Development of sexuality is an integral part of the development and maturation of children. A range of sensational, emotional and consequent sexual activities that may occur before or during early puberty, but before full sexual maturity is established. The development of child sexuality is influenced by social and cultural aspects; the perception of developing child sexuality is even more heavily influenced by cultural aspects. The concept of child sexuality also played an important role in the classical psychoanalysis.
- Ancient cultures
- Modern times
- Contemporary situation
- In Western cultures
- Theories and research
- Current methodology of study
- Normative and non normative behaviors
- Symptomatic behaviors
- In early childhood and middle childhood
- Sex play among siblings
- In non Western cultures
- The Marquesas
Human evolution of social systems seems to favor nurture kinship relations between adults and children, which implies cultures intended to protect children from harm. Cultures and religions codified these principles into rules in which children learn to control their natural bodily functions by publicly pleasing adults and privately exploring the world and testing the bounds of adult tolerance.
Adults are attracted to children in various ways. In some cultures, such as Ancient Greece, adults managed in a way that today would be considered child abuse.
In the traditions of Confucianism, as in humanism, sexual activity and sexual education are generally less regulated but often considered a private matter, so that discussing it may be 'very bad taste'.
In Western Europe, the predominant religion was Catholicism and theologians such as Bishop Augustine of Hippo considered orgasm a sin. Later, theologians amplified this idea and in medieval times clerics were urged to interrogate the laity and if errant, castigate them by a regime of supervised penance and a diet of bread and holy water for weeks or months (in the sixth century, the Irish St. Columban issued penitence tables which prescribed 20 days).
Within the wider Christian traditions, sex of any sort, except for the deliberate purpose of conception, was variously said by clerics to cause blindness, deafness and mental confusion, as well as (in Catholicism) eternal damnation of the sinner's soul if not fully confessed.
In Islam, mixing between men and women is strongly discouraged, especially when in private. Although touching and kissing people beyond one's immediate family is not permissible, some socialization is encouraged so that men and women may come to know each other (Surah Al-Hujurat) as long as there is no obscenity, touching, secret meetings or flirting.
Little is known of child sexuality before the Age of Enlightenment, but it is presumed (considering the number of servants needed to run great households and the simple design of ordinary homes) that many children would have observed sexual activity as a frequent and natural phenomenon. In the 19th century, with the arrival of industrialization and literacy, sexual repression appears to have become institutionalized and extra-marital activity generally criminalized to the point where newly married couples experienced difficulty in achieving consummation of their marriage.
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 complex, have been rejected, acknowledging the existence of child sexuality was a significant change. 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. 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, escalating in puberty (roughly the teenage years) when the main surge in sexual interest occurs.
In the latter part of the 20th century, sexual liberation probably arose in the context of a massive cultural explosion in the United States of America following the upheaval of the Second World War, and the vast quantity of audiovisual media distributed worldwide by the new electronic and information technology. Children are apt to gain access and be influenced by material, despite censorship and content-control software.
In Western cultures
Children can discover the pleasure of genital stimulation naturally at an early age. Boys often lie on their stomachs and girls may sit and rock. Manual stimulation occurs about the time of adolescence and mutual masturbation or other sexual experimentation between adolescents of similar ages may also occur, though cultural or religious coercion may inhibit or occult such activity if there is negative peer pressure or if authority figures are likely to disapprove.
Some cultural critics in the Western world have postulated that over recent decades, children have been subject to a premature sexualization, as indicated by a level of sexual knowledge or sexual behavior inappropriate for their age group. 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; the lack of parental oversight and discipline; access to adult culture via the internet; and the lack of comprehensive school sex education programs. For girls and young women in particular, studies have found that sexualization has a negative impact on their "self-image and healthy development".
When an adult or older adolescent has a sexual relationship with a child, it is often considered to be a form of child abuse known as child sexual abuse. Effects of child sexual abuse include clinical depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, propensity to further victimization in adulthood, and physical injury to the child, among other problems. 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.
