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Development of sexuality is a part of the development and maturation of children. It includes a range of sensory, 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 and the perception of child sexuality by adults is influenced by social and cultural aspects. The concept of child sexuality also played an important role in psychoanalysis.[1]

Sexual development

Before puberty

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network issued a report in 2009 on child sexual development in the United States. The report asserted that children have a natural curiosity about their own bodies and the bodies of others that ought to be addressed in an age-appropriate manner. According to the report:

The report recommended that parents learn what is normal in regard to nudity and sexuality at each stage of a child's development and refrain from overreacting to their children's nudity-related behaviors unless there are signs of a problem (e.g. anxiety, aggression, or sexual interactions between children not of the same age or stage of development).[2]

Some children partake in genital stimulation at an early age.[3] Boys may 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 encourage concealment of such activity if there is negative peer pressure or if authority figures are likely to disapprove.[3]

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

Early school age covers approximately ages five to seven, and masturbation is possible at these ages.[4][5] Children become more aware of gender differences, and tend to choose same-sex friends and playmates, sometimes disparaging the opposite sex.[6] Children may drop their close attachment to their opposite-sex parent and become more attached to their same-sex parent.[4]

During this time, children, especially girls, show increased awareness of social norms regarding sex, nudity, and privacy.[7] Children may use sexual terms to test adult reaction.[4] "Bathroom humor" (jokes and conversation relating to excretory functions), present in earlier stages, continues.[5]

"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 extends to disparagement of the opposite sex.[8]

By the age of 8 or 9, some 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.[9]

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.[10][11] "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,[12] and may be perceived as imitations of adult behaviors.[13] Such behaviors are more common among children who have been sexually abused.[14]

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.[15]


In childcare settings outside the home there is difficulty in determining what behavior is normal and what may be indicative of child sexual abuse (CSA). In 2018 an extensive study of Danish childcare institutions (which had, in the prior century, been tolerant of child nudity and playing doctor) found that contemporary policy had become restrictive as the result of childcare workers being charged with CSA. However, while CSA does occur, the response may be due to "moral panic" that is out of proportion with its actual frequency and over-reaction may have unintended consequences. Strict policies are being implemented not to protect children from a rare threat, but to protect workers from the accusation of CSA. The policies have created a split between childcare workers who continue to believe that behaviors involving nudity are a normal part of child development and those that advocate that children be closely supervised to prohibit such behavior.[16]


Main article: Puberty

Contemporary issues

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.[17]

Sex education

Main article: Sex education

The extent of sex education in public schools varies widely around the world, and within countries such as the United States where course content is determined by individual school districts.

A series of sex education videos from Norway, intended for 8–12 year olds, includes explicit information and images of reproduction, anatomy, and the changes that are normal with the approach of puberty. Rather than diagrams or photos, the videos are shot in a locker room with live nude people of all ages. The presenter, a physician, is relaxed about close examination and touching of relevant body parts, including genitals. While the videos note that the age of consent in Norway is 16, abstinence is not emphasized. As of 2015, however, 37 U.S. states required that sex education curricula include lessons on abstinence and 25 required that a "just say no" approach be stressed. Studies show that early and complete sex education does not increase the likelihood of becoming sexually active, but leads to better health outcomes overall.[18]

Social media's role on child sexuality

The impact of social media on adolescent sexuality is a multifaceted concern requiring ongoing research for a comprehensive understanding. Research suggests that exposure to sexual content on social media can influence adolescents' sexual attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, given their vulnerable state during this developmental period when gender roles, sexual attitudes, and behaviors are actively being shaped.[19][20] Studies have identified a positive association between high-frequency social media use and increased sexual risk behaviors among adolescents.[20]

