From Child Welfare, volume 47 number 7 (July 1968), p. 405-410 & 426. Copyright 1968, Child Welfare League of America. Reprinted by special permission of the Child Welfare League of America, Washington, DC.

Sexual Knowledge, Values, and Behavior Patterns of Adolescents

A study of 700 middle-class adolescents in Minnesota indicates that social rules holding that premarital sexual experience is wrong no longer bind this group. Young people do want help, especially from parents, in how to handle sexual relationships. They say that parents, church, and school have largely failed to help.


Floyd M. Martinson, Ph.D., is Professor and Chairman, Department of Sociology, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota. This paper was presented at the CWLA Midwest Regional Conference, Des Moines, Iowa, April 12, 1967.

This paper will present the findings of a recent study in Minnesota of sexual behavior patterns of a number of unmarried adolescents. During the 15-month duration of the study, we spent a month apiece in each of four communities--two rural, one suburban, and one inner-city--observing and interviewing around the general theme: What is it like to grow up in a Minnesota community? Or, more specifically: What is it like to grow up sexually in a Minnesota community? We were primarily interested in learning of the sources, the extent, and the quality of both sex and family life education. We also analyzed dating histories of 500 Minnesota high school students from throughout the state. These were youth in the leadership group, youth who upon graduation from high school enrolled in college. We also interviewed nearly 200 unwed mothers who received services offered by the Unwed Mother Unit of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota.

Our study did not cover a complete cross section of the unmarried in Minnesota, but concentrated on that part of the youth population which comes within the middle class. This report does not deal to any degree with the "Gold Coast" or the slums. In some states the high rate of illegitimacy can be traced in large part to the presence in the state of large numbers of culturally-deprived members of some minority group. We have no such convenient scapegoat for the incidence of illegitimacy in Minnesota.

Sexual Behavior and Values

In Minnesota the number of illegitimate births increased tenfold during the last decade and can be expected to increase tenfold in the next decade. The question being asked by Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, sponsors of the research in question, and its board of directors is this: Are we only to take care of the results of nonmarital sexual activity--unwed parents and their offspring--or do we have a responsibility for influencing, more directly than we are doing at present, the conditions leading to the ever-increasing problem of illegitimacy?

Assuming for the moment that we want to do something about the present situation, it is necessary to understand the situation in some depth. To do so, we must look at the dating practices of these young people and try to understand why they pattern their behavior in the ways they do.

Even these dating practices, however, are conditioned by certain imperatives. First, we must bear in mind that man is a sexual being, without season to his sexual desire. Sexual desire and capability are at their height during the years following pubescence. There is little evidence that a healthy adolescent boy does not need regular sexual outlet, through nocturnal emission (wet dreams), masturbation, or some other means. Sexual drive and interest are ever-present factors in the life of a healthy human being. Second, the age period of man's fertility is lengthening with earlier onset of pubescence (perhaps because of better nourishment and care) and later onset of menopause. The age at which people enter marriage is not decreasing. Hence the period calling for continence on the part of the unmarried (according to our traditional morality) is lengthened. Third, man does not live primarily by instinct, but by chosen values. Man is not born with the knowledge of how best to use his sexual powers for his own good or for the good of others. He must be taught. He can learn from responsible adults, through such agencies as the home, the church, and the school. if adults are unwilling or unable to teach, he will still learn, but he will learn from other sources, sources that do not share the reticence on this subject that has characterized home, church, and school. Some of these sources are popular magazines, the movies, and peers. A number of studies of young people show that youth prefer to get their values for important life decisions from responsible adults, primarily their parents, rather than from their peers and the mass media.1 It is when responsible adults fail them that they turn to their peers and other sources.

Claims on Adolescence

Society to date has not provided any direct sexual outlet for the unmarried to which it unequivocally gives its blessing. Sublimation of the sex drive may be what our society ideally recommends for the unmarried, but this requires a degree of maturity that cannot be expected of adolescents. All that is left according to our mores is for the sex drive to be repressed. This is hardly a positive prescription.

Just as the period of adolescence is a time when young people are supposed to be preparing for responsible adulthood in areas of vocation and social adaptation, so is it even more fundamentally a time when sexual nature and identity become central concerns of the maturing individual. The establishment of a comfortable sense of sexual identity and of understanding about the implications of human sexuality for healthy personality development are crucial tasks of adolescence.

