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Research on youth sexuality


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

Childhood Sexuality
Floyd M. Martinson
n Human Sexuality: An encyclopedia, New York: Garland Publishing, 1994, p. 111-116.

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

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

Ethical Treatment for All Youth

About the author


Important notes:

1. This research (see references in left sidebar) describes sexual behavior without making judgments about whether it is socially appropriate. The goal is to make clear the characteristics of the behaviors involved in order to determine a response that does not harm the youth it is intended to protect.

2. Researchers agree that there is a fundamental lack of knowledge about children's sexual behavior and what is scientifically defined as normal. Due to the taboo surrounding youth sexuality and to legal and political constraints, little research has been conducted.

3. Studies giving frequencies of various childhood sexual behaviors are highly variable since behavior varies among groups and individuals due to differences in culture, moral beliefs, values, development, and strength of sexual feelings.

Early childhood: Ages 0 - 5

  • Sexual curiosity, arousal, and behavior are spontaneously expressed unless the child is taught to inhibit them.

  • Children in the first two years of life engage in simple pleasurable handling of their genitals.

  • A few begin masturbating before age 2, but many begin at age 2 or 3 as they have developed sufficient muscle coordination.

  • If left unsupervised, play among 2- or 3-year olds can be sexual, although interest in sex play is not dominant.

  • In an Israeli kevutza, one researcher found play among two year olds sometimes included kissing each other, and touching each others' genitals.

  • At age 4, curiosity about their own genitals and those of peers increases. They may fondle their own genitalia and show them to others.

  • 4- or 5- year olds like to talk about objects and activities that they sense adults consider dirty or taboo, including those that refer to body parts and sexual functions. They may use them to shock or challenge adults or to tease peers.

  • Doctor/nurse/patient games and similar forms of play become common. They may involve examining, touching, and manipulating others' genitals. Sex play is spontaneous, light-hearted, and exploratory rather than goal oriented.

  • Even play as intimate as kissing of others' genitals is reported by nursery school staff.

  • Occasionally, 5-year olds may attempt intercourse if they have learned about it from parents or other children.

Middle childhood: Ages 6 - 9

  • Freud suggested that this was a time of sexual latency, when the healthy child ceased all sexual interest and was vulnerable to trauma if he or she experienced sexuality. Researchers find little evidence to support this theory.

  • Boys enjoy rule-breaking, including "talking dirty", and they get visibly excited while engaging in such talk. Sexual language and jokes increase during this time. Some boys may share pornography with each other.

  • Girls have giggling sessions with their friends, with sex often being the source of amusement.

  • Children may like to talk to their mother privately about sex, marriage, pregnancy, and birth, but may be disturbed about thoughts of intercourse and/or delivery. Their questions may persist over a long period of time.

  • They may be sensitive about an opposite sex sibling or playmate seeing them without clothing.

  • On the other hand, they continue to be curious about anatomical differences; playing "show" and "doctor" help satisfy that curiosity.

  • Sexual fantasies among 8- or 9-year olds might take any form known to adults. One study showed they were aided by photos of nudes or pornographic magazines, or involved people the children knew.

  • Greater peer group activity can lead to group masturbation and sexual experimentation. If children are left unsupervised, sex play is predictable.

  • How sexual the activity becomes depends on how much sexual activity the children have observed and how permissive the society is. Children in cultures where they are able to observe adult sexual relations will engage in copulatory behaviors as early as 6 or 7 years of age.

  • A 1943 study of primarily white, middle and upper-middle class Midwestern urban boys found that 16% had had intercourse by age 8.

  • Sex play with older children is also common. Some is pleasant to the child, some is not. Children's interest and curiosity about sex may be exploited by older siblings or extended family members and caretakers.

  • Children become interested in boy/girl relationships and may have a girlfriend or boyfriend, but but these relationships tend to be short with little personal involvement.

Prepubescence: Age 10 to Puberty

  • Most boys understand the fundamentals of intercourse. Some view pornographic magazines together.

  • If there is any boy-girl pairing, it is usually done because the culture expects it. The relationships are predominantly social rather than sexual.

  • There are kissing games and more serious goal-directed kissing, frequently marked by excitement, erotic overtones, embarrassment, or guilt. Some is experienced very positively, some very negatively. Many American children acquire experience with deep kissing.

  • Often a sexual experience occurs as a result of a specific occasion such as an athletic event, a band or play rehearsal, a sleepover, a visit to cousins, or a party. Activities sometimes change from games or dancing into more intimate caressing and fondling. However, mutual genital fondling is not a universal experience in the United States.

  • A small proportion involves genital to genital contact or mouth to genital contact.

  • At least some American children experience oral sex, anal sex, or intercourse prior to puberty.

  • Studies are highly variable, finding that before age 13, from one-third to half have engaged in sex play, and from 20% to one-third have attempted or completed intercourse. One study found sexual activity was more frequent for boys in the lower socio-educational level, who had received sexual information from older boys or adult males. Their activity involved fondling, mutual masturbation, or fellatio.

  • While sexual intercourse is not common at this age in the U.S., it is established practice in some societies. Annual surveys by the U.S. Center for Disease Control find that about 4% of girls and 11% of boys have had intercourse before age 13. (See survey results.)

  • Studies have found that one-third to one-half of children have engaged in same-gender activity (such as masturbation, touching of the genitals, or exhibitionism) by age 14. (This appears to be unrelated to adult sexual orientation.)

Early adolescence: Pubescence to Age 14 or 15

  • The age of pubescence is highly variable: usually between 11 and 13, and generally occurs earlier for girls.

  • As the hormones come into play, there are rapid growth spurts and increasingly intense physical sensations. Sexual behaviors respond to a stronger biological mandate and the genital focus intensifies. Sexual experience may be the paramount goal.

