Child and youth sexuality refers to sexual behavior and activity among children. This is a highly controversial subject in western society. Sexual acts among children and/or juveniles are sometimes interpreted as child sexual abuse and responded to with therapy or detention. Due to the taboo surrounding youth sexuality and related legal and political constraints, little research has been conducted on the subject.
Substantial data regarding what is age-appropriate and normal have not been compiled since the Kinsey Reports, which are surrounded by controversy especially regarding their findings on child sexuality.
Empirical knowledge about child sexual behaviour is not gathered by direct interviews of children, but almost exclusively by observations of third persons and by retrospective narrations, because the topic is taboo. Additionally, despite (or perhaps because of) public interest about the topic of child sexual abuse, research about child sexuality nearly stopped during the 1980s and 1990s.
Thus study and interpretion of child sexuality depends especially on the observer and it is likely that cultural biases affect that interpretation, for example, that of the common image of the asexual child. Layers of indirection and bias in study leave conclusions to be as inexact as the method of observation. Further difficulty in this field of study is that child sexuality often is not recognized or is reinterpreted as infant play or just physical exploration. It is also unknown what child sexual behaviour is consistent with a statistical norm. However even a statistical norm would not be significant, because the variety of human sexual behaviour does not fit into a single norm (example: homosexuality).
Sexuality in early childhood
According to Alfred Kinsey's examinations in the 1950s children are capable of experiencing orgasm up from the age of five months. Kinsey observed that among three-year-olds the girls more often masturbated for sexual pleasure than the boys, probably because of their faster developed motor function. 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. So far a difference in quality of the orgasms of children and adults could not be found.
With respect to quantity, children and adolescents seem to be more potent than adults. Boys are normally capable of repeated orgasms. Children are not necessarily restricted to direct manipulation of their genitals to reach orgasm, but can actually achieve it via rhythmic movements or compression of the thighs. Kinsey described the behaviour that he observed on a three year old girl:
- Lying face down on the bed, with her knees drawn up, she started rhythmic pelvic thrusts, about one second or less apart. The thrusts were primarily pelvic, with the legs tensed in a fixed position. The forward components of the thrust were in a smooth and perfect rhythm which was unbroken except for momentarily pauses during which the genitalia were readjusted against the doll on which they were pressed; the return from each thrust was convulsive, jerky. There were 44 thrusts in unbroken rhythm, a slight momentary pause, 87 thrusts followed by a slight momentary pause, then 10 thrusts, and then a cessation of all movement. There was marked concentration and intense breathing with abrupt jerks as orgasm approached. She was completely oblivious to everything during these later stages of the activity. Her eyes were glassy and fixed in a vacant stare. There was noticeable relief and relaxation after orgasm. A second series of reactions began two minutes later with series of 48, 18, and 57 thrusts, with slight momentary pauses between each series. With the mounting tensions there were audible gasps but immediately following the cessation of pelvic thrusts, there was complete relaxation and only desultory movements thereafter.
As soon as social interaction between children has matured, activity for sexual satisfaction expands to members of the peer group (same age). Sexual activity among children is often observed in nurseries. The motivation is mainly sexual satisfaction and to a lesser extent interest in the bodies of others. Children often temporarily lose interest in further exploration after initial satisfaction, and explorations continue over a longer period. Additionally about half of the observed sexual activities involve a partner of the same sex (In this context Freud speaks of the polymorph pervert nature of appetite of children) and thus do not have solely explorative motivations.
At the ages five to seven years observations of sexual interactions become more infrequent.
This is often ascribed to sexual latency. However, it is unclear, whether the observation is caused by feelings of shame that develop during the same age interval, or whether the activities continue in secrecy.
Sexual fantasies were observed starting at the age of three. It is unclear, in how many children sexual fantasies occur. Fantasies often play a role in masturbation of children. They widely vary.
One adult retrospectively reported: "All I really noticed about having erections when I was seven or eight years old was that they occurred when I thought about a young girl I felt romantically inclined toward. Also, they made it very difficult to roll over in bed. I never knew the purpose of the arousal, but I was aroused."
Sadistic and violent fantasies also occur: "The fantasy in connecting with masturbation, running from highly sadistic to just an ordinary sexual intercourse relationship, seemed to parallel the development of my sexual interest." A girl reported her fantasies as an 11 year old girl about a quasi rape by a number of men, that she considered stimulating and masturbated while having these imaginations.
There is consent, that sexual preferences and the associated sexual fantasies show up early and stabilise during further development. Isolated reports of homosexuals and pedosexuals about their childhood say that they were aware of their affection to the same sex or to a certain age group and had corresponding fantasies. A fact about homosexual boys is that they much more commonly initiated sexual contact to men than heterosexual girls did.
Sexual activities widely vary. They include sexually motivated hugs and kissing as well as genital play and one-sided or mutual masturbation up to attempted or performed intercourse. The most common activity for boys and girls is masturbation of themselves. For mutual activity, it is mutual masturbation. Attempted and performed intercourse is more infrequent among children.
