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Sexual Health and Development

Recommended Resources
How We Can Improve Sex Ed for Boys
The Good Men Project interviews sex education specialist Elizabeth Schroeder.


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Larry Magid, an internet safety specialist, talks to experts about children and pornography.


About Boys

What does it mean to be a man? Boys are bombarded with messages about being manly -- messages that sometimes conflict with a boy's own desires and sense of self. Those who try hardest to live up to society's ideals of manliness may find that by doing so they undermine their health and relationships. The pressure on boys to conform to masculine stereotypes is intense, but with support, boys can find their way to fulfilling relationships and sexual health.

"Ideal" Masculinity

From a young age, and as boys progress through adolescence, the distinctly male culture of cruelty pounds home the demand that boys toughen up, that they not appear vulnerable.

- Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson [1]

In recent decades, psychologists and sociologists have described how our culture promotes male aggression against female, gay, and transgender people, and against boys themselves when they are perceived to fall short of masculine standards. Parents, coaches, and other adults insist that boys suppress their feelings as well as any sign of weakness, both of which are associated with femininity. Male and female peers enforce a code of masculine toughness, competitiveness, bravado, and heterosexuality (or its appearance), sometimes through bullying.

The culture of masculinity offers positive rewards: humor, a sense of belonging, and opportunities for leadership, for example. But these rewards come at a cost. According to researcher Michael Kimmel, all young men experience feelings of unworthiness/unmanliness at times because of the constant policing of gender norms, and this may lead to acting out and taking risks to prove one's manliness [2]. The stakes are high -- if you don't fit in, you have much to lose: friends, status, potential girlfriends, self-respect.

Male Sexuality and Behavior

Boys tend to experience love in extremes. And that's very challenging, because we don't support the emotional growth of boys.

- Elizabeth Schroeder [3]

Young males must cope with urgent desires that at times are at odds with each other: to have sex, to be perceived as manly, and also to connect emotionally and intimately with another person [1]. Too often, adults overlook this complexity in boys' lives. The excuse "boys will be boys" allows adults to ignore boys' need to understand their bodies, sexuality, relationships, and how to make healthy decisions. It also puts the burden of managing boys' sexuality largely on girls. But this idea -- that boys are controlled by their desires and more interested in sex than relationships -- is based on a faulty premise. Conflicted feelings about sex are common among young men, and nearly 80% think there is too much societal pressure to have sex [4]. Most boys desire love and want sex within the context of relationships [4, 5].

Sequence of Sexual Behaviors

Sexual behaviors begin in childhood with masturbation and, for some children, exploratory touching with friends. Although boys and young men experience pressure to prove their masculinity by having sex with girls early and often, most males' sexual and romantic paths are paced more slowly [5]:
  • Age 13-15: first kisses with girls (kissing boys typically starts later)
  • Age 14-16: dating begins
  • Age 15-16: first sexual touching
  • Age 16-17: average age of first intercourse
Boys are waiting somewhat longer to initiate sex. In the mid-nineties, 21% of teen males typically had sex before age 15; in 2011-2013 that number dropped to 19% [6].

Sexual Risk Taking

Sexual exploration is a normal part of healthy development, but of course some sexual behaviors can bring unintended consequences. Boys who subscribe to traditional norms about masculinity are more likely to engage in the behaviors that lead to STDs, HIV, and pregnancy, including early initiation of sex, inconsistent condom use, and multiple sexual partners [5, 7]. About 15-20% of young males have more than two partners within a year [5]. Most teen males take positive steps to protect against unwanted consequences of sex. Fully 80% of teen males use condoms the first time they have sex, for example [6]. However, couples often find that consistent and correct use of condoms is difficult to maintain.

While black teens are more likely to become fathers than are white teens, the rate of teen fatherhood has declined dramatically in recent decades, especially among black youth [6].

Sexual Health Care

The typical male is sexually active for 13 years before having his first child [8]. Like women, boys and young men need ongoing information, contraceptive counseling, and health care to maintain positive sexual health.
  • HPV vaccinations are recommended by the CDC for both girls and boys beginning at age 11; however, only 8% of boys received the vaccine in 2011 [6].
  • Rates of new HIV cases are especially high among young men who have sex with men [9].
  • Black youth, especially males, have disproportionately high rates of new HIV infection [10].
  • While males are eligible for Title X family planning and sexual health services, few men are served by Title X health centers [8], and few clinics focused on serving men are available [9].

Resources: Understanding and Working with Boys

Masculine stereotyping is the air boys breathe. It's not a simple thing for them to shake off their socialization, which after all is a global phenomenon constantly reinforced by media, adults, and peers. However, parents and educators can help boys understand the role that gender stereotyping plays in their lives, and identify opportunities for making positive choices. The resources below may help.

The Crisis of Connection for Adolescent Boys
In this presentation from the Office of Adolescent Health, Professor Niobe Way explains how boys' intimate friendships support their mental health. Discussion guides for professionals and families are also available.

5 Things to Know about Boys
Here, Child Trends briefly describes what we know about boys' development and well-being.

The Boy Code
Elizabeth Schroeder discusses the unwritten rules governing boys' lives, as well as implications for program planning.

Challenging Casanova (PDF)
Andrew Smiler discusses how parents and youth work professionals can help boys learn to resist the "Casanova" stereotype.

Teaching Techniques to Effectively Reach Adolescent Boys
In this presentation, Elizabeth Schroeder offers strategies for teaching boys, especially within the context of sexual health education.

Can Gender Norms Change? (PDF)
Lori Rolleri reviews curriculum-based interventions that aim to change gender norms.

Gender Transformative Programing in Adolescent Reproductive and Sexual Health (PDF)
Lori Rolleri discusses strategies and resources to help practitioners transform inequitable and unhealthy gender norms.

A National Portrait of the Health and Education of Hispanic Boys and Young Men
This Child Trends report provides a national portrait on the well-being of Latino boys and young men, focusing on two important dimensions -- health and education.


[1]   Kindlon, D., & Thompson, M. (2000). Raising Cain: Protecting the emotional life of boys. New York: Ballantine.
[2]   Kimmel, M. (2008). Guyland. New York: Harper.
[3]   Schroeder, E. (2011). The boy code.
[4]   National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. (2010). That's what he said: What guys think about sex, love, contraception, and relationships.
[5]   Smiler, A. (2013). Young men's sexuality: What's typical? (PDF)
[6]   Guttmacher Institute. (2017, September). Adolescent sexual and reproductive health in the United States.
[7]   Guttmacher Institute. (2014, May). American teens' sexual and reproductive health.
[8]   Rolleri, L. (2013). Gender norms and sexual health behaviors. (PDF)
[9]   Guttmacher Institute. (2014, June 11). U.S. men need a range of services and counseling for much of their lives.
[10]   Advocates for Youth. (n.d.). Reproductive and sexual health of young men of color.
[11]   CDC. (2014, October 14). HIV/AIDS: HIV among youth.
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