Youth Sexual Development: A Primer for Social Workers

Soc Work. 2019 Oct 31;64(4):356-364. doi: 10.1093/sw/swz027.


Sexuality and sexual expression are core aspects of most clients' lives, yet most schools of social work fail to cover sexual development, leaving social workers uninformed about this essential area of human development. This is particularly the case when the sexual development of youths is concerned, as youth sexuality is often considered too controversial to explore. Considering a positive approach to youth sexuality that seeks to enhance youths' sexual development and promote their achievement of full sexual and reproductive rights, this article seeks to provide social workers with a resource they can use to enhance their understanding of youth sexual development and its applicability to social work practice. The two main theoretical orientations used to understand sexual identity development are covered as well as the research support for each. Following the explanation of theory is a discussion of how the two theoretical orientations can be integrated to form a more expansive base for the understanding of sexual identity development. A final section provides guidance on how an advanced understanding of youthful sexual identity development can enhance social work practice at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels.

Keywords: adolescent sexuality; sexual development; sexual identity; theories of sexuality; youth sexual development.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Development
  • Female
  • Gender Identity
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Sex Education / methods*
  • Sexual Behavior / psychology
  • Sexual Development
  • Social Work / education*
  • Social Work / methods
  • Social Workers / education*
  • Social Workers / psychology