Document 15085

A NORMATIVE PERSPECTIVE
OF ADOLESCENT GIRLS'
DEVELOPING SEXUALITY
DEBORAH P. WELSH, SHARON S. ROSTOSKY A N D
MYRA CHRISTEN KAWACUCHI
Welsh, D. P., Rostosky, S. S., &
Kawaguchi, M. C. (2000). A
normative perspective of adolescent
girls' developing sexuality. In C. B.
Travis & J. W. White (Eds.),
Sexuality, societv. and feminism (pp.
111-140.
Adolescent girls' sexuality is of great interest and concern to developmental researchers, theorists, policymakers, educators, health care providers, parents, and adolescencs themselves. O n e reason for this interest is
that adolescence is a crucial time when many biological, psychological, and
social changes occur. These changes, and their interaction within a cultural
context, have important ramifications for girls' developing sense of sexuality. For example, puberty, the biological hallmark of adolescence, represents the greatest physical change since birth. The attainment of reproductive maturity has numerous social, cultural, and psychological meanings
that, reflexively, impact on the experience of puberty and provide the link
between reproductive maturity and sexuality for adolescent girls (BrooksGunn & Reiter, 1990; Buchanan, Eccles, & Becker, 1992). Another change
is adolescents' newly acquired cognitive ability, formal operational thought,
This sruJy was supported by a National Institute of Mental Health BISTART award and a
Universiry of Tennessee Professional Development Award to Deborah Welsh.
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behaviors and of girls' developing sense of themselves as sexual beings. We
posit that any analysis of the meaning of adolescent sexuality can only be
understood within a context that examines the role of ecological variables
and personal characteristics of adolescents. We then present a selection of
personal and ecological variables, discuss how they have been studied
within the existing framework, and pose questions or make suggestions
regarding the role of these variables in the new framework. Finally, we
discuss implications of this normative framework.
ASSUMPTIONS UNDERLYING T H E EMPIRICAL STUDY
OF ADOLESCENT GIRLS' SEXUALITY IN A N HISTORICAL
A N D POLITICAL CONTEXT
There are three major assumptions that underlie the majority of empirical research on adolescent sexuality and shape the nature of the questions researchers ask, the design of the studies, and, thus, the state of our
knowledge base about adolescent sexuality. We feel it is important to examine these assumptions and their implications for our literature base regarding adolescent girls' sexuality.
Girls' Sexuality as a Psychological and Social Problem
O n e underlying assumption that has guided the vast majority of empirical and political discourse o n adolescent girls' sexuality over the past
30 years is that sexuality in girls is a dangerous social problem indicative
of pathology and in need of prevention or at least control. This approach,
which views adolescent girls' sexuality as a social problem, is constructed
in the context of a climate of national panic from both the political left
and right.
T h e politically liberal position is invested in the maintenance of this
pathology perspective to advance an agenda of intervention programs, and
has thus focused discourse and research o n the negative consequences of
sexual activity including teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases,
poverty, and, most recently, AIDS. T h e political right has similarly emphasized the social problem of adolescent girls' sexuality, although in efforts
to advance a n agenda emphasizing the immorality of premarital sexuality.
This agenda is typified by recent "Just Say No" campaigns and other programs aimed at abstinence education for adolescents. As a result of these
two forces stemming from vastly divergent motivations, the body of research o n adolescent girls' sexuality has focused o n questions aimed at
identifying when girls begin to engage in sexual behaviors, specifically sex.
ual intercourse, and what factors precipitate or put a n adolescent girl at
risk for engaging in sexual intercourse (Irvine, 1994). T h e ultimate purpose
ADOLESCENT GIRLS' DEVELOPING SEXUALITY
113
of this path of research is to prevent, or at least control, adolesccnt girls'
c:xpressions of sexuality (Foucault, 1978; Irvine, 1994; Nathansvn, 199 1 ).
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analysis of the emergence of ;~dolescencgirls' sexuality as a social problem.
Although adolescent pregnancy, the most visiblc aspect of girls' sexu;ility,
has emerged as one of the most controversial and politicized topics currently on our national table of social issues, it has only been o n that table
since about the mid-1970s. Although the sexual transgressicjns of adolescent girls have been problematic in this country for about 150 years, prior
to the past two decades they were considered individual problems of individual girls rather than a national social problem. Something has happened over the past two decades that has suddenly made adolescent girls'
sexuality a national emergency and put it at the top of our list of national
sc~cialproblems.
