There are many aspects to the life of children. The more we take them seriously-the more we relate to them, observe them, study them-the more aspects of their life we come to understand and appreciate. Robert Coles, after a long career of relating to, studying, and writing about children, came to the awareness that there were still perspectives in the life of children that he had not focused on, and he wrote three additional books-The Political Life of Children (1986), The Moral Life of Children (1986), and The Spiritual Life of Children (1990). The book that you now hold in your hands focuses on still another perspective on child life that has received little attention; namely, the sexual life of children.
I first wrote a treatise on the subject twenty years ago. I submitted it to a number of publishers, but none chose to publish it. The scene has changed in the years since; there is interest in the subject today. Currently, there is a surge of interest in attempting to understand all aspects of childhood and the life of children. Childhood has come to be seen not only as a transitional phase in the life of an individual, but children are seen as constituting a distinctive population group in society with their own interests and needs.
It comes as no surprise to mothers of young children that it is now
recognized that infants respond to and engage in sensuous experiences, even
experiences that might be labeled as sexual. But Western society, and
particularly American society, has been slow to recognize or conceptualize
sexual experiences as a part of a child's development, an aspect of their lives
worthy of study and discourse. As a result, neither the folk culture nor the
scientific literature has had much to say on the subject. Parental discussion of
child sexual behavior has not been commonplace, very little folk knowledge has
been generated, age-appropriate sexuality education for children hindered free
There have been improvements, however. There has been an explosion of studies of infant development and child development in the last three to four decades. Though these studies have not dealt with sexual development per se, they have added greatly to our understanding of child development. There have been a few studies of child sexual development and experience, a few K-12 sexuality education courses have been developed, and more than a dozen books of advice to parents on how to deal with the sexuality of their children have been written in the last ten years.
My own entry into the field of sexual science with an emphasis on child sexuality came about by accident. I had my degree in sociology and anthropology and was teaching courses in both at a liberal arts college. One of the courses I taught was on the sociology of the family, with the later addition of a course on sex and society. I required term papers of my students in both of these courses. Most papers I received were based on library research and dealt with subjects such as mate selection, marriage, divorce, reproduction, cross-cultural differences, etc. Enrollments were large in these courses, meaning that I read many papers. After a number of years of this routine, I introduced an alternate paper theme that literally changed my professional life. I suggested to students that they could choose to write on some aspect of their own life experience, which they would describe and analyze utilizing concepts introduced in the course., Many chose this new alternative. To my surprise, many wrote on some sexual experience that had occurred early in their lives. Given my traditional American background of little education about sexuality at home, in school