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Teenage Sexual Activity

LGBT youth tend to be sexually active at younger ages than their straight peers, often because they want to test or confirm their identity. This is not harmful, as long as they have good information on practicing safer sex and negotiating mutual consent.

 

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Conversations with teens about their sexuality should be approached with understanding, validation, and a focus on sex as a form of shared pleasure. It is every teen’s right to be properly heard and informed. The reality is that young people are sexual beings. Admitting this fact can be difficult, and even more so for parents of rainbow teens who are already considered to be abnormal. Teen sexuality is not categorically distinct from adult sexuality, yet due to the
developmental nature of adolescence, the way they experience their bodies and
their desires during this time period can have a great significance for the
rest of their lives. For instance, adolescence is a time when a sense of
self-concept is being developed, and many are anxious to find the right words
to describe who they are and what they like.

 

 
Today, when identity, particularly sexual identity, is given such sociopolitical importance in the media, there can be pressure for a young person to pick a label ASAP. However, as many are coming to realize, sexuality is fluid, which essentially means that the myriad of sexual possibilities that can exist within a single person may manifest as desires in different ways, in different contexts, with different people, at various points in time [31]. This is true for all people, but it’s especially unstable during the teenage years, and it is a phenomenon difficult to contain in any lexicon, however extensive. 

 

A recent Gallup poll shows that approximately one in five young people in Gen Z identify as somewhere inside the rainbow spectrum [32].

Below, then, is a portrait of some of the facets of sex and gender diversity in today’s teenagers, and how kids who break, in thought or deed, from the cis- and heteronormative guidelines created by their forefathers take the reins on their sexual futures. Youth growing up today will see more changes than earlier generations have seen in their lifetimes. With the legalization of gay marriage and more frequent representations of sexual and gender minorities in politics and media, the idea of “compulsory heterosexuality” is fast breaking down. In fact, a recent Gallup poll shows that approximately one in five young people in Gen Z identify as somewhere inside the rainbow spectrum [32].

Unfortunately, even now, heteronormative narratives are exclusive and often a barrier to comprehensive research on non-conforming communities. Oftentimes, our society assumes that sexual expression or activity at an early age causes psychological damage and indicates unhealthy sexual behaviors in the future. This is simply not true. This lack of understanding and conversation about rainbow youth makes it more difficult for them to discuss their interest in alternative sexualities and genders openly and safely. Therefore, it is of even greater importance that sexual pleasure and freedom to self-identify are prioritized for them. Here are answers to a few common questions parents have in regards to their rainbow child’s sexuality.

 

Click a Question Below for Research Based Answers

The ability to discuss sex and pleasure in a free and open way has been shown to lead to safer sex practices and healthier sex lives [1,11,12). It is normal for young people to have sexual experiences; as a society, we should hope and see to it that these experiences are positive. Multiple sources put the average age of first intercourse for LGBTQ teens between 14 and 16 years old, with the likelihood of sexual activity increasing each year [14,6,9]. According to one study, the average age of first intercourse for gay males is 14.5, though it is not uncommon for it to occur even earlier, with 19% of participants (n=424) reporting their sexual debut prior to age 13 [34].

Sexual minority teens are understood to be more sexually explorative than their heterosexual peers [3,7]. For example, in a 2018 article released in The Journal of Primary Prevention, it was found that 62% of self-identifying gay and bisexual high school students had had sex at least once, compared to findings from Pediatrics in Review [2013] which reported that 46% of all adolescents, regardless of sexual orientation, had been sexually active [5,1]. Why this is the case is not certain, though it may be due to the fact that sexual minority youth are more willing to cross social boundaries, being already considered non-normative, or it may be a reflection of their wish to confirm for themselves or concretize their particular sexuality, which they don’t see represented as often in mainstream media [3].

There are contradictory reports concerning the sexual activity of trans youth. Some report that trans youth have more experience, like their LGBQ peers, while others report that trans students had lower sexual activity rates than both their heterosexual and LGBQ peers [10,14]. Perhaps it is the case that certain trans youth are more sexually active than their heterosexual peers, while others decide to take it slower. The latter might stem from the fact that many trans people have difficulty finding pleasure in sex due to their discomfort with their bodies and their gender dysphoria. Additionally, asexual individuals are more likely to identify as transgender and non-binary than non-asexual individuals [26].

Even though the current state of research cannot entirely support either claim, trans students—especially BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) trans-youth—are some of the most at-risk populations within the rainbow [7,14]. This makes the understanding and acceptance of trans people’s sexuality early in life of utmost importance. Data suggests that LGBTQ students are sexually assaulted at a rate more than five times that of their heterosexual peers [9]. Ignorant peers sometimes assume all gay or bi-sexual individuals are obsessed with sex and therefore “available.” Many rainbow students have internalized the idea that harassment is an inevitable consequence of their identity and that they are primarily to blame for bringing it upon themselves. Additionally, rainbow teens who are closeted will have difficulty explaining their situation to school staff and others who could defend them; stigma against sex and gender minority youths may induce in them a fear that they won’t be believed or taken seriously [22,23, Bullying and Mental Health]

Talking about sexual activity in relation to sexual orientation can be tricky. For starters, same-sex sexual experiences do not necessarily indicate homosexuality as an identity; being cisgender does not indicate heterosexuality; and the gender assigned at birth does not indicate the gender with which one may come to identify [1]. Moreover, sexual orientation, sexual identity, and sexual behaviors often do not line up in expected ways.

One study of teens in Massachusetts found that although 1.1% of them identified as some form of LGBTQ, 4.5% reported that their main sexual attractions were to peers of the same sex [1]. This shows a teen’s attractions do not always entail willingness to adopt a label of identity for oneself. Additionally, many youths take on an LGBTQ identity before having any same-sex experiences [27,28]. This needs to be taken into account when teaching teens about sexual pleasure and sexual health.

Another important thing to consider when discussing the sexual experiences of rainbow youth is the common misconception that sex necessarily involves some form of penetration. Most research on rainbow sexuality considers sexual debut to be indicated by penetrative sexual activity whether that be oral, vaginal, or anal [2,4,5). However, a broader definition will help expand conversations about sex in general. It is important for young people to understand that sex has many colors, shapes, and sizes and can even be so simple as touching each other’s genitals. This perspective will help give due consideration to forms of sexual activity that do not fit the majority heterosexual norm of penetrative sex.

Research released by the American Academy of Pediatrics uncovered that the most common forms of sexuality for teens, both heterosexual and same-sex, are sexual fantasy and solo masturbation [1]. Both activities provide great opportunity to explore their own bodies and sexual interests in a safe way. Sexual fantasy can also include activities like role play and dirty talk. Mutual masturbation as a shared activity is a prime example of a safer sex practice that is beneficial to both parties.

One study of the nature of the sexual debut of LGBTQ youth ages 10-17 surveyed only their participation in penile-anal, penile-vaginal, and oral sex [13]. Due to the fluid nature of gender and sexual orientation (specifically amongst bisexual, queer, gender-nonconforming, and trans teens) we do see a presence of penile-vaginal sex within various sexual minority communities, although this sexual activity is more normative amongst heterosexual teens. In 2017 it was reported that over 39% of heterosexual teens began sexual exploration with vaginal intercourse compared to 33% of other teens [21]. The same study found that 17% of heterosexual teens made their sexual debut with an activity other than vaginal intercourse compared to 28% of LGBTQ teens [21]. Anal sex is something that becomes more common as teens grow older. There is also data reporting kissing and genital petting amongst LGBTQ youth [14].

It is important to note that due to gender dysphoria, about half of sexually active trans youth avoid exposure and touching of their own genitals when participating in sexual activity, though this information is often underexamined due to the fact that much of the discussion of teen sexuality centers primarily around “risk behavior” [14,1,5). Penetrative sex can lead to pregnancy and has a higher likelihood of spreading STIs, but it is not the only form of sex that younger people are practicing. Even if your son or daughter tells you they haven’t “had sex,” that does not mean that they have not explored other non-penetrative forms of intimate touch that they may not understand as meeting the definition of “sex.” Neglect of erotic touch is a large deficit within the focus of adolescent sexuality research and impedes the ability for healthy and thorough conversations about various forms of sexual activity with parents.

Other prevalent forms of sexual activity include sexting and online sexual encounters. The use of the internet as a medium of sexual activity is reported to be higher amongst rainbow youth than their same-aged heterosexual peers [3]. This activity can include sexual conversations and visual exchanges: video, text, or photo [3]. The internet has become a huge source of connection for sexual minority groups since its inception. Not only is it a source of sexual activity and connection, but it also plays a key role in rainbow youth meeting friends and potential romantic partners. However, you should be aware that even “sexting” carries the risk that intimate photos could be shared with third parties. Some teens under 18 have even been prosecuted for distributing child pornography after they sent an intimate photo to another underage teen [35,36]. Pornography and Sexting

How do sexual minority youth typically find each other for sexual and romantic relationships? Does the internet play a bigger role in dating for rainbow teens than for those who only seek opposite-sex coupling? In fact, there is limited research on where and how rainbow teens meet each other or their partners, but data suggests that the same-sex partners of sexual minority youth are often a few years older than they are. Often they meet online, but in other cases they are already close friends before their first sexual encounter [3]. Frequently, their partners are people with whom they have grown up and to whom they have become attached in a platonic way; one study found that 63% of LGBTQ youth participants characterized their first partner as a friend [13].

