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Sex and Teens: What's Going On?
By: Jennifer Johnson, MD, MS & David Bell, MD
If there's one age group that parents wring their hands over, it's teenagers between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. They are in the throes of adolescence, which often means they are moody, private, likely to take risks, and likely to challenge authority and conventions. One day they behave like five-year-olds, the next like mature adults.
Most teenagers have entered puberty, and are actively exploring their sexuality, and it can be a profoundly confusing time.
Below, two adolescent health experts discuss what parents and their middle adolescent children need to know about sex and sexuality.
What is one of the primary concerns among teenagers, as their hormone levels are increasing and they are beginning to see changes in their bodies?DAVID BELL, MD: One of the main things teenagers want to know is that everything is normal. They're comparing themselves a lot with their peers, and part of the process is to figure out what's normal and what's not.
JENNIFER JOHNSON, MD: There's a lot of comparing of naked bodies among kids, they're thinking, "What's he look like, compared with what I look like?" That's what happens in the showers in the gym. Of course, no one admits to looking at anybody else, but they do it because they're coming to terms with their new body and seeing it compared with other people's bodies. It's really important.
In terms of sexual development, is masturbation normal at this time?JENNIFER JOHNSON, MD: Yes, I think the majority of kids have masturbated, especially by the time they've reached the ages of sixteen or seventeen. Most kids do it, regardless of what they've been told about it.
Medically, we know that masturbation is perfectly safe and, in fact, can be a very healthy outlet for these strong sexual drives that kids are experiencing.
Are wet dreams normal at this age as well?DAVID BELL, MD: Yes. During their sleep at some point during puberty, boys may have a nocturnal emission, or a "wet dream." Basically it's the release of semen or sperm during the night, during their sleep.
Is this disturbing for some boys?DAVID BELL, MD: Yes. And that's one important reason for parents to have a discussion with their teenage boys about wet dreams before they happen, just as we do with females before their first period, to prepare them for it. If a boy does not know what a wet dream is, he may think he urinated in the bed, and that can be devastating.
Is same sex experimentation normal at this time as well? How common is it?JENNIFER JOHNSON, MD: We don't have a lot of information about how common same sex experimentation is. But certainly when and if it does happen, it's very normal. Again, it's a way for teenagers to assess their own growth, and compare themselves to their peers.
DAVID BELL, MD: I think it is important both for parents and for the teenager not to label their sexual orientation based on episodes like these.
JENNIFER JOHNSON, MD: Right. Sexual orientation is often still emerging in adolescents, and sometimes it changes during a person's life. It's important to differentiate sexual orientation from sexual behavior, because guys and girls may have same-sex sexual experiences and be completely heterosexually oriented. By the same token, boys and girls who are gay may have heterosexual relationships, including intercourse, and not have homosexual experiences until later in life.
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