The Social Construction of Adolescence

Mary the Mother of Jesus

Mary the Mother of Jesus

Mary was probably 12 or 13 when she was Betrothed to Joseph

According to Jewish tradition (I am told), in the first century girls were betrothed when they were 12 years old, and married a year later at 13.  Many people are uncomfortable with this young age, and place Mary’s age of betrothal at 14 or even as old as 18.   If you look at most pictoral representations of Mary with the baby Jesus, however, she looks to be anywhere from 20 to 30.

This post has a simple thesis: there is nothing universal, binding, eternal, or sacred about the “appropriate” age to willingly commence sexual activity. This statement is not a justification for pedophilia or child sexual abuse. I am highlighting, however, the social relativity of age-appropriate sexuality in general, and age-appropriate coupling in particular. 

Our feelings, on the other hand, about age appropriate sexuality seem like they are objectively true. The process of socialization, which begins at childbirth, is such that socialization feels binding, as “natural” as breathing.  This is why culture and society seem so inescapable. For survival and social solidarity, we learn what is safe and what is dangerous. That’s why socialization is supposed to be “second nature”: it helps our species survive.

Note: in focusing on the social construction of adolescence, I am not urging that sexual activity start at earlier ages. I am not disregarding the fact that having children interferes with getting an education and becoming a valuable profit center for industry and commerce. I am simply saying that there is nothing objective about what we feel is an appropriate age to commence sexual activity or to marry.

Age of Consent: Today and Yesterday

In sixteenth through eighteenth century Europe, many countries set the legal age of marriage was set between 10 and 12 years old.  In 1689 Virginia, Mary Hathaway is recorded as marrying William Williams at age 9.

Today, 14 is the lowest official age of consent for females in Bolivia, Columbia, and Paraguay.  The age of consent is 15 in Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Canada, and Mexico, as well as in Angola, Mali, Niger, South Africa, Tanzania, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Palestinian Territories, the Philippines, Syria, and Venezuela. Of course these ages can be difficult to enforce in outlying regions beyond the control of the national governments. A number of governments also allow marriage after puberty, with the approval of parents or the courts. In the Sudan, puberty in the legal moment of marriageability (See “Age of Consent“).

Adolescence as a Social Construct

In the social sciences there is almost universal agreement that the concept of “adolescence” is not biologically determined, but socially determined, prompted by the demands of industrialization. Many of you are familiar with this information, but for the rest I provide a small sampling of this concept in contemporary scholarship.

  • “The emergence of adolescence as a distinct social group is the result of the many changes that occurred in society as a result of the Industrial Revolution. These changes included industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and institutionalization of virtually every aspect of [society].” [1]
  • “The only real problem is the social construction of adolescence that has imposed upon men and women the burden of being teenagers.” [2] (click here)
  • “[T]he origin of our current concept of adolescence . . . relates the social construction of adolescence. ̄  Adolescence as a concept was the “result of industrialization.”  [3]
  • Quite simply, childhood and adolescence are socially constructed phenomena.
  • With industrialization and urbanization, the structure of families began to change.
  • [A] moral panic occurs “when the official or press reaction to a deviant social or cultural phenomenon is ‘out of all proportion’ to the actual threat”. [4]
  • LeTendre builds “on historical studies of the social construction of childhood and adolescence, . . . [discussing] the broad social forces of mass industrialization and mass schooling. [5]
  • It was in the period after World War II . . . that [witnessed] the focus on adolescence as a social construction [and the] problems of sexual expression as the critical factor in creating an adolescent trauma.” Many people “indict industrialization.” [6]
  • [T]he concept of adolescence came into existence during the last two decades of the 19th century: . . . Basically, [prompted by] industrialization . . . . [7]
  • [C]hildren are theorized in research [which] characterizes childhood as a socially constructed category . . . .  Adolescence as a phenomenon emerged after industrialization and an elongated span of compulsory schooling . . . . [8]

It is accurate to say that in an industrialized country, where education and maturity are extremely important, a high age of consent and legal marriage is important for reasons which are neither natural nor universal. 