  • Some heterosexuals are still engaging in sexual activity and exploration with same-sex peers.

  • Masturbation increases in frequency, and may be experienced alone or in groups.

  • Boys often acquire pornographic materials.

  • Some early adolescents fall in love and openly express their affectionate feelings.

  • Acquisition of partners gains importance. But couples are fluid and change often, with little intimacy or commitment.

  • Kissing is a favorite activity.

  • Many heterosexual girls report experiencing a physical response in their involvement with boys.

  • Many heterosexual boys are interested in having sex with girls at 13, but are too awkward in their approach. A few actively seek sex with girls.

  • 14 year old girls often prefer older boys because they have more social poise. Some initiate regular partner sex, but most are still group oriented, pairing off occasionally at parties and informal get-togethers.

  • A professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester says about 20% of U.S. 14 to 15 year olds report having sexual intercourse, and even more engage in other sexual behavior. (See article)

  • Gay youth may or may not be involved in sexual activity with peers even though there is more opportunity for them than there is for many heterosexual youths. Many have gradual awareness of not being attracted to the opposite sex, but do not identify themselves as homosexual or bisexual.

Mid to Late Adolescence

  • By age 15, most boys have established a regular pattern of sexual activity; masturbation increases, and some regularly engage in sexual activity with a partner ranging from petting to intercourse.

  • Homosexual teens may fall in love and identify themselves as homosexual.

  • Most heterosexual girls are worried about their reputation and fear being found out, but may decide to have intercourse if they are in love, if they trust the boy, and if the relationship seems secure.

  • Some heterosexual boys, experiencing the sexual urgency of adolescence, may attempt to persuade, manipulate, and coerce girls into intercourse.

  • National data from 1988 indicate that one quarter of U.S. females and one third of males have had intercourse by age 15.

  • Annual surveys since 2000 by the U.S. Center for Disease Control find that half of all high school students have had intercourse. (See survey results.)

  • Sexual gratification is often eventually integrated into the context of a relationship with sexual reciprocity and mutual sharing.

  • Many girls and some boys at this age feel they are not ready for intercourse, and couples may instead engage in mutual masturbation or oral sex.

Sex play among siblings and older or younger children

Researcher Floyd Martinson writes that because of the constant, close interaction of siblings, sex play may occur between them, often arising out of their liking for each other. A 1980 study of college students found 10% to 15% had had a childhood sexual experience with a brother or sister. 40% had been under the age of 8 at the time. The most common activities were touching and fondling of the genitals. 30% reported positive reactions and 30% reported negative reactions, but most did not have strong feelings about these experiences. Some type of coercion had been used in one quarter of the experiences; negative reactions tend to be associated with coercion.

Martinson also writes that in the process of growing up, it is common for children to have encounters involving exposing or sexual touching in which the other child is either too young or too old to be regarded as a peer. Some encounters are pleasant to the child, others are not. Some are clearly abusive. Negative reactions tend to be more common the larger the age difference.

Cultural and historical variation

The extent of children's sexual activity depends on the culture and homes in which they have been brought up, and on how knowledgeable they are. In different cultures, communities, and socioeconomic groups, stages of sexual development occur at different times and last longer or shorter depending on the permissiveness of adults and the support of peers. Children in cultures which permit or encourage early sexual expression display a developmental pattern different from that seen in sexually restrictive societies such as the U.S. The following behavior is seen in such cultures:

  • In early childhood, masturbation alone and in groups leads to exploration and experimentation among children of same and opposite gender.

  • Mutual masturbation, oral stimulation of the genitals, and intercourse take place between children anywhere between ages five and twelve.

  • Late childhood (prepubescence) is characterized by heterosexual role modeling and attempted intercourse; girls may begin having regular intercourse with older boys.

  • In pubescence, adult-like sexual patterns replace earlier ones.

In addition, sexual attitudes in western society have changed over time. Sexual exploitation of children was freely indulged in until the latter half of the 18th century, when it was repudiated. Then parents began to discipline children for their sexual curiosity and activity. During the Victorian era, the cultural belief that childhood was free of sexual knowledge, interest, and behavior coexisted with constant adult surveillance of children's sexuality. This produced a pervasive negative preoccupation with sexuality and a category of emotional disorders labeled "psychosexual."

America today

There is little agreement in American society about what is age-appropriate sexual behavior for children, except that it not be purposely harmful. Researcher Loretta Haroian writes that the mental health community has a poorly defined concept of sexual health. Its definition of sexual pathology often fails to consider the broad range of human sexual activity and its developmental aspects.

Most American parents seem agreed that the socialization of young children should inhibit sexual impulses toward peers and family members. Parents control information (using closed bedroom doors, separate sleeping arrangements for each child, separate bathing, and early modesty training) to keep dormant the young child's curiosity and to limit sexual activity.

Haroian writes that children are subject to the values of their parents and advises parents be clear about their rules without burdening the child with fear and guilt. In addition, children may need protection from the liability of sexual contracts. She writes that this does not suggest that there is inherent harm in sexual expression in childhood; in fact, there is considerable evidence to the contrary. That is, she makes a distinction between social appropriateness or morality on the one hand, and harmfulness on the other.


1. From a scientific perspective, we do not know what constitutes normal childhood sexual behavior or feelings.

2. Sexual behavior varies drastically among different groups of people due to their moral beliefs, values, social class, and culture. Sexual feelings and behaviors also vary widely among youth due to individual differences and variations in development.

3. It is apparent that large numbers of children at almost all ages may engage in more extensive behaviors with each other than we have realized, including adult-like behaviors such as genital and oral contact, and sometimes even intercourse.

4. Some of the behaviors mentioned above are harmful. However, many are socially unacceptable because they would be classified as immoral or indecent by many people, not because they are harmful.