Exposure to sexual displays on social media sites has been linked to problematic beliefs and behaviors among both content creators and viewers, particularly affecting adolescents who are more susceptible to these effects and may encourage risky sexual behavior, associated with an increase in sexually transmitted infection rates and unintended pregnancies[21] .[22] Social media can have both positive and negative effects on the sexual orientation of children and adolescents. For instance, it may provide a safe space for sexual identity exploration and expression for LGBTQ+ youth, fostering connectivity, social support, and positive impacts on well-being.[21][23] While early adopters of the LGBTQ+ identity within the youth use social media to understand their sexuality and connect with like-minded individuals, contributing to improved emotional support and development,[19] it's important to note that social media can also expose children to inaccurate and potentially harmful information about sexuality, perpetuate risky sexual behaviors, and provide anonymity to potential dangers,[24] further covered in the proceeding sections.

Sexualization of children

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.[25] 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.[26][27] For girls and young women in particular, studies have found that sexualization has a negative impact on their "self-image and healthy development".[28]

Social media has been associated with an increase in child sexual exploitation and abuse. Reports indicate that social media platforms have become a pipeline for the rapid spread of child sexual abuse material (CSAM), leading to an alarming increase in the dissemination of such content[29][30][31] Further, child predators use social media to identify and groom potential victims, and the closed or private social media groups enable them to connect with like-minded peers and trade tips on how to secretly record and share CSAM.[30]

Main article: Online child abuse

Child sexual abuse

Main article: Child sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse is defined as an adult or older adolescent having a sexual relationship with a child.[32][33] Effects of child sexual abuse include clinical depression,[34] post-traumatic stress disorder,[35] anxiety,[36] propensity to further victimization in adulthood,[37] and physical injury to the child, among other problems.[38]

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.[26][39]

Children who have been the victim of child sexual abuse sometimes display overly sexualized behavior,[40][41] 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.[40]

Children who exhibit sexualized behavior may also have other behavioral problems.[41] 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.[40]

Among siblings

Further information: Sibling sexual abuse

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.[42] 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.[43]

Methodological issues

Empirical knowledge about child sexual behavior is not usually gathered by direct interviews of children, partly due to ethical consideration.[14] 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.[48]

Historical studies


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, and his acknowledgment of its existence 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.[49] 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.[49]


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,[50] 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.[51][52] 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.[14]

See also


  1. ^ Freud, Sigmund (1905). Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie. Leipzig: F. Deuticke.
  2. ^ Sexual Development and Behavior in Children: Information for Parents and Caregivers (Report). American Psychological Association. 2009. doi:10.1037/e736972011-001.
  3. ^ a b Kelly, Garry (2003). Sexuality Today: The Human Perspective Edn 7. McGraw-Hill Tx USA. ISBN 978-0072558357.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g GH6002 Sexuality and Your Child: For Children Ages 3 to 7, MU Extension
  5. ^ a b Planned Parenthood – Sexuality Development Archived 2006-12-02 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ Sex education: Talking to toddlers and preschoolers about sex -
  7. ^ 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) Archived 2006-10-13 at the Wayback Machine, 2003, Three Rivers Press
  8. ^ "Child & adolescent sexuality". South Easter CASA Centre Against Sexual Assault. 9 March 2012. Archived from the original on 14 July 2014. Retrieved 10 July 2014.
  9. ^ Reinisch, June (1991). The Kinsey Institute new report on sex: what you must know to be sexually literate. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 9780312063863.
  10. ^ SEX PLAY: parenting strategies by Dr. Marilyn Heins Archived 2006-09-07 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ PPP: Health and Safety || When Children's Play Involves Sexuality || Sex play is normal Archived 2006-09-05 at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ Friedrich, William N.; Fisher, Jennifer; Broughton, Daniel; Houston, Margaret; Shafran, Constance R. (1998). "Normative sexual behavior in children: a contemporary sample". Pediatrics. 101 (4): E9. doi:10.1542/peds.101.4.e9. PMID 9521975. S2CID 5436544.
  13. ^ Larsson & Svedin, 1999, op. cit.; Larsson & Svedin, publication data unavailable; cited in Larsson, 2000, op. cit.
  14. ^ a b c Larsson, IngBeth. Child sexuality and sexual behaviorArchived 2012-11-19 at the Wayback Machine (2000), Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare (report), Article number 2000-36-001. English translation (Lambert & Tudball) Article number 2001-123-20.
  15. ^ 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 (4): 339–347. doi:10.1080/00224499709551902.
  16. ^ Leander, Else-Marie Buch; Larsen, Per Lindsø; Munk, Karen Pallesgaard (2018). "Children's Doctor Games and Nudity at Danish Childcare Institutions". Archives of Sexual Behavior. 47 (4): 863–875. doi:10.1007/s10508-017-1144-9. ISSN 1573-2800. PMID 29450663. S2CID 46838503. Retrieved 2020-05-03.
  17. ^ Dill, Karen (2009). How Fantasy Becomes Reality: Seeing Through Media Influence. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195372083.
  18. ^ Zadrozny, Brandy (May 14, 2015). "Are These the World's Most Graphic Sex-Ed Videos?". The Daily Beast.
  19. ^ a b Joel W Grube, Enid Gruber (2000). "Adolescent sexuality and the media: a review of current knowledge and implications". Western Journal of Medicine. 172 (3): 210–214. doi:10.1136/ewjm.172.3.210. PMC 1070813. PMID 10734819.
  20. ^ a b Nancy Allen, Matthew Broom (2017). "Social Media and Sexual Behavior Among Adolescents: Is there a link?". JMIR Public Health and Surveillance. 3 (2): e28. doi:10.2196/publichealth.7149. PMC 5457530. PMID 28526670.
  21. ^ a b Collins, Rebecca L; Strasburger, Victor C; Brown, Jane D (2017). "Sexual Media and Childhood Well-being and Health". Pediatrics. 140 (2): S162–S166. doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1758X. PMID 29093054.
  22. ^ De Ridder, Sander (2017). "Social Media and Young People's Sexualities: Values, Norms, and Battlegrounds". Social Media + Society. 3 (4). doi:10.1177/2056305117738992.
  23. ^ Chan, Randolph C.H. (2023). "Benefits and risks of LGBT social media use for sexual and gender minority individuals: An investigation of psychosocial mechanisms of LGBT social media use and well-being". Computers in Human Behavior. 139. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2022.107531.
  24. ^ Ripes, Jessie (26 May 2021). "The Pros and Cons of Social Media on Sexuality". Modern Intimacy.
  25. ^ 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.
  26. ^ a b Lamb, Sharon; Zurbriggen, Ellen L.; Collins, Rebecca L.; Roberts, Tomi-Ann; Tolman, Deborah L.; Ward, L. Monique; Blake, Jeanne (2007). Report of the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls (Report). American Psychological Association (APA).
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  33. ^ "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.
  34. ^ Roosa, Mark W.; Reinholtz, Cindy; Angelini, Patti Jo (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. Pdf version. Archived 2014-07-14 at the Wayback Machine
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  36. ^ Levitan, Robert D.; Rector, Neil A.; Sheldon, Tess; Goering, Paula (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. S2CID 26031006.
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  38. ^ Dinwiddie, Stephen H.; Heath, Andrew C.; Dunne, Michael P.; Bucholz, Kathleen K.; Madden, Pamela A.F.; Slutske, W.S.; Bierut, Laura Jean; Statham, Dixie J.; Martin, Nicholas G. (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. S2CID 15270464.
  39. ^ Courtois, Christine A. (1988). Healing the incest wound: adult survivors in therapy. New York: Norton. p. 208. ISBN 978-0-393-31356-7.
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  45. ^ 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.
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  48. ^ History of sexual research(PDF) Archived 2011-11-11 at the Wayback Machine
  49. ^ a b Santrock, J.W. (2008). A Topical Approach to Life-Span Development (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
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Further reading