Nathanson (1991) provides compelling data to support her contention that the current construction of adolescent girls' sexuality as a social
problem is not related to the magnitude of the problem but is rather a
result of a variety of political forces advancing se~reralmoral and philosophical agendas. For example, adolescent pregnancy did n o t emerge as a
national concern until almost a decade after the birth rate ( t h e number of
births per 1,000 women) for teenage girls had declined rapidly. Nathanson
zrgues that the problem of adolescent girls' sexuality has been largely constructed over the past 25 years as a consequence of a variety of social forces.
Historically, adolescent girls' sexual transgressions were considered
within the domain of morality and, addressing it was the property of religion. With the relatively recent invention of the birth control pill and
later, legalized abortion, the sexuality of women in general became increasingly redistributed from the domain of the church to the medical community. Almost overnight, sexuality was transformed from a moral problem
to a health problem that carried with it serious economic implications to
women and society at large.
In the 1900s the birth control movement, led by Planned Parenthood,
became prominent and powerful in setting national policy. T h e mission of
this movernent focused o n providing birth control services to poor married
adult women. T h e population explosion and need for population control
was a prominent national agenda item at that time. T h e political left advanced the argument chat poor married minority women were kept in a
cycle of poverty by not having access to control their fertility and having
child after child. T h e polical right was concerned with the economic cost
to the country in social welfare programs. Thus, both the political left and
right were invested in providing birth control to poor, primarily African
American, adult women.
By the 1970s, the birth control movement had pretty much accomplished its goal, the birth rate had dropped to replacement level. In addiWELSH, IIOSTOSkY, AND KAiV,Y/,4C;UCIHI
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being examined (e.g., sexuality or ethnicity). Thus, it may be rhat sexu;ll
intercourse in some ndolescent girls may reflect some underlying psychological disturbance, but not in others.
Shcdler and Block (1990), in an extremely important publication [hilt
won awards for its policy implications, applied this cluestioning to another
controversial domain of adolescent behavior: drug usage. Numerous previous studies operating from the prevailing cultur;ll assumptions regarding
the pathology of adolescent drug usage had found drug use t o be associated
with many deleterious qualities in adolescents. Shedler and Block, however,
differentiated different piltterns of drug usage in adolescents, and found
that adolescents who experimented with drugs but did not abuse them in
fact were the psychologically most healthy, even compared with adolescents
who did not use drugs. T h e authors believed that [he same behavior, drug
usage, might have \feni different meanings and ser\.e different functions h>r
different adolescents. In this instance, the willingness of these developmental researchers to move beyond deficit, illness models, t o asking questions that can capture the diversity of our psychological constructs was
fruitful. Researchers interested in adolescent sexuality are only beginning
to take this step.
T h e assumption that adolescent girls' sexuality is pathological has
implications for the empirical literature base on adolescent sexuality by
influencing the targets of research interest. In most developmental domains
(e.g., cognitive development, ego development, moral development, social
development) the pioneering studies investigating the developmental phenomena were conducted with middle-class, European American male adolescents. T h e field of psychology in general has historically meant the
psychology of middle-class, European American men. However, most research o n adolescents' sexuality has foc~tsedo n the sexuality of adolescent
girls, and most often, economically disadvantaged, ethnic minority girls.
Although this observatic~nmay initially seem peculiar, it makes sense in
the context of understanding adolescent sexuality as pathology rather than
as a normal developmental process, and given our cultural notions about
gender and sexuality. W h e n normal developmental processes are studied,
it is the majority (White), powerful (male) population who is the standard
(Bleier, 1986; Crawford & Marecek, 1989; Jacklin, 1981). W h e n pathology
or social problems are studied, it is the minority populations who are examined. T h a t the overwhelming majority of empirical research o n adolescent sexuality is being focused o n girls, primarily poor minority girls, implies that only their sexuality is problematic and necessitates study
(Tolman, 1994).
By their lack of attention to men, empirical investigators reinforce
the cultural belief that male sexuality is biologically determined and uncontrollable. Therefore, to socially control adolescent sexuality, emphasis
must be placed o n the control of the female adolescent. T h i s biological
116
WELSH, RosTosky, rLVD K,.\\v,4C;L1cHI
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double standard is based o n cultural scripts that designate the female as
gatekeeper or final arbitrator of sexual behavior (Strouse 6r Fabes. 1987).
T h a t is, men are to pursue and women are to resist sexual behavior. It
follows that contraception, pregnancy, and childbearing are the concerns
of the woman (Chilman, 1990). One result is a large body of literature o n
adolescent girls' sexual behavior in regard to contraception, pregnancy, and
intercourse with little or n o empirical work o n girls' sexual desire, sexual
feelings, or sense of self as a sexual being or o n any aspect of boys' sexuality.