Theories and research
Research into youthful sexuality has been largely conducted over the 20th century in the Western World and is mostly concerned with suppression for reasons of religion and/or fears about the spread of sexually transmitted infections.
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 complex, latency phase (6–12 years of age), and the genital (or adult) stage.
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). While there were initially concerns that some of the data in his reports could not have been obtained without observation of or participation in child sexual abuse, the data was revealed much later in the 1990s to have been gathered from the diary of a single pedophile who had been molesting children since 1917. This effectively rendered the data-set nearly worthless, not only because it relied entirely on a single source, but the data was hearsay reported by a highly unreliable observer. In 2000, Swedish researcher Ing-Beth Larsson noted, "It is quite common for references still to cite Alfred Kinsey", due to the scarcity of subsequent large-scale studies of child sexual behavior.
Current methodology of study
Empirical knowledge about child sexual behavior is not usually gathered by direct interviews of children, partly due to ethical consideration. Information about child sexual behavior is gathered by the following methods:
Most published sexual research material emanates from the Western World, and a great deal of dramatic audio-visual material which might influence social attitudes to child sexuality are generated either in the United States of America or else for that audience. "Normative" may therefore relate to Western culture rather than to the general complexity of human experience.
Normative and non-normative behaviors
Although there are variations between individual children, children are generally curious about their bodies and those of others, and explore their bodies through explorative sex play. "Playing doctor" is one example of such childhood exploration; such games are generally considered to be normal in young children. 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, and may be perceived as imitations of adult behaviors. Such behaviors are more common among children who have been sexually abused.
A 1997 study based on limited variables found no correlation between early childhood (age 6 and under) peer sexual play and later adjustment. The study notes that its results do not demonstrate conclusively that no such correlation exists. The study also does not address the question of consequences of intense sexual experiences or aggressive or unwanted experiences.
Children who have been the victim of child sexual abuse sometimes display overly sexualized behavior, 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.
Children who exhibit sexualized behavior may also have other behavioral problems. 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.
In early childhood and middle childhood
From the ages of three to seven, the following behaviors are normal among children:
Early school age covers approximately ages five to seven, and masturbation is common at these ages. Children become more aware of gender differences, and tend to choose same-sex friends and playmates, even disparaging the opposite sex. Children may drop their close attachment to their opposite-sex parent and become more attached to their same-sex parent.
During this time, children, especially girls, show increased awareness of social norms regarding sex, nudity, and privacy. Children may use sexual terms to test adult reaction. "Bathroom humor" (jokes and conversation relating to excretory functions), present in earlier stages, continues.
"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.
By the age of 8 or 9 children become aware that sexual arousal is a specific type of erotic sensation and will seek these pleasurable experiences through various sights, self-touches, and fantasy.
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. A 1989 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 preadolescent sexual experiences with a sibling.
In non-Western cultures
At seven or eight years of age, children of the Trobriand Islands begin to play erotic games with each other and imitate adult seductive attitudes. About four or five years later, they begin to pursue sexual partners in earnest. They change partners often. Girls are just as assertive and dominant as boys in pursuing or refusing a lover. This is not only allowed but encouraged.
A much earlier study (1915–1920) of Trobriand children reports that these children attempted to imitate adult sexual intercourse by the time they were 10 years old. Similar behavior at the same or earlier age was observed among the children in traditional families of the Tahagmyut of Ungava Peninsula, Canada; the Tunumiit of Angmagssalik, Greenland; and the children of the San in Southern Africa.
Observations of early Tahitian society indicate childhood sexual activity was more openly encouraged than normally found in other societies.
Explorers and researchers discovered that the Culture of the Marquesas Islands had unique sexual customs, considered deviant to Westerners. Contact with Western societies has changed many of these customs, so research into their pre-Western social history has to be done by reading antique writings.
Yuri Lisyansky in his memoirs reports that "age was no test of innocence [...] practised all the arts of lewd expression and gesture to get aboard.... Among them were some not more than ten years of age. These infants rivaled their mothers in wantonness of their motions and the arts of allurement." Several authors reported about children (eight to twelve years old) who "offered" themselves and had sex.
According to Ralph Linton: