Psychology Wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Developmental Psychology: Cognitive development · Development of the self · Emotional development · Language development · Moral development · Perceptual development · Personality development · Psychosocial development · Social development · Developmental measures

Child sexuality refers to sexual feelings, behavior and development in 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),[1] and is the approach used in most social scholarship and most discussed in this article.


Early research

The two most famous figures in child sexuality research are probably Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956).

Freud's 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.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Some of Freud's theories (such as penis envy) have been largely superseded, and many modern experts consider his work obsolete, but the core body of his work has never been entirely either accepted or rejected by the scientific and medical communities.

Alfred Kinsey, 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.

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.[1]

Current methodology of study

Empirical knowledge about child sexual behaviour is not usually gathered by direct interviews of children, (partly due to ethical considerations),[1] but rather by:

  • Observing children being treated for problematical behavior such as use of force in sex play,[2] often using dolls having genitals.[3]
  • Recollections by adults.[4] and
  • Observation by caregivers.[5]


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.[6][7] However, child sexuality is fundamentally different from goal-driven adult sexual behavior, and imitation of adult behaviors such as bodily penetration and oral-genital contact are very uncommon,[8] but are more common among children who have been sexually abused.[1] Children with other types of behaviour disorder may also display more behaviours of a sexual nature than other children.[1]

Symptomatic behaviors

Children who have been the victim of sexual abuse usually show sexualized behavior,[9][10] which may be defined as expressed behavior that is non-normative for the culture. Typical symptomatic behaviors in developed societies may include attempting to involve other children in unwanted sexual activities, and excessive masturbation or public masturbation. Sexualized behavior can constitute the best indication that a child has been sexually abused, although some victims do not exhibit abnormal behavior.[9]

Children who exhibit sexualized behavior may also have other behavioral problems, although factors other than sexual abuse may cause these problems.[10] Other symptoms of 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.[9]

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 to ages four, five, or six, depending on the focus of the particular researcher or commentator. During this period,

  • Children are often curious about where babies come from.[11]
  • Children may explore other children's and adults' bodies out of curiosity.[11]
  • By age four, children may show significant attachment to the opposite-sex parent.[11]
  • Children begin to have a sense of modesty and of the difference between private and public behavior.[11]
  • For many children, genital touching increases, especially when they are tired or upset.[11]
  • Some generally-accepted prescriptions (American) are that during this period children should learn:
    • That touching their sex organs is normal, and to seek privacy when they want to touch their sex organs for pleasure.[12]
    • The biological differences between males and females, and how babies are made.[12]
    • That the child's body belongs to himself or herself, and how to say "no" to unwanted touching.[12]
    • The correct terms for sexual body parts, and how to talk about all their body parts without feeling naughty.[12]

Masturbation and orgasm

According to Alfred Kinsey's research in the 1950s, children are capable of experiencing orgasm from the age of five months. Kinsey observed that among three-year-olds, girls more often masturbated than boys. Lubrication of the vagina was also observed on sexually aroused girls, similar to that of adult women. Until boys start producing semen (around puberty), they can only experience dry orgasms.

More recent studies in Sweden indicate that masturbation in children of this age is unusual, and more common with boys than with girls.[1]

Some researchers have suggested that child masturbation may be considered nonsexual if the child has not learned to associate it with sex.[13]

Early school age

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

Children become more aware of gender differences,[14] and tend to choose same-sex friends and playmates,[14] even disparaging the opposite sex.[14] Children may drop their close attachment to their opposite-sex parent and become more attached to their same-sex parent.[11]

During this time children, especially girls,[15] show increased awareness of social mores regarding sex, nudity, and privacy.[15] Children may use sexual terms to test adult reaction.[11] "Bathroom humor" (jokes and conversation relating to excretory functions), present in earlier stages, continues.[16]

Masturbation continues to be common.[11][16]

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

  • That all creatures reproduce themselves, and how plants and animals grow and reproduce.[12]
  • That all people, including the child's parents and grandparents, live through a life cycle that has a beginning and an end and includes sexuality at all ages.[12]
  • That people experience sexual pleasure in a number of ways, and that it is normal to have sexual thoughts and fantasies.[12]
  • About non-stereotyped gender roles, and that sexual identity includes sexual orientation (lesbian, gay, straight, or bisexual).[12]
  • About sexual abuse and its dangers — that sexual predators may seem kind, giving, and loving, and may be friends or family members; and to protect themselves from potential sexual abuse.[12]

