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Sexuality in AdolescenceReview - Sexuality in Adolescence
The digital generation
by Meredith Temple-Smith, Susan Moore, and Doreen Rosenthal
Routledge, 2015
Review by Shaun Miller
Mar 29th 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 13)

Sexuality is influenced by many discursive topics: biology, psychology, physiology, cultural influences, sociology, and philosophy.  Lately, however, the advancement of technology has shaped sexuality, particularly the youth since they seem to be more adept and take advantage of the new technology as opposed to the older generations who function in what they already know from the past.  Social media is now a major part of developing sexual relationships in terms of dating rituals and courtship.  While this book is a comprehensive study that covers a lot of ground, I will focus on the chapters that the authors spend a lot of time with, such as sex education and adolescent sexual behavior, but they also cover new ground that deals with the digital generation, such as sexting and the media to see how these new technologies have influenced adolescents.  The authors also examine various qualitative and quantitative studies to provide what the latest science says about sexuality. 

          We often think of adolescents prone to risky behavior and poor judgements, which is due to a lack of prefrontal cortex control.  Even if adolescents have the knowledge, they may not implement this knowledge in the heat of the moment.  Despite this, we should not think of the adolescent brain as temporarily broken until adulthood.  Rather, we should think of the adolescent brain as a "work in progress."  This "work in progress" must be incorporated in how we can help the adolescents get used to these new feelings and a new body image to help the adolescents acquire an informed way of being in the world.  Engaging in risky behavior is not just biology.  We have to understand the context in which the adolescents are in.  For example, we may think that with higher levels of testosterone in young men when they enter puberty may be problematic because they may engage in more risk-taking behavior.  However, if the boys had non-deviant peers, then these young men were seen as leaders.  The relationship between higher levels of hormones and behavior is modified by the social context, which includes sanctions and peer pressures.  Most adolescents learn how to cope with their new moods and motivations depending on how supportive the environment they are in.

          When it comes to sex education, there is a twin paradox: parents think of their own adolescents as young, innocent, naive and immature.  It is the rest of the adolescents that are hypersexual and hormonally out of control.  Not only do parents lack knowledge about sexuality, but both parents and children are uncomfortable talking about sexuality.  Many studies show that parents have a hard time communicating sex to their children, particularly fathers toward their daughters.  If the parents do get involved, most of the talking was done by the mother.   However, even if parents can talk to their children about sexuality, parents can reinforce gender roles.  To illustrate, the authors provide a study showing that families follow the cultural norms unquestionably.  They buy into the "male sex drive discourse" that males have uncontrollable urges, which makes it harder to teach adolescent males that they can take a more caring role without the thought that they are being emasculated by doing so.  Parents also try to protect their daughters by stressing their sexual vulnerability and emphasize the dangers of sex whereas sons get more leeway.  Focusing on the male as a sexual predator, seeking only pleasure, and the female as victim (seeking only romance and intimacy) perpetuates gender inequalities and traditional sexual scripts.  Examples include slut-shaming the sexual double standard.  Moreover, many studies show that adolescents get most of their (mis)information about sexuality from their peers. 

          When it comes to comprehensive sex education programs, young people are generally satisfied, but they felt that the messages were repeated without much of an opportunity to raise new issues or look at the nuances of sexuality.  It is mostly taught through a biological lens and hardly focused on communication with partners, relationship dynamics, or pleasure.  Some teachers may not up to the task, however.  Students preferred sexual health peers or sexual health educators from community organizations to deliver sex education.  Most did not want faith-based organizations to deliver the message.  However, students did not feel that they had the courage to challenge the teacher because of a power dynamic. 

So what are some routes to teach adolescents about sex?  Technology has been helpful in informing adolescents about sexual health such as websites geared toward them or apps.  Young people want information about sexual health and sexual pleasure, how to communicate with their partners, and how to develop skills in giving their partners pleasure.  When it comes to sexual motivations, there are more similarities than differences between the genders.  They had the same motivations for intimacy, closeness, self-affirmation, and as a coping strategy.  Without a comprehensive sex education, adolescents will not know the skills to reject unwanted consequences.  This lack can be seen in the various data of teenage pregnancy.

Young women in the US are 3-4 times more likely to get pregnant than their counterparts in Germany, France, and the Netherlands.  And the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the US are found in socioeconomically disadvantaged populations.  Why do adolescents become pregnant?  There are many features as to why: inconsistent or non-usage of contraceptives, the glamorization of pregnancy, abuse, and negligence.  Contextual factors need to be taken into account such as socioeconomic status and social supports.  There is much evidence that pregnant teens have lower grades and lower school motivation before becoming pregnant than their non-pregnant peers.  Moreover, economic adversity and educational difficulties are the most common outcomes of becoming an adolescent parent.  In the US, for example, black and hispanic adolescents usually keep their babies because their communities typically do not believe that child-bearing leads to social disadvantage.  In other words, parenthood at an early age is not seen as disruptive of their everyday lives. 

However, adolescents can be pressured into unwanted sexual activity because of perceived norms of the social situation they are in, because of alcohol or drug influences, because they do not know how to express their desires or wishes or are frightened to do so, or because they or their partner hold attitudes and beliefs supporting the use of force/coercion in certain situations and with particular 'types' of people (p. 256).  Indeed, many adolescents report that their sex education did not prepare them to deal with unwanted sex or sexual assault, nor the confidence to implement risk-reducing strategies (p. 264).

How does technology play a role in adolescent sexuality?  There is ample evidence that heavy exposure to sexual content in the media is associated with more rapid progression of sexual behavior and earlier first sex.  From a survey of 500 students ages 14-16, 57 percent used the media as a source of sex education, most of it from websites.  Many adolescent sexual minorities have gone to the internet because they feel they can be more honest with themselves than offline.  Moreover, the internet can offer therapeutic assistance to young gay people.  However, the media can also set up a sexual agenda for young people that does not necessarily reflect their own desires.  Magazines aimed at adolescents are designed to tell young women that their function in life is to be sexually attractive to maintain and keep a boyfriend.

Pornography has created expectations in terms of their own and their partner's sexual behaviors.  It is also a way to make sure one does certain activities in order to keep the relationship.  However, many adolescents are challenging the meanings behind pornography.  Teaching about sexual practices can make pornography educational.  It can improve sexual knowledge, attitudes toward sex, attitudes and perceptions of the opposite sex, and their general quality of life.

Overall, this book is a good research tool for those who need more information regarding sexuality.  The book is written in such a way where you can delve into an individual chapter without needing to know the previous chapters, and the writing style is clear.  There is enough updated materials to look further into studies that was mentioned in this short review, and since the digital age is fairly new as well as researching adolescent sexuality from that angle, I am sure there will be many more studies in the future, which makes the information ripe with new understandings on the development of sexuality in general.


© 2016 Shaun Miller


Shaun Miller is a Ph. D student at Marquette University.


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