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Research on youth sexuality
Child Sexual Development
monograph prepared for student use at the Institute for Advanced Study
of Human Sexuality, ca. 1985.
Floyd M. Martinson
In Human Sexuality: An encyclopedia, New York:
Garland Publishing, 1994, p. 111-116.
The Sexual Life of Children
Floyd M. Martinson
Bergin & Garvey, 1994.
David L. Weis
In Robert T. Francoeur (ed.),
The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, New York:
Ethical Treatment for
About the author
CHILD AND ADOLESCENT SEXUALITY
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
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.
giving frequencies of various childhood sexual behaviors are highly
since behavior varies among groups and individuals due to differences
in culture, moral beliefs, values, development, and strength of sexual
Early childhood: Ages 0 - 5
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
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.
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
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.
become interested in boy/girl relationships and may have a girlfriend
or boyfriend, but but these relationships tend to be short with little
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
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
11% of boys have had intercourse before age 13. (See survey
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
surveys since 2000 by the U.S. Center for Disease Control find that
half of all high
school students have had intercourse. (See survey
Sexual gratification is
often eventually integrated into the context of a relationship with
sexual reciprocity and mutual sharing.
girls and some boys at this age feel they are not ready for
intercourse, and couples may instead engage in mutual masturbation or
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.
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
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,
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.
(prepubescence) is characterized by heterosexual role modeling and
attempted intercourse; girls may begin having regular intercourse with
pubescence, adult-like sexual patterns replace earlier ones.
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."
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.
American parents seem agreed that the socialization of young children
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
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.
behavior varies drastically among different groups of people due to
their moral beliefs, values, social class, and culture. Sexual feelings
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
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.