'Sex and romance' among Dutch teenagers described
Project STARS has carried out the first long-term study into romantic relationships and sexuality among Dutch teenagers. Interestingly, the diaries the teenagers kept for the researchers reveal that the teenagers think more about falling in love and relationships than about sexual contact.
How do relational and sexual developments take place in young people during adolescence? What are the differences between boys and girls? What role do puberty, personality, upbringing, contemporaries and Internet play in this? Project STARS (Studies on Trajectories of Adolescent Relationships and Sexuality) has yielded a wealth of information about this over the past few years that can be used to find answers to these questions.
A subject almost everyone will be confronted with during the teenage years – emerging romantic and sexual feelings and 'activities' – had never previously been investigated in such a large-scale and long-term study in the Netherlands. And that was a serious knowledge gap as, of course, between the ages of 10 and 19 years young people undergo considerable physical, mental and social-relational developments that shape much of the rest of their lives! The longitudinal Project STARS has given researchers a better understanding of Dutch adolescents in this crucial phase of life.
Youngest participants were 11 years old
Project leader Maja Deković: 'Most previous studies into teenage sexuality were mainly descriptive in nature, non-theoretical, with little attention for the context. This changed with project STARS. If you want to gain a proper understanding about the defining factors involved in relational and sexual development, then you need to do research over a period of several years in which the social-emotional development and environmental factors are given a place.'
Over a period of four years the researchers studied almost 1300 boys and girls who at the start of the project were between 11 and 15 years old and had different levels of education. The youngest children started to participate during the last year of Dutch primary school. The research was divided into four specific themes: individual characteristics with respect to relational and sexual development, the role of parents and contemporaries in this, the role of Internet, and individual life courses within sexual development in the long term. Together these four subprojects generated a unique and multifaceted dataset: different perspectives that over the period of several years yielded both quantitative and qualitative data.
The research group discovered that young people with a lower educational level start exploring sex earlier: the higher your education, the later your initiation. This goes for girls as well as for boys. Maja Deković: These are interesting questions. Why is the one child dating already while another has not even fallen in love yet? The aim is to find a way of optimally guiding adolescents towards a healthy and positive sexual development.'
Falling in love at a distance?
Wieke Dalenberg studied 183 adolescents whom she asked to keep a diary. The adolescents were found to mainly experience their sexual development at a 'romantic' or relational level. There are less inclined to switch to physical interactions than you might expect, at least far less than the traditional concern of parents might justify. The diary study revealed that everyday experiences of sexuality consist mainly of attraction, really liking somebody, amorous feelings and experiences within romantic relationships without having an explicit sexual intent. And those who had established a connection with their object of love felt absolutely happy, whereas those who fell in love at a distance, without contact, were less clear about their feelings of happiness.
Wieke Dalenberg: 'Adolescents have few conversations with their parents about sex and secrets of the heart and that will hardly surprise anybody. Nevertheless there is a group who do: they usually have more experience as well. The 'romantic stage' is an important factor for confiding in your parents and those conversations are about boyfriends/girlfriends and relationships, not about sex.'
60% of young people between the ages of 15 and 18 years have French kissed at least once but are not likely to share that fact with their parents.
Parents are an important buffer
Researcher Daphne van de Bongardt discovered that young people who have a good relationship with their parents become sexually active at a later age. And due to their higher level of self-esteem, a good relationship with parents contributes to this, they experience sex far more positively once they have tasted it! Furthermore, parents who talk a lot about sex with their children as they grow up function as an important buffer between prevailing norms about sex among contemporaries and the intentions of their children to have sex. This is an important finding because such standards among peers (for example: sexual behaviour in the circle of friends or their opinions about this, or explicit pressure from friends to have sex) were found to be closely related to young people's own sexual behaviours.
Daphne van de Bongardt: 'How young people talk with their best friend about sex is linked to their perceptions of the prevailing sexual norms among peers. The more negatively their peers talk with each other about sexuality and with that mainly emphasise the risky aspects – think about condom use of personal boundaries – the more they think that their contemporaries are having sex already or approve of this. So not only the fact that young people talk with their parents or friends about sex or how often they have such talks, affects their sexual behaviour, but also and more importantly the nature of such conversations.'
Popular girls seek romantic relationships
Boys who start puberty at a young age are often among the most popular school pupils and that is also worth something. This increased popularity leads to early sexual activity discovered Laura Baams. For girls, though, that works differently: a faster pubertal development does mean 'popularity' but that often leads to romantic relationships and not per se to sex.
Laura Baams made another interesting discovery: 'Emotionally unstable young people put together a circle of friends who are just as far in ´sexual intention' as they are themselves. This shows how important environmental factors are for the romantic and sexual development. A teenager matures not only as a result of his or her own personality or biological development also under the influence school, home, friends and far more.'
Internet among young people
Suzan Doornwaard investigated the role of the Internet among young people. 'From an historical perspective, young people growing up with a medium that is so saturated with freely accessible sexual material is a unique phenomenon. Even more important still, young people can now actively participate in this for the first time by making and sharing their own photos and videos.´
Are teenagers now only involved with online sex due to its easy accessibility? No, that is far less than feared. Doornwaard: 'And then particularly among girls. Social media are of course very popular and within the circle of friends they form an important channel for communication and sexually tinted self presentation as equally for the forming of sexual images and expectations.'
Nevertheless, the research confirms previous assumptions about the influence of sexual media. Young people who are busy with sex a lot online can develop a negative self-image, such as a little appreciation for their own appearance. Dissatisfaction about your own sexual experience is another possible consequence. Doornwaard: 'My online chat sessions with groups of boys and girls between the ages of 16 and 19 years revealed that the girls who do not look at pornography can sometimes think just as negatively about themselves and feel insecure. That is because they have idea that nearly all boys do look at pornography and therefore acquire unrealistic expectations about sex and sexual attractiveness.'
Wi-Fi access in the bedroom
Internet use in the bedroom cannot be considered as an isolated factor. It is completely interwoven with processes in adolescents, their parents and their contemporaries. The use of sexually explicit Internet material (among boys) and the use of social network sites (among boys and girls) predict a growing conviction of approval within the circle of friends of sexual behaviour and activity. As young people gain the idea that it is quite normal, they subsequently behave in this way as well. Parents who are not particularly strict about the amount of time their children are allowed to spend online and who give them Wi-Fi access in the bedroom can expect to be confronted with their children exhibiting a growing frequency of sexually related behaviour online.
Maja Deković: 'Project STARS has provided a lot of valuable new insights into the romantic and sexual development of teenagers and offers important starting points for follow-up research and implementation in practice. And what I found so encouraging was the comment from one of the young participants after the last questionnaire round: "I enjoyed completing the questionnaire again because it allowed me to find out more about myself"… What a beautiful remark.'