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Equation of Sexuality With Intercourse
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A second assumption of empirical discourse on adolescent sexuality
is that sexual behavior is synonymous with the act of heterosexual intercourse. T h e empirical literature casts a n ahistorical, static portrait of adolescent sexuality that begins with intercourse and ends in pregnancy (Weddle, McKenry, & Leigh, 1988). This orientation stems, in part, from
viewing adolescent girls' sexuality in terms of reproductive and health risks
and also is consistent with a number of psychological theories. Many theoretical frameworks have viewed sexual intercourse as a crucial developmental step for adolescents. In psychodynamic theory, for instance, first
intercourse is assumed to be a pivotal behavior that results in irreversible
change in status in relationship to parents (Chodorow, 1978; Freud, 1933,
1953). This view is reminiscent of deeply entrenched Western cultural
narratives concerning the significance of virginity, which is loaded with
expectations and symbolic meaning (Thompson, 1984).
According to social exchange theory (Homans, 1974; Thibaut & Kelley, 1978), sexual intercourse is considered to be of great significance partitularly for women in Western, patriarchial cultures because it involves
many costs (e.g., pain, guilt, fear, potential pregnancy) (Strouse & Fabes,
man, 1972; Koch, 1988; Schofield, 1973; Sorensen, 1973; Waterman &
Nevid, 1977), although women's reactions have become less negative than
they once were (Christensen & Gregg, 1970; Weis, 1983).
Feminist theory has noted that the focus on intercourse is evidence
of the male perspective that continues to dominate research in this area
(Koedt, 1994). From this perspective, there is n o sexuality prior to first
intercourse. Feminists also have pointed out that sexuality research has
traditionally assumed that male dominance is normal. O n e of the only
studies of adolescent dating couples found the extent a couple engaged in
affectionate sexual behaviors (e.g., holding hands and kissing) was associated with their commitment to their partner and to the relationship while
commitment was not related to whether the couple was having sexual
intercourse (Rostosky, Welsh, Kawaguchi, & Vickerman, 1999). T h e em-
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phasis on intercourse, of course, also comes out of the context of a society
that is not only male dominated, but also heterosexual dominated. T h e
behavior of intercourse does not have the s a ~ n esalience to a lesbian couple
that is does to a heterosexual couple.
Thus, adolescent sexuality takes place in the context of institutionalized heterosexuality, gendered power relations, and male sexual values,
such as the primacy of intercourse and its biological imperative. Evidence
of this narrow view of sexuality is found in the manner in which terms
such as sexual exploration, sexual activity, and sexual behavior are used interchangeably to designate the act of sexual intercourse (DiBlasio & Benda,
1992; Foshee Sr Bauman, 1992). O n e consequence of this assumption is
the almost complete lack of attention to the myriad of other sexual behaviors and feelings that adolescent girls experience.
Sexuality Is a n Individual Property
A third underlying assumption of empirical investigations of adolescent sexuality is that the construct of sexuality is completely a property of
[he individual. Empirical investigations have n o t examined t h e adolescent
couple as a unit of analysis. This is surprising in light of the fact that the
girls' sexual behaviors, which are of such great concern to both researchers
and policymakers, are occurring primarily in the context of dyadic relationships with boys. Yet researchers focus their attention exclusively on the
personal characteristics (e.g., pubertal developmental status, values, selfesteem, sexual attitudes) or environments of adolescenc girls (e.g., girls'
parental marital status, socioeconomic status (SES),family size, sexual behaviors of friends) that are associated with their decisions regarding sexual
intercourse and contraception. Sexual behaviors are typically occurring in
romantic relationships for adolescent girls, who, in general, tend to require
emotional involvement and commitment prior to having sexual intercourse
(Carroll, Volk, & ~ ~ d 1985;
e , Christopher & Cate, 1985; Coles & Stokes,
1985). Thus, this context serves as the initial context in which girls make
meaning of the sexual behaviors in which they are engaging. T h e communication (verbal and nonverbal) between the couple or the relationship
between the couple are not explored by researchers in attempts to understand adolescent sexuality. This may relate t o the individualistic orientation of Western culture in general, or, as we discussed earlier, in our designation of females as gatekeepers of sexual behavior.
In summary, these three assumptions: ( a ) that adolescent girls' sexuality is problematic; (b) that sexuality is synonymous with sexual intercourse; and (c) that sexuality is the property of the individual independent
of the relationship in which it is expressed, have provided t h e basis of the
existing framework for the study of adolescent girls' sexuality. These assumptions have, for the most part, determined the questions that researchWELSH, ROSTOSKY,A N D KA\Yii\GCCHI
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ers have asked. These questions have focused o n establishing which girls
are at risk, and how sexual exploration can be prevented or contrcjllecl so
that the unwanted outcomes, such as pregnancy and childbearing, can be
avoided. This pathology oriented perspective prevents an understanding of
adolescent girls' developing sexuality as normal and healthy. T h e perspective presented in this chapter is based on developmental theory and views
sexuality as an integral part of identity in girls and women. Signs of a shift
toward a more normative perspective have begun to appear.
