The size of a boy’s testicles, according to Dr. Laura Bachrach, is the gold standard for assessing the arrival of male puberty. What you do – for strictly scientific purposes, of course – is use an orchidometer, a string of oval wooden or plastic beads of increasing size. To use the device, you gently pull the testicle to the bottom of a boy’s scrotum and use touch and sight to find the bead that matches it in volume. Be careful not to squeeze*!
Pubic hair, by contrast is “very very misleading” because it is a later, less predictable indicator. You can try urine analysis (testing for the presence of sperm in urine), but that’s expensive. And you can just ask boys whether they ejaculate, but researchers understandably tend to be nervous about that these days, especially in the US, where a recent study confirmed a trend in recent times, long noted in girls, towards earlier puberty. It seems you can still just about get away with measuring testicles, though, if you slip the procedure into scheduled “well-child” health examinations.
What you definitely can’t do, if you want to determine the age of puberty hundreds of years ago, is jump aboard your Time Machine to go back in history and measure the testicles of boys in the Olden Days.
We can read about what ancient scholars thought, but it’s hardly science. Aristotle, well over two millennia ago had this to say on the subject:
When twice seven years old, in the most of cases, the male begins to engender seed; and at the same time hair appears upon the pubes, in like manner, so Alcmaeon of Croton remarks, as plants first blossom and then seed. About the same time, the voice begins to alter, getting harsher and more uneven, neither shrill as formerly nor deep as afterward, nor yet of any even tone, but like an instrument whose strings are frayed and out of tune; and it is called, by way of by-word, the bleat of the billy-goat. Now this breaking of the voice is the more apparent in those who are making trial of their sexual powers; for in those who are prone to lustfulness the voice turns into the voice of a man, but not so in the continent. [The History of Animals, Book VII, Part 1]
Armed with the modern knowledge that pubic hair is prone to give dodgy data, we need not be overly respectful of the great sage’s opinion, although we might be more so if his Method had been written up – especially on how he could tell the “lustful” boys from the “continent” ones, and what his sample size was.
My theory is that Aristotle and some medical authorities of classical times put the age of male puberty in those days too low. Only the wealthiest class could afford the services of a doctor: these boys would have been exceptionally well fed, and it is now known that a rich diet leads to puberty several years earlier than typically experienced by impoverished children of either sex. Likewise, Aristotle would surely have known less about the bodies of street ragamuffins than those of the athletic young lads whose naked bodies he saw regularly at the gymnasium – boys from prosperous families, whose fathers could afford to send them for training.
But we can do better than Aristotle. An ingenious recent study by Dr Joshua R. Goldstein gives us evidence of a steady long-term decline in age of male sexual maturity since at least the mid-eighteenth century using, believe it or not, mortality data from meticulous records kept in several countries.
In girls, the so-called “secular trend” toward younger menarche can be documented because individual health records recording first menstruation can be compared over time. For males, no comparable medical evidence exists. Goldstein’s study takes an indirect approach making use of the fact that all human populations studied show a rise in mortality among males toward the end of adolescence. This rise, caused by increases in violent, accidental, and disease mortality, is known as the “accident hump” and it coincides broadly with peak male hormone production. So if you can show a change in the age of the accident hump you have a strong indication of a changing age of sexual maturity. Clever, no?
The records for this purpose go back to 1751 in Sweden and the mid-nineteenth century in Denmark, Norway, the United Kingdom, and Italy.
For all countries, the timing of the accident hump fell steadily downward from the mid-eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. “Improved nutrition and disease environments, both of which have been shown to influence the production of testosterone, appear more plausible explanations for such long-term secular change than changing risk environment,” wrote Goldstein.
Goldstein and Aristotle appear to agree on one point: the significance of voice change. As Goldstein wrote:
An additional piece of evidence in favour of a biological explanation for the secular trend in the accident hump is that another correlate of male sexual maturity, age at voice change, has also shown secular change. Daw reports that age at voice change in the boys’ choir lead by J.S. Bach in Leipzig in the mid-eighteenth century averaged around 18 years, but that in twentieth century London age at voice change was closer to 13 years.
Now that is a whopping change, is it not? And this brings me to a key reason for Heretic TOC’s deliberations on the matter: there is a huge irony in the fact that the sexuality of the young is being ever more drastically denied and suppressed at a time when they have never been more sexually mature in physical terms.
