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Research on youth sexuality

More information about child sexuality:

Summary of Research
Ethical Treatment for All Youth

Child Sexual Development
Loretta Haroian, Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality

Childhood Sexuality
Floyd M. Martinson, in Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia

The Sexual Life of Children
Floyd M. Martinson

Childhood Sexuality
David L. Weis, in The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality


1. Bass, J., personal communication, The Kinsey Institute, June 17, 2003.

2. Cantwell, H., “Child sexual abuse: Very young perpetrators,” Child Abuse and Neglect, vol. 12, pp. 579-582, 1988.

3. Chaffin, M., & Bonner, B., “'Don't Shoot, We're Your Children': Have We Gone Too Far in Our Response to Adolescent Sexual Abusers and Children With Sexual Behavior Problems?”, Child Maltreatment, vol. 3, no. 4, pp. 314-316, 1998.

4. Haroian, L, “Child Sexual Development,” monograph prepared for student use at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, ca. 1985.

5. Johnson, T.C. & Gil, E., Assessment and Treatment of Sexualized Children and Children Who Molest, Launch Press, 1993.
Review by the Institute for Psychological Therapies
“A good deal of normative and developmentally appropriate sexual behavior by young children appears to be readily defined as molesting in nature.”

6. Martinson, F.M., Childhood Sexuality, in Human Sexuality: An encyclopedia, New York: Garland Publishing, 1994, p. 111-116.

7. Martinson, F.M., The Sexual Life of Children, Bergin & Garvey, 1994.

8. Okami, P., “'Child Perpetrators of Sexual Abuse': The Emergence of a Problematic Deviant Category,” Journal of Sex Research, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 209-130, 1992.

9. Weis, D.L., Childhood Sexuality, in Robert T. Francoeur (ed.), The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, New York: Continuum, 1997.

Ethical Treatment for All Youth
Email: etay@ethicaltreatment.org

About the author


No scientifically established norms

In medicine and mental health, we hope that definitions of normality and illness are based on scientific research. But in the case of childhood sexual development, there is little knowledge to go on.

  • "The development and expression of the erotic response throughout the human lifespan is not a well studied phenomenon, and normative data have not been compiled for sexual behaviors of childhood and adolescence."4
    --Researcher Loretta Haroian, Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality

  • "Within American culture, childhood sexuality remains an area that has been largely unexplored by researchers...A recent review, Sexuality Research in the United Slates: An Assessment of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, is notable for the fact that it never mentions childhood sexuality...the field of child development, a sizable branch of American psychology, has largely ignored the issue of sexuality in their work."9
    --Researcher David Weis

  • "We did convene a research seminar several years ago on Sexual Development in Children, trying to come up with a consensus statement on what constitutes healthy or normal childhood sexuality. That was not possible."1
    --Jennifer L. Bass, Head of Information Services, Kinsey Institute

As a result, beyond the unacceptability of coercive behavior, beliefs by the public and by professionals about what is normal sexuality for children are based on morality and standards of decency. Parents and society have good reasons for maintaining such standards, but they are not sufficient for labeling children as disordered, a term which implies a medical or psychiatric condition.

Labeling children as abnormal anyway

One article about childhood sexual deviance says, “While norms do not presently exist for what is normal sexual behavior of children, the behaviors exhibited...led us to label the behaviors as being outside the normal range of sexual activity for their age group.” When asked at a professional meeting how to decide what is normal, the author replied, “There is no real way to say this. I mean, I'm saying it--I hope I'm correct.”8

UCLA researcher Paul Okami notes that such writers “are by tacit admission defining behaviors as 'abnormal' on the basis of their own perception of what is usual or unusual or what they perceive to be acceptable or unacceptable.8 The potential for serious harm is enormous, considering the severe stigma that sexual deviance places on children, and the willingness of society to use extreme treatment methods and harsh police action on these children. When knowledge is in short supply, untested assumptions and fears take its place.

Common behaviors defined as abnormal

Although there are no scientifically established norms of childhood sexual behavior, anthropological, sociological, and medical research finds that most children engage in sexual activity alone or with each other if they are not restricted from doing so. Some of these behaviors are quite extensive, and parents may be justified in prohibiting them, but that does not mean they are abnormal.

  • “Taken together, these studies demonstrate that many American children develop and maintain an erotic interest in the other or same sex, and begin experiencing a wide range of sexual behaviors as early as age 5 to 6. It is not uncommon for Americans to report that they remember 'playing doctor' or similar games that provide opportunities for observing and touching the genitals of other children...These studies also provide evidence that at least some American children experience sexual fondling, oral sex, anal sex, and intercourse prior to puberty.”9
    --Researcher David L. Weis

  • “Indeed, cross-cultural data suggest a surprisingly uniform course of children's sexual development and behavior within societies which neither overtly encourage nor strenuously prohibit sexual rehearsal play. This course of development and behavior has also been noted in our own society within subcultures and individual families where few negative meanings are attached to childhood expressions of sexuality...Most of the behaviors alluded to here under the rubric sexual rehearsal play--'exhibitionism,' mutual masturbation, genital exploration, attempts at intercourse and actual intercourse—fall well within definitions of 'perpetration behavior' proposed by writers such as Johnson, Cantwell, and Gil.”8
    --Researcher Paul Okami

Those who classify children's sexual behavior as abnormal are generally unaware of this research. For example, one writer asserts that “explicit sexual behavior in children needs to be reported, investigated, and/or discussed,” and says that children should be encouraged “to tell someone if anyone, even a same-age child, approaches them initiating sexual play.”2 Others label common, developmentally appropriate sexual behavior among children as “molesting” and write that these children “need intensive supervision in the home setting and around other children.”5

A news report by a Cleveland TV station, based on the work of another childhood deviance expert, says such behavior is an indication of the early stages of pedophilia:

The sexual interest in much younger children may begin to appear at 11, 12, or 13, so experts say the sixth grade is an appropriate time to talk to children about such sexual feelings...Spotting warning signs in children and adolescents can be tricky, but parents can look for a youngster who seems to be interested in sexual activity, uses sexually explicit language, or seems to be approaching other children in a sexual manner.

Definitions based on relative criteria

According to researchers, children's sexual behavior may vary tremendously depending on culture, parental values, socioeconomic status, and individual differences among children.

  • “...even in a society such as ours that goes to great pains to restrict sexual activity among children, children go through stages of heterosexual development. In some communities and socioeconomic groups, these stages begin in preadolescence or earlier. The stages also take longer or shorter to complete depending on sexual and social maturity, the permissiveness of superiors, and the support of peers.”7
    --Researcher Floyd Martinson

  • “In the absence of normative data on the behavioral manifestations of the development of the erotic response from birth through adolescence, we must, for the moment at least, hypothesize a normal distribution of an infinitive population. We assume then that there will be some highly sexed children for whom sexual concerns and sexual expression will be a dominant theme...with some fluctuation in the various stages of development and in response to certain circumstances. There will be a like number of children for whom sexual concerns and expression are a consistently low priority...The middle 68%...would be more easily influenced by external events (i.e., they would be more liberal in sexually permissive times or cultures and more conservative in sexually restrictive times or cultures).”4
    --Researcher Loretta Haroian

There is no level of sexual knowledge, feelings, or behavior among children that has been scientifically established as normal, and above which it can be classified as abnormal. Thus, when children's sexual interest or behavior is classified as "unusual," "excessive," "developmentally inappropriate," "precocious," or "beyond their developmental level," it is based on cultural and moral standards, not medical, scientific, or psychological criteria:

Assumption that socially inappropriate behavior is caused by abuse

While it is true that abused children may act out violently and/or sexually and require mental health care, the research discussed above shows that it is wrong to assume that extensive or adult-like sexual behavior indicates sexual victimization. According to researcher David L. Weis, this assumption “rests on the American premise that childhood should be devoid of sexuality...The fact that this view ignores much of the existing data seems to have had little impact on either the American public or many professionals working with children.”9 Two leading therapists recently admitted that this assumption is not supported by evidence, writing, “The field has evolved conventional wisdoms...These might include [the belief] that a history of personal victimization is usually present...scientific support for each and every one of these conventional wisdoms is either minimal or nonexistent.”3

Yet most influential writers continue to assume or imply that abuse is the cause of most sexual behavior among children, classifying these children as sexually reactive or sexualized children.5, 8 Of course, parents usually wish to prohibit children's sexual behavior, and children who act sexually with older children risk being exploited. However, that does not mean it is disordered, and research does not suggest it is inherently harmful.4

Understanding the Issue

When experts are wrong
Casualties of war
   Lack of knowledge
   Confused definitions
   Invalid instruments
   Humiliation as therapy
   Arousal reconditioning
   Dangerous drugs
   Sriking comparisons
   Sample materials
   Convos with providers
Ethical violations
Deja vu