In their attempt to understand and relate to persons of the opposite sex youth develop patterns of their own. One of the main patterns is to band together in groups--groups of boys and groups of girls--and to relate to each other within the safety of numbers. In sixth or seventh grade or earlier, often with the assistance or at least the consent of parents, young people plan parties in their homes. They get together and eat potato chips and drink coke, they listen to music, they talk, and they dance. At the same time they are subject to myriad suggestions from the mass media, older youth, and publicized behavior of some adults that there is more to relating to the opposite sex than these things. So they not uncommonly play suggestive games and turn out the lights and "make out." "Making out" at this age usually refers to kissing, necking, and perhaps some degree of petting. As one girl reflects:

"Eighth grade was when I began kissing a boy with some affection. Parties used to be just 'make out' parties. It all seems so silly now: the parents would take us to the party; we would go to the basement and neck; and then our parents would take us home again."

Children do not always want such sexual involvement at this early age:

"I shall never forget one Christmas party I attended when I was in seventh grade. There were only couples there. We ate and danced for a while and then everyone sat on the couch with the lights out and kissed. I was so embarrassed and confused at such activity that I left the party early, went home, and cried. I hated that boy from then on and refused to go any place with him."

If the parents are away from home when a party is held, as our subjects reported was often the case, young people may use not only the living or recreation room, but also the bedrooms for "making out." Many high school youths attested from experience that "making out" on a bed is better than "making out" in a car or on a davenport. If father has left the liquor cabinet unlocked, this can help to liven up the party. Drinking is prevalent among Minnesota high school youth. According to a student from a suburb:

"I never went to a party, school or private, where there wasn't some drinking, and usually a lot of it."

The relationship between drinking and sexual activity is indicated in the report of one girl about an outdoor party:

"Accompanied by a case of beer and sleeping bags, we proceeded on an evening canoe trip. We paddled across the lake and set up camp. We drank and proceeded to our sleeping bags. I had never felt so comfortable in a boy's arms."

Dating Patterns

Besides group parties, which continue on into senior high school, some adolescents in Minnesota begin paired dating in junior high school, with parental approval or support. Parents sometimes encourage early dating.

"In the selection of my friends my mother did let me make my own decisions. One time, though, she was quite perturbed when, in sixth grade, I turned down my first date offer because I felt I was too young to accept."

Paired dating develops into going steadily or going steady (they are not the same thing). "Going steadily" means that neither person is dating anyone else. "Going steady" commonly involves the exchange of expressions of love, promises to be faithful, and some outward ritual and symbols, such as the wearing of matching clothing or the giving or exchanging of rings or pins. Judging from our study, few Minnesota high school students "play the field" once they begin dating. They go steadily or steady. They explain that they find it difficult to "play the field." Boys find the idea of a regular date to be satisfying and convenient. Girls find that if they do not agree to go steady, no other boy may ask them out and they may end up with no dates at all.

In dealing with illegitimacy, we have learned that promiscuity is not part of the problem among the young people with whom we work. We find, rather, the problem of paired, unchaperoned dating of high school students who lack the required sophistication to handle intimate involvement.

Intimate dating is greatly facilitated by the availability of family cars. Raising the age requirement for a driver's license could in itself affect the illicit sex problem, especially in rural areas. After a date, that often consists of going to a movie and having a snack, there is usually some time left before the girl's curfew, and many parents set a very late curfew or none at all. For example:

"My mother never set a curfew for me to be home; it was left up to me to be in at a decent hour. As a result we would park or sit in my yard for an hour before going in. This made petting happen very often, whereas if we had to be in earlier, I don't think it would have happened frequently."

This parking time is "free" time. A couple may only sit and talk, but there is tremendous personal and peer pressure to use the parking period for "making out." Some of the more astute young people, and those who want to remain unattached, say that it is in this period before curfew that there are few alternatives to parking and petting. If a boy and girl are going steadily, they need not "make out," but if they are going steady, it is generally understood in the peer group that they will be together a great deal and will "make out" when they are together.

"... By the beginning of my junior year, we carried on an enjoyable intimate relationship. I loved our physical relationship. We would park for hours at a time and never tire of necking and petting. We petted heavily until there was nothing left but sexual intercourse. His parents went to church every Sunday night and we usually occupied the house while they were gone. He had seen me without clothes and neither of us felt especially guilty."

"Making out" among high school students is progressive. It begins on first dates with kissing and the light embrace and progresses to deep kissing, body fondling, petting to orgasm, simulated intercourse ("humping"), mutual masturbation, and in some cases sexual intercourse.

"Sex played an important part in our life, and though we never did have intercourse, we would pet to orgasm four or five times a week and maybe even more."