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.[17]

Sexual activities

  • A 1943 study of primarily white, middle and upper-middle class Midwestern urban boys found that 16% claimed to have had experienced coitus (more likely attempted coitus) by age 8.[18]

Later childhood age

  • Some generally-accepted prescriptions (American) are that during this period children should learn:
    • The general stages of sexual development in young humans of each sex and the general timing of normal development (including emotional changes).[12]
    • That sex is pleasurable.[12]
    • Knowledge about aspects of sex in society, including prostitution, rape, and exploitive relationships.[12]
    • How to protect oneself against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.[12]

The age of puberty has fallen about four years over the last century, in most places.[19] This is probably due to changes in diet (primarily nutrition) and increasingly sedentary lifestyles. [How to reference and link to summary or text]

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 fourth of these experiences were described as abusive or exploitive. The effect of non-exploitive sibling sexplay is unclear, with some studies suggesting long term effects, both positive and negative, and others finding no significant effects.[20][21]

Legal aspects

In some societies (for example, in the United States, where the age of consent varies between states from 14-18)[22] all sexual relationships between children, even consensual, are prohibited by statutory rape laws. 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.

In other jurisdictions (for example, some Australian states) there is no prohibition against similarly aged children engaging in consensual sex acts from as young as 10.[23]

Cultural issues

Sexualization of children

The sexualization of children in Western cultures emerged in the latter part of the twentieth century as a noted concern across various sectors (religious, feminist, educators, etc.).

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.[24] 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 children[25] (for example the Bratz Baby dolls that wear thongs); lack of parental oversight and discipline;[26] access to adult culture via the internet; and school sex education programs[How to reference and link to summary or text].

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.[27]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Larsson, IngBeth. Child sexuality and sexual behaviour (2000, Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare (report), Article number 2000-36-001. English translation (Lambert & Tudball) Article number 2001-123-20. PDF file.
  2. Gil & Cavanagh Johnson, 1993, op. cit.; Cavanagh Johnson, T., Feldmeth, J. R. (1993). "Sexual behaviors – a continuum". In I. E. Gil & T. Cavanagh Johnson. Sexualized Children (pp. 39 – 52); Friedrich, W. N., Grambsch, P., Damon, L., Hewitt, S., Koverola, C., Lang, R., Wolfe, V., Broughton, D. (1992). "Child sexual behavior inventory: Normative and clinical comparisons". Psychological Assessment, vol. 4, no.3:303 – 311. Cited in Larsson, 2000, op. cit.
  3. Cohn, D. S. (1991). "Anatomic doll play of preschoolers referred for sexual abuse and those not referred". Child Abuse & Neglect 15:455 – 466.; Everson & Boat, 1991; Jampole, L. & Weber, M. K. (1987). "An assessment of the behavior of sexually abused and nonabused children with anatomically correct dolls". Child Abuse & Neglect: 11 187 – 192.; Sivan, A., Schor, D., Koeppl, G., Noble, L. (1988). "Interaction of normal children with anatomic dolls". Child Abuse & Neglect, 12:295 – 304. Cited in Larsson, 2000, op. cit.
  4. Haugaard, J. J. & Tilly, C (1988). "Characteristics predicting children’s responses to sexual encounters with other children". Child Abuse & Neglect 12:209 – 218.; Haugaard, J. J. (1996). "Sexual behaviors between children: Professionals’ opinions and undergraduates’ recollections". Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 2:81 – 89.; Lamb & Coakley, 1993; Larsson, Lindell & Svedin, publication datat not available; cited in Larsson, 2000, op. cit.
  5. Friedrich, W. N., Grambsch, P., Broughton, D., Kuiper, J., Beilke, R. L. (1991). "Normative sexual behavior in children". Pediatrics 88: 456 – 464; Phipps-Yonas, S., Yonas, A., Turner, M., Kauper, M, (1993). "Sexuality in early childhood". University of Minnesota Center for Urban and Regional Affairs Reports, 23:1 – 5. ; Lindblad, F., Gustafsson, P., Larsson, I., Lundin, B. (1995). "Preschooler’s sexual behaviour at daycare centers: an epidemiological study". Child Abuse & Neglect vol. 19, no. 5:569 – 577.; Fitzpatrick & Deehan, 1995; Larsson, I., Svedin, C-G. (1999). Sexual behaviour in Swedish preschool children as observed by their parents. Manuscript.; Larsson, I., Svedin C-G., Friedrich, W. "Differences and similarities in sexual behaviour among preschoolers in Sweden and USA". Nordic Journal of Psychiatry. Printing information unavailable.; Smith & Grocke, 1995; cited in Larsson, 2000, op. cit.
  8. Larsson & Svedin, 1999, op. cit.; Larsson & Svedin, publication data unavaiable; cited in Larsson, 2000, op. cit.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 (Friedrich et al, 1992, 1993, op. cit.; Kendall-Tackett, K. E., Williams, L., Finkelhor, D. (1993). "The impact of sexual abuse on children: A review and synthesis of recent empirical studies". Psychological Bulletin, 113:164 – 180.; Cosentino, C. E, Meyer-Mahlenburg, H., Alpert, J., Weinberg, S., Gaines, R. (1995). "Sexual behavior problems and psychopathology symptoms in sexually abused girls". Journal of American Academy Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 34, 8:1033 – 1042.; cited in Larsson, 2000, op. cit.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Friedrich et al (1992), op. cit.; cited in Larsson, 2000, op. cit.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 11.6 11.7
  12. 12.00 12.01 12.02 12.03 12.04 12.05 12.06 12.07 12.08 12.09 12.10 12.11 12.12 Human Sexuality — What Children Need to Know and When They Need to Know It, Planned Parenthood Federation of America
  13. Gagnon, J. H., and Simon, W. Sexual conduct – the social sources of human sexuality (Chicago, Aldine Publishing Company, 1973)
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2
  15. 15.0 15.1 Richardson, Justin, M.D., and Schuster, Mark, M.D., Ph.D. Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They'd Ask), 2003, Three Rivers Press
  16. 16.0 16.1
  18. Ramsey, Glenn V. (1943). "The sexual development of boys," American Journal of Psychology, 56(2), 217-33.
  19. China Daily Interview with Chen Yiyun, professor of the Institute of Sociology with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
  21. [
  23. Victoria (Australia) Crimes Act, 1958, section 45(4))
  27. [1]


