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5.1: Adolescent Sexual Behavior

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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What guides your sexual behavior?

Adolescent sexuality forms a bridge between sexuality in childhood and adulthood. Children may engage in sex play (such as looking at each other's bodies or touching each other). Sexual interactions among adolescents retain a playful quality for a while (horsing around, teasing, showing off) but gradually develop into more adult-like behavior.

“I think what is happening to me is so wonderful, and not only what can be seen on my body, but all that is taking place inside. I never discuss myself or any of these things with anybody; that is why I have to talk to myself about them.”

-Diary of a Young Girl

Anne Frank

The development of adolescent sexuality is no different than the development of other functions and behaviors. Normally, all boys and girls develop the physical capacity to engage in sex. However, whether they do engage in sex or not, or whether they should engage in sex or not, depends on many psychological, social, and moral considerations. Young people who become involved in sexual activities are more likely to engage in solitary behaviors like sexual fantasy and masturbation than behaviors that involve partners. Engaging in or abstaining from each type of sexual activity involves making important choices, but the most important choice is whether or not to cross the line into sexual intercourse because of the greater risks and consequences it entails.

“A longing filled him. Would a girl ever love him? The one devastating sorrow he carried within him was the fear that he would die before holding a girl's breast in his hand.”

-The Chocolate War

Robert Cromier

Adolescent heterosexual activities range from holding hands to sexual intercourse. The less intimate the behavior, the more likely it is that girls and boys have tried it. For instance, many boys and girls have held hands. The percentages for necking (prolonged hugging and kissing) are lower, and the figure for sexual intercourse is lower still. By the 12th grade, the majority, but not all, boys and girls have held hands or kissed, while 76% of boys and 67% of girls report that they have become sexually active. Statistics in this area can be misleading because different ratios apply to boys and girls, as well as to different religious, social, economic, and ethnic groups.

What Do You Think?
How sure do you want to be when you try some sexual behavior new to you? What can you learn or think about in advance so you can trust your split-second, decision making ability when the situation arises?

There can be very large differences in the percent of adolescents having sex in different geographic areas. In one high school, the percentage of those who engage in sex may be 10%. In another, it might be 90%. Moreover, remember that you as a person are not a statistic. Even in a school where 90% of students have sex, you may not be one of them.

While most young people are heterosexual, some adolescents become romantically or sexually attracted to members of the same sex. But most of them don't actually engage in homosexual behaviors, and many of them who do have such experiences in adolescence do not develop a homosexual orientation as adults. Like so many other experiences during adolescence, such activities may be motivated by curiosity or experimentation.

Questions-Questions You are trying to help a friend figure out his or her feelings about whether or not a relationship should become more sexual. You decide that asking your friend and his or her partner some questions about the relationship might result in some insights. What questions might you ask?

On the other hand, most adult homosexuals trace back their awareness of their sexual orientation to the time of their adolescence. This usually takes the form of being romantically attracted to someone of the same sex rather than actually engaging in some sexual activity with that person.

Why Do Adolescents Engage in Sex?

People may think that adolescents engage in sex simply because it's fun. However, sexual pleasure is not the only or the most important reason. Like adults, sexually active adolescents engage in sex for a variety of reasons. The most important reason young people become sexually active is because of affection for a partner. This is the most important reason for females. The next most common reason is opportunity or readiness. The opportunity to experience sexual intercourse with someone he likes is the most important reason for males. One out of five women have intercourse for the first time on their wedding night. This is true for less than one in ten men.

“I am sick of being the only virgin in our class. Everybody but me is sexually experienced.”

-Adrian, in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

Sue Townsend

The Big Decision . . . .
Total Boys Girls
Sexually Active Not Sexually Active Not
(%) (%) (%) (%) (%)
He or she has met someone he or she really loves 31 23 27 54 31
He or she is engaged or married 19 2 21 8 31
He or she has the opportunity to do it with someone he or she likes 19 43 21 11 7
He or she has reached a certain age or maturity level 14 15 16 11 14
He or she feels pressure to do it because everyone else is 10 15 12 6 8
His or her girlfriend or boyfriend is pressuring him or her 5 1 1 6 9
Don't know 2 1 2 4 0
100 100 100 100 100

Figure 4.1 A sample of 13-18-year-olds were asked what motivates young people to make the big decision to become sexually active. Notice that boys and girls gave somewhat different answers.

Since sex is such an important activity and can have so many serious consequences, should others (even if they are good friends) decide for you what to do? Or should you be making the choice yourself?

