More than ever before, young people can approach sexuality in their own personal way. This process takes place in a phase lasting several years, in which most girls and boys gradually accumulate new experiences. A higher degree of general sexual freedom requires young people to be more and more independent and responsible not only in terms of getting oriented but also in terms of decision-making. This also applies to the way they behave in relationships or with initial contacts. Moreover, evident, unquestioned sexual norms are fading, as are clearly defined female and male role models. Hence, young people are now facing new insecurities in their sexual development.

This also holds true for that widely shared but unkept promise of equality in sexual self-determination-a contradictory experience at best. Against this background, progressive experiments with partner-oriented sexuality have become an integral element shaping modern adolescence to a much greater extent than that of the parent generation. Our research project studies this process, in which young people develop more stable concepts of themselves and of others. Our research interest focuses on conditions that either encourage or discourage young people to engage in joyful, satisfying and responsible sexuality. Another aim is to compile knowledge for preventive sexual education without rashly limiting our focus to the prevention of risks alone. Our work is based on the importance of such basic social skills as self-confidence, the ability to communicate and to articulate one's thoughts and interests, the ability to keep one's distance and to see things from a different point of view. All these skills enable both girls and boys to develop a joyful and satisfying approach to sexuality, and to handle sexual risks in a competent and responsible way.

Hypotheses on Changing Norms and Gender Roles
The following paragraphs outline some general research findings related to the consequences of fading norms in sexual socialisation.

  • Less rigid gender roles

When planning the research project, we assumed that girls are confronted with contradictions between general promises of equality as opposed to their personal experience when having to stand their ground in sexual relationships. However, we found that, on the whole, 'conventional' indicators of the gender-specific power hierarchy characterising sexual relationships have largely lost in significance, though they still prevail in certain subcultures. Examples of such indicators are: Who can or should take the initiative? What are the freedoms granted to young women and men? Who has the greater power to define and decide relationships?

  • Gender-specific behavioural insecurities

Less rigid gender roles bring with them their own new set of behavioural insecurities now typically found with girls or boys. There may not be any difference in the level of self-confidence boys show when they say they prefer girls to take the initiative, or when girls declare that they prefer to take it themselves or the other way around. However, equality ends if a youngster does not want to be approached: traditionally, girls have a large repertoire of behaviours to fend off unwanted advances. They are often able to turn down importunate boys in grand style if they get on their nerves or behave in a manner seen as impertinent. Boys lack these skills: although they increasingly enjoy being actively approached by girls-be it through initial contact or in an existing relationship-a girl's attempt to pick a boy up may cause him extreme unease. Boys have not (yet) developed a culture of keeping their distance from girls. The lack of new models required to adequately cope with these increasingly gender-neutral behaviour patterns tends to result in insecurity at the individual level. In a state of helplessness, boys sometimes get embroiled in situations initiated by girls. Such events become engraved upon their memory as particularly unpleasant. This shows that the change in attitudinal patterns has not been accompanied by a change in behavioural patterns.

  • Reactions to gender-role debates

Girls like to show that they are aware of their sexual demands. While girls tend not to discuss how they go about satisfying their partner's wishes or how to be an attentive lover, they do tend to be quite assertive in how they learned to call attention to their own sexual needs. Boys speak with equal pride about how they succeeded in responding to their girlfriend's physical desires. Differently from girls, boys do not talk about how they go about asserting their own sexual desires. The ideal of most boys is to be a considerate man who can satisfy his partner's sexual needs, while that of the girls is to achieve sexual self-realisation. In presenting themselves, boys and girls both react to a backlog of historical demands.

  • Orientation is required when facing the plurality of models and settings

On the one hand, a pluralisation of norms has done away with binding rules and regulations, prohibitions and laws governing, among other things, a person's sex life and appropriate behaviour patterns for the two sexes. On the other hand, the wealth of information, images and models put before young people is constantly increasing. This obliges youngsters to find their way through life all by themselves, all the while having to make their own decisions and to take responsibility for their own actions. In fact, girls and boys spend a lot of time and energy identifying the yardsticks by which they not only orient themselves but also measure their individual needs. Among other things, this becomes evident when they tell their life story and, in particular, their experiences with love and sexuality. In these reports, they dedicate ample space to the right timing of such issues as 'the first time' (first sexual intercourse) or the first 'real relationship'. These accounts also show the great complexity of issues girls and boys sometimes reflect on in this context.
Navigating the labyrinth seems to be easier for young people with a homogeneous and traditional social background (especially in rural areas, provided their life situation remains stable). It is very much a matter of course for them to enjoy the freedoms typically granted to their generation: for example, regarding the age at which one may start having sexual relations or when it comes to terminating an unsatisfactory relationship to enter into a new one. In the same fashion, they also accept traditional gender roles, including family-oriented lifestyles with a gender-specific division of labour. Differently from their parents, however, these young people are aware that their way of dealing with sexuality and relationships is one option out of many, i.e. a lifestyle that they defend as their own free choice: "I like it this way."

  • Norms and orientations based on peer relationships

Although basic values and attitudes are transmitted by the family of origin, peers have become the most important mediators in the orientation process outlined above. Finding one's way in life has become a key element in young people's development. Adolescents hardly ever sound out the standards set for them by adults. Their models are their peers, and the (anticipated or real) expectations of their peer group become their directives. Girls and boys do not discuss what they are allowed to do. What matters is their position in relation to the norms and expectations of their peers. This shift in authority does not necessarily go hand in hand with less pressure. Young people may need considerable skills to succeed in this orientation and adaptation process, in particular if their own biographical needs do not match the factual or presumed expectations of their peers. Youngsters not only have to identify their peers' standards and expectations but also their own needs. Besides, they are required to obtain a social status permitting them the right to refuse to adapt to such norms without losing face. This explains why girls and boys whose sexual relations are rather unsatisfactory also tend to have exceptionally bad peer relationships. There is a correlation between a lack of social integration within the peer network and problems in a young person's sexual development and learning process. If girls or boys try to solve problems in their peer relationships by engaging in sexual activity, there is a high likelihood that they will face difficulties or even fail.
The resources for sexual socialisation inherent in peer relationships vary according to gender. In discussions with their girlfriends, girls tend to be more open about relationships and sexual experiences; boys, however, hardly ever have an open discussion about their personal experiences with their boyfriends.

Methodology: Narrative life-story interviews and interaction analyses.
Sample: 30 women and 30 men aged 18 to 22 from Bavaria, North Rhine Westphalia, Berlin and the new Laender.