Nudity or seminudity is not at all uncommon among Minnesota high school daters. One reported:

"... we progressed rapidly from one stage to the next. ... We were alone quite a lot of the time, either at his home or mine, and our involvement became quite serious. Many times we would be in bed with no clothes on. We got so completely caught up in this sexual exploration, however, that all other aspects of our relationship suffered."

Yet, I repeat, Minnesota young people are not promiscuous. This kind of behavior does not occur unless the two like each other very much or think that they are in love. They do not know how to cope with their feelings. They think that it is love rather than sex and that it should not be denied. The more sophisticated may feign love in order to establish grounds for sexual involvement.

"I discovered that one does not simply 'go steady' in high school. One must be in love and admit it. This was just pushing things a little too far for my comfort, but to me this 'love' was just a game that brought me an abundance of attention so I played. Little did I realize what I was letting myself in for."

Love makes sexual behavior right. This teenage morality has been labeled "permissiveness with affection." If you have strong affection for the other person, you will be permissive.

Petting to sexual climax is widely utilized by couples who do not want to engage in coitus. Petting is their way of forestalling coitus, which they have been taught to avoid by the parent generation.

"We neck and pet a lot and are both able to achieve orgasm without intercourse. We practice mutual masturbation most of the time. We find it to be a very workable technique for letting off tensions that are built up by extensive necking and petting."

Methods of Birth Control

Those who do have sexual intercourse are quite successful in preventing conception. Adolescents as a group are relatively sterile. They utilize the withdrawal method of conception control quite extensively; they use condoms and rhythm to some extent. Girls not uncommonly expect the boy to be responsible for contraception. But, out of ignorance and for other reasons, they do not necessarily insist. In general, it appears that they use contraceptives in a hit or miss fashion--sometimes yes, sometimes no.

The lack of a consistent and reliable source of supply of contraceptives to teenagers in the state, coupled with the lack of sex education, is no doubt a deterrent to their use.

"We didn't use any contraceptives, as I was too bashful to buy condoms."

Condom vending machines did appear in service station restrooms in the southern part of the state within the last year. However, the attorney general ruled that they are illegal in Minnesota. The vending machine is a source of supply in many other states. In doing research in an eastern state last summer, we noted that there were as many as three brands of condoms available in vending machines in a single filling station.

These patterns of youth behavior that I have described are not carried out with confidence, with arrogance, or with much assurance that the behavior is right or proper. But youth have not found many adults, or any adults, who appear to understand or care enough about their situation to be helpful.

Available Sex Education

In evaluating the sex education they receive from childhood up until graduation from high school, the majority of Minnesota youth whom we studied are dissatisfied. Too often they feel themselves to be poorly informed and to have formed impressions about sex and sexual behavior that are negative and unwholesome. All of the institutions stand under their indictment--the home, the school, and the church, as well as other media of sex information such as peer group, dates, and the mass media. It is from the mass media and peers that they have learned that sex is fun, and that it is a proper expression of one's feeling for another person. This confuses them. Why have adults let them understand that sex is dirty, shameful, secretive, wrong, or so sacred that it is completely out of reach, while they and their peers have found much about it that is fun, exciting, enjoyable, and meaningful? And why is there this discrepancy between adult and youth experience?

In some homes parents give no sex instruction at all, and in many homes sex is regarded as a taboo subject never to be brought up.

"My parents never came out and actually told me about the facts of life. ... But indirectly they told me plenty. They made me feel that sex was dirty and something to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. Yet they joked about it and my father always had some 'girly' magazines lying around the house. At first I got a big kick out of looking at them, but later they just disgusted me and made me hate being a girl if all that men did was look at our bodies and make jokes about us."

Some Minnesota parents actually refuse to give their children information when asked for it.

"When I asked my mother where the kittens came from in the first place and why they couldn't go back again, she scolded me and said that nice girls don't ask things like this. ... How I made it through my adolescent years I will never know. My parents, like so many parents, didn't take advantage of the opportunities to explain love and sex expression. They were neither sympathetic nor helpful to my adolescent needs."

Some parents emphasize only the negative, telling only what should not be done. Some of the confusion develops because parents teach rules of behavior without giving the factual information needed to appreciate the rules.

"My parents attempted with all their ability to hide the facts of life from me. ... I feel that this is why I have always been afraid of sex. ... Strict dating rules were laid down for me partly because 'something' might happen. That something was always left up to my imagination. I was never told what it was. I put myself on a pedestal (as my parents directed), and inwardly scoffed at those who were teasing the boys with their flirting and suggestive ways. In a way I considered myself better because I knew something that they didn't know. Yet did I? I only knew what I wasn't supposed to do, but not why. I guess my mother never thought that a little knowledge could do more than the strictest set of rules. ... I sought information by reading romance magazines. My feelings of horror and repulsion grew as I read of the ugly thoughts that boys had in their heads about sleeping with girls and wanting to fondle and caress them. I saw the pain caused by illegitimate babies and out-of-wedlock mothers. I also saw the filthy ways people made love in dirty motels and cabins, in back seats of cars, and lying in the weeds. I could see no beauty in sex. It was hateful and repulsive, and I wanted no part of it."

On the other hand, there are Minnesota youth who are appreciative of relationships with their parents and the sex education received in the home.

"... I think that I know more about sex than most of the students my age. Anything that the other students knew about sex was mostly what they had heard and learned from each other. My mother had informed me at an early age about where babies come from, etc. She always told me things about sex in advance so that I never heard anything from the other students that I didn't know or hadn't already heard. As a result ... I never believed any of the perverted and misleading ideas about sex. I have always respected my mother a great deal for the free and honest way that she spoke to me about sex."

Sex and family life educating can be done in the home, but most parents are not doing it, and I am not hopeful that it will be well done in the home in the foreseeable future. Good sex education in the home, when it does occur, often is a part of an open and affectionate relationship between parent and child. Expecting the child to take the initiative in parent-child discussions on sex is not realistic. The child early becomes embarrassed about sex and may be as unable to bring up the subject with parents as parents are with the child. Good sex education is more than instruction in the physical aspects of love. The few Minnesota students we encountered who have been well taught show their appreciation by wholesome attitudes and values, proper etiquette, and respect for other persons, especially the person being dated.

In speaking about major sources of sex education, a minority of Minnesota high school students mention the school. Whatever Minnesota schools have offered to date in sex education seems to have made little impact on students. I have not made a systematic survey, but I have not ran across a single school in Minnesota that in my estimation is doing an adequate job of sex and family life education.

As with the school, so also with the church; the majority of our group of Minnesota youth do not mention the church as a major source of sex and family life education.

"I felt that my church beat around the bush and whatever was said about it was a paraphrase of the idea that 'you should keep your body pure and holy because it is a temple of God.' I certainly maintain that the sex act is holy. ... But I believe that my church should not stop with this idea, but go on [to] a more liberal and full explanation about sex, with the unabashed use of technical terms."

An occasional person will mention the sex education he has received under religious auspices with appreciation. More characteristically, however, young people appear to be critical of sex education received under religious auspices. The concept of body-soul dualism and the lower nature of the body is a common impression left by religious instructors.

A commonly mentioned source of sex information is peers. Sex is a major topic of conversation among both sexes. The person one is dating often becomes a source of sex instruction especially in those cases where responsible educational agencies in the community have not done a satisfactory job. Occasionally, a young person will look back with satisfaction to the high school boy friend or girl friend as a source of sex education.

"I know now that if I ever marry I will always consider my years with him as a healthy experience and one to be cherished and never ashamed of. I value our relationship as one that helped both of us in our attitude toward goals and ideals to try to attain. I have never experienced any other sexual partners besides him. ... I am not condemning my relationship with him, but only wish that we had used more discretion and that it had happened when we were both more mature, for I feel that it would have brought less conflict."

But persons whose primary source of sex education has been the date often give the date a low rating as a source of information.


We conclude our report with the general observation that many Minnesota high school graduates look back upon going steady in high school as having been a mistake. The following case is not atypical:

"It is a pity that we had such a strong association when we were so young. Had we been older, we probably would have known much more about sex and about life in general ... I am sure that if we had been older we would have realized the extreme seriousness of the results of sexual intercourse. To us, then, a pregnancy seemed so impossible. Now we know how very possible it was and how it could have ruined both of our lives. When I have children of my own, I do not think I will let them go steady."

These are some of the facts we learned about the sexual behavior and attitudes of the young people we studied. We believe that these behavior patterns and these confused, searching attitudes are typical of today's middle-class adolescent. It is our firm conclusion that if young people are to develop a healthy and mature sexuality, they need help.

Received July 31, 1967

1. See for example, Jessie Bernard (Special Ed.). "Teen-Age Culture," The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 338, November 1961; Clay V. Brittain, "Adolescent Choices and Parent-Peer Cross Pressures," American Sociological Review, XXVIII, (1963); Ernest A. Smith, American Youth Culture: Group Life in Teen-Age Society (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1962).

Floyd M. Martinson