Recent Shifts in Investigations of Adolescent Girls' Sexuality
Current cultural and theoretical perspectives of the meaning of sexuality to female adults have transitioned from an emphasis o n reproduction
to a view of sexuality as a healthy component of adult functioning and
personal identity (D'Emilio & Freedman, 1988; Foucault, 1978; Irvine,
1994; Weeks, 1981). This view has only recently been adopted as a lens
for investigating adolescent sexuality.
Two recent professional forums exemplify this transition (Feldman &
Paikoff, 1994; Irvine, 1994). Janice Irvine's (1994) recent edited book,
Sexual Cultures and the Construction of Adolescent Identities, presents a collection of articles that view adolescent sexuality from a normative perspective and posits that "sexual meanings, sexual practices, and adolescents'
sexual bodies are complicated social artifacts mediated by such influences
as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, class, and physical ability" (p.
vii). T h e authors of the articles take a social constructionist stance and
argue that adolescent sexualities cannot be understood outside the context
of cultural analysis.
In addition, at the 1994 meeting of the Society for Research on Adolescence, the primary mainstream arena for communication about research
pertaining to adolescents in this country, 4 hours (twice the typical time
allotment) were devoted to a symposium exploring "new perspectives on
adolescent sexuality." Three major points were emphasized at this symposium: researchers and others interested in adolescent sexuality need to (a)
promote greater understanding of adolescent sexuality in a normative context; (b) promote enhanced theoretical understanding of adolescent sexuality; and (c) understand individual differences in the meaning and experience of adolescent sexuality, particularly the influences of gender,
ethnicity, SES, peer cultures, and media exposure. Thus, in the past 2 years,
researchers' construction of adolescent sexuality has begun to change.
A FRAMEWORK FOR UNDERSTANDING ADOLESCENT
GIRLS' SEXUALITY
Contemporary investigations of adolescent sexuality can be enhanced
by using a framework that views adolescent sexuality from a normative
ADOLESCENT GIRLS' DEVELOPING SEXUALITY
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-qe oym s1ua3salopc u e q ~aualadmo:, ssal IOU ale sIua3salope aA!Ix! Allen
e!u!%!~ jo h l ! s ~ a ~ ! u ~n L I IIT. [email protected]\:
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activities (Cullen & Boykin, 1995). Studies such as this one support
the
-.
contention that sexuality falls on a developmental continuum and that it
is important to differentiate the adolescents for whom sexual behavior is
symptomatic of psychological disturbance from those for whom sexual behavior is associated with healthy, developmentally appropriate exp1or;ition.
In spite of empirical neglect of the normative development of ado,
lescent sexuality, developmental theorists have considered sexuality as a
healthy aspect of adolescent development (Erikson, 1968; Sullivan, 1953).
Erikson postulated that identity development is the primary developmental
task of adolescence. He, and others who have expanded o n his work (10sselson, 1994; Marcia, 1994), consider the integration of sexuality into one's
sense of who she is and how the social world views her as a major aspect
of identity. Sullivan's interpersonal theory considers the development of
intimacy and the capacity to integrate sexuality into intimate relationships
to be the primary task of adolescence. These developmental theories, in
spite of the pathological orientation of most empirical research, make intuitive sense in a developmental perspective.
A t least in the contexc of heterosexual adult married relationships
(the current holders of power in this country), there is little argument that
sexuality is a healthy aspect of these adults' lives. In fact, there is a fairly
large field of therapists who specialize in treating couples experiencing sexual difficulties, and the failure to express sexuality in the context of marriage is considered problematic by the general society. Yet, unlike almost
all other developmental processes (e.g., ego development, moral development, social development, cognitive development, physical development),
we do not understand how sexuality develops. It clearly is not something
that suddenly, almost miraculously, appears after marriage and was not experienced in any prior capacity.
We need a framework for viewing sexuality as a normal developmental process that would allow us to ask questions about developmental differences in t h e experience of sexuality. For example, d o early adolescents
experience sexuality in different ways than middle or late adolescents or
adults? O n e may suspect that sexuality serves different purposes at different
life stages. For example, early adolescents may experience their sexuality
as a means of becoming closer and establishing power among their same
gender, platonic friendships; whereas, sexuality may be a means for older
adolescents to experience connection with their romantic partners. These
type of questions can only be addressed with a normative framework for
understanding adolescent sexuality. Additionally, and ironically, working
from a normative framework allows greater light to be shed o n the pathology of sexuality. For example, asking how one differentiates between
adolescents whose sexual behaviors are expressions of normal, healthy exploration and those whose expressions of sexuality are symptomatic of severe psychological turmoil is a n important empirical question that would be
ADOLESCENT GIRLS' DEVELOPING SEXUALITY
12 1
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ing of sexuality to adolescents. It is hoped that the interesting implications
of these early studies will encourage others interested in adolescents' sexuality to incorporate analyses of adolescents' subjective understanding of
their sexuality into their research designs.
