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home > sex & society > individual development > adolescence
Adolescence is the period between puberty and adulthood. Traditionally and since time immemorial, adolescence is a fairly short period between 15 and 20, when the individual develops the ability and desire to marry a member of the opposite sex, set up a household and raise a family. The essential characteristic of adolescence is therefore sexual maturation and the finding of a partner. The whole physical and psychological development of boys and girls is geared towards these two goals. Traditional marriage customs show a great deal of cultural variation, but basically they are arranged by the families of bride and groom, and underline the socio-religious confirmation of the male-female procreative union. Traditionally, marriages are arranged for young people, so that the period of adolescence is only a brief transition from (non-reproductive) childhood to (reproductive) adulthood.
Adolescence is prolonged
In the modern western world, the period of adolescence has been steadily lengthened. This is probably one of the most important and promising changes in human evolution. Instead of marrying en starting a family soon after puberty, young people of both sexes now attend school, continue their education even after 18, find their way in the work market, choose a career that can be quite different from their parents’, have leisure time and the means to spend it meaningfully and pleasantly with friends, travel around the world and become involved in worldwide questions of justice, peace, freedom and equality. Contraceptive practice makes it possible for them to have sexual relations without a marriage licence. Partner choice is the adolescent’s individual responsibilty, the arranged marriage is out. Love is the main criterion of a relationship between the sexes. Living together (cohabiting) is by many considered a good way to try out married life. Marriage follows when the decision is taken consciously to start a family.
All these factors have prolonged the period of adolescence up to the age of 30, which is the average age today for emancipated Western girls to have their first child.
Adolescence and finding an exclusive sexual partner
The foregoing is an idealized picture of young people in the most affluent and advanced parts of the world. Even they, however, experience many inhibiting factors in their social environment, their intimate relationships and in themselves. The fundamental point to be made is that adolescence is still characterized by the overriding wish, especially on the part of girls, to find one exclusive sexual partner with whom to start a family. This principal concern is programmed genetically in the individual and reinforced on a daily base by social influences from family, church, friends, magazines and television, even study books and literature. The self-evidence of the sexual system is so strong that adolescence, however prolonged, is still experienced as a period of transition towards marriage. Only few individuals can escape that programme. Among homosexuals there are some who, having experienced the enormous pressure to conform to the family ideology, have distanced themselves critically from it, but the opposite tendency, namely to demand for homosexuals the same rights to be married and have a family, is now the dominant political position against conservative forces, who resist even such a small infringement of the ancient sexual order they defend.
Adolescence and relationships
The typical adolescent relationship is characterized by different and opposing motivations in boys and girls. From puberty, the girl, wittingly or not, attracts boys and makes her selection of them, in actual fact or only in her mind, for the purpose of finding a suitable mate to have babies with. Sex to her is subservient to her ultimate fulfillment, which is to become a mother. Boys desire girls and exert themselves to be accepted (which they interpret as making a conquest), by as many girls as possible.
The typical difference between male and female adolescents can largely be explained by this opposition in sexual motivation. Girls tend to exhibit their bodies more, while boys show off their skills, girls are more confused and capricious about their sexual desires, boys are more immediately focussed on touching, kissing and fondling. Girls look more for perfection, boys look more for willingness. Girls tend to put boys to the test, with sexual favours as a reward, boys tend to become frustrated, angry and agressive by the confusing game of attraction and rejection that girls play.
Adolescence and emotional conflicts
Both male and female adolescents are in the process of disengaging themselves from their parents. This they experience as a road to adulthood and freedom. However, both also unconsciously look for an attachment figure to replace their mother. So in their search for a sexual partner, they also look for someone who will be dependable, strong and intimate, a friend for ever.
Small wonder that this mix of emotions and needs, sexual longing, feelings about self worth, anxious need for attachment, and the need to make a mark in the world, creates the typical range of emotional conflicts between the sexes that characterizes adolescence and persists even through married life and lays the emotional groundwork for bringing up the next generation.
Adolescence and behavioural disorders
Small wonder that adolescence has come to be associated with various types of behavioural disorders. Eating and drinking can become problematic, from overeating or its opposite anorexia in girls to abuse of alcohol in boys. Smoking and the use of soft, sometimes hard drugs, is typically begun in adolescence. Increased awareness of (un)attractiveness as a sexual partner may cause any number of disturbances, girls becoming neurotic over their body shape, breast size, facial features, height, while boys go through severe mood changes, go to extreme lengths to compete with others and acquire an identity, if only by imitation. In their dealings with the other sex (a category they have hardly associated with in the first formative years of their lives), they experience the joy and thrill of falling in love, dating, talking about personal ideas, convictions and preferences, feeling intimate in a new and exciting way. But adolescence is also the time of being or feeling rejected, which causes angerr, envy, jealousy, anxiety and anger. Particularly young males seek an outlet in danger, aggressive and daring activities such as sports, but also violence against other young males or any other object of resentment, such as the police, opposite political parties, ethnic groups or social outcasts. Girls in our modern world also try out sports and games and other male activities, but generally do not partake in violent group encounters between gangs ( a type of behaviour that goes back to our ape-like ancestors). But girls still mostly concentrate on making themselves attractive, selecting males in a succession of relationships, finding the right mate and binding him in marriage and family life, which he is happy enough to settle for since it still signifies a transition to maturity and responsibility.
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