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The Sex Lives of Teenagers

“Not blaming you, Susan. I just feel like I was caught not knowing what was going on.”

“I should have told you, I know. I just feel like it’s impossible to talk to you about this kind of thing.”

“Why, Susan?” I asked.

“Well, it’s never a discussion. Mike acts like he knows what should happen. Rory tried to talk with his dad about it.”

“How did that go, Mike?”

“Not very far, I guess, ’cause I didn’t know much about what was going on. I figured he might be having sex with Jen when he brought those books home from your office. Uh, I read them, too. I was looking for answers, I guess, trying to find a way to talk to him. I knew it shouldn’t all fall on Susan.”

I thought about Rory’s thirst for information, how helpful this dad might have been. “Did you ask him how things were going with Jen?”

“Maybe I think I’ve got to have all the answers. A simple question, ‘How are things going?’—I tried. I did say I’d be willing to talk about any questions he had, but I didn’t ask.”

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“Where’s it stand now, after he was caught at Jen’s house?”

“Well, I yelled at him after I got that phone call. I don’t want him having Jen sleep over, but I don’t want to sound like Mr. Ludtmann, either.”

“Is there a way you could spend some time with him?” I asked.

“I could. Maybe I’ll volunteer to be the parent chaperon for that away football game he’s got coming up. I suppose we could talk about the whole thing.”

“You both read those books. You could talk about them.”

“Yeah, even getting started with the sex stuff is hard with Rory.”

“You don’t have to be an expert. Just try to start a conversation with him.”

“For me, that’s the hard part.”

“Mike, that’s the most difficult thing for a lot of parents.”

Mike is like most dads, and even some moms, parents that have trouble even beginning a conversation with their teens about sex. For Mike, it was easier to tell Rory what to do—’Don’t have Jen sleep over’—rather than find out how things were going.

I did hear back from Rory after he and his dad drove to the weekend football game. They had managed a conversation about sex. Mike stayed off the topic of Mr. Ludtmann, and Rory didn’t ask if he could have Jen sleep over…. Apparently, Mike shared information and, even more important, some of his own stories. The conversations had begun.

Intercourse: Starting off

One of the most important things that I have learned from working with teens is that their sexual patterns are extremely diverse. Yet teens feel acute pressure to be sexually “normal,” whatever that is, and struggle to make their own behavior fit into what they imagine fits that pattern. They keep much of their sexual lives hidden. There is often a story to share, though, and they are looking for someone to listen. Their reluctance to talk about sexual matters is combined with social taboos, and the end result is that they learn very little about what teenage sexual experiences are really like. Into this gap, television, movies, and music videos slide with dramatic stories that make it appear as if all teens are not only participating, but adept at sexual intercourse. This often infuriates parents, who view the media as aggressively seducing their children long before they are ready. The media’s aggressive use of teenage sexuality to sell everything may infuriate parents, but it is more demanding to teens themselves who are struggling to find out exactly what is “normal” and if they are included. Rory is one of many young boys I have worked with who are critical of their own sexual behavior because it doesn’t fit the media images. As Rory said, “No guy lasted under a minute in any of the movies I saw.”

Rory did tell me that he had recently seen a television program that had shown the “trials” of another “minute man,” but this character’s entire life was portrayed in terms of trials related to expectations of sexual performance.

Although Rory had watched the program with interest, he was afraid to discuss it with his friends, not wanting them to guess that this was his own situation also. After several conversations Rory was able to share with his father, Mike, his concerns about “timing.” Mike shared some of his early experiences and told Rory that not only were his worries normal, they were to be expected. This conversation provided some of the reassurance that Rory was searching for, and the bond between father and son was greatly enhanced.

In this chapter I chose to include the sexual stories of four teens—Miriam, Joel, Mai, and Rory—instead of the usual one or two. My intention has been to emphasize the range of sexual choices for teens

Miriam started early with physical development and activity, and her first experience with intercourse occurred at the age of fifteen rather than the average age of sixteen. Both she and her mother put a lot of effort into preparation, and her story serves as a good example of a teen who understood the questions that needed to be asked of herself before taking this important step.

