The Great Wide Open featured in The Independent on Sunday's February 8 issue.
A Budding Adult's Guide to Puberty
Sweat, pimples, and hair in new places. Feeling too big or too short. Butterflies in the stomach. Kissing, sex, protection and pregnancy. There are so many questions that come with puberty, so many new feelings, new thoughts and new doubts. Our new book Does This Happen to Everyone? A Budding Adult's Guide to Puberty, to be published this week, attempts to answer the most important ones—and here's a sneak preview.
Does puberty happen to everyone?
Yep. Puberty is programmed into all of us. It’s part of our genetic material, so everyone goes through it sooner or later, whether they want to or not. When your hormones decide it’s time, they send a signal to your brain and the process begins.
Our bodies aren’t all on the same schedule, though. It’s totally normal for people to start puberty at different times. Also, hormones stay pretty relaxed in some people but go a bit crazy in others. You might find yourself suffering from bad acne, developing big breasts before everyone else, or constantly exploding with anger and bursting into tears. If so, you’re either experiencing very strong surges of hormones, or your body is especially sensitive to them. You inherit that from your parents, who almost certainly reacted the same way when they were going through puberty.
Whatever happens, the best thing to do is to stay cool and wait it out. Everything will calm down eventually.
Do boys really only think about cars, muscles and sex?
Well, they do think about them a lot of the time, though it’s usually in a different order. Sex is often the number one thing on adolescent boys’ minds. If a girl is speaking to a boy, she might notice that he’s just staring at her chest and has zero idea what she’s saying. That’s because his body is pumped full of testosterone, the male sex hormone that surges during puberty.
Muscles are usually number two on the list. For a lot of boys, a hundred push-ups followed by a protein shake is the ideal way to spend their afternoons. Why? Because muscles look good and attract girls… or so they say. Those beliefs come from a time way, way back in history when the strongest man would win the best woman. But seeing as our survival no longer depends on hunting and killing wild animals, do boys really need to worry about being super-strong? Funny, charming, sensitive guys who can listen when others talk are often much more attractive than the ones who spend all of their time working out.
But remember, no two boys think about exactly the same things. They all experience different surges in their hormones during puberty, and they all react to those hormones in different ways.
And another thing—boys aren’t the only ones who think a lot about sex. Girls do, too.
Why do we have pubic hair?
“Hey there, gorgeous. Check me out, all sexually mature. My pubic hair smells so good it’s making me totally irresistible, am I right?!” That, in case you were wondering, is what a male gorilla would say to his mate if he was in the habit of thinking about his brand-new hair-down-there. He’d never dream of trimming it or shaving it all off, though. That’s because, for many animals, pubic hair gives off a scent designed to attract the opposite sex. We humans also find ourselves attracted to other people because of the unique way they smell, and a bit of hair makes it all the easier to sniff out.
Can you bleed to death because of your period?
No, don’t worry. You have over four quarts of blood in your body, and most women only lose between four and 12 tablespoons during their period. That’s less than one ounce, and three quarters of it usually goes in the first three days. Also, there’s nothing wrong with you if you feel tired and run down during your period. Most women do. You can pep yourself up by relaxing for awhile, or by doing the exact opposite. Exercising and focusing your mind on something else often helps to soothe period pain.
Some cultures hold a celebration when a girl gets her period for the first time. After all, being able to create new life and bring it into the world is really nothing short of a miracle. So why not do something special when you get your first period? You could organize your own private party, say. If you like the idea, think about it and decide what you want to do. But if you’d rather not mark the occasion, then that’s totally fine, too.
How big should a penis be?
A penis is an amazing thing. A master of disguise, you could say. One that looks small when it’s just hanging around might grow really big when it’s erect, and one that’s already pretty big when flaccid might not change much when it gets hard. So what about yours? When it comes to length, it might well be within the average for the United States, where the typical penis measures around five and a half inches when erect. Your penis will begin to grow just after you hit puberty, and usually only stops once it’s all over. The same goes for your testicles, which are responsible for producing the male sex hormone testosterone.
Penises can be big, small, long, short, fat, thin, or curved, and your genes decide what yours will look like. No two penises are the same, which makes sense, right? After all, it’s not as if your nose is the spitting image of everyone else’s. Differences are what make life interesting. And in case you were wondering, the length or width of a penis is almost never important when it comes to having sex.
What is love?
Love is thinking about someone all day and then dreaming about them at night. Love is sending each other a million text messages, and then turning your phones off when you’re together. But hang on, isn’t that how you feel when you have a crush? Butterflies going crazy in your stomach, heart beating so fast it’s hard to breath, the fear of making a fool of yourself at the very moment you have to be at your most spectacular? Everything looks incredible and exciting because you’re seeing the world through the rose-tinted glasses that your hormones made especially for this occasion.
Liking someone, having a crush on them can feel intoxicating and is often the first step on the path to falling in love. But not every crush has to end in love. Sometimes you fall for someone and then realize pretty quickly that they’re not really right for you after all. When you’ve seen the other person’s weaknesses and you sometimes even get annoyed with them but still really want them in your life, then you can start talking about love. Sex can be a way of expressing that feeling, which is why people often call it “making love”.
You can also have love without sex. It’s called platonic love, and it’s the way you feel about people like your friends, parents, brothers, or sisters.
How long does sex last?
Most men ejaculate about three minutes after penetration. That might not sound like long, but intercourse is just one part of sex and there are lots of ways to extend those three minutes. You could take a break from intercourse to try out something different on each other for a bit, and then go back to what you were doing. If you both relax and have fun, sex can sometimes last for hours and yet feel like mere seconds.
Basically, time isn’t all that important here. Just enjoy exploring each other’s bodies and discovering what feels good for you both. A lot of people find that, even though they enjoy having sex and reaching orgasm, being intimate with their partner is actually the most important part of the equation.
Why do men ejaculate millions of sperm? Does it have to be so many?
Yes. The route leading from a woman’s vagina to the egg in one of her fallopian tubes is so full of obstacles that hardly any sperm make it all the way. First, they have to get past the mucus membrane inside a woman’s vulva. It’s not exactly keen on having guests and the immune cells here see the sperm as enemies and start fighting them off. Further on, lots of sperm end up stuck to thick mucus that closes off the cervix if ovulation hasn’t happened yet. The ones that survive will wait it out and continue their journey once the mucus becomes thinner and the cervix opens. But even then, they’re still not home free. Dead-ends are hiding everywhere, and even if they do make it across the womb, there’s only one egg waiting for them in the fallopian tube… but which fallopian tube? In the end, just 500 sperm or so reach their goal, and even then a lot of them are too exhausted to even think about fertilizing the egg. The sperm that does manage it should really get a gold medal!
What should you do if you get pregnant but don’t want to tell your parents?
Talking to friends or a grown-up who you trust is a good way to start, but you also need to speak to your doctor or healthcare provider as soon as you can. Even if you don’t want to tell your parents, in some states the doctor may be required to notify them if you are pregnant or seeking an abortion and they can even require your parents’ permission before you are allowed to have an abortion, depending on how old you are. They would probably talk to you about this first, though. If you do decide to tell your parents that you’re pregnant, neither they nor anyone else can make you have an abortion.
As a general rule, taking the plunge and telling your parents is often better than carrying such a big secret around with you.
You can now order the book Does This Happen to Everyone? A Budding Adult's Guide to Puberty. This book comes in American English and British English versions that reflect local vocabulary and circumstances.
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