Formal research confirms the picture. Studies give a range of outcomes depending on the method and the population surveyed, with racial differences being a factor. To take just one set of results over a lengthy time period up to the present in a single country, German researchers found that in 1860, the average age of the onset of puberty in girls was 16.6 years. In 1920, it was 14.6; in 1950, 13.1; 1980, 12.5; and in 2010, it had dropped to 10.5. A similarly declining age been reported for boys, albeit with their puberty occurring about one year later in each set of investigations.
It might have been expected that the trend to earlier puberty would have halted half a century ago in the developed countries, once children reliably began to experience the relative rich diet of modern times. But that has not happened, and ever-earlier puberty is now being linked to growing levels of childhood obesity.
Obesity is bad news for kids, of course, and ever-earlier puberty is terrible news for paedophiles too. As if things were not already bad enough for us, we now face the alarming possibility that real kids will disappear altogether. As soon as they stop being babies we’ll just be left with fat adolescents! Aaarrrgh! It’s every paedo’s worst nightmare! Maybe, with no children around, true paedos as opposed to hebephiles will also become extinct, thereby presenting the world with a fortuitously bloodless Final Solution to the paedo problem. But at what a price: grotesquely ugly fat kids, largely housebound, barely able to waddle around, and many of them suffering from obesity-related diseases such as diabetes. O brave new world!
Keep calm, though, we aren’t there yet. Unlike climate change, the problem is undeniable and there is a strong motivation to tackle it.
So let’s consider what puberty means in terms of a child’s awakening sexuality. The first point to note is vital and often overlooked: while there is certainly a correlation between the approach of puberty and increasing libido, it is nowhere near a one-to-one match. Some kids, for whatever reason, become highly sexual in early childhood, many years before puberty. Any number of examples could be given from sexual episodes observed between kindergarten kids (see Mickey and Maria make out in kindergarten) but my favourite of recent times is “queer kid” Noah Michelson’s personal account of his childhood lusts and longings in “Dancing In His Underwear for the Garbage Man”.
As for what is more “normal”, or usual, too little research has been undertaken. One recent study (Ostovich & Sabini) puts first recalled sexual arousal in men on average at 1.9 years before puberty. This study relies, unreliably, on asking men to think backwards from when they first noticed having pubic hair. Even allowing for inaccuracy, though, it is plain there is usually a substantial period of around two years during which boys are significantly sexual not just as preteens but even before they hit double figures. Thus they will typically still be prepubescent (Stage 1 on the Tanner Scale: small genitals and no pubic hair at all) at the age when typically they have already experienced sexual arousal. In my case it was definitely three years. How about you?
It is often incorrectly assumed that all the major developments of sexual maturation take place during pubescence (typically from 11-14): enlargement of the genitals, pubic hair, breast growth and menstruation in girls, sperm secretion and ejaculation in boys. But there are major changes going on beforehand, beginning with a “mini-puberty” known as adrenarche around ages 6-8, as Heretic TOC noted last year in The magical age of 10?
In that blog I was reporting on a paper published in 2000. Another study, just out, is “Middle childhood: An evolutionary-developmental synthesis”, by Marco del Giudice, a researcher known to me through Sexnet. Free full-text download. Those with a particular interest in the evolutionary aspect can read about it from the man himself.
Briefly, adrenarche is when the adrenal glands begin to secrete increasing amounts of androgens. These can convert to the sex hormones oestrogen or testosterone in the brain, where they have powerful effects on sexual brain development and functioning. Adrenarche provides the brain’s framework for the different sexual psychology of boys and girls, which is then followed by gonadarche, when boys’ testes and girls’ ovaries are awakened at the beginning of puberty.
Thus there is lots going on inside sexually before it becomes visibly apparent outside.
“It is no coincidence,” we are told, “that the first sexual and romantic attractions typically develop in middle childhood, in tandem with the intensification of sexual play.”
Now, here’s a thing no one seems to have focused on: if the age of puberty is falling, then presumably so is the age of adrenarche that leads to it. If so, then the “sexual and romantic attractions” of prepubertal children are being experienced and undergoing “intensification” earlier.
I leave heretics here to ponder the implications.
*Legal disclaimer: this is a JOKE. Heretic TOC is not advocating unauthorized examinations.