A therapist's treatise on social issues, part 5: Gender and adolescent development

Let teens explore safely.

Continued from part 4.

Normal adolescent development includes questioning, exploring, and experimenting with one’s sexuality, personality, mannerisms, style of dress and grooming, and other aspects of social identity. It also includes a deep desire to belong and be given positive attention by one’s peers, which renders adolescents the most vulnerable of all age groups to peer pressure and social contagion.

We have seen this historically in previous generations’ susceptibility to various bouts of hysteria, which have included: the conversion disorders that preceded the Salem witch hunts of the 1690’s; rockstar fandom in every American generation dating back at least to Elvis Presley, and documented as a whole at least as far back as Lisztomania in Hungary in the 1840’s; poltergeist hauntings in the 1980’s; malingering fits of Tourette’s syndrome in cheerleaders at a high school in 2012; and anorexia, bulimia, cutting, drug use, sexual impulsivity, and suicide attempts, all popular since the 1990’s, some of which have been on the decline in recent years, perhaps due to increased time spent online (and therefore less risk-taking behavior “in real life.”)

Furthermore, the human brain does not fully develop until the age of 25, and some of the last capacities to come online include impulse control, emotion regulation, ability to accurately assess risk, and long-term planning.

These are all legitimate and well understood phenomena that add further reason to approach teenage gender exploration with cautious, measured curiosity. On a more intuitive, everyday level, most of us who are old enough to be parents of teenagers — at 36, I barely place myself in that category — remember with chagrin some of the many terrible ideas we tried to act out in our youth. If anything or anyone stopped us, we likely felt rageful about it at the time, but appreciate it now — a classic case of understanding why parents sometimes say, “you’ll thank me when you’re older.”

I was an impulsive, unprotected teen, always running from danger into the arms of adventure. No one stopped me from getting a terrible tattoo from an unlicensed apprentice at the age of 16. Ten years later, that embarrassing eyesore took two years of painful, expensive, bimonthly laser treatments to remove. I made many other regrettable decisions that I somehow emerged relatively unscathed from — and I mean relatively; by no means absolutely. I have come to view these as narrow escapes for which I owe my thanks to the grace of God* and the power of my intellect.

Like everyone else, I explored gender, sexuality, and identity. I went through various phases of how I dressed, adorned, and groomed myself. Most were punk, but within that there were many subgenres. Even though I felt very differently toward boys than I did toward girls, and had every reason to believe I was straight, I still needed to question whether I might really be bisexual. After all, many of my friends were, and it seemed cool. Being bisexual would have conveniently fit, not only with my peer group, but also with my punk vibe, feminism, personality, beliefs, mixed feelings about boys, and the styles of dress and haircuts I was experimenting with in an effort to find and express my social identity. So how did I know I wasn’t bisexual? I didn’t… until I did. These things take time and experience. When we’re honest with ourselves, regardless of where we may have ultimately landed in our own sexuality, most of us adults know that.

And to be clear, having a developing body was awkward, too. So many of us adults seem to have forgotten what it was like for us, when we hear the younger generation describe how much they hate their bodies, or can’t stand what’s happening to them in the first few years of puberty. Or perhaps we’re just afraid to be seen as minimizing their experiences by telling them we felt the same way. But we did. I hated my periods — they were awfully painful and difficult to manage. I tried to wear a padded bra and got ridiculed for it. (Back then, girls wanted larger breasts. Now they bind them.) I had also been taught to believe that my curvaceous hips and big butt were ugly. (Again, trends change. That was the 1990’s. Now, women get Brazilian butt implants to make themselves look more like me.) Meanwhile, boys suffered the humiliation of unwanted erections and mocked each other in the locker rooms, only to come home to their parents’ fury about the water bills since they started showering four times a day. All of us growing up, whether as boys or as girls, sprouted body hairs we didn’t like at first. We all worried about what our bodies would turn out to be like. And we all struggled to find a manner of dress that looked good on our changing bodies and suited our still-mercurial personalities.

You get the point: it takes time to get comfortable in one’s skin after puberty hits. Sometimes, it takes years. When today’s youth express their discomfort, they accompany it with their generation’s narrative about what that means. Too often, we go along with it. We’re too forgetful or fearful to tell them: It was that way for me too. Welcome to puberty. You’ll get through this alive.

Sexual experimentation comes with risks, but not many that we haven’t faced since the beginning of time. While HIV is a new risk, other STD’s have more treatment options than ever before, prophylaxis is a great modern tool, and, with appropriate precautions, the risk of pregnancy has declined dramatically. Sexual predation, harassment, molestation, and assault are terrible, and, like so many others, I dealt with my fair share of them; but sadly, those are also nothing new, and they are relatively less prevalent now than in some other eras. The risks I took hurt me, but they didn’t kill me. And had I experimented more with girls in an effort to discover my potential bisexuality, the risks wouldn’t have been any greater than those I took with boys. I probably would be more or less the same today. No harm, no foul… and no ladies for me, thanks.

All this is a big part of the reason I’m so concerned with young people today. It’s fine to take risks, experiment, explore one’s preferences and try on different identities. In fact, it’s necessary. Oddly, some people are worried that young people aren’t taking enough risks and having enough sex nowadays — they’re sheltered, spending all their time online instead of out and about with friends. But what we’re seeing now is a novel situation humans have never encountered before. The options available to teens who are experimenting with their sexual identities now include medical interventions that have permanent endocrinological and systemic effects.

In a parallel universe where I had the same exact childhood, except it took place in today’s social environment, with today’s narratives and medical options, I’m almost certain I would have changed my pronouns and taken testosterone. I don’t know where else that would have led me, but I am so glad those options were not available to me. I fit the demographic of the youth that are currently most susceptible to transgender ideology. An explanation for what made me different that cast the blame on society, and encouraged me to feel proud of those differences; the promise of a peer group that would welcome, encourage, and protect me; a place where my masculine traits would be a welcome part of my identity, and my weird style would be cool; a drug purported to give strength and confidence, and one that might free me from my painful periods and mood swings; the idea of being protected from leering male eyes; not to mention a culture in which my naturally small breasts would be envied by my peers, not ridiculed — what I would have done for all that!

Growing up was challenging. It took years of trials, tribulations, and hard-won lessons. Exploring sexual identity was just one part. I am glad it was not the only part, or I wouldn’t have had the many formative experiences that were not focused on that one topic. And I am so glad there was nothing permanent about it, aside from the psychological scars left from men who mistreated me.

There’s a lot about my childhood that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. But there is one thing I sorely wish I could bequeath to those growing up today: the ability to experiment with sex and gender presentation without permanently altering one’s physiology.

*I’m spiritual but not religious. For the purpose of this article I do not want to take the time to elaborate on the meaning of this word to me.

Read on to part 6.