It's a natural part of life to have sexual feelings. As
people pass from childhood, through adolescence, to adulthood,
their sexual feelings develop and change.
Adolescence Is a Time of Change
During the teen years, sexual feelings are awakened in new ways
because of the hormonal and physical changes of puberty. These
changes involve both the body and the mind, and teens may wonder
about new - and often intense - sexual feelings.
It takes time for many people to understand who they are and who
they're becoming. Part of that understanding includes a
person's sexual feelings and attractions.
The term sexual orientation refers to the gender (that is, male
or female) to which a person is attracted. There are several types
of sexual orientation that are commonly described:
People who are heterosexual are romantically and physically
attracted to members of the opposite sex: Heterosexual males are
attracted to females, and heterosexual females are attracted to
males. Heterosexuals are sometimes called
People who are homosexual are romantically and physically
attracted to people of the same sex: Females who are attracted to
other females are lesbian; males who are attracted to other males
are often known as gay. (The term gay is sometimes also used to
describe homosexual individuals of either gender.)
People who are bisexual are romantically and physically attracted
to members of both sexes.
Teens - both guys and girls - often find themselves having
sexual thoughts and attractions. For some, these feelings and
thoughts can be intense - and even confusing or disturbing. That
may be especially true for people who are having romantic or sexual
thoughts about someone who is the same sex they are. "What
does that mean," they might think. "Am I gay?"
Thinking sexually about both the same sex and the opposite sex
is quite common as people sort through their emerging sexual
feelings. This type of imagining about people of the same or
opposite sex doesn't necessarily mean that a person fits into a
particular type of sexual orientation.
Some teens may also experiment with sexual experiences,
including those with members of the same sex, during the years they
are exploring their own sexuality. These experiences, by
themselves, do not necessarily mean that a person is gay or
Do People Choose Their Sexual Orientation?
Most medical professionals, including organizations such as the
American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological
Association, believe that sexual orientation involves a complex
mixture of biology, psychology, and environmental factors. A
person's genes and inborn hormonal factors may play a role as
well. These medical professionals believe that - in most cases -
sexual orientation, whatever its causes, is not simply
Not everyone agrees. Some believe that individuals can choose
who they are attracted to - and that people who are gay have chosen
to be attracted to people of the same gender. No matter what
someone's sexual orientation is, in some cases it may be
affected by the life experiences that person has had.
There are lots of opinions and stereotypes about sexual
orientation, though, and some of these can be hurtful to people of
all orientations. For example, having a more "feminine"
appearance or interest does not mean that a guy is gay. And having
a more "masculine" appearance doesn't mean a girl is
lesbian. As with most things, making assumptions just based on
looks can lead to the wrong conclusion.
What's It Like for Gay Teens?
For many people who are gay or lesbian, it can feel like
everyone is expected to be straight. Because of this, some gay and
lesbian teens may feel different from their friends when the
heterosexual people around them start talking about romantic
feelings, dating, and sex. They may feel like they have to pretend
to feel things that they don't in order to fit. They might feel
they need to deny who they are or that they have to hide an
important part of themselves.
These feelings, plus fears of prejudice, can lead people who
aren't straight to keep their sexual orientation secret, even
from friends and family who might be supportive.
Some gay or lesbian teens tell a few accepting, supportive
friends and family members about their sexual orientation. This is
often called coming out.
Many lesbian, gay, and bisexual teens who come out to their
friends and families are fully accepted by them and their
communities. They feel comfortable about being attracted to someone
of the same gender and don't feel anxious about it.
But not everyone has the same feelings or good support systems.
People who feel they need to hide who they are or who fear
rejection, discrimination, or violence can be at greater risk for
emotional problems like anxiety and depression.
Some gay teens without support systems can be at higher risk
than heterosexual teens for dropping out of school, living on the
streets, using alcohol and drugs, and even in some cases for
attempting to harm themselves.
These difficulties are thought to happen more frequently not
directly because they are gay, but because gay and lesbian people
are more likely to be misunderstood, socially isolated, or
mistreated because of their sexual orientation.
This doesn't happen to all gay teens, of course. Many gay
and lesbian teens and their families have no more difficulties
during the teen years than anyone else.
The Importance of Talking
No matter what someone's sexual orientation is, learning
about sexuality and relationships can be difficult. It can help to
talk to someone about the confusing feelings that go with growing
up, perhaps a parent or other family member, a close friend or
sibling, or a school counselor. It's not always easy to find
somebody to talk to, but many people find that confiding in someone
they trust and feel close to, even if they're not completely
sure how that person will react, turns out to be a positive
In many communities, resources such as youth groups composed of
teens who are facing similar issues can provide opportunities for
people to talk to others who understand. Psychologists,
psychiatrists, family doctors, and trained counselors can help
teens cope - confidentially and privately - with the difficult
feelings that go with their developing sexuality. These experts can
also help teens to find ways to deal with any peer pressure,
harassment, and bullying they may face.
Whether gay, straight, bisexual, or just not sure, almost all
teens have questions about physically maturing and about sexual
health (for example, avoiding
). It's important to find a
or health professional to discuss these issues with - someone who
can provide reliable health advice.
Although sexual feelings and behavior are important parts of
human development, there are still many unanswered questions about
human sexuality. Researchers are constantly learning new
information, and undoubtedly people will know more about sexual
orientation in the coming years.
D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: October 2008
Originally reviewed by:
D'Arcy Lyness, PhD, and Linda A. Hawkins, MSEd
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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