A teenager’s peer group has a deep and profound effect on many aspects of his or her behavior. This is just one of those truisms of humanity, although it may be more potent for teenagers. We are more likely to engage in behavior we consider normative rather than unusual, and we are more likely to consider behavior normal if the people we primarily interact with are doing it.
Sex and sexuality do not stand out from this trend. If the majority of your friends, the majority of the people you spend your time with, are having sex, you will consider it normal to be a person having sex. It is much less of a leap for teenagers to begin having sex if they consider it a normal activity for teenagers. On the other hand, if none of a teenager’s close friends are having sex, it is a much bigger leap to begin. Doing something out of the norm, breaking the mold, generally requires more thought and energy than doing something perceived as normal.
Here is an example of two teenagers who had grown up together, had been best friends as children, and had been inclined towards similar behaviors as children. After 6th grade they went to different Junior High schools, where they met different groups of friends who substantially influenced their different sexualities:
All of Cassie’s female friends were all having sex. All of the boys in her group enjoyed having sex with the girls, and had come to expect vaginal intercourse in any situation where there was kissing and general making-out involved. Cassie’s female friends called her a prude and said no boy would ever be interested in going out with her because of she was frigid. The boys laughed at her and said they didn’t want to date her because she wouldn’t have sex with them. So Cassie relented and had sex with one of the boys one night, no one special, just to get it over with. Cassie was 14.
None of Susan’s female friends had had sex. About half of them had dated someone, but none of them had progressed to heavy petting or taken off any clothing. One of the girls had been raped when she was 12, and that extremely scary and painful experience was the only real sexual touchstone in the group. The boys in the group were by-and-large similarly experienced. Eventually Susan met and started to date someone from outside the group. They were quite in love, and after serious consideration decided to have vaginal intercourse. Susan’s friends, while not outright rude, told her she was making a horrible decision that she would regret. They began to avoid her and stopped including her boyfriend in any activity. Susan was 18.
These stories suggest the impact of friends on teenagers’ sexual decisions. But they don’t really begin to discuss what to do about the issue, from the perspective of a parent or a teenager. I’ll speak to that in a post tomorrow.
As a teenager, I mistakenly believed that none of my peers were having sex. HA! But I’m sure my delusion was a big part of why I would not consider doing it.
You don’t talk of the outcome of these patterns of bahavior for these girls. I am left wondering, not how to respond to them, but are they now adults? Do they have healthy sex lives now? Is the difference in their sexual beginnings SUCH a big deal after all? I’m beginning to think that perhaps parents and adults in general make way too much out of it all – it is a decision, one decision, and yes, it does impact our lives, but perhaps only as one factor in a broad spectrum. What do you think?
I think an early negative sexual experience can be a HUGE deal even if one does manage to have a healthy sex life later on.
Great post–struck a nerve with me, and I want to say something…
My experience would probably more closely mirror Susan’s, and I think that what Susan did was essentially a pretty ‘healthy’ thing–waiting until she was ready and doing it with someone she actually felt close to. Her ‘friends’, however, are NOT making healthy decisions–if Susan’s boyfriend turns out to be as big of a creep as my first boyfriend did, Susan will have no one to turn to in her peer group about it, and that can be really difficult to go through. If I were a guidance counselor at a high school I’d tell the students to make their decisions for THEMSELVES, not for everyone else around them.
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