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Middle to Late Adolescence (ages 15 to 22): The Age of Romance

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

As a another year or so goes by, when teens are approximately 14-15 years old, they become more interested in developing romantic relationships with partners. These relationships can be explosive and short-lived, or they can become long-term monogamous relationships.

However, guys and girls at this age tend to view romance quite differently. Girls tend to be more concerned about the biological consequences of sexual activity so they may begin to research topics such as reproduction, pregnancy, and contraceptives, and they may ask more questions about these topics. Guys don't ordinarily think about these issues quite as much. Some young ladies feel comfortable asking their parents questions about sexual topics, while many others do not. Therefore, parents should take advantage of natural opportunities to educate both their sons and daughters about sexual situations. For instance, if a parent and teen watched a movie together that had a scene with a sexual theme or content, they might specifically discuss this scene with their teen as they are having ice cream together after the movie. Another natural opportunity arises when a relative, or friend of the family, becomes pregnant. While these natural opportunities for discussion are usually more comfortable, parents will still need to initiate separate, more thorough discussions to ensure their children learn this vital information correctly.

Both guys and girls fantasize about sexual acts and wonder about what their limitations should be. They often wonder about the line between "having sex" and "just fooling around." For example, they may experiment with foreplay behaviors such as erotic stimulation, touch, and massage; and, they may also experiment with different types of sexual intercourse such as oral and anal sex, or mutual masturbation. Many teens who participate in these types of sexual activities will deny they are "having sex" and consider themselves a "virgin" or abstinent as long as they avoid penile-vaginal intercourse. This is very unfortunate because these youth may mistakenly believe these other sexual activities are "safe" and may not realize they are still at risk for acquiring a sexually transmitted disease (STD). They may also be unaware a pregnancy can result despite the avoidance of penile-vaginal intercourse. Furthermore, all forms of sexual activity can result in the same social-emotional consequences as vaginal intercourse (e.g. peer group rejection, partner rejection, rumors, deep regret or remorse, etc.)

With advancing cognitive development and moral development, sexual thoughts and decisions reflect increasing maturity. By ages 15-16 years, girls are considering the moral and physical consequences of having sexual intercourse. Girls may become concerned about an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy, and may wonder if sexual intercourse will be painful. Girls will also begin to define their boundaries with sexual partners, for instance: 1) What kinds of sexual activities are acceptable? 2) When is it okay to be sexual with a partner, and under what circumstances? and, 3) What criteria should be used to make these decisions? Ideally a girl will have thought through these questions before she finds herself in a situation that requires her to answer them! This is where parents and other adults can be very helpful: they can guide their daughters to anticipate the need to think about these sorts of decisions ahead of time. While girls may turn to many different people and resources to help them make these decisions, their parents will want to be one of their daughters' most reliable resources. That's why it's so important for parents to open the lines of communication with their children about sex early on, so they feel comfortable discussing it.

While guys may be less likely to ponder the moral and physical consequences of having sexual intercourse, they should be encouraged to consider the same sorts of questions that girls must consider. In previous generations, guys had a choice about whether or not to acknowledge and accept responsibility for an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy. However, in today's society with the advent of technologies that can definitively establish paternity, and the new "dead-beat dad" laws which require boys/men to take financial responsibility for the children they father, the negative consequences of an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy have significantly increased for guys. Moreover, guys have the same health risks as girls for having unprotected sex.

Between the ages of 16 to 18 years, sexual activity increases and intensifies for both guys and girls, whether by masturbation or in partnered sexual activity. Youth may engage in sexual activity more frequently, and/or their participation may become more intense and varied as their sexual experience increases. For youth whose sexual development proceeded more slowly than their peers, they may begin to experiment with their sexuality. In general, girls' interest in sex is associated with forming and maintaining long-term, committed relationships; however, this is also true for some guys as well.

By late adolescence, between the ages of 19 and 22, youth will continue to explore their sexuality and to experience different types of sexual encounters. Some youth at this stage will only be interested in casual dating and casual sexual encounters while other youth will limit sexual activity to emotionally intimate, committed, monogamous relationships. As youths' cognitive and emotional maturity has significantly improved over early adolescent stages, youths' sexual decisions become more thoughtful and wise, requiring less need for parental guidance or involvement. However, if youth have enjoyed an open dialogue with their parents, they may continue to turn to their parents for additional guidance regarding complex sexual or romantic issues and concerns.