I believe that asking and answering the questions is a very important part of sexual readiness for teens and adults both. Leaving out or rushing through any of the questions increases one’s vulnerability. Parents and many sexual education programs focus on the issue in Question #7 from my suggested list of sexual readiness questions—about whether any planning for protection from pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease has taken place—at the expense of some of the others. For example, if you can’t tell your partner no, even at the last minute, then your choices are limited by those of your partner. This is an important issue, most typically for girls who don’t know their own desires fully, and accommodate to the wishes of their partners, but a surprising number of boys also describe feeling forced in sexual situations.

Also important is the question that asks whether one has thought about the impact of the first time on one’s life, and whether the decision being made is consistent with one’s values. This was a vital question for Mai, who knew her boyfriend’s desire and her father’s wishes, but had to define and then defend her own path. Asking herself the question about her values helped her identify her choice as her own, and helped her gain understanding about why she was having such intense negative feelings about her boyfriend and her dad. Once she recognized her own choice, she was no longer as angry with these other people.

Rory and I indirectly addressed the question from the list concerning sexual technique. Many teens today go right to intercourse, neglecting the time-honored steps of fondling, rubbing, and simulated intercourse without penetration that have delayed and enlivened the sexual lives of former generations. Rory was delighted to learn how to calibrate and adjust his excitability. Understanding that different individuals are excited by different degrees of touch gave Rory some control. Although he was a little fast, he found that he “fit” in the normal range, which was a tremendous relief.

Like Rory, Joel was grappling with issues related to sexual readiness, although he was exploring very different questions. Joel had masturbated, but he had never really thought in much detail about what it would be like to have sex with a boy or a girl. His inner desires were so hidden that he could not allow himself to have a sexual fantasy that included intercourse. He was stunned when he had intercourse with Richard, amazed at the strength of his erotic feelings. It forced him to pay attention to those feelings, clarifying an important part of his identity.

Making his choices, he confronted many of the questions that are part of determining sexual readiness. Had he thought about the potential impact on his life? Did he trust his partner? But his surprise about what happened and the potential meaning of these events for his character indicate that even if one prepared carefully, there are always revelations in intercourse. The discovery of unknown aspects represents one of the largest risks. Perhaps the final question asked should be whether you are ready to experience something that may change you.

Sexual activity has many meanings for adults. It is important to recognize that this is also true for teenagers. No one template fits all teens, and most adolescents derive multiple meanings from a single sexual experience. Miriam’s experience of intense physical pleasure revealed a greater intimacy with her boyfriend, Julian, but it also reflected personal growth and her developing spirituality. Like Miriam, Joel had experienced physical pleasure and intimacy, but he believed that the most important part of the experience was his surrender to desire. Mai learned from her exploration of the question that the freedom to make her own choice was vital. For her, it was important that it not be an expected part of her current relationship. Rory’s story began with a focus on sexual intercourse to test biological equipment. In the end, it brought him closer to his girlfriend, Jen, who had already accepted what he was questioning, and led him to want a greater understanding of relationships. When both he and his father were able to share and communicate, Rory’s sexual activity allowed for a greater intimacy not only with Jen, but with his father and with himself.

The sexual experiences described here help to identify how intimacy and intercourse are not always unnatural partners, but can be a positive formula that helps adolescents grow and understand themselves better. Sonia discovered that she believed in a healthy sex life for her young daughter in theory, but in practice found this a lot harder to deal with. Mike discovered that he had to learn to listen to his son. Once he tried this, Rory told him a lot more, and they grew closer. Teens’ stories can teach adults a great deal.

About the Author

Lynn Ponton, MD, is a practicing clinical psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. She is also the author of The Romance of Risk: Why teenagers do the things they do. Ponton has written for USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, Clinicial Psychiatry News, Science and Women’s Day. She has appeared on “Oprah,” “Ricki Lake,” “60 Minutes” and on NPR and PBS.

Excerpted from The Sex Lives of Teenagers by Lynn Ponton, MD. Copyright © Lynn Ponton, 2000. Reprinted with permission.

The Sex Lives of Teenagers

Lynn Ponton, MD

APA Reference
Ponton, L. (2020). The Sex Lives of Teenagers. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.