Adolescent Sexuality

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Adolescent Sexuality

Prepuberty and puberty refer to the physiological, anatomical, and hormonal changes in sexual maturation. Puberty begins with menarche in girls and the first ejaculation in boys, and marks the beginning of adolescence, a complex psychological and developmental process that spans the years roughly from eleven to twenty (Tyson and Tyson 1990, p. 62). Three transformations occur in adolescence: There is disengagement from the infantile ties to the parents; there is the discovery of orgasm and sexual desire directed away from the parents; and there is a primary identification with one of the parents as an adult. In Freudian theory, for heterosexuals the primary identification would be with the same sexed parent, for homosexuals the primary identification is the opposite sexed parent. These transformations begin with the onset of adolescence, which many writers agree is a recapitulation of infancy. Infantile sexuality, repressed during latency, is revived in adolescence with the reappearance of Oedipal conflicts: the threat of attraction to the opposite sexed parent, and the wish for the disappearance or death of the same sexed parent.

In the United States, largely through the work of Peter Blos and Margaret Mahler, adolescence is viewed as the culmination of a process of maturation. The process of mourning becomes important. Anna Freud drew attention to the similarity of adolescence, with its emotional disappointments, and a period of mourning. The adolescent's sexual feelings must detach from the parents and focus on new objects, and this results in mourning for infantile wishes. The new objects, or individuals, are pursued for narcissistic and grandiose fantasies that characterize this development stage. The most specific change in adolescence is managing the dual tasks of integrating a genitally mature body in society and also becoming autonomous. The work of becoming autonomous challenges the narcissistic attitude of the adolescent and reveals the internal world of the young adult and exposes the secure and insecure attachments of his or her character. It also challenges the adolescent's ego to take control of functions that have until then been the responsibility of the parents.

The development that occurs in adolescence has a form and conclusion conditioned by the culture and family to which it belongs. The culture and family are capable of interfering with this process. The parents of adolescents are often in the midst of their own midlife problems and this can add confusion between the adolescent and the parents. Also, the adolescent's actualization of some of the parents' own unresolved conflicts can add more confusion and dissension to this period and contribute to the adolescent feeling misunderstood.

External reality becomes a mediator for the adolescent, capable of reinforcing or weakening the structures of the psychic apparatus. The task for the adolescent is to separate from infantile objects and wishes, and resume identification with narcissistically acceptable objects. Mediator figures include parents, teachers, friends, ideologies, and religions. They can provide for the adolescent a temporary support or identification as they develop a self-image that is truly his or her own.

Sigmund Freud rooted gender in the discovery of genital differences, but research has suggested that gender development is influenced by many factors and there is not a single route to adult gender identity. Many writers have come to agree that individuals unconsciously make both heterosexual and homosexual attachments, with any person's outcome just one of a wide continuum of possibilities. The idea is that individuals are not simply homosexual or heterosexual, but some unique mixture. One's gender identity is a developmental outcome that results from individual differences, the influences of culture and family, as well as fantasy, conflict, defenses, regression, and making and breaking relationships internally and externally while trying to maintain a stable self.

There was a paradigm shift in the study of gender identity over the last few decades of the twentieth century. Historically, gender identity was considered binary: One was either homosexual or heterosexual, and culture encouraged conformity to this view. Psychoanalytic feminism began documenting the pathogenic processes and effects of psychological conformity to the cultural gender binary (Bassin 2000, Layton 2000, Stimmel 2000). This more recent approach argues that gender identity is not just absorbed from one's culture, but individuals engage the influence of cultural proscription and talk back. Gender not only acts on and against one, but it is also available to the individual to use for his or her own aims. Gender identity is best understood as a social category and psychic identity position that is a compromise formation held in the tension between the pressures of conformity and compliance, on one hand, and the individual's continuous project of self-creation and self-protection on the other (Person, Cooper, and Gabbard 2005, p. 102).

Gender identity has moved from dualism to multiplicity. Gender is both fluid and embodied, not unified. As Ethel Spector Person (1999, p. 314) has written, "Against what appears to be a dichotomously, categorical expression of gender, there exists in each person a complicated, multi-layered interplay of fantasies and identifications, some feminine, some masculine…. In essence, conscious and unconscious diversity co-exist." The diversity of gender identity is seen in the early twenty-first century in adolescent behavior: It is acceptable, even popular, to talk about oneself as bisexual, or even to resist the imperatives in this label, and refuse to claim one position on the gender identity continuum.

see also Puberty.


Bassin, D. 2000. "On the Problem(s) with Keeping Difference(s) Where They Belong." Studies in Gender and Sexuality 1(1): 69.

Layton, L.B. 2000. "The Psychopolitics of Bisexuality." Studies in Gender and Sexuality 1 (1): 41-61.

Person, Ethel Spector. 1999. The Sexual Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Person, Ethel Spector; Arnold M. Cooper; and Glen O. Gabbard, eds. 2005. The American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Psychoanalysis. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Stimmel, B. 2000. "The Baby with the Bath Water." Studies in Gender and Sexuality 1(1): 79-85.

Tyson, Phyllis, and Robert L. Tyson. 1990. Psychoanalytic Theories of Development: An Integration. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

                                               Michael Bieber