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Child sexuality is the sexual feelings, behaviors, and development of children. Until Sigmund Freud published his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality in 1905, children were often regarded as asexual, having no sexuality until later development. Freud was one of the first researchers to seriously study child sexuality. While his ideas, such as psycho-sexual development and the Oedipus conflict, have been rejected or labeled obsolete, acknowledging the existence of child sexuality was a milestone.[1] Children are naturally curious about their bodies and sexual functions — they wonder where babies come from, they notice anatomical differences between males and females, and many engage in genital play or masturbation. Child sex play includes exhibiting or inspecting the genitals. Many children take part in some sex play, typically with siblings or friends.[1] Sex play with others usually decreases as children go through their elementary school years, yet they still may possess romantic interest in their peers. Curiosity levels remain high during these years, but it is not until adolescence that the main surge in sexual interest occurs.[1]

Some cultural critics have postulated that over recent decades children have been subject to a premature sexualization, as indicated by a level of sexual knowledge or sexual behaviour inappropriate for their age group.[2] The causes of this premature sexualization that have been cited include portrayals in the media of sex and related issues, especially in media aimed at children; the marketing of products with sexual connotations to children, including clothing;[3] the lack of parental oversight and discipline; access to adult culture via the internet; and the lack of comprehensive school sex education programs.[4] For girls and young women in particular, studies have found that sexualization has a negative impact on their "self-image and healthy development".[5]

When an adult or older adolescent uses a child for sexual stimulation, that is a form of child abuse known as child sexual abuse.[6][7] This can also bring on the premature sexualization of the child. Other effects of child sexual abuse include depression,[8] post-traumatic stress disorder,[9] anxiety,[10] propensity to further victimization in adulthood,[11] and physical injury to the child, among other problems.[12] Child sexual abuse by a family member is a form of incest, and can result in more serious and long-term psychological trauma, especially in the case of parental incest.[13]


Early research

Sigmund Freud in his 1905 work Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality outlined a theory of psycho-sexual 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) which culminates in the resolution of the Oedipus conflict, The Latency Phase (6–12 years of age), and the genital (or adult) stage. Many modern experts consider Freud's work to be obsolete, and the core body of his work has never been entirely accepted by the scientific and medical communities.[citation needed]

Alfred Kinsey in the Kinsey Reports (1948 and 1953) included research on the physical sexual response of children, including pre-pubescent children (though the main focus of the reports was adults). It has been stated that some of the data in his reports could not have been obtained without observation or participation in child sexual abuse, or through collaborations with child molesters.[14] In 2000, Swedish researcher IngBeth Larsson noted, "It is quite common for references still to cite Alfred Kinsey", due to the paucity of subsequent large-scale studies of child sexual behavior.[15]

Current methodology of study

Empirical knowledge about child sexual behavior is not usually gathered by direct interviews of children, partly due to ethical considerations.[15] Information about child sexual behavior is gathered by the following methods:

  • Observing children being treated for problematic behavior, such as use of force in sex play,[16] often using dolls having genitals[17]
  • Recollections by adults[18]
  • Observation by caregivers[19]


Normative and non-normative behaviors

Although there are variations between individual children, children generally are curious about their bodies and those of others, and explore their bodies through explorative sex play.[20][21] Playing doctor is one example of such childhood exploration. Such games are generally considered to be normal in young children and not sexual in nature. Child sexuality is considered fundamentally different from adult sexual behavior, which is more goal-driven. Among children, genital penetration and oral-genital contact are very uncommon,[22] and may be perceived as imitations of adult behaviors.[23] Such behaviors are more common among children who have been sexually abused.[15]

A 1997 study based on limited variables found no correlation between early childhood (age 6 and under) peer sexual play and later adjustment.[24] The study notes that its results do not demonstrate conclusively that no such correlates exist.[24] The study also does not address the question of consequences of intense sexual experiences or aggressive or unwanted experiences.[24]

Symptomatic behaviors

Children who have been the victim of child sexual abuse sometimes display overly sexualized behavior,[25][26] which may be defined as expressed behavior that is non-normative for the culture.

