Monday, 20 April 2009

Sexual expressions and social expectations

Dr. Perri Klass writes eloquently about boys and girls and sex, and the importance of values, manners and gender equality.  As a child and youth psychiatrist I find much of what she recounts not only reasonable but reasoned.  There is however a developmental neurobiological reality that can help us put these sex and youth issues into a wider perspective.  Simply put, neurodevelopment prior to puberty has as its major goal the survival of the individual to the time of puberty so that species reproduction can take place.  As a result, the adolescent brain normatively develops its drive for sex and the associated dopamine driven nigro-striatal-cortical systems associated with craving (yes – the same system that allows for addictions to begin).  So there we have the phylogeny of the species.  So what now?

Every society develops social structures that serve to channel and direct sexual activities in youth.  And, because the brains of young people can be modified by the environment that they are in, by and large these social structures do modulate these behaviors, although sub-group and sub-cultural frameworks may not always conform to wider social norms and expectations.

So to be simple about it – young people will generally channel their sexual expressions within social expectations created by their environments.  Environment can be helpful or un-helpful in this regard.  However, while we may not be able to control the relentless process of pre-programmed neurodevelopment, we can provide behaviorally optimizing and socially enhancing environments for young people.  These begin within the family and include all aspects of values and behavioral expectations.  They extend outside the family and are taken up by our institutions and collective organizations.  They should extend to the media and the advertising industry.  The most interesting question for me is why they do not seem to.

~ Dr. Stan Kutcher

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