In Germany, twenty cases of abortion for ten year old girls were reported in the year 2002.
The way children choose partners for sexual activities is noteworthy. Most of the observed sexual activities were promiscuous; an available and willing partner is picked without prior intimacy as a precondition. However, child sexuality is not purely promiscuous. It is also an element of deep and loving relationships.
Early sexual activity of children is considered an important factor for further development. Genital play during the first 18 months is a reliable indication whether an infant receives sufficient emotional and physical affection. Several case studies show, that for all infants, who did not receive sufficient affection, genital play was totally absent. All other observed infants showed genital play.
There is a dependency between intensive physical affection during childhood and violent behaviour as grown-ups. James W. Prescott showed in a study on 400 primitive peoples, that in those peoples that give children only little physical affection or that were sexually restrictive, acts of violence were much more prevalent than in peoples who showed physical affection to children. Surveys in western cultures show that a high percentage of violent criminals and sexual murderers grew up in a sexually repressive environment.
Reliability of research
Researchers also note that studies giving frequencies of various childhood sexual behaviors are unreliable since behavior varies among different groups of people due to their values, and among different youth due to variation in the strength of their sexual feelings and variation in their development. Also, studies often rely on adults who try to recall events that occurred long ago. Therefore, the data only give us an idea of the types of behavior that children engage in, not an accurate idea of its frequency.
Sexuality in different ages
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 sexual intercourse if they have learned about it from parents or other children. This can go from anal sex or oral sex between two boys to vaginal sex between a boy and a girl.
Middle childhood: Ages 6 - 9
- Sigmund 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. Others may perform sexual play on 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 will occasionally occur.
- 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 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, boy-girl 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 have found 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.
- While sexual intercourse is not common at this age in the US, it is established practice in some societies.
- 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. 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. (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.
- Masturbation increases in frequency, and may be experienced alone or in groups.
- Pornographic materials are often acquired.
- Some early adolescents fall in love and openly express their affectionate feelings.
- Acquisition of opposite sex partners gains importance, but couples are often fluid and change often, with little intimacy or commitment.
- Most girls and boys experience physical responses from their romantic involvements.
- Kissing is a favorite activity.
- Many are interested in having sex, but are too awkward in their approach. A few actively seek sexual parteners.
- Girls often prefer older boys because they have more social poise.
- Teens at this age are often group oriented, pairing off occasionally at parties and informal get-togethers.
- Some initiate regular partner sex.
Mid to Late Adolescence
- By age 15, most teens have established a regular pattern of sexual activity; masturbation increases, and some have regular sex with others.
- Some teens are worried about reputation and fear being found out, but may decide to have intercourse if they are in love, if they trust their partner, and if the relationship seems secure.
- Due to the sexual urgency of adolescence, some teens attempt to persuade, manipulate, or coerce others into intercourse.
- National data from 1988 indicate that one quarter of US females and one third of males have had intercourse by age 15.
- 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 sexual 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. 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 way they have been brought up and how knowledgeable they are. In different 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 sexually permissive or supportive cultures (those which permit or encourage early sexual expression) display a developmental pattern that is not apparent in sexually restrictive societies:
- In early childhood, masturbation alone and in groups leads to exploration and experimentation among children of same and opposite sex
- 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 heterosexual 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."
One may want to compare cultures in the "Growing Up Sexually" Atlas:
In some societies, for example, in some American states, all sexual relationships between children, even consensual, are prohibited by statutory rape laws. In other countries, for example, Australian children in some states are allowed to have sex starting from 10 to 12 years, as long as the age difference is less than two years. 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.
The United States today
There is little agreement in US society about what is age-appropriate sexual behavior for children, except that it must not be abusive. Researcher Loretta Haroian writes that the mental health community has a poorly defined concept of sexual health. It attempts to serve those who experience sexual pathology, but the definition of sexual pathology often fails to consider the broad range of human sexual activity and its developmental aspects.
Most parents seem to agree that the socialization of young children should inhibit sexual impulses toward family members and peers. 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 to 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.
Due to the socially defined nature of human behavior it is difficiult to scientifically define what "normal" child sexuality would be. Behavior varies drastically among different groups of people due to their values, and among different youth due to differences in the strength of their sexual feelings and variation in their development.
It is apparent that large numbers of children at almost all ages may engage in more extensive behaviors with each other than many adults realize, including adult-like behaviors such as genital and oral contact, and sometimes even intercourse.
What is considered morally acceptable in a particular society may bear no relationship to common behaviors and at times sexual morality is specifically condemnatory towards behaviors that are relatively common in those societies. An example of this is the difference in moral attitudes towards bestiality which Kinsey found to be both more common and more condemned in rural areas.
Child sexuality is a complex topic that raises much controversy and a pragmatic way of viewing it in any society is to refer to the legal situation as being a consensus view of public attitudes.
- 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.
- 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 089789376X.
- 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.
This article is originally based on the webpage "Ethical Treatment for All Youth: Youth sexuality" by Geoff Birky, which is in the public domain (see Wikipedia:Public domain resources for details).