What Do You Think?
Learning about sexual behavior isn't easy. It's a lot riskier than learning to ride a bike, and it is a much more difficult topic about which to get accurate information. How can you best learn about sexual behavior and maintain your self-respect?

Choosing Abstinence

The word abstain means to refrain from an activity by one's own choice. The activity can be any activity. It does not have to be sex. In earlier times, the term referred to refraining from alcoholic beverages. Now it is more commonly used to refer to refraining from engaging in sexual intercourse.

Abstaining does not mean giving up sex for life. It simply means postponing it until the time is right. Abstaining also doesn't mean you can't fall in love, or express your feelings by touching or kissing. Abstinence means that you choose, for this period in your life, to not engage in sexual intercourse.

Debate! Before engaging in sexual intercourse, individuals under age 18 should talk with an older peer or an adult. Debate this statement.

Abstinence is the only sure way to avoid unwanted pregnancies, and it greatly reduces the chances of getting a sexually transmitted disease. In addition, choosing abstinence can simplify your life and your relationships. Once you commit to abstinence, you can avoid much of the uncertainty and guesswork in a relationship and in social situations. But remember that abstinence does require a commitment-it is not a “here today, gone tomorrow” decision.

Did You Know?
About 3,000 American teenage girls become pregnant every day-about 1,000,000 every year.

Abstinence is a choice you can make, and at this point in your life, abstinence is a choice you probably should make. Pregnancy and/or disease can affect your life forever-are they risks you are ready for? Decisions of this kind can be complicated and challenging.

What Do You Think?
A recent study showed that approximately half of all adolescents report that their parents never talk about birth control, STDs, or pregnancy. When should children and teenagers be taught about sex? With whom should they talk and how?

When making a sexual decision, do you make choices based on what you think or what you feel? And to what extent do your own thoughts and feelings rather than those of others direct your behavior? Most of us would say that what we do is a result of all of the factors above-our own feelings and thoughts, as well as those of others. Many young people also abstain because they think to do otherwise would be morally wrong.

In a sample of 13- to 14-year-olds, 53% of boys and 68% of girls said they had made a conscious decision to delay intercourse, and over 75% said they have met with someone who had made this decision. Three out of four 13- to 14-year-olds say it is considered a good thing in their group to remain a virgin (67% of boys and 85% of girls).

“I figure if a guy can't make it with me because I don't go to bed with him, then he loves that more than he loves me, anyway.”

-Maria, in Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff

Walter Dean Myers

Those in the study for whom religion is very important are more likely to want to abstain from sex until marriage. Some of these boys or girls were in a relationship with someone they liked. However, they said that they decided not to engage in sexual intercourse for the following reasons:

What was the main reason you decided not to have sexual intercourse at that time? Was it because . . .

Total Boys Girls
You just didn't feel ready 36 27 44
You had made a conscious decision not to have sex with anyone 27 23 29
You were worried about getting (the girl) pregnant 10 12 8
You didn't feel in control of the situation 6 6 6
You were worried about getting a sexually transmitted disease 4 5 3
Some other reason 17 26 9
Don't know 0 0 0
Refused 0 0 0

Figure 4.2 Reasons given for declining sexual intercourse. Responses are based on those who declined sexual intercourse with someone they liked.

Activity 4-1: Red Light-Green Light


The party is going just fine. You are laughing with your friends. You look up and there the person is! Not just a person, not just any person, but the person! You see the very person you wished to be with all week long. Your eyes meet. A hand is extended. You clasp it in yours and you are following. YIKES, what if . . .? What should you do? Wouldn't it be great to have advice when you need it? One wrong decision could change your life forever, and make you a candidate for a TV talk show! Well, maybe, and then again maybe not. How about some practice at decision making now before it gets real-later?


  • None needed


Here is the situation. You are all Family Life Counselors. These scenarios are some of the types of dilemmas that kids just like you have gotten themselves into. You have to help them make the right decision. So, you have to honestly choose which light to give to the people in these scenarios, and explain why you chose that light so that the people will be able to understand and make the right decisions for themselves the next time.

Step 1 Your teacher will read a series of scenarios. At the end of each reading your teacher will present some options listed under each of three headings:

  • RED LIGHT: No! Stop!
  • YELLOW LIGHT: Be very cautious.
  • GREEN LIGHT: Yes, go ahead.

Step 2 Listen to both the scenarios and the options carefully. You are expected to make the best decisions for your clients.

Step 3 When the teacher says “Go” you go to the table labeled “Red Light,” “Yellow Light,” or “Green Light.”

Step 4 Explain why you made that decision based on the scenario you just heard.

Sexual intercourse can be best understood as part of an important relationship between two people. It is not something to get involved in casually. Unlike masturbation, which involves no one else, sexual intercourse has very important consequences to one's own and one's partner's lives.

There are many aspects to sexual relationships. One is physical attraction. But simply because we find someone sexually attractive is not enough reason to try to enter into a sexual relationship with that person.

Most people want sexual intimacy to take place with someone about whom they care or with whom they are in love. Yet that may not be sufficient. Traditionally, couples have been expected to be married first before engaging in sex. Though that is no longer the rule for everyone, there are many who still think that one should have a sexual relationship only with someone to whom they are married. There are moral considerations in this respect that we will discuss later in this unit.

Why do people enter into sexual relationships? This question is broader than the question, “Why do people have sex?” However, some of the answers overlap.

Did You Know?
One million teenage girls become pregnant each year. 70% of teenage mothers are single parents.

Biologically, the most important reason for sex is reproduction. Without reproduction, human beings would disappear from Earth. And, becoming a parent is also a very important event psychologically. A child can bind the parents more closely to each other, provided, of course, that the couple is ready for parenthood. Many teenagers who become parents are not ready for parenthood and commitment. Under these circumstances, for a young couple to have a child often becomes a serious problem.

As important as sex is for reproduction, if couples had sex only to have babies, there would be very little sexual activity. But that is not the case. Sexual relationships have many other functions. One obvious reason people engage in sex is because it is highly pleasurable, both physically and psychologically.

Sexual relationships are also an important way of expressing affection or love. As we discussed earlier, passion, which involves sexual attraction, is an important component of love. But happy sexual relationships do not just happen. One needs to be ready for them and mature enough to deal with their requirements. The requirements include caring and affection, honesty, trust, and emotional intimacy (the ability and willingness to share your feelings and thoughts).

Write a poem about how you think relationships should be. Include any personal experiences that might have been emotionally painful but might have helped you better understand yourself, relationships, and how to make relationships work.

Getting involved in a sexual relationship makes people vulnerable in many ways. Health, reputation, and feelings are at stake. For this reason, one should be able to trust one's sexual partner. That is why commitments such as marriage have been a requirement for sexual intimacy in so many societies.

There are many other aspects of sexual relationships that we will discuss in the rest of this unit. We will consider the way that sexual relationships may affect your health. Also, we will consider the unacceptable ways of treating others sexually through abuse and coercion.

Maintaining Sexual Relationships

Sex is healthiest between willing and responsible partners who love and care for each other. Even between the members of a married couple who love one another, the desire for sex may not be there for both people at the same time or to the same degree. For example, one time the wife may be more interested in sex than the husband. Another time, the husband might be more eager for sex than the wife. Most adult couples manage to deal with these differences, but the problem is more difficult for a couple where it is unclear whether or not they should have sex in the first place.

What Do You Think?
Many people have power over other people but do not use that power to take advantage of them. What stops them from doing so? Have you ever been tempted to take advantage of other people's trust, honesty, or innocence?

Sexual relationships have a lot in common with other kinds of human relationships and interactions. Think of how you and a friend have dealt with a situation when you wanted to do something and he or she wanted to do something else. Pick a situation that doesn't involve anything sexual, such as choosing which TV program to watch. But the activity should involve something that requires that you do it together. How did you decide what to do?

In trying to deal with such situations, people commonly use a number of strategies.

The first strategy is abstinence, avoiding the activity-in the case of sex, not engaging in sexual intercourse. One way of not dealing with the requirements of sexual or other intimate relationships is not to get into them in the first place. There is much to be said for this approach for certain periods in one's life. However rewarding a sexual relationship may be, it may conflict with other worthwhile goals in life, particularly when one is young. School, sports, and friendships put a lot of demands on one's time and energy, let alone the business of growing up. So it makes good sense to postpone getting involved in sex until one is in a better position to handle it. Most young people are not ready to handle the serious consequences that may result from sexual intercourse, such as pregnancy. The same is true for adults when they are going through a particularly demanding time in their lives due to a variety of reasons, such as careers.

Lyrical Messages Bring in the words of a favorite song about relationships. What do they say about how males and females relate? Is there a sense of compliance, cooperation, or compromise?

