Child sexuality

Child sexuality refers to phenomena researched as the sexual feelings, behaviors and development of children.

Two basic views

Theories of sexual development may be broadly divided into two schools of thought:

  1. Those which tend to emphasize innate biology, which may be encouraged or disturbed during childhood. That is, that human sexual development is primarily a biological process and thus basically similar across cultures, and that there is thus a relatively narrow model for healthy sexual development, although this may be disturbed by the influence of the larger culture or by other means. This is the approach used most often in the medical study of child development.
  2. Those which tend to emphasize sexuality as a social construct (with child sexuality strongly influenced by the larger society). This latter school often uses the terms normative (culturally appropriate behavior) and non-normative (culturally inappropriate behavior), and is the approach used in most social scholarship.


Early research

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), in his 1905 work Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, outlined a theory of psychosexual development with five distinct phases: the oral stage (0 - 1.5 years), the anal stage (1.5 - 3.5 years), the phallic stage (3.5 - 6 years) culminating in the resolution of the Oedipus conflict followed by a period of sexual latency (6 years to puberty) and the genital, or adult, stage. Freud's basic thesis was that children's early sexuality is polymorphous and that strong incestual drives develop, and the child must harness or sublimate these to develop a healthy adult sexuality.

Freud's theories were developed about a century ago in an environment differing from the modern, and his research was largely confined to his own observations and readings. Some of Freud's theories (such as penis envy) have been largely superseded, and many modern experts consider his work obsolete, and the core body of his work has never been entirely accepted by the scientific and medical communities.

Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956), whose two seminal works are the Kinsey Reports (1948 and 1953), marshalled the resources to make the first large-scale surveys of sexual behavior. Kinsey's work focuses on adults, but he also studied children and developed the first statistical reports of childhood masturbation. Critics have stated that some of the data in the reports could not have been obtained without observation or participation in child sexual abuse, or through collaborations with child molesters. Swedish researcher IngBeth Larsson, writing in 2000, notes that "It is quite common for references still to cite Alfred Kinsey", due to the paucity of subsequent large-scale studies of children's sexual behavior.

Current methodology of study

Empirical knowledge about child sexual behaviour is not usually gathered by direct interviews of children, (partly due to ethical considerations), but rather by:


Normative and non-normative behaviors

Although there is variation between individuals, children generally are curious about their own bodies and those of others and engage in explorative sex play.SEX PLAY: parenting strategies by Dr. Marilyn HeinsPPP: Health and Safety || When Children's Play Involves Sexuality || Sex play is normal However, the concept of child sexuality is fundamentally different from goal-driven adult sexual behavior, and observed bodily penetration and oral-genital contact (sometimes described as imitations of adult behaviors) are very uncommon, but are more common among children who have been sexually abused. In one study of Swedish students, 7.1% of boys and 1.4% of girls reported engaging in vaginal intercourse before the age of 13. Children with other types of behaviour disorder may also display more behaviours of a sexual nature than other children.

Some activities are thought to be relatively harmless in certain cultures. Okami et al. (1997) found no association between childhood peer sexual experiences, including games involving masturbation, and later adjustment. This study did not distinguish between children who were involved in penetrative activities (of which the sample was too small to be measured) and children who were involved in other activities defined as sex play ("theme sex games such as 'doctor,' 'house,' or 'mom and dad'").

In a 2002 study of 269 Swedish students, 30% of those who had a sexual experience with a peer before the age of 13 assessed the activity as having had a positive effect on them as an adult, 66% thought it had no positive or negative effects, and 4% reported a negative effect. Except one, all of the subjects who reported a negative effect were involved in coercive activities. This study did not distinguish between the types of activities.

Symptomatic behaviors

Children who have been the victim of child sexual abuse sometimes show sexualized behavior, which may be defined as expressed behavior that is non-normative for the culture. Typical symptomatic behaviors may include excessive or public masturbation, and coercing, manipulating or tricking other children into non-consensual or unwanted sexual activities, sometimes defined as "child-on-child sexual abuse". Sexualized behavior is thought to constitute the best indication that a child has been sexually abused, although some victims do not exhibit abnormal behavior. However, a 2004 study contended that "[Childhood] sexual behavior is not as valid a marker of sexual abuse as once thought."

Children who exhibit sexualized behavior may also have other behavioral problems, although factors other than sexual abuse may cause these problems. Other symptoms of child sexual abuse may include manifestations of post-traumatic stress in younger children; fear, aggression, and nightmares in young school-age children; and depression in older children.

Normative behavior

The following sections describe typical culturally-normed behavior in most current developed Western societies.

Early childhood

The term early childhood may cover up through ages four, five, or six, depending on the focus of the particular researcher or commentator. During this period,

Masturbation and orgasm

Recent studies in Sweden indicate that masturbation in children of this age is observed with incidence between 6% and 14%, and more common with boys than with girls. The observers generally "judged the masturbation to be associated with relaxation and desire on the part of the child." (pp. 17-19) . Some researchers have suggested that child masturbation may be considered nonsexual if the child has not learned to associate it with sex.

Until boys start producing semen (around puberty), they can only experience dry orgasms. The ability to ejaculate develops gradually and its timing has been relatively constant across cultures over the last century.

Early school age

Early school age covers approximately ages five, six, and seven.

Children become more aware of gender differences, and tend to choose same-sex friends and playmates, even disparaging the opposite sex. Children may drop their close attachment to their opposite-sex parent and become more attached to their same-sex parent.

During this time children, especially girls, show increased awareness of social mores regarding sex, nudity, and privacy. Children may use sexual terms to test adult reaction. "Bathroom humor" (jokes and conversation relating to excretory functions), present in earlier stages, continues.

Masturbation continues to be common.

Some generally-accepted prescriptions (American) are that during early school years, children should learn these concepts:

Middle childhood

'Middle childhood' covers the ages from about six to about nine, depending on the methodology and the behavior being studied. Individual development varies considerably.

As this stage progresses, children's choice of same-sex friends becomes more marked, extending to disparagement of the opposite sex.Adolescent and child sexuality

Later childhood age

Some generally-accepted prescriptions (American) are that during this period children should learn:

The age of puberty has fallen about four years over the last century, in most places.

Sex play among siblings

In a study of 796 undergraduates, 15% of females and 10% of males reported some form of sexual experience involving a sibling; most of these fell short of actual intercourse. Approximately one quarter of these experiences were described as abusive or exploitive. The effect of non-exploitive sibling sex play is unclear, with some studies suggesting long term effects, both positive and negative, and others finding no significant effects.SpringerLink - Journal ArticleSpringerLink - Journal Article

Legal aspects

In many countries and localities, sexual relationships that involve children, even consensual ones, are prohibited by statutory rape and child sexual abuse laws. Some, but not all, of these countries allow youth who are close in age to have sexual relationships, although there is usually a minimum age below which such relationships are considered statutory rape regardless of the closeness in age.

The age at which a minor may legally consent to sexual relations with a person of any age is referred to as the age of consent and varies from country to country.

Cultural issues

Sexualization of children

Some cultural critics have postulated that over recent decades children have evidenced a level of sexual knowledge or sexual behaviour inappropriate for their age group. A number of different causes are cited, including media portrayals of sex and related issues, especially in media aimed at children; marketing of products with sexual connotations to childrenlack of parental oversight and discipline;BBC NEWS | Education | Pupils warned not to wear thongs and access to adult culture via the Internet.

Historical and tribal societies

Child sexuality, like adult sexuality, may take many forms and be gauged by different norms in different societies. Thus, a given behavior that is problematic in one society may be normative in another. For instance, observations of early Tahitian society indicate childhood sexual activity was more openly encouraged than normally found in other societies.

Explorers and researchers such as Etienne Marchand, Adam Johann von Krusenstern, R.C. Suggs (1961), Fredrick O'Brien (1919), and others discovered the Marquesas had unique sexual customs considered deviant to Westerners. Children were permitted and sometimes encouraged to engage in sexual play with other children, encouraged to learn from adults by observation, and experiment with adults but with care taken to prevent activities that would cause pregnancy unless socially beneficial to the family. Western society has changed many of these customs so research into their pre-Western social history has to be done by reading antique writings.