Typical symptomatic behaviors may include excessive or public masturbation and coercing, manipulating or tricking other children into non-consensual or unwanted sexual activities, also referred to as "child-on-child sexual abuse". Sexualized behavior is thought to constitute the best indication that a child has been sexually abused.[25]

Children who exhibit sexualized behavior may also have other behavioral problems.[26] Other symptoms of child 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.[25]

Normative behavior

The following sections describe typical culturally-normed behavior among developed Western societies.

Early childhood

From the ages of three to seven, the following behaviors are normal among children:

  • Children are curious about where babies come from.[27]
  • Children may explore other children's and adults' bodies out of curiosity.[27]
  • By age four, children may show significant attachment to the opposite-sex parent.[27]
  • Children begin to have a sense of learned modesty and of the differences between private and public behaviors.[27]
  • For some children, genital touching increases, especially when they are tired or upset.[27]

Early school age

Early school age covers approximately ages five to seven.

Children become more aware of gender differences, and tend to choose same-sex friends and playmates, even disparaging the opposite sex.[28] Children may drop their close attachment to their opposite-sex parent and become more attached to their same-sex parent.[27]

During this time, children, especially girls, show increased awareness of social norms regarding sex, nudity, and privacy.[29] Children may use sexual terms to test adult reaction.[27] "Bathroom humor" (jokes and conversation relating to excretory functions), present in earlier stages, continues.[30]

Masturbation continues to be common.[27][30]

Middle childhood

"Middle childhood" covers the ages from about six to eleven, depending on the methodology and the behavior being studied, individual development varies considerably.

As this stage progresses, the choices of children picking same-sex friends becomes more marked and extending to disparagement of the opposite sex.[31]

Pre-teen years

Planned Parenthood in the US recommends that pre-teen children should learn, among other things:[32]

Sex play among siblings

In 1980, a survey of 796 undergraduates, 15 percent of females and 10 percent of males reported some form of sexual experience involving a sibling; most of these fell short of actual intercourse. Approximately one quarter of these experiences were described as abusive or exploitative.[33] 989 paper reported the results of a questionnaire with responses from 526 undergraduate college students in which 17 percent of the respondents stated that they had .[34]