However useful avoidance may be when young or during special circumstances, many people are eventually unsatisfied with avoidance. Because sexual relationships can be so rewarding, most people are not willing to give them up forever. Hence, the second approach is compliance. You do whatever your spouse, lover, or friend asks of you. This may save a lot of hassle, but it robs you of your sense of autonomy and independence. It may also put you in situations that you do not like, want, or need. Thus, you may feel powerless and taken advantage of.

The third approach is cooperation, which involves two persons working towards the same goal. Cooperating couples are relaxed and friendly. Neither person is trying to take advantage or impose his or her will on the other. Cooperating couples freely show their love. They think of sexual intercourse as something a person does with someone, not to someone. They do not keep score of sexual favors. Nor do they take advantage of each other or make unreasonable demands.

Cooperating couples reach agreement through discussion that allows each person to express and listen to the other's feelings, wishes, and needs. Where there are differences, they can be dealt with through persuasion (convincing the other) and negotiation (trying different ways of reaching an agreement). Often there is need for some compromise, where neither person gets everything he or she wants, but both get enough of what they want to accept the outcome.

What Do You Think?
  1. Think about a time when you were negotiating with a friend about a difference in opinion, and rather than an equal compromise, your friend ended up giving in to your point of view. How did you feel about your friend? How did you feel about yourself?
  2. Now think of a time when you gave in to a friend's point of view to settle a difference of opinion. How did you feel about yourself? How did you feel about your friend?

Unlike cooperation, which is a part of human interactions, seduction is specifically sexual. Seduction may take the form of one person arousing sexual interest in another by various means. It may involve expressions of admiration and affection or sweet-talking the partner into sex. Creating a romantic or erotic atmosphere (by music, soft lights, sexy clothing, and so on) may also be a part of the attempt to stimulate sexual arousal. These are generally harmless ways in which to engage a partner (assuming the individuals should have sex together in the first place).

Learn the Signs In groups of four, create some scenarios about seduction or coercion. Write short scripts for each. Trade scenarios with other groups and role-play them for the class.

However, in its more harmful form, seduction involves manipulating or conning another person into sexual activity. It relies on a number of common strategies aimed at exploiting the person's psychological weaknesses. It may use flattery (“You are great”), deception (“I love you”), or false promises (“I'll marry you”) to convince someone to say “yes” when they would otherwise say “no.” Alcohol and drugs are often used to cloud the person's judgment and break down resistance. Finally, a person may use coercion to force another into sex. Coercion may depend on psychological pressure or the threat or use of physical force, in which case it becomes rape.

What Do You Think?
Why might resisting and saying no to seduction be hard to do?

Seduction falls short of psychological coercion because the person ultimately agrees to engage in the sexual activity. Sometimes, however, the line is hard to draw between seduction and coercion. The person seduced is likely to feel taken advantage of afterwards. We discuss sexual coercion in the next section.

Activity 4-2: If You Loved Me


Sooner or later almost every young person in love will hear these thoughts, expressed in other words perhaps, but they always mean the same thing: He: “You'd say yes if you loved me.” She: “You would not insist if you loved me.” How should each person react? What should be said or done? What would you do?


  • Pen or pencil
  • Activity Report


Step 1 Your teacher will divide the class into groups.

Step 2 Each group will be given a scenario to read and then rewrite as a dialogue.

Step 3 You will share your scenarios with the other groups and then discuss several questions with your group about the scenarios.

Step 4 To help make your discussion easier you should be familiar with these terms:

  • abstinence
  • compliance
  • negotiation
  • cooperation
  • seduction
  • coercion

Step 5 Review this section of your textbook again if you are not certain of the definitions of these words.

Understanding that sexual stimulation leads to sexual response may influence your thoughts about how you conduct yourself, especially if you have strong feelings about whether or not you are ready to become sexually active. What guidelines will you set for yourself?

Review Questions

  1. Why is making the decision to abstain or engage in sexual intercourse so much more difficult and important than deciding to engage in other sexual activity, such as kissing or exploring your partner's genitals?
  2. What factors influence the development of sexual behavior?
  3. What are the most common reasons that adolescents choose abstinence?
  4. Why do people choose to enter into sexual relationships?
  5. Compare and contrast the terms compliance and cooperation.
  6. Are seduction and coercion parts of a healthy sexual relationship? Why or why not?

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Date Created:
Feb 23, 2012
Last Modified:
Jan 30, 2016
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