T h e Importance of Contextual and Personal Variables
.
Inspired by the pioneering theoretical work of Urie Bronfenbrenner
(1979, 1986), numerous developmental researchers have begun to realize
the importance of context and process in understanding human development. Bronfenbrenner's person-process-context model asserts that characteristics of individuals (person variables) and characteristics of the ecological environment in which individuals live (context variables) influence
processes that culminate in developmental outcomes. Researchers must
consider all components of this model-person
variables, context variables, and process-to understand any developmental phenomenon. In the
context of understanding adolescent girls' sexuality, this model implies that
personal characteristics (e.g., temperament, sexual orientation, physical
characteristics, values, religiosity, self-esteem, and psychosocial, biological,
and cognitive development) and ecological characteristics (e.g., culture,
ethnicity, family environment, peer environment, organized religion, and
the media) of girls will influence processes that impact on their sexual
behaviors and feelings, the subjective meanings that they ascribe to their
behaviors and feelings, and their sense of themselves as sexual beings.
Much of the research o n adolescent girls' sexuality has focused on
personal and ecological characteristics of girls that predict their sexual behaviors. The purpose for the large volume of literature dedicated to this
line of inquiry is to understand the factors associated with whether girls
engage in intercourse and contracepting behaviors in order to develop intervention programs for preventing intercourse or encouraging contraceptive behavior. Although, for the purposes of this chapter we are interested
in normative development, these pathology oriented studies can tell us
something about the personal and ecological factors that may influence
girls' developing sense of sexuality. \Ye focus now on three personal variables (pubertal development, ego development, and sexual orientation) and
three ecological variables (family context, cultural context, and romantic
relationship context) as examples of how these factors may be related to
adolescent girls' sexuality in a normative framework.
Puberty-Biological
Developmental Level
Girls who experience menarche earlier than their peers have been
found to engage in sexual intercourse sooner than their on-time and late
maturing peers (Morris, Mallin, & Udry, 1982; Zabin, Smith, Hirsch, &
ADOLESCENT GIHLS' DEVELOPING SESUALl7Y
Hardy, 1986). However, the impact of sex hormones o n the sexual behavior
of girls seellls to depend o n their social context. Specifically, although increased androgens are associated with increased interest in sex in adolescent girls, they are only associated with greater degrees of sexual behavior
in girls with permissive attitudes and more sexually active friends (Udry &
Billy, 1987). In addition, a variety of social factors are known to influence
girls' pubertal development and, thus, hormone levels. For example, girls
who are emotionally closer to their parents prior to puberty experience
menarche later than those who do not have as close an emotional bond
with their parents (Steinberg, 1988). Girls in father-absent homes also tend
to physically mature earlier than girls in two-parent families (Surbey, 1990).
Thus, the complex and recursive interaction between biology and environment clearly plays a role in understanding girls' sexuality and merits further
study. From a normative perspective, physical maturation should be more
broadly conceptualized than menarche, or hormone levels. T h e way that
girls understand the changes in their bodies, what feelings they have regarding these changes, and the meanings that they attribute to these
changes are all important aspects of puberty that merit further study. Evidence from existing research suggests that an adolescent girl experiences
puberty in a context of family and peer relationships. These relationships
intluence the meaning of puberty to the individual adolescent girl. T h e
processes by which this influence occurs are still largely unknown.
Developmental Level-Ego
Development
Loevinger (1976) describes the ego as a search for meaning, a frame
of reference, and a process of creating a coherent orientation toward the
world. According to Loevinger, ego development is a normal sequence of
stages involving an increasingly articulated view of the self and others.
Each stage is characterized by how the individual copes with impulses, the
nature of their interpersonal relationships, their conscious preoccupations,
and their cognitive style. Ego development, then, not only influences how
the adolescent makes decisions about sexual behaviors, but also influences
the meaning that the adolescent attaches to these behaviors and her feelings about them. Ego development also may influence adolescents' interpretation of parental, peer, and media messages about sexuality, as well as
how they negotiate whether or not to have sexual intercourse and whether
or not to use contraception.