See also

Further reading

  • 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..
  • Stevi Jackson, Childhood and Sexuality. Blackwell Publishing, 1982. ISBN 0-631-12871-9.
  • Susan M. Moore, Doreen A. Rosenthal, Sexuality in Adolescence. Routledge, 1993. ISBN 0-415-07528-9.
  • 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.
  • Sharon Lamb (2006). Sex, Therapy, and Kids: Addressing their Concerns through Talk and Play. W.W. Norton.
  • Sharon Lamb & Lyn Mikel Brown (2006). Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes. St. Martin's Press.
  • 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.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Santrock, J.W. (2008). A Topical Approach to Life-Span Development (4thed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  2. Kaeser, Fred (2001-10-30). "The effects of increasing sexualization on children". Towards a Better Understanding of Children's Sexual Behavior. NYU Child Study Center. Retrieved February 22, 2007. "We know that exposure to sexualized messages, particularly those that are incomprehensible, can have several effects on children."
  3. [|Chambers, Suzanna] (2002-04-14). "Outrage as Argos sells G-strings for children". the Daily Mail. Retrieved February 22, 2007. "High Street chain Argos has been branded irresponsible for promoting a range of sexually provocative lingerie designed for primary schoolgirls."
  4. APA, 2007; Lamb, 2006
  5. APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls (2007-02-19). "Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls". American Psychological Association. Retrieved February 22, 2007. "The proliferation of sexualized images of girls and young women in advertising, merchandising, and media is harming girls’ self-image and healthy development. This report explores the cognitive and emotional consequences, consequences for mental and physical health, and impact on development of a healthy sexual self-image."
  6. "Child Sexual Abuse". Medline Plus. U.S. National Library of Medicine,. 2008-04-02.
  7. "Guidelines for psychological evaluations in child protection matters. Committee on Professional Practice and Standards, APA Board of Professional Affairs". The American Psychologist 54 (8): 586–93. August 1999. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.54.8.586. PMID 10453704. "Abuse, sexual (child): generally defined as contacts between a child and an adult or other person significantly older or in a position of power or control over the child, where the child is being used for sexual stimulation of the adult or other person.".
  8. Roosa MW, Reinholtz C, Angelini PJ (February 1999). "The relation of child sexual abuse and depression in young women: comparisons across four ethnic groups". Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 27 (1): 65–76. PMID 10197407.
  9. Widom CS, DuMont K, Czaja SJ (January 2007). "A prospective investigation of major depressive disorder and comorbidity in abused and neglected children grown up". Archives of General Psychiatry 64 (1): 49–56. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.64.1.49. PMID 17199054. Lay summary – ScienceDaily (January 3, 2007).
  10. Levitan RD, Rector NA, Sheldon T, Goering P (2003). "Childhood adversities associated with major depression and/or anxiety disorders in a community sample of Ontario: issues of co-morbidity and specificity". Depression and Anxiety 17 (1): 34–42. doi:10.1002/da.10077. PMID 12577276.
  11. Messman-Moore, T. L.; Long, P. J. (2000). "Child Sexual Abuse and Revictimization in the Form of Adult Sexual Abuse, Adult Physical Abuse, and Adult Psychological Maltreatment". Journal of Interpersonal Violence 15: 489. doi:10.1177/088626000015005003.
  12. Dinwiddie S, Heath AC, Dunne MP, et al. (January 2000). "Early sexual abuse and lifetime psychopathology: a co-twin-control study". Psychological Medicine 30 (1): 41–52. doi:10.1017/S0033291799001373. PMID 10722174.
  13. Courtois, Christine A. (1988). Healing the incest wound: adult survivors in therapy. New York: Norton. p. 208. ISBN 0-393-31356-5.
  14. Salter, Ph.D., Anna C. (1988). Treating Child Sex Offenders and Victims: A Practical Guide. Sage Publications Inc. pp. 22–24. ISBN 0803931824.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 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.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. 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.
  20. SEX PLAY: parenting strategies by Dr. Marilyn Heins
  21. PPP: Health and Safety || When Children's Play Involves Sexuality || Sex play is normal
  22. Friedrich WN, Fisher J, Broughton D, Houston M, Shafran CR (1998). "Normative sexual behavior in children: a contemporary sample". Pediatrics 101 (4): E9. doi:10.1542/peds.101.4.e9. PMID 9521975.
  23. Larsson & Svedin, 1999, op. cit.; Larsson & Svedin, publication data unavailable; cited in Larsson, 2000, op. cit.
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 Okami, Paul; Olmstead, Richard; Abramson, Paul R. (1997). "Sexual experiences in early childhood: 18-year longitudinal data from the UCLA family lifestyles project - University of California, Los Angeles". Journal of Sex Research 34: 339–347. doi:10.1080/00224499709551902. Archived from the original on 2012-07-09. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Okami" defined multiple times with different content
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 (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.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Friedrich et al. (1992), op. cit.; cited in Larsson, 2000, op. cit.
  27. 27.0 27.1 27.2 27.3 27.4 27.5 27.6 27.7 GH6002 Sexuality and Your Child: For Children Ages 3 to 7, MU Extension
  28. Sex education: Talking to toddlers and preschoolers about sex -
  29. 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
  30. 30.0 30.1 Planned Parenthood - Sexuality Development
  31. Adolescent and child sexuality
  32. Human Sexuality — What Children Need to Know and When They Need to Know It, Planned Parenthood Federation of America
  33. Finkelhor, David. Ph.D. Sex Among Siblings: A Survey on Prevalence, Variety and Effects. Archives of Sexual Behavior. Volume 9, Number 3 / June, 1980. p. 171-194.
  34. SpringerLink - Journal Article

External links

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