The term ‘sexual awakening’ has been around for decades, but it is only recently that researchers are beginning to look at what happens in teenagers’ minds when they think about sex.
A new study shows that teens are primed by their parents to be ‘good’ and to ‘act like a good person’, regardless of their sexual orientation, a finding that could help guide how society addresses the problem of teen pregnancy.
In the study, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, and the University at Buffalo in New York used brain scans to look for changes in the brains of young people when they considered sex.
They found that while a teenager is not sexually aroused by sex, he or she is ‘primed’ by a sense of responsibility for sexual activity and the importance of condom use.
While it is not possible to measure a teenager’s sexual orientation for the purposes of this study, previous research has shown that some adolescents are attracted to people of their own sex, while others are not.
The findings of the new study are published in the journal Science Advances.
It suggests that parents and educators could be more effective in addressing teen sexual health than simply encouraging young people to behave more sensually.
‘The goal here is to get parents to talk to teens about their own sexual desires, and to start conversations about what it means to be a good and a good-hearted person,’ says senior author David Sperling, a professor of psychology at UC San Diego.
The study involved studying more than 500 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18, as well as a control group of 100 heterosexual adolescents.
Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look into the brain activity of the participants while they were thinking about sex, and asked them to rate how attractive they thought their partners were, how much they would like to have sex, how sexually active they would be, and how sexually satisfied they would find themselves.
‘Our results show that these images and questions were not merely about whether or not the participants wanted to have or not to have a relationship with a partner, but about the expectations of sexual acts that adolescents are expected to adhere to when they are thinking about or acting on sexual questions,’ Sperlings said.
The researchers then examined the brain scans of the adolescents to find the areas of the brain that were active when they thought about the question of sex.
While the scans showed that the areas that were activated were more active when thinking about the sexual attraction of a partner or feeling the desire to have sexual activity, these same regions were not active when the researchers were asking adolescents to rate their sexual feelings, and their thoughts about their partners.
These findings suggest that parents may need to start talking to teens on sexual topics to ensure that they are being sensitive and encouraging, says Sperlin.
‘Parents and teachers need to be more proactive in how they discuss and promote sexual topics, especially if teens are engaging in behaviors that have not yet been explicitly considered problematic,’ Saffron said.
‘It is crucial that parents learn about sexual desires and sexual experiences from teens, rather than from a therapist or therapist-led class.’