Studies of ego development and adolescent sexuality, like most of the
research o n adolescent sexuality, has focused on the relationship of the
adolescent's ego development stage to a limited number of behaviors,
grouping participants according to these behaviors or their outcomes, for
instance, pregnant or parenting adolescents vs. non-pregnant or nonparenting adolescents (McIntyre & Saudargas, 1993; Oz, Tari, & Fine,
126
WELSH. ROSTOSKI', AND K;\LVAOUCHl
1992; Protinsky, Sporakowski, & Atkins, 1982; Romig & Bakken, 1990),
or contracepting adolescents vs. those who fail to contracept (Hart & Hilton, 1988; Hernandez & Diclemente, 1992; Resnick & Blum, 1985).
Results concerning the differentiation of pregnant and parenting adolescents from adolescents not pregnant or parenting based on ego development are conflictual. Some studies have found pregnant adolescents to
be functioning at lower levels of ego development than their peers (McIntyre & Saudargas, 1993; Protinsky, Sporakowski, & Arkins, 1952),
whereas others have found no relationship between ego development and
pregnancy or childbearing in adolescent girls (Romig & Bakken, 1990),
and still others have found that parenting adolescent girls had higher levels
of ego development than their non-parenting peers (Oz, L r i , & Fine,
1992). Results from studies examining adolescent girls' contraceptive behavior are less confusing. For the most part, these studies find that adolescent girls who have confronted and accepted their own sexuality and consistently use birth control to avoid unwanted pregnancies demonstrate
higher levels of ego development than any other category of adolescent
assessed, including those who abstain from sexual activity (Hart & Hilton,
1988; Resnick & Blum, 1985). These findings defy the current conceptualization of sexuality in adolescence as pathological. Both the sexually active, non-contracepting adolescent and the abstaining adolescent demonstrate lower ego development than sexually active, contracepting
adolescents. T h e methodology and design of the studies, which group adolescents by their sexual behavior and d o not take the meaning of the
behavior into account, d o not permic investigation of the potential mechanisms mediating the relationship between ego development and sexuality.
A normative framework for the study of adolescent sexuality aims to
discover t h e processes by which various sexual behaviors, feelings, and their
corresponding subjective meanings are derived in adolescence. Ego development, as o n e of several developmental trajectories, can serve as a frame
of reference for the study of sexuality as a developmental phenomenon.
For example, girls can be grouped by their level of ego development and
followed longitudinally to see how their developmental level influences
their subjective understanding of aspects of their sexuality.
Sexual Orientation
There is a striking lack of empirical investigations of lesbian adolescents' sexuality. This is not very surprising since sexual development has
n o t been the focus of research on girls' sexuality. In other words, since
lesbian adolescents d o not become pregnant as a result of their sexual
behavior nor does their sexual behavior put them at high risk for diseases
such as AIDS, they have not been targeted by researchers as participants
in research o n sexuality. Additionally, since lesbian adolescents are not
ADOLESCENT GIRLS' DEVELOPING SEXLlALl7Y
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have difficulty adjusting to their daughters' sexuality. It is perhaps not surprising that the incidence of many psychological disorders with strong family components such as eating disorders and depression increase for girls at
about the time their bodies begin puberty and their sexual feelings increase
(Burke, Burke, Rae, & Reiger, 1991).
Research has consistently found relationships between measures related to the family context and adolescent sexual behavior. For example,
daughters from single-parent families have consistently been found to have
sexual intercourse earlier than daughters from two-parent families (Forste
& Heaton, 1988; Hayes, 1987; Miller & Bingham, 1989; Newcomer &
Udry, 1987; Zelnick & Kantner, 1980). The mechanism mediating this
relationship, however, has not been thoroughly examined. Sexuality may
have different meanings to daughters in single-parent families. For example,
they may see their own mothers dating and, thus, may see sexuality as
more healthy, normal, or acceptable.
Parenting behavior and family relationships also have been associated
with girls' sexuality. Interestingly, parental discipline is curvilinearly related
to adolescents' sexual attitudes and behaviors. Sexual activity is lowest
among adolescents who perceive their parents to be moderately strict.
Home environments that are either very liberal or very conservative are
associated with greater adolescent sexual experience (Miller, McCoy, 01son, & Wallace, 1986). Although better mother-daughter communication
has been associated with more responsible sexual behavior in daughters in
some studies (Fox & Inazu, 1980; Furstenberg, Moore, & Peterson, 1985),
other studies have not found mother-daughter communication to be related
to the sexual behavior of daughters (Moore, Simms, & Bersey, 1986; Newcomer & Udry, 1984, 1985). O n e explanation for these inconsistent findings is that the impact of parent-daughter communication on girls' sexuality may be moderated by the content of the communication (Dyk,
Christopherson, & Miller, 1991). There is some evidence to support this
hypothesis. Girls who communicate more with their mothers and have
liberal mothers tend to engage in more sexual activity (Fisher, 1989),
whereas daughters of parents who hold traditional values and communicate
with their daughters about sex are less likely to have had sexual intercourse
(Moore, Peterson, & Furstenberg, 1986). Another finding that further corroborates the assertion that mothers are an important component in understanding the development of their daughters' sexuality is the strong
relationship that has been identified between mothers' sexual experiences
as teenagers and their adolescent daughters' sexual behavior (Newcomer
& Udry, 1984). Although these studies suggest the importance of the family
in adolescents' sexual behavior, they do not begin to examine the processes
or mechanisms mediating the associations nor d o they explore the nature
of how adolescent girls' sexual identity is influenced by their family expe-
A D O L E S C E N T G I R L S ' D E V E L O P I N G SEXU.4LlTY
C~tlruralContext
"Cultures infuse sexuality with meaning" (Irvine, 1994, p. 8). Sexual
feelings, behaviors, and motivations arc only gi\.en meaning, and thus,
experiential significance, by the cultures in which the adolescent has been
socialized. There are a variety of di~nensionsthat define the cultural communities that are i~nportancin influencing adolescents, including race, ethnicity, neighborhood, and the mainstream culcure of the country in which
the adolescent lives. Ethnicity will be considered in greater depth here.
Statistics indicate large ethnic differences in the sexual behaviors of
adolescent girls. For example, almost 40% of African American girls have
had sexual intercourse by the time they are 17 years old, wherens only 25%
of European American and 24% of Latina girls have had intercourse 1.).
age 17 (Hayes, 1987). T h e rates for Asian American girls are even lower,
as only about 30'30 report having intercourse prior to marriage (Moore &
Erickson, 1985). Differences also have been noted in the progression of
sexual behaviors. Whereas European American adolescents tend to engage
in a consistent progression of sexual behaviors beginning with kissing, followed by fondling, and then intercourse, African American adolescents
rend to move more quickly to intercourse, and spend less time, skip altogether, or engage in the foreplay activities after intercourse rather than
before (Smith & Udry, 1985). African American adolescent girls report
more romantic and soap opera fantasies about their sexual experiences than
European American girls (Mufilm, Rosenthal, Tolley, Peeler, & Dorko,
1992). T h e African American community also tends to be more tolerant
of sex outside of marriage, considers marriage to be less important, and
perceives greater tolerance of out-of-wedlock births than European American cultures (Moore, Nord. Sr Peterson, 1989; Moore, Simms, & Betsey,
1986). O n e study found that African Americans in a n all-Black high
school were more likely to report having sexual intercourse than were similar African Americans in an integrated school system (Furstenberg, Morgan, Moore, & Peterson, 1987). These studies d o not assess the meaning
that adolescents from different cultural communities ascribe to sexual intercourse, but it is reasonable to hypothesize that the vast differences in
these statistics reflect different cultural meanings, values, and beliefs about
sexuality and the conditions under which i t sl~ouldbe expressed.
Romantic Relationship Context
Few studies have taken a dyadic approach to investigating adolescenc
sexuality. This is surprising as dyadic relationships form the principal context in which girls express their sexuality and the initial context in which
[hey make meaning of their sexual behavior. As we discussed earlier, this
may relate to a Western tendency toward viewing i~~dividualness
rather
than relatedness as import;lnt (Gilligan, 1982) or to a cultural tendency
P
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1
coward viewing wornen as the gatekeepers uf sexual bellaviur (S~rouse&
Fabes, 1987).
The dating relationship has been found to have a strong impact o n
the initiation and frequency of sexual intercourse (Jorgensen, King, & Torrey, 1980; Leigh, Weddle, & Loewen, 1988; Miller, McCoy, & Olson, 1986;
Zelnick & Shah, 1983). In one retrospective study, college students reflected o n their first sexual partners. Students who reported having sex prior
to the age of sixteen reported less commitment to their partners (Faulkenberry, Vincent, James, & Johnson, 1987), implying that sex may have
different meanings for couples of different developmental levels. Two research teams working with college samples developed typologies of dating
couples and related the different types of couples to their sexual behavior
(Christopher & Cate, 1985; Peplau, Rubin, & Hill, 1977). The two studies
found similar types of couples and found that couples used sex in different
ways. For example, both research teams identified a type of couple who
reported engaging in sexual behaviors primarily for erotic, physically pleasurable motivations. Commitment, although described by these couples as
desirable, was not a crucial requisite for choosing to engage in sexual intercourse. Another type of couple described in these studies reported thac
they engaged in sexual intercourse for emotional reasons. These couples
tended to view commitment as an important ingredient to their sexual
behaviors. Both research teams also identified a type of couple who decided
not to engage in intercourse in spite of a strong commitment. These couples saw love as an insufficient reason to decide to engage in sexual intercourse. Thus, the function of sexual intercourse and commitment varied
for different couples.
We are currently in the process of conducting an observational study
of the relationship between adolescent couples' interactional processes and
their sexual behavior. A key component of this study involves obtaining
each member's subjective understanding of their interaction with their romantic partner. One goal of this project is to describe the processes that
occur in adolescent romantic relationships and to relate these processes to
adolescents' sexual behaviors. Another goal is to understand the meaning
of these sexual behaviors to each member and to determine the degree to
which these meanings are shared and negotiated by the couple. Some preliminary analyses suggest that adolescent dating partners differ in their
perceptions of their communications with each other, especially their views
of men's communications. Specifically, adolescent girls reported being more
aware of communications that reflected a dimension of power in their male
dating partner's interactions with them (Welsh, Galliher, Kawaguchi, &
Rostosky, in press). Certainly, future research needs to examine the impact
of this important context for the development of adolescent sexuality.
ADOLESCENT GIRLS' DEVELOPliVG SEXUALl7Y
Research o n adolescent girls' sexuality, although plentiful over the
p;lst two decades, has focused on identifying factors associated with when
girls engage in intercourse, whether they use conrraception, or how to
intervene to prevent intercourse or promote the use of contraception. We
have discussed the c ~ ~ l t u r context
al
and the underlying assumptions that
have created a context which facilitated this voluminous, but narrow perspective o n the development of girls' sexuality. Recently, 11 small movement
within the research community has begun that uses a wider lens with which
to view this developmental pheno~nenon.In this chapter, we have articulated a framework with which rcscarchers can attempt rc) unJerstand adolescent girls' developing sexuality. Key components of this framework include ( a ) viewing the development of girls' sexuality as a normative,
developmental process; ( b ) examining girls' subjective understanding of
their sexual feelings, behaviors, and their sense of themselves as sexual
beings; and ( c ) understanding the development of sexuality in context,
including both personal characteristics and ecological variables. In addition, we encourage a broadening of our construction of sexuality beyond
merely examining sexual intercourse. Our view of sexuality needs to encompass a wide variety of sexual behaviors and sexu;ll feelings and the
subjective meaning that adolescents ascribe to these feelings and behaviors.
LVe also musc broaden our construction of sexuality t o include the possibility of a relational component rather than viewing it exclusively as the
property of the individual girl.
A shift in perspective from viewing adolescent girls' scxual~tyas a
social problem to viewing adolescent girls' sexuality as a n integral part of
normal development has broad implications. Perhaps the most important
ramification of this evolving perspective is that it highlights the critical
need for research that examines rhe developmental trajectories of adolescent girls' sexn;llity. This examination must be sensitive to the complex
interrelationships between girls' developing sense of their sexuality and
their personal characteristics and ecological contexts. In other words, researchers need to ask how early adolescent girls experience their sexuality,
how this experience changes for young women over the course of their
adolescence, and how their personal ch;?racteristics and their ccological
contexts impact on their sexual behaviors, feelings, and their understanding
of themselves as sexual beings.
Oncc we have a sense of the different developmental pathways char
girls take in the development of their sexualities, policies and programs
can be developed to facilitate healthy sexual development. These policies
and programs aimed at fostering healthy sexual development would complement our current policies and programs that are aimed exclusively a t
preventing or controlling the undesired sequelae of adolescenr girls' sexual
behaviors. T h e facilitation of healthy exploration may require policymakers
and care providers to focus o n creating safe environments for adolescents to
explore and discuss their sense of themselves as sexual beings. These environments need to be sensitive to individual and cultural differences and
must include the people who are most meaningful to adolescent girls such
as their parents, clergy, teachers, counselors, and extended family. Adolescents benefit from the availability of appropriate role models with whom
they can explore their feelings. Fear, generated by the existing problemoriented approach, inhibits this sort of exploration by making adults afraid
to talk about sexuality with adolescents. Healthy exploration must extend
beyond public programs and into the lives of adolescent girls, involving
family members and other culturally significant people, and incorporate a n
appreciation for diverse cultures and contexts.
A normative perspective that views sexuality as a developmental process rather than exclusively a pathological symptom allows for researchers,
policymakers, clinicians, teachers, and others concerned about adolescents,
including adolescents themselves, to begin dialogues about the development of healthy sexuality. Such discourses in the professional literature and
with adolescents themselves will facilitate healthier sexual development by
not automatically pathologizing important aspects of girls' identity and experience. Ultimately and ironically, this shift in focus and the resulting
healthier developmental trajectories that may follow may also reduce the
prevalence of negative outcomes associated with the girls' expression of
their sexuality, which are too commonly experienced by adolescent girls
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