One of the most important developmental tasks adolescents must master is learning what the group expects of them and then being willing to mold their behavior to conform to these expectations without constant guidance, supervision, prodding’s, and threats of punishment they as experienced as children. They are expected to replace the specific moral concepts of childhood with general moral principles and to formulate these into a moral code which will act as a guide to their behavior. When they reach adolescence, children will no longer accept in an unquestioning way a moral code handed down to them by parents, teachers, or even their contemporaries.
They now want to build their own moral codes on the basis of concepts of right and wrong which they have changed and modified to meet their more mature level of development and which they have supplemented with laws and rules learned from parents and teachers. Some adolescents even supplement their moral codes with knowledge derived from their religious teachings.
To master the important developmental tasks of forming new and more mature relationships with members of the opposite sex, and of playing the approved role for one’s own sex, young adolescents must acquire more mature and more complete concepts of sex than they had as children.
The motivation to do so comes partly from social pressures but mainly from the adolescent’s interest in and curiosity about sex. Because of their growing interests in sex, adolescent boys and girls seek more and more information about it.
Few adolescents feel that they can learn all they want to know about sex from their parents. Consequently, they take advantage of whatever sources of information are available to them- sex hygiene courses in school or college, discussions with their friends, books on sex, or experimentation through masturbation, petting, or intercourse. By the end of adolescence, most boys and girls have enough information about sex to satisfy their curiosity.
Studies of what adolescents are primarily interested in knowing about sex have revealed that girls are especially curious about birth control, the “Pill”, abortion and pregnancy. Boys, on the other hand, want to know about venereal diseases, enjoyment if sex, sexual intercourse, and birth control. Their major interest is in sexual intercourse, its context and its consequences. The development of heterosexuality is also formed during this stage. There are two separate and distinct elements in the development of heterosexuality. The first is the development patterns of behavior involving members of the two sexes and the second is the development of attitudes relating to relationships between members of the two sexes. In past generations, these two aspects of heterosexuality were rigidly prescribed by tradition and little leeway was given to adolescents to deviate from these prescribed patterns of behavior and attitudes.
There was, for example, a socially approved pattern of behavior known as “courtship”, and any deviation or in timing, was frowned upon. Those involved were subjected to social disapproval or scorn. It was not, for example, considered proper for boys to kiss girls on their first dates. When girls permitted or encouraged this, boys often regarded them as “easy marks”- a label that did not encourage them to consider the girls seriously as future mates.
Similarly, there were socially approved attitudes both boys and girls were expected to have toward members of the opposite sex and toward their relationships with each other. These attitudes were colored by unrealism and were highly romanticized. Instead of seeing boys as boys, similar in some respects and different in others from girls, boys were romanticized to the point where they were not recognizable as boys but rather were thought of as “conquering heroes”. The tendency to romanticize girls was even more pronounced. It used to be said that boys in love put their girls on pedestals and literally worshipped them.
These highly romanticized attitudes were also present in activities in which both sexes were involved. In the past, a date with a girl meant getting dressed up, taking her a gift of candy, flowers, or a book, seeing her under the parental roof, and leaving at a prescribed time. Attitudes towards what young people did on dates were also carefully prescribed. Kissing and petting were considered in bad taste if not actually wrong unless the couple was engaged. Even then, petting was very limited and within the bounds of what was regarded as “proper” and “safe”.
New social attitudes towards sex, the ready availability of contraceptive devices, and the legalization of abortion in many states have brought about radical changes in sexual behavior during adolescence and in attitudes towards sex and sexual behavior. While these changes are by no means universal, they are widespread enough to be regarded as “typical” of adolescent today in urban and suburban centers and, to a lesser extent, in small towns and rural communities. The changed pattern of sexual behavior among today’s adolescents is not regarded by them as wrong or as promiscuous because usually they have only one sexual partner at a time that, in most cases, they expect to marry at some time in the future. Even when parents object to these relationships, many adolescents continue to maintain them.
There are many reasons for this new pattern of sexual behavior. Among these are the belief that it is the “thing to do” because everyone else does it; that girls and boys who are still virgins by the time they reach senior year in high school are “different,” and to adolescents this means “inferior”; that they must comply with pressures from the peer group if they wish to maintain their status in the group; and that such behavior is an expression of a meaningful relationship which fills the need every adolescent has for a close association with others, especially when this need is not filled by family relationships .
In the past, girls who engaged in heavy petting and intercourse lost the respect of the boys even though they may have been more popular as dating partners than girls who refused to engage in these forms of sexual behavior. Today, adolescent boys maintain that marrying a virgin is unimportant to them, though they tend to lose respect for girls who are too promiscuous and too permissive. Thus, the “double standard” is gradually giving way to a single standard which holds for girls as well as for boys. Accompanying these changed attitudes are strong ideas about right and wrong in regard to sexual behavior. Behavior which adolescents feel is “right” is accompanied by favorable attitudes, while behavior they feel is “wrong” is accompanied by unfavorable attitudes.
Adolescents of today feel that expressions of love, regardless of the form the expression takes, are good, provided both partners feel strongly about each other. On the other hand, if love is missing and sexual behavior is engaged in only because others do it, or because it is the way for a girl to ensure having a date for social events, or for excitement, they regard this as wrong. They also regard it as wrong for a boy to force a girl to engage in intercourse if she is unwilling or for a girl to use intercourse as a way to force a boy into marriage.
There are also new social attitudes toward marital pregnancy and toward keeping the child, even when there is no intention on the part of the parents to marry. Today, some parents accept daughters with illegitimate children and share in the care and expenses involved in the care. Other adolescents, when they become aware of pregnancy, marry even though they are still students and have no independent source of support. Since early childhood boys have been made aware of sexually appropriate behavior and have been encouraged, prodded, or even shamed into conforming to the approved standards. Second, boys discover with each passing years that the male carries far more prestige than the female role.
Girls, by contrast, often reach adolescence with blurred concepts of the female role, though their concepts of the male role are clearer and better defined. This is because, as children, they were permitted to look, act, and feel much as boys without constant prodding’s to be “feminine”. Even when they learn what society expects of them, their motivation to mold their behavior in accordance with the traditional female role is weak because they realize that this role is far less prestigious than the male role and even less prestigious than the role they played as children.
Immaturity is especially apparent in the area of sexual behavior. The reason for this is that adjustment from antagonism toward members of the opposite sex, characteristics of childhood and puberty, to an interest in and the development of feelings of affection for them, the young adolescents, is a radical one. Adolescents who do not date because they are unattractive to members of the opposite sex, or because they continue to have a childish dislike for them, are regarded as immature by contemporaries. Rejection of the socially approved sex role, a continued preoccupation with sex, premarital pregnancy, and early marriage before adolescents have any stable source are also regarded as indications of immaturity.