To our knowledge, online forums are the most researched and recognized spaces where rainbow teens meet each other and their partners. According to an important 2018 study, 52.5% of adolescent males who have sex with males (n=105) have used adult “hookup apps” to meet partners for sex, and in a national study of LGBTQ sexual behavior, 67% of gay and queer adolescents had met their most recent partner online [33,3]. Partners found online were more likely to be older and have a history of STIs [3]. Therefore, although there are risks to be aware of, the internet and gay dating apps are still a tremendously important source of community [16].

Some of the most popular online dating forums for rainbow teens are Grindr, Tinder, Bumble, Chappy (Bumble’s gay counterpart), Scruff, OKCupid, and Hinge. The truth is, that the popularity of online dating apps is constantly changing and most of them have an age restriction of 18+. This certainly does not stop teens from joining these apps; many underaged users will include a disclaimer about their true age in their bio so as to be able to reach out to other rainbow teens their age, but others do not due to fear of being kicked off the platform.

Due to the ever-changing nature of minority-specific apps, straight-oriented apps continue to be a space for rainbow teens to meet each other as well. Instagram is also a very large source of connection. A teen’s Instagram page is almost an extended version of an online dating profile and if their account is public, teens can easily message young people of similar interests in order to make connections. This comes down to their ability to identify themselves in their bio and spot like-minded teens.

With so many online interactions, inevitably many will lead to in-person encounters. The inverse is true as well, as teens who meet people they are attracted to at school will often reach out to them through their online profile. Platforms like Instagram and Snapchat are very popular for that purpose and can help shyer kids feel more comfortable when taking the first step.

While the internet offers queer teens a host of new opportunities, the data on their sense of community still paints a dreary picture. For instance, in a recent statewide study of middle and high school students in Colorado, it was found that LGBTQ students were less likely to participate in extracurricular and school-related activities than their heterosexual peers, and furthermore it showed that LGBTQ students had a smaller community of people to confide in within their schools than their straight counterparts [9]. This could indicate potential difficulties in finding sexual and romantic partners at school and makes conversations and community building at home even more important.

“Coming out” or publicly adopting a sexual identity, can be a monumental moment in the lives of many rainbow teens. Others, however, may not view it as the most significant event. As bisexual writer and actor Charmee Taylor put it, “There is a myth perpetuated within mainstream media that coming out is the pinnacle of the queer journey, the ending to a neatly wrapped narrative” [15]. 

However, the reality is far less simple. For one thing, the concept of “coming out” invokes an image of a butterfly exiting a cocoon; first inside, then outside. Yet coming out is often incremental, beginning with family, friends, teachers, and so forth. When people decide to become open about their sexual or gender identity, it’s atypical for everybody in their lives to suddenly “know” that they are queer at the exact same time.

Even after every person in a teen’s life whom they know and interact with on a frequent basis knows their chosen identity, they may still feel a need to come out an indefinite number of times more; to new friends, teachers, doctors, etc. As we live in a world where people are heterosexual until proven gay, queer people have new closets built around them almost everywhere they go.

Moreover, the “coming out” narrative has another assumption attached to it that often does not match the actual experiences of rainbow teens, and that is the notion that the inner sexual self is always and wholly known by the subject, and communicable to others with perfect transference. However, first a range of sexual feelings and thoughts need time to simmer inside before they can easily lend themselves to language.

Research conducted regarding all LGBTQ populations found that the mean age of self-identification with a specific label was around 16 years [7]. However, the same study found that the internal awareness of non-heterosexual attraction often begins as early as 9 or 10 [7]. One study of trans youth found that self-identification as “transgender” (as opposed to merely feeling like the other sex) was associated with the onset of puberty and the coming out process was most often associated with the developmental years of 14 and 15 [17].

Parents of sexual minority youth whose sexual identity or orientation is easier to hide may be unaware of their child’s sexual identity. This is more difficult for trans or gender-nonconforming youth, since much of living an adopted gender is dependent on potential changes in appearance. In those cases, parents will have to confront and discuss their child’s true sexual and gender identity [12]. There is data to support that gender-variant identities within adolescence tend to translate into transgender identification later in life [7], but not always; in a substantial percentage of cases, gender dysphoric teens and pre-teens come to terms with their natal sex, but identify as gay or lesbian. Gender expression is not constant throughout childhood development and seeing variance in a child’s gender expression is normal [7]. Gender-Variant Youth.

Inconsistent condom use is more common amongst rainbow youth than their heterosexual counterparts [3,5]. Factors that increase and decrease the use of condoms in sexual activity vary based on the type of sexual activity, relationship to the partner, racial background, religious background, education, and parental influence [13]. 

Multiple resources point to consistent condom use being associated with supportive parental relationships and positive communication regarding condoms [12,13]. Religious and racial backgrounds that have historically conservative sexual beliefs make homophobia and heterosexism more prevalent in teens’ sexual development process. This can make healthy discussion of sex with teens difficult, and commonly leads to inconsistent condom use [13]. Health education in schools often avoids the topic of homosexual sex altogether. Sex Education in Schools.

One study found that bisexual females were the most likely amongst their rainbow peers to discuss condom use and also reported more consistent condom use than other identities [3]. This shows a positive correlation between comfort in discussing prevention methods and the use of them. Another study regarding gay adolescent males reported that about half of the youth having penile-anal sex, one of the riskiest activities, were not using condoms [5]. Studies show that anywhere from 22-48% of gay or bisexual teens have had or are having anal sex [3,21]. Amongst trans youth in one study, only one-third of trans adolescents reported consistent condom use during receptive anal sex. This behavior was reported with casual, non-relationship partners. Less than half of the same population reported consistent condom use with their main partner [10]. These findings are worrisome.

With regards to condom use during oral sex, the only large format research regarding LGBTQ youth focuses on oral-penile sex. Female condoms, or oral dams, have been little researched and seem to be little used. This does not mean that LGBTQ youth are not using condoms during oral sex; one study found that 8.9% of gay men ages 10 to 17 had used a condom during first oral-penile sex [13]. The majority of teens are not using protection for oral sex, which involves some risk, but not nearly as much as having anal or vaginal sex without a condom. Vaginal-penile sex is an area of research that has gained some attention in comparative condom use of heterosexual and bisexual youth. About one third of heterosexual female youth, compared to up to two-thirds of LGB youth reported inconsistent condom use when having vaginal-penile sex [3].

Sexual minority youth are at higher risk in part because sex education is not built to serve them [18]. This makes it even more important for parents to talk to their children about condoms at home. It is important to normalize the use of condoms so that they become a more intrinsic part of a teen’s sexual experience. If you know that your child is having sex, it might be helpful to figure out a safe way for them to obtain condoms and, when appropriate, contraception. Risk only comes from a lack of protection and a lack of protection comes from a lack of education and resources: two things that parents have the ability to provide for their kids. 

No. The ability to develop healthy sexual relationships and habits at an earlier age only gives a teen more tools to navigate sex safely later in life [1]. However, this only holds true if it is combined with quality sex education, whether it be formally in school, or from their parents and family at home. There is no evidence that supports the idea that abstinence-only sex education delays sexual activity [1].

Before we begin blaming unhealthy sexual behaviors in adulthood on sexual experimentation by teens, we must first be critical of the sex education that they are receiving and how insufficiently it prepares them for their sexual lives. Sex education today includes little to no information on gay sex and non-penetrative forms of sex and can lead to internalized stigma on the part of rainbow youth. As it stands, sex education features little discussion of pleasure, particularly with regard to how sexual minorities enjoy sex [19,18]. Sex Education in Schools.

Furthermore, broad-based population studies (the best kind, as opposed to limited studies of clinical samples) show that adolescent sexual experiences do not affect a young person’s ability to adjust to their sexual lives and identity later in life [24,25]. Many who experiment with same-sex relations as teens grow up to become heterosexual, and many who had heterosexual relations as teens later come out as gay or lesbian [29,30]. A comparative study from 2017 demonstrates that the presence of same-sex sexual activity amongst adolescent males did not affect their ability to be equally well-adjusted in terms of their mental health, happiness, and careers as those who waited until adulthood to have their first gay experience [20]. With information like this available, we must understand that it is only beneficial to have open communication and judgement-free conversations with our children about sex. We want them to have positive experiences that they can learn from and emulate later in life. This all starts with creating a safe space for them to thrive and grow up in.

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[3] Ybarra, M. L., & Mitchell, K. J. (2016). A National Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual (LGB), and Non-LGB Youth Sexual Behavior Online and In-Person. Archives of sexual behavior, 45(6), 1357–1372. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-015-0491-7

[4] Kann, L., McManus, T., Harris, W. A., Shanklin, S. L., Flint, K. H., Queen, B., Lowry, R., Chyen, D., Whittle, L., Thornton, J., Lim, C., Bradford, D., Yamakawa, Y., Leon, M., Brener, N., & Ethier, K. A. (2018). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance – United States, 2017. Morbidity and mortality weekly report. Surveillance summaries (Washington, D.C. : 2002), 67(8), 1–114. https://doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.ss6708a1

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[23] RAINN. (n.d.). LGBTQ Survivors of Sexual Violence. https://www.rainn.org/articles/lgbtq-survivors-sexual-violence

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