When we consider our feelings about May-December marriages and cradle robbing, about pederasty and sugar daddies, our feelings about age disparity in sexual relationships come into play.  What we have seen and feels familiar will feel safe, while what we have not seen will feel alien and strange, dangerous. And there is nothing absolute about those feelings, except for the feeling, depending on the person, that those feelings are absolutely correct.


[1]  Elton, M. The Social Construction of Adolescence, scribd, 2010.

[2]  Rocha, Sam. “Sex Miseducation: Abstinence Doesn’t Make Sense”, 2013.

[3]  Stern, David, and Dorothy Eichorn, eds. Adolescence and Work: Influences of Social Structure, Labor Markets, and Culture, Routledge, 2013.

[4]  Valdivia, Angharad N. A Companion to Media Studies, Wiley, 2008, p. 229.

[5]  LeTendre, Gerald K. Learning to be Adolescent: Growing Up in U.S. and Japanese Middle Schools, Yale University Press, 2000.

[6]  Ianni, Francis. Search for Structure, Free Press, 1998, p 10.

[7]  Mason, Laura Deane, School Facility Design Characteristics Supporting California Schools to Watch–Taking Center Stage Middle Schools: Perceptions of Middle School Principles and Teachers, University of LaVerne, 2008, p 48.

[8]  DeLamater, John D., and Amanda Ward, Handbook of Social Psychology, p 124, Springer, 2013.

About Ron Goetz

My first wife used to say, "There's nothing so sacred that Ron won't pick it apart." My desire to be a pastor -- that was a temperamental mismatch. She was so patient. If my birth mother had lived somewhere else, maybe I would've become a cold case detective. But I would have had to be J instead of a P, I think. And that mid-life reevaluation, starting adolescence as a GARB fundamentalist and transitioning to a non-theist, that gave me an unusual skill set.
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2 Responses to The Social Construction of Adolescence

  1. Duncan Beach says:

    Pastor, what has been happening in the past hundred years, is that medicine has advanced in its studies to the point that doctors have discerned that it is not SAFE for women to have babies at or below the age of sixteen. The risks to the foetus and the mother both become numerous – not least because the birth canal must pass through a skeletal structure which has NOT finished its growth. I know this, because as it happens, I lost a cousin AND her foetus this way. Teen mothers do NOT engage in proper nutrition – in most cases, they don’t KNOW what proper nutrition IS.

    While I have LONG known that Mary was 12 or 13 when she conceived, I also know that Jesus being born to her was something of a miracle in and of itself – first babies are OFTEN lost, even in this day and age, and yes, even when the mother is mature.

    I can tell you that there is a VAST difference between children having consensual sexual experiences with each other (which happens to almost EVERY kid), and an adult using a child as a sexual plaything. We have raised our children to regard all adults as authority figures (hence tween and teen rebellion), and as such, created a situation where NO consensual sex can (or should) result between an adult and a child.

    I am 6 feet 2 Inches tall, and as I have mentioned before, heterosexual. My body is HUGE compared to that of the average 12 or 13 year old, and my extremities disproportionately so. ANY hypothetical sex with the average child of that age or younger would literally tear them apart inside – leaving alone the fact that their bodies ARE NOT ready to produce the natural lubrication necessary to prevent tearing and skin damage. Pregnancy would put the mother’s life at severe risk, and only our society’s taboo against abortion allows doctors to willingly allow such a pregnancy to move forward anymore.

    My point is that I sincerely hope you are not using this post to endorse a lowering of the age of consent – there are bigger men than me, and many of them are too stupid to realize what their bodies can do to what is an undeveloped child at 12 or 13 – and this is leaving alone the men and women who will think that your post constitutes endorsement of sex between an adult and children younger than five!

    With all that said, I will point out that I was raped by my stepbrother, repeatedly, between the ages of 12 and 14. He went on to do the same with his two younger brothers and many OTHER children. I don’t confuse rape with consensual intercourse – but he was big enough down there to damage me, and to cause both of them to have surgery in their backsides to fix what he’d done to them. That leaves aside the years of therapy all this man’s victims have had to go through.

    Mary’s era had no sophisticated medical doctors in it – anatomy had not even been studied at that time. Please consider where you are going with this post.


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