  • Diana Gittins, Children's Sexuality: Why Do Adults Panic?. In The Child in Question. Macmillan, 1997. ISBN 0-333-51109-3.
  • Ronald Goldman and Juliette Goldman, Children's Sexual Thinking: A Comparative Study of Children Aged Five to Fifteen Years in Australia, North America, Britain and Sweden. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982. ISBN 0-7100-0883-X.
  • Loretta Haroian, "Child Sexual Development", monograph prepared for student use at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, ca. 1985. Online copy by the Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality.
  • Stevi Jackson, Childhood and Sexuality. Blackwell Publishing, 1982. ISBN 0-631-12871-9.
  • Judith Levine: Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex argues that trying to protect young people from sex can actually exacerbate or even create the much-feared sexual danger.
  • Floyd M. Martinson, "Children and Sex, Part II: Childhood Sexuality", in Bullough, Vern Leroy & Bullough, Bonnie (eds.), Human Sexuality: An encyclopedia, New York: Garland Publishing, 1994, p. 111-116. Online copy, reprinted with permission.
  • Floyd M. Martinson, The Sexual Life of Children, Bergin & Garvey, 1994. ISBN 0-89789-376-X.
  • Susan M. Moore, Doreen A. Rosenthal, Sexuality in Adolescence. Routledge, 1993. ISBN 0-415-07528-9.
  • David L. Weis, "Childhood Sexuality", in Robert T. Francoeur (ed.), The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, New York: Continuum, 1997. Online Copy by the Magnus Hirschfeld Archive of Sexology.
  • Sharon Lamb (2002). The Secret Lives of Girls: What Good Girls Really Do--Sex Play, Aggression, and Their Guilt, Free Press. ISBN 0-7432-0107-8.
  • Gil, E. & Cavanagh Johnson, T. (1993). Sexualized children – Assessment and treatment of sexualized children and children who molest. Launch Press. Cited in Larsson, 2000, op. cit.
  • Kendall-Tackett, Williams and Finkelhor (1993), op. cit.; cited in Larsson, op. cit.
  • [2]

See also

External links

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).