Sexual Empowerment for Teens
When it comes to maturing and moving from childhood to adolescence, one of the key changes teens experience is a budding sexuality. Teenagers face the exciting - but at times stressful - opportunity to explore their sexual feelings, attractions, and orientation. There’s so much information about sexuality and sexual health coming at teens from all angles, though - from the mass media’s use of sexuality as a marketing gimmick and threat/danger to the often restrictive views pushed by parents, teachers/sex ed, religion, and culture. Much of sexuality is shrouded in guilt, shame, confusion, and social pressure, especially for teens. Let’s undo some of that.
A girl’s sexuality and fertility is not something to be ashamed of or something that can be dictated to her. It is something individual and unique that requires deep personal introspection and exploration, and that can absolutely be developed in a healthy and fulfilling way. Forget what pop culture says and even what peers dictate. A teen’s sexuality is hers alone to determine and define. From flirting to kissing and beyond, sexuality is a new frontier for teens that can be one of the most exciting and rewarding journeys on the path to adulthood. Sexuality incorporates all parts of our beings - the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual - and translates into every aspect of our lives.
For teenage girls, it’s so important to be self-aware - of their own desires, comfort levels, and limitations - in order to cultivate a healthy sexuality. Teens are still developing in important ways, including the maturation of certain regions of the brain such as the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex and the hypothalamus. These areas of the brain are important for self-control and risk analysis. Hormones are fluctuating and emotions are high. Some new sexual desires or longings may even be slightly alarming to teens, and they may instinctively try to suppress or hide these feelings. But despite this influx of emotions and uncertainty, teenage libido and sexuality is completely natural, and can be developed and expressed in healthy ways.
A good base of sex education is an essential place to start. Just as important is for a teen to know how to decide what she wants, what her values are, and how to engage in self-reflection. The development of the skills required for effective communication, regulation of emotions, and establishing a sense of self-confidence are all of utmost importance in teens’ sexual health and maturation.
First Things First: Masturbation
While in some religions and cultures masturbation is viewed in a negative light, engaging in the act of self-pleasuring has physical and emotional health benefits. It enhances sexual self-discovery and self-knowledge, releases sexual tension or frustration, provides relief from menstrual pain, is a form of safe sex, and helps manage anxiety, stress, and mood.
Teenage girls should be comfortable with masturbation before engaging in partner sex, as this is the best way to get to know your body and your unique sexual preferences. If you can’t bring yourself pleasure, it will be quite difficult to receive pleasure from your partner. Let go of a focus on orgasm during masturbation, and simply focus on self-pleasure. Explore different techniques and take your time! If this feels uncomfortable to you or you’re not sure where to start, OMGYes is a great resource.
Defining Good Sex
Good sex is:
free of high expectations
pleasurable (hot, intimate, fun, etc.)
something that makes you feel good about yourself and desired - it should never make you feel worse (for example, due to performance issues, your partner not treating you well, coercion, pressure, obligation, or manipulation)
Enhancing to creativity, excitement, and enthusiasm
A powerful way to communicate with your partner
realistic – good sex often takes work, communication, and trial & error - it may not always be everything you expect, so let go of any overly-romantic assumptions
Accepting that making mistakes as part of the process
Steps to being a supportive partner include being:
Secure with one’s sexuality (and free from embarrassment)
Sensitive vs. selfish
Willing to push boundaries (take risks)
Communicative and aware of the importance of seeking consent
This is, of course, different for everyone, but these are some good base guidelines.
Consensual Sex is Positive
Having sex that is wanted by both partners and that is safe and comfortable can lead to many benefits. It can increase one’s sexual and non-sexual self-esteem, increase confidence and empowerment, promote openness and acceptance, foster intimacy, love, and bonding, and help to create a healthy relationship.
Why People Have Sex
Every person will have a desire to have sex for a different reason. It is dependent on the situation, partner, age, and stage of life. There are many reasons beyond wanting to experience sexual pleasure, relieve sexual tension, or reproduce. Other motivators include wanting to express love and connection, wanting to feel desired or valued by a partner, escalating the depth of a relationship, curiosity or the seeking of new experiences, marking a special occasion for celebration, expressing value for one’s partner, obtaining relief from stress, enhancing feelings of personal power, and experiencing a partner’s power.
The hymen consists of folds of tissue that surround and partially cover the vaginal opening. It is U-shaped and there are a variety of types that you can be born with: the annular hymen (small), septate hymen (separated into two), cribriform hymen (covers the entire vaginal opening, except for a few small scattered openings), and imperforate hymen (completely covers vaginal opening, no hole). The last three types can be fixed if they’re an issue, which a young woman will usually determine as she becomes sexually active.
Contrary to popular belief, the hymen is not necessarily broken primarily through first intercourse. It can be broken, stretched, or just generally weakened through physical exercise, the insertion of a tampon, or sexual exploration. Much more focus and emphasis is placed on the hymen in popular culture than is necessary - it’s really nothing to stress out about. If you experience discomfort the first time you put in a tampon, however, know that this could be the cause.
Understanding How the Female Body Responds Sexually
It’s helpful to understand the physical aspect of how the body works when it comes to sex:
First Phase: Desire
Every consensual, exciting, and enjoyable sexual encounter will begin with desire. You should physically and emotionally desire to have sexual relations with your partner, and your partner should feel the same way. Without this essential first step, any sexual encounter is likely happening for the wrong reasons, such as pressure, coercion, or a sense of obligation. Desire is the natural precursor for any healthy sexual encounter.
Second Phase: Arousal
While the first phase is a combination of physical and emotional experiences, this phase is mostly physical. When foreplay or sex begins, your heart rate and blood pressure start climbing. You may notice what's called a "sex flush," or reddening of the skin, creeping up around your chest and neck. Simultaneously, your body releases more nitric oxide, which causes your muscles to relax and also causes an increase in blood supply to the vagina and cervix. The extra blood flow also triggers vaginal lubrication. Your clitoris, the sex organ that has one function - creating pleasure, is stimulated. Your clitoris has the ability to get "erect" when blood flow and stimulation are concentrated in that area. A mechanism called tenting also occurs, which is when the part of your vagina close to the cervix will dilate while the lower portion constricts. The dilation often makes it easier for the vagina to receive a penis or toy, and it creates a suctioning action that helps direct sperm to the cervix. Your nipples may become erect and feel more sensitive due to increased blood circulation.
At the beginning of a sexual encounter, arousal may at first feel uncomfortable. As you become more aroused, any uncomfortable sensations should start to feel pleasurable. If pain or any discomfort persists, let your partner know and figure out how you can both improve the experience. Open communication is essential. Never do anything that doesn’t feel right to you - trust your instincts and honor your unique experience.
Third Phase: Plateau
This phase is mostly made up of physical experiences. However, it does have emotional aspects as well. Increased activity in the pleasure centers of the brain occur. The more aroused a woman gets, the more parts of the brain associated with anxiety shut down. When this happens, the chance of orgasm increases. Your levels of dopamine and epinephrine are also on the rise. Dopamine is a feel-good neurotransmitter, and epinephrine is more commonly known as adrenaline. Adrenaline helps to ensure blood flow is being directed to the areas that are most important for sexual activity, like the skeletal muscles, which help with voluntary movements like thrusting. Continuously increasing muscle contractions start transforming into muscle spasms in body parts like your hands, feet, and face. The Bartholin's glands, which may be a significant player in female ejaculation, release more vaginal lubrication and the clitoris becomes more sensitive than usual.
Fourth Phase: Orgasm
Here your heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure reach their peak levels. Right before orgasm, there's a significant increase in the production of oxytocin, another feel-good hormone. While increasing pleasure, oxytocin can also cause the uterus to contract, potentially to help semen get drawn up through the cervix. Your muscles are convulsing, hard - specifically, the vagina, anus, muscles of the pelvic floor, and sometimes even the uterus. You might experience female ejaculation, although when it occurs, it doesn't always happen in conjunction with orgasm.
Fifth Phase: Resolution
Your heart rate, breasts, and labia return to a normal resting state, though the opening of the cervix remains open. This supports semen to travel up into the uterus. About 20 to 30 minutes later, the opening closes. You may also feel awash in the post-orgasm glow thanks to that rush of oxytocin.
How Pregnancy Happens
Pregnancy is a complicated process that requires many steps to occur in unison. It begins with sperm cells and an egg. Sperm are microscopic cells that are made in testicles. Sperm mixes with other fluids to create semen, which comes out of the penis during ejaculation. Millions of sperm exist within every ejaculation, but it only takes one sperm cell to meet with an egg for pregnancy to happen. Eggs live in the ovaries, and the hormones that control your menstrual cycle cause a few eggs to mature each month. When your egg is mature, it means it’s ready to be fertilized by a sperm cell. These hormones also make the lining of your uterus (the endometrium) thick and spongy, which prepares your body for pregnancy.
About halfway through your menstrual cycle (this varies from person to person), one mature egg leaves the ovary, and this is called ovulation. The egg travels through the fallopian tube towards your uterus. It takes about 12-24 hours to slowly move through the fallopian tube, looking to see if any sperm are around. If semen gets into the vagina, the sperm cells can swim up through the cervix and uterus and into the fallopian tubes, looking for an egg. Sperm cells can only survive for 6 days. Therefore, that is the amount of time they have to find an egg. When a sperm cell joins with an egg, it’s called fertilization.
The fertilized egg then moves down the fallopian tube towards the uterus. It begins to divide into more and more cells, forming a ball as it grows. The ball of cells (called a blastocyst) gets to the uterus about 3-4 days after fertilization. The ball of cells floats in the uterus for another 2-3 days. If the ball of cells attaches to the lining of your uterus, it’s called implantation and this is when pregnancy officially begins. Implantation usually starts about 6 days after fertilization and takes about 3-4 days to complete. The embryo develops from cells on the inside of the ball. The placenta develops from the cells on the outside of the ball. When a fertilized egg implants in the uterus, it releases pregnancy hormones that prevent the lining of your uterus from shedding - and this is why women don’t get their periods when they’re pregnant.
If your egg doesn’t meet up with sperm, or a fertilized egg doesn’t implant in your uterus, the thick lining of your uterus isn’t needed and it will leave your body during menstruation. Up to half of all fertilized eggs naturally don’t implant in the uterus - they pass out of your body during your period.
Common signs and symptoms of pregnancy can include:
Swollen or tender breasts
Nausea and vomiting
Peeing more often than usual
How to Protect Yourself from Pregnancy
There are a variety of birth control methods available to prevent pregnancy from occurring. Some are natural methods while others require insertion of a device or the taking of a pill. Options include the birth control pill, implants, patches, shots, sponges, vaginal rings, cervical caps, condoms, diaphragms, spermicides, female condoms, FAMs (female awareness methods), withdrawal (the pull-out method), IUDs, outercourse (non-penetrative sexual activity), abstinence, and sterilization.
Many of these forms of birth control are hormone-based, including the pill, implants, patches, shots, rings, and some IUDs. They prevent pregnancy via the delivery of synthetic forms of the hormones estrogen and progestin, which alter the body’s natural cyclical hormonal patterns. Hormonal birth control methods work by halting the release of eggs from the ovaries, thickening the cervical mucus so that sperm cannot make its way to the uterus, and thinning the lining of the uterus to prevent implantation. And although hormonal forms of birth control are often recommended for purposes beyond preventing pregnancy - such as decreasing acne, symptoms of PMS, and heavy or painful periods - they have dangerous side effects. Hormonal birth control methods can affect your overall hormonal balance, with negative effects on libido and mood, not to mention the long-term negative consequences such as increased risk of blood clots and stroke. This is why it’s recommended to choose a non-hormonal form of birth control whenever possible.
Natural methods such as FAMs and withdrawal are increasing in popularity and effectiveness with the introduction of new tools and apps that make tracking ovulation easier than ever - if you know when you’re ovulating, you can use an extra method of protection (for example, condoms) during this time of the month to prevent pregnancy. Ovulation can be tracked using basal body temperature measurements and cervical fluid/mucus testing, and is made easy by apps such as Natural Cycles, Glow, and Kindara. The best options are always the most natural, but it’s essential to do what feels best for you & your body.
It’s also important to note that the only methods that protect against STIs are condoms, abstinence, and outercourse. With all other methods, you are still susceptible to contracting an STI. If you’re having sex with a partner without using condoms, make sure it’s with someone that you trust completely and that both of you have a routine STI check before proceeding.
Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)
A sexually transmitted infection is a bacterial, viral, or parasitic infection transferred from one person to another through sexual contact. Sexual contact includes vaginal or anal sexual intercourse, oral sex, and the use of sex toys. The most important element of STIs is that you won’t always know when you have one, because in most cases there are no signs and symptoms. If signs do arise, they are often mild and are overlooked. Prevention and regular testing are therefore critical.
Common STIs include HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, genital herpes, genital warts, hepatitis A, B, and C, and parasites. An STI caused by bacteria can be cured with a short course of antibiotics. A bacterial STI is less likely to cause damage to the body if diagnosed and treated soon after the infection develops. An STI caused by viruses cannot be cured with antibiotics, although the symptoms can be managed by medication or supported with higher doses of herbal medicine. Talk to a healthcare practitioner about managing and treating viral STIs. The only way to know if you have an STI is to get tested.
Using media and the internet at large for information about sexual health can lead to misinformation and confusion. For more information and wisdom about sexual health, here are some great resources:
Dr. Christiane Northrup, a wonderful leader and sexual health expert
Flo Living from Alisa Vitti
Insightful, illustrated & fun-to-read guides like The Guide to Getting It On
Go Ask Alice! for all kinds of useful Q&A
Amplify Your Voice, a site by and for LGBTQ youth
loveisrespect for info about healthy relationships
Maybe also include some additional resources for queer/trans teens, as this article is very heteronormative. I added one. I borrowed a couple of resources from this great list, tons more here: http://www.iwannaknow.org/links.html