Adolescence (from Latin adolescere: to grow up) is the period of life between puberty and adulthood. In the last several centuries, this period has become rather extended, but throughout most of human history it was relatively short. Indeed, today there are still "primitive" peoples in many parts of the world to whom an adolescence in our modern sense is completely unknown. Instead, they use so-called initiation rites to confer the status of adults on their children as soon as they reach puberty.
Puberty is, in essence, a process of physical maturation which produces the secondary sexual characteristics and leads to fertility. In contrast, adolescence is better described as a process of psychological and social maturation which leads to full citizenship. Puberty is a biological phenomenon, adolescence a cultural one. Puberty normally begins in a person's early teens and ends a few years later. Adolescence begins with puberty and today may very well last a decade or more.
Many people are unaware of the fact that even in our own Western culture things have not always been this way. For example, in medieval Europe boys and girls reached legal adulthood fairly early in life. Most ancient Middle European tribes declared their children adults at the age of 12, the Angles and Saxons even at the age of 11. A 13th-century German legal code (Schwabenspiegel) still allowed males of 14 and females of 12 to marry without their father's consent.
In order to understand these laws and customs properly, we have to remember that they were tailored to the needs of a largely agrarian culture, that the average life span was very short, and that young and old shared in practically all daily activities. Under these circumstances, there was no need for an extended special period of transition from childhood to adulthood. Indeed, the social contrast between a child and an adult was much less pronounced than it is today. Children were not sentimentalized as weak, pure, and innocent, but simply worked alongside their parents and older brothers and sisters as best they could. In this manner, they gradually adopted adult attitudes and assumed adult responsibilities.
We have mentioned earlier that the beginning of the Modern Age brought a growing awareness of generational differences. Children became more "child-like", and adults more "serious". To be an adult now meant to be able to control oneself, to submit to a greater degree of discipline than ever before. The specialization and mechanization of labor in the developing cities made it necessary to find new, exact methods of measuring time. Fixed schedules for work and leisure had to be established. Young people were trained in a craft or business according to a certain timetable, or they were sent to a school with a definite curriculum. The number of years spent in such training increased. The opportunities for individual early achievement dwindled. Once special schools for the young had been founded, they provided a temporary escape from the demands of real life, a closed environment with values of its own. Students had many duties but few rights, and, for a long time, they remained dependent on their parents and teachers. Beginning with the 16th century, childhood emerged as a special, protected period of life, in the 18th century, a second such period began to be recognized—adolescence.
Thus, within a few centuries the social attitudes toward young people underwent a dramatic change. This change was particularly obvious in the area of sex, as we can learn from a comparison between two important educational books of the 16th and 18th centuries: Colloquia Familiaria by Erasmus of Rotterdam (1522) and Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762). Erasmus wrote the Colloquia for his six-year-old godson "in order to teach him good Latin and to educate him for the world." The text therefore deals with all sorts of everyday experiences and problems, including sexual ones. There are detailed and very frank discussions of sexual desire, sexual pleasure, and sexual intercourse, conception, pregnancy, birth, marriage, divorce, prostitution, and venereal disease. The language is straightforward and sometimes humorous. Sex appears as a natural and pleasant part of life which must be approached with understanding and common sense.
For Rousseau, on the other hand, who sets out to describe an Utopian, ideal education, sex is a highly problematical, potentially dangerous subject. He therefore no longer writes for children, or even for their parents, but for professional educators. Even so, his language is evasive and ambiguous, important points are deliberately left unexplained, and all possible negative connotations of sex are heavily emphasized. In contrast to Erasmus, Rousseau clearly distinguishes between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. In his "modern" view, children must be kept completely ignorant about sex, and adolescents must learn as little as possible. Only direct and persistent questions are to be answered, and then the utter seriousness of the subject must be stressed. The longer a young person's "innocence" can be preserved, the better. Youth must be protected from sexual knowledge, and his book therefore tells enlightened adults how to provide such protection.
We have to realize, of course, that Rousseau, like Erasmus before him, merely expressed the spirit of his times. The new ideal was the "pure", asexual, idealistic adolescent who "saved his strength" for the somber duties of adult life. It is no coincidence that, early in the century, the first medical pamphlets describing the dangers of masturbation had appeared in England and Germany. Indeed, a few years before the publication of Emi!e, a respected Swiss physician by the name of Tissot had joined the campaign, which then quickly spread all over the Western world, leading to unprecedented
excesses of adult hysteria over the "moral and physical corruption of youth." In this climate of growing prudery, young people soon lost their right not only to sexual information, but also to any and all sexual activity. (For further details, see "Types of Sexual Activity—Sexual Self-stimulation.")
It has to be stressed, however, that at first these developments affected only the children of the middle classes. The aristocracy and the lower classes, such as farmers, workers, soldiers, and domestic servants, held on to their traditional sexual practices and attitudes. It was not until after the industrial revolution, when the middle classes became socially dominant, that their way of life became a model for all of society. Even today, there are still social groups within our culture which do not accept this model. In the United States, these groups are often defined by their ethnic origin. For example, the Indians on their reservations, the Blacks in the urban ghetto, the Eskimos in Alaska, and the Polynesians on various American Pacific islands all have their own sexual morality and their own view of adolescence. (To a lesser extent, such cultural differences can also be found among the various white ethnic groups.) Furthermore, in recent years many members of the middle class have "dropped out" and gone back to the historically older "lower-class" values.
Nevertheless, generally speaking, the sexual laws and customs in most industrial societies reflect the needs, hopes, and fears of the middle classes that emerged with the beginning of the Modern Age. Thus, adolescence has become accepted as a rather long special period of adjustment in which young people must be protected not only against the harsh realities of life, but also against their own immaturity. Adult rights, privileges, and responsibilities cannot be bestowed upon the individual all at once in a particular ceremony, but have to be acquired gradually over many years. Indeed, some people may not become fully independent adults until their middle or late thirties.
In the United States, the first small step toward adult status is now usually taken at the age of 12 when children lose the right to special price reductions and are treated as fully grown customers by movie theaters, museums, zoos, bus companies, airlines, and so on. The next change in status occurs four years later. At the age of 16, boys and girls can obtain a driver's license, and they escape many of the restrictions of the child labor laws. In some states, they also gain the legal competence to consent to sexual intercourse. Another significant change occurs at the age of 18. For females, this is the "age of consent" in most states. Males may be drafted into the armed forces. (This rule remains in effect even if the military draft is temporarily suspended during peace time.) In most states, both sexes may marry without the consent of their parents. They also win the right to vote and to run for public office. In fact, in most states they are now considered adults for most legal purposes. However, in a number of states they have to wait until the age of 21 before they are allowed to drink alcohol or enter a bar or night club where alcohol is served. Even then, they may not yet become full adults in the functional sense. For example, as college students they may still be financially dependent on their parents. In fact, if they choose to enter a highly specialized profession, they may remain unable to support themselves for another decade or more.
Thus, we see that, depending on their social background and their aims in life, young people in our culture may not achieve complete legal and economic independence until 5, 10, or even 20 years after puberty. To a great extent, this delay is, of course, unavoidable because of the growing complexity of the modern world. It can even be seen as beneficial because it allows for a gradual adjustment to the many demands of today's adult life. However, it also creates many serious problems, including sexual ones.
Our official morality restricts sexual intercourse to married partners, but physically mature males and females often are not allowed, cannot afford, or do not want to get married before they are well into their twenties. As a result, they are forced to go through a difficult period of sexual frustration. Fortunately, in the meantime, the antimasturbation campaign of the last two centuries has lost most of its impact, but premarital coitus is still largely condemned. Thus, for many adolescents masturbation is the only available outlet. Some experiment with various "petting" techniques, and others turn to homosexual contacts as a temporary substitute.
There can be no doubt that the sexual oppression of the young creates much genuine misery. Contemporary scholars and scientists have clearly demonstrated that, on the average, males reach the height of their sexual responsiveness during their teens, and that it is then virtually impossible for them to go without some sort of regular sexual activity. An adolescent female may find it somewhat easier to remain abstinent, but her chances for sexual satisfaction in marriage are greatly improved if she experiences orgasm earlier in her life.
Thus, modern research has rediscovered what had always been obvious to former, less repressive ages. Indeed, as Alfred C. Kinsey reemphasized decades ago, many of the great romances of world literature celebrate the passionate love affairs of the young. Eros and Psyche, Acis and Galatea, Pyramus and Thisbe, Daphnis and Chloe, Floire and Blancheflor, Aucassin and Nicolette, Romeo and Juliet—all of these famous lovers were underage according to modern standards. Margarethe was a teenager when she fell in love with Faust, and Helen was only twelve years old when she left her husband Menelaos and followed Paris to Troy. Narcissus was sixteen "when many youths and many maidens sought his love". Ganymede was even younger when Zeus made him his favorite. Hyacinth was an adolescent when Apollo and Zephyros quarreled over his possession, and so was Hylas when Hercules abducted him from his parents. In short, as every student of cultural history knows, Western mythology and poetry abound with references to such youthful "objects of love", but if any of them came to life today, they would simply be considered juvenile delinquents, and their lovers would be imprisoned for the "corruption of a minor".
One can only hope that, in the future, our society will abandon these negative and unrealistic attitudes. It is a good sign that a growing number of adults already accept and defend the sexual rights of adolescents. Even some public and private schools, foundations, and health agencies have dropped the traditional pretenses and now take a certain amount of adolescent sexual activity for granted. In many parts of the country, young people also receive an adequate sex education and are given effective help with their personal sexual problems. (See also "Contraception", "Abortion", and "Venereal Diseases".) Nevertheless, in spite of such recent progress, there are still many males and females for whom adolescence is the most trying period in their lives. (For a more detailed discussion of these issues, see "The Sexually Oppressed.")
The following pages first briefly summarize the physical changes of puberty and then describe some of the ways in which adolescents in our society may learn to express themselves as sexual beings.