Sex and the Highly Gifted Adolescent
by Stephanie S. Tolan
Little has been written about gifted adolescents and sexuality. In a recent text on the gifted adolescent (Bireley and Genshaft, 1991), there is so little discussion of the subject that one might assume from it that gifted adolescents are the only adolescents on earth for whom sexuality is not a major issue!
As important and complex as the topic is, it seems worthwhile to begin considering it. Are highly gifted children different from other children in the way they cope with the major physiological changes that mark the transition from childhood to adulthood? Based on the testimony of individual adults and adolescents, it’s possible to say that the highly gifted differ both from other children and from each other on the subject of sexuality.
We begin with individual stories. He was a 17 year old junior in an early college entrance program, she a 16 year old sophomore, when he unofficially moved into her dorm room. Within months, she suspected she was pregnant. They had used no birth control, no precautions to protect themselves from sexually transmitted disease. These two highly gifted adolescents had failed to engage their advanced cognitive abilities in the conduct of their sexual lives. It was luck, not wisdom, that saved them; she turned out to be wrong.
Another teenaged couple behaved very differently. They discussed the issue quite rationally and decided not to begin a sexual relationship. Sex, they reasoned, would put an emotional pressure on both of them that they weren’t sure they could handle, or the relationship could withstand; it would break down the “protection” against promiscuity that resides in virginity (once kids start, they had noticed, there’s not much reason to stop). Abstinence would protect them from AIDS as no condom could. Though neither felt a religious or moral pressure to “save themselves for marriage,” they did not want to be promiscuous adults, and the longer they waited, the fewer partners they would have. Finally, if the relationship lasted and they eventually wished to have sex, they would be able to share their inexperience without embarrassment.
A highly gifted girl who was not dating (her primary focus was schoolwork and her religion) was seduced by another girl; in her total dedication to her new lover and her new sense of herself, she turned her back on her family, her closest friend, her teacher/mentor, her studies, and even her church. When the relationship broke up she suffered great difficulties re-establishing herself in her previous life, and the severe questions about her sexual identity that remained did not get resolved for many years.
Like all other adolescents, the highly gifted must cope with raging hormones,
with the issues of gender and sexual identity, religious and moral values,
relational commitments and social implications. What is different about these
adolescents is the *way* they cope, the psychological tools (and wounds) and the
mental processing they bring to the process.
They live, today, in a world in which there is great pressure from their peers to resolve sexual issues by engaging in sexual activity at the earliest opportunity. What they do with that pressure, and with the conflict between their feelings and their reasoning capacity, depends on their individual experience of life and the coping strategies they’ve developed in other areas.
Highly gifted children begin processing information and attitudes, ideas and judgments about the world and themselves early (Morelock, 1992). By adolescence they are adept at introspection and abstract thinking. Sexuality is a complex subject for them, involving identity, moral/ethical values (their own and those of their family and culture), responsibility to self and partner, and powerful, sometimes overwhelming emotion.
Some, wanting love as well as (or more than) sex, are looking for a person who is compatible intellectually and temperamentally. They may be unable, because of being so far from the norms, to find such a person. They remain isolated, falling behind their chronological peers (perhaps for the first time) in knowledge and experience.
Others, perhaps confused or unnerved by the complexity with which they see sexual issues flee that complexity by rushing headlong to embrace the experiences their hormones are urging. For those who are uncomfortable with their gifts, who want to “fit in” to the world of their peers, sex seems to offer and ideal escape from reason, logic and the intellect. They may attach themselves to a distinctly anti-intellectual, inappropriate partner.
Some take the opposite tack. Uncomfortable with sexual issues, or with powerful feelings, they may escape into the realm of reason, either repressing their own sexuality (which can have lifelong negative consequences), or carefully thinking out and controlling their behavior as they wait for a partner to whom they can feel fully committed, or for a level of maturity that would help them handle the emotional complexities of a sexual relationship.
Some lose themselves in their “work,” focusing their lives on an intellectual or artistic gift. This can give them a way of avoiding sexual entanglements without losing face in the adolescent community. They can point out that such entanglements interfere with higher education and/or career plans.
The other side of this coin, of course, is the fact that romantic or sexual relationships really *can* interfere with higher education and career choices, so highly gifted adolescents who might be ready (and even eager) for such relationships may feel it necessary to avoid them in order to move head with important life plans.
It is often said that the highly gifted are more androgynous than other children. They tend to reject strict gender identities, perhaps because they don’t wish to be limited either in their explorations of the world or in their interactions with others. During adolescence this can set up a confusion about gender identity that can be difficult for the individual to sort out. Because high intelligence is considered by society to be a “masculine” trait, highly gifted girls may feel less “girl-like” than other girls. Empathy and sensitivity are considered “feminine,” so sensitive highly gifted boys may feel less “boy-like.” The way they handle this confusion and how they act upon it depends on individual realities. They may become exaggeratedly feminine or intensely macho, trying to establish themselves firmly in their biological gender, or they may go to the other extreme and take on external traits of the opposite gender. They may try to lose their confusion in sexual experimentation or hide from it by rejecting sexuality altogether.
Most highly gifted children have felt isolated from others throughout their childhood; they are in special need of belonging. If they find an intellectually compatible partner of either sex (or any age) during adolescence, they may experience an “explosion” of feeling. What begins as an infatuation with another person’s mind quickly becomes, at least in thought and dream, a full-fledged love affair. Sometimes these intense feelings find an outlet in sexual experimentation.
The partner may be another adolescent, a young adult or an adult teacher or coach or mentor. The relationship may be reciprocal, it may be real and physical, or it may exist only in fantasy. If the partner is of the same sex the complex cognitive process that accompanies the exploration of feeling may lead the child to assume a homosexual identity which may or may not be accurate. It is not unusual for heterosexuals to have one or more homosexual experiences during adolescence. The identification of self as homosexual prior to adulthood may be premature.
On the other hand, if the often suggested ten percent estimate of homosexuals in the general population is accurate, ten per cent of the highly gifted are likely to be homosexual as well. With few positive role models, and real difficulty in finding partners compatible both in sexual identity and in intellectual capacity, the highly gifted adolescent homosexual becomes even more isolated than he or she has been through childhood. Depending on the sensitivity, compassion and understanding of the culture and family in which they function, these children may find the issues of sexuality so difficult and painful as to become life threatening.
Without research, there is little one can say with certainty about sexuality and highly gifted adolescents. As we learn more about this population, it’s a subject that should not be ignored. One thing seems safe to assert: while there will be differences between individuals, the complex internal reality and the often painful external pressures that affect the highly gifted in other aspects of their lives will also affect their emerging sexuality.
Piechowski, M.M. (1991). Emotional development and emotional giftedness. In N. Colangelo & G.A. Davids (Eds.), Handbook of gifted education (pp. 285-306). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Bireley, M. & Genshaft, J. (Eds.) (1991). Understanding the gifted adolescent. New York: Teachers College Press
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