Sexuality is the subject of more mixed-up beliefs, attitudes and morality than anything else in our lives. Most adults aren’t confident about dealing with it, so no wonder adolescents are confused.

Anyone over 40 today will have seed the most dramatic changes in knowledge and attitudes about sex and in sexual behaviour. You may find it hard to believe, but when your parents were growing up sex was something you didn’t talk about. Young people weren’t even supposed to think about it. They couldn’t get any information, and any reference to it was censored out of books and films. Many young women got the idea that sex was something shameful, unpleasant and dangerous!

Your parents have seen the ‘sexual revolution’ during their lives. Since the 1950s we’ve seen the publication of Masters anti Johnson’s studies of sexual behaviour and the physiology of sex, the arrival of the Pill and other reliable contraception, the women’s movement, gay liberation, changing sex roles, the end of sexual censorship and the acceptance of sex as a pleasurable activity for its own sake, not just for procreation.

It can be hard to revise attitudes and values you’ve picked up when you’re young. Many parents of today’s adolescents are still influenced by what they learned from their parents about sexuality, which was usually pretty negative – a taboo subject and something that only concerned married people behind closed doors. With this in the backs of their minds, they’ve had to cope with today’s openness about sex. It’s not surprising that they’re uncertain about how to approach the matter with their own kids.

People expect different behaviour from boys and girls, and generally treat them differently. By the time we’re 3 or 4 years old, we’ve learnt what’s expected of us. In general, girls are still expected to be pretty, sweet, gentle, cautious and play quiet, ‘ladylike’ games. Boys should be tough and daring. ‘Rough and tumble’ play is expected from them. If you step out of line, you’re a ‘tomboy’ or a ‘sissy’. It’s an interesting reflection on gender value that ‘sissy’ is more insulting. If you were growing up before about 1960, you would have had pretty clear-cut models of adult gender roles from your parents. Dad went to work and Mum looked after the family and kept house. This was called ‘sex-role stereotyping’. It’s different these days. Many women with pre-school children work away from home because they want to or need to or both. Men are helping more with the domestic and parenting chores.

When you hit adolescence you’ll learn more about the different interests and behaviours fostered in girls and boys. Magazines for teenage girls are full of romantic stories and advice on how to make yourself more attractive to boys. Boys’ magazines are full of sport, action and stories (often heroic) about men; there is no mention of how a new hairstyle and clothes could make them more attractive to girls.


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