less steady dating.
Steady dating, which leads to a formal engagement and marriage in many cases, should not be encouraged at an early age or before a young person has had an opportunity to date a number of prospective partners At the same time, it should not be discouraged to the point of producing a rebellious reaction. As was pointed out earlier, some girls admit going steady with a boy for no other reason than to demonstrate their independence of judgment.
Controlling the Sexual Impulse
Teenagers who spend a lot of time together at parties, in their homes, or at recreational meetings such as beach outings are likely to be physically attracted to each other. It may begin with kissing, dancing, holding hands, or simply a natural urge to neck or pet.
Influence of the Mass Media
Complicating sincere efforts of a teenager to make the right decisions in relations with the opposite sex is the constant exposure of youngsters to movies, magazine articles, books, and other media suggesting that sexual relations between unmarried couples are not only acceptable but a common practice. Young males and females need to be made aware of each other's growing sex drives, the full consequences of normal sexual attraction, the dangers of unprotected sexual activity, and the influence of the mass media on their perceptions concerning romantic infatuation, intimacy, sex, and adult love.
The Male and Female Sex Drives
Teenagers need to be aware of and responsible for their sexuality, regardless of their gender. While there are no standards or averages for either gender's sex drive, as with adults there is a wide variety of sexual appetite and ability. Because of this variety, creating and establishing relationships appropriate to each individual can be a difficult and complex exchange. It is crucial that both boys and girls openly communicate their true feelings and opinions in order to lessen the possibility of misunderstanding. For example, even when feelings are openly communicated, situations may arise which range from uncomfortable (someone's feelings get hurt) to dangerous (date rape or stalking).
Walking hand-in-hand, or with an arm around the waist, and kissing that is not too passionate, usually are acceptable ways for young teenagers to display affection. And there are activities such as hiking or bicycle riding that afford a boy and girl a chance to be together and apart from the rest of the world. There also are picnics, ball games, movies, and concerts that permit togetherness without setting the stage for hard-to-control sexual impulses.
Another manifestation of the natural sex drives of young persons is masturbation. Discouraged by the rules and standards of society from fulfilling sex urges in the same manner as married couples, teenagers discover they can find sexual satisfaction in masturbation. Despite the stories that warn of physical or mental decay for youngsters who masturbate, the practice is not harmful unless the parents make an issue of it.
If there are dangers in masturbation, they are likely to be the isolation and loneliness associated with the practice and the confusion and anxiety that can result if the young person feels guilty or is punished or criticized for masturbating. Masturbation is such a natural reaction that most youngsters discover it by themselves even if the subject is never discussed by friends or family members. But for many young people, masturbation may violate religious or other beliefs or values. These youngsters may want to discuss the practice with a physician, understanding clergy, or some other trusted person.
Because boys and girls in their teens may be capable of producing children and are known to have strong sexual urges, they should be provided with authoritative information about human reproduction and birth control. It is up to the parents to make decisions regarding the proper sources of such information, how much information should be given, and at what age.
One of the reasons for the popularity of sex education in the schools is that teachers can get the parents off the hook by explaining the facts of life to teenagers.
Parents should resist the urge to delegate the sex education of their children to a teacher, sex education programs, or even friends and acquaintances. The lessons they receive may be incomplete, superficial, or even incorrect, depending on the teacher, curriculum, or individual experience and viewpoint. Parents need to establish a rapport with their children to be sure that they learn a practical set of facts about adult love, sex, and reproduction, including the possible emotional and physical consequences of premarital or unprotected sexual intercourse.
Although parents may find it difficult or embarrassing to explain the facts of life to their own children, it is one of the most important contributions that can be made to a maturing youngster. At the present time, at least one out of six teenage girls in the United States will have an unwanted pregnancy. Obviously, thousands of parents and teachers are not providing adequate instruction in sex education subjects.
The Male Reproductive System
Any instruction in the facts of life should begin by use of the proper names for the body parts involved. In the male, the external sex organs are the penis and the testicles , or testes . The penis contains a tiny tube, the urethra , through which urine is eliminated. Much of the fleshy part of the penis is composed of spongy tissue. When the penis is stimulated sexually, the spongy areas become filled with blood, which makes the penis larger and firm, a condition called an erection . The testicles contain male sperm cells , also called spermatozoa .
The sperm travel up tubules inside the abdomen to a storage organ, or reservoir, the seminal vesicle . The sperm storage area also contains a thick white fluid called semen that is secreted by glands that open into the urethra. One of the glands, the prostate , serves partly as a control valve to prevent urine from mixing with the semen, since both are discharged through the urethra. The semen, containing millions of sperm, empties periodically in a more or less automatic action, being squeezed out of the seminal vesicle by pulsating contractions. The contractions and ejection of semen are called ejaculation . During the sex act, or intercourse , with a female, the semen is ejaculated into the woman's vagina.
The Female Reproductive System
The vagina is the proper name for the tubular female sex organ. At the end of the vagina is an opening, called the cervix , which leads into the uterus . The uterus, or womb , is shaped somewhat like an upside-down pear. When a baby develops within the mother's abdomen, it grows inside the uterus. The uterus also is the source of the bloody discharge that occurs periodically during the fertile years of women. When the blood is discharged it is called menstruation , or the menstrual period. The menstrual blood passes out through the vagina, which stretches to become the birth canal when a baby is being born. The urethra of a female empties outside the vagina.
The Menstrual Cycle and Conception
Unlike the male reproductive organs, which produce perhaps millions of spermatozoa each day, the female reproductive system ordinarily releases only one germ cell, called an ovum or egg, at a time. An ovum is released at an average frequency of once every 28 days. It should always be remembered that the 28-day figure is only an average; the actual time may vary considerably for reasons that are only partly known. The cycles are more likely to be irregular for teenage girls than for mature women. An ovum is released from one of the two ovaries , or sex glands, comparable in function to the male testicles, located on either side of the uterus. The ovum, or egg, is transported from the ovary to the uterus through a Fallopian tube .
If the ovum encounters male sperm during its passage from the ovary to the uterus, there is a good chance that fertilization, or conception , will occur through a union of a spermatozoon and the egg. The fertilized ovum, called a zygote , soon divides into a cluster of human tissue cells that become the embryo of a baby. For further information about pregnancy, see under Ch. 4, The Beginning of a Family .
During the time that the egg is maturing in the ovary and passing into the uterus after its release, the membrane lining of the uterus becomes thicker because it accumulates blood and nutrients. If the ovum is fertilized, it finds a spot in the membrane where it becomes attached and develops rapidly into an embryo, gaining its nourishment from the blood and nutrient-enriched lining of the uterus. If the ovum is not fertilized, it passes through the uterus, and the blood-rich membrane sloughs off. The blood and some of the cells of the membrane become the discharged material of menstruation. The unfertilized ovum could pass through undetected because it is nearly microscopic.
After menstruation has begun, the female reproductive cycle starts over again. The lining of the uterus once more builds up its supply of blood and nutrients to support a fertilized ovum. Ordinarily, the next ovum will be released about 14 days after a menstrual period begins. If a female does not have intercourse, or avoids intercourse during the time the ovum is released, or in some other manner is able to prevent sperm from reaching an ovum, she will not become pregnant but will experience a menstrual period at intervals that average around 28 days.
When fertilization of an ovum occurs, menstruation ceases and no further egg cells are released until the outcome of the pregnancy has been determined. In other words, the cycles of ovulation and menstruation start anew after the baby is born or the pregnancy has been terminated.
The first rule of birth control is that no method is guaranteed to be 100 percent effective. Sexual intercourse nearly always is accompanied by some risk of pregnancy, and the teenagers who try to beat the odds should be willing to take the responsibility for the results. Teenagers should be provided with the basic facts of birth control as soon as they are capable of producing children themselves. But the emphasis should be on the relative unreliability of the techniques which do not require a visit to a physician's office. Many birth control devices and substances can be purchased without a physician's prescription. But if young men and women were aware of their chances of effecting a pregnancy while using such methods, they probably would have second thoughts about taking the risk. See under “Marriage and Parenthood” in Ch. 4, The Beginning of a Family , for a full discussion of birth control methods.
Sexually Transmitted Disease
It is very important to educate teenagers about the hazards of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The American Social Health Association and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases estimate that at least three million teenagers a year are infected with STDs. In recent years there has been a rise in the occurrence of chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhea. This increase is due, in part, to the fact that many with these infections show few or no symptoms and can unknowingly spread the infections to others. Other STDs include genital herpes and warts, trichomoniasis, and chancroid. In addition, hepatitis B and AIDS can be transmitted sexually.
Most STDs, if diagnosed early, can be effectively treated with medications such as antibiotics. However, AIDS and genital herpes are incurable. Medications for these diseases are used to control symptoms but are not effective for everyone. Experts believe that the risk of contracting AIDS is increased in those who have had other STDs.
The rise in many of these diseases is related to the increasing use of oral contraceptives, rather than condoms, during sexual intercourse. Teens are also at high risk because their immature immune systems are less able to combat infection. Drug-resistant bacteria is also a factor in the increase of STDs. Furthermore, many teenagers delay treatment due to of social myths and preconceptions, lack of education, embarrassment, or even denial. Many young males ignore symptoms in order to feel “tough” or independent. Other teens may lack health insurance, or do not know how to access free services.
Many parents are frightened to learn that their children are endangering their health with risky behavior. STDs can cause a variety of devastating results if they go undiagnosed and untreated. Untreated syphilis, for example, can result in blindness, heart disease, and insanity. Untreated chlamydia can lead to sterility or ectopic pregnancy. Other STDs may cause brain, nervous system, and bone and joint disease, or destroy the body's immune system. In addition, STDs in women may cause cervical and genital cancer. Risky behavior may be minimized if the teenager can openly communicate with parents or another responsible adult and receive accurate information and advice.
The best way to avoid STDs is not to have sex. If the decision is made to be sexually active, a variety of precautions should be observed. Latex condoms and spermicides, while not 100 percent effective, have been shown to lower the risk of transmission of some STDs and should be used. Teenagers should have frank discussions with their partners regarding their past and present sexual history and STDs. Maintaining a monogamous relationship also lowers the possibility of infections. Additionally, sexually active teens should be taught to identify common symptoms of STDs and conduct self-examinations. If disease is suspected, medical attention should be sought immediately, sexual activity should be stopped, and all past or present sexual partners should be notified. For more information on sexually transmitted diseases, see Ch. 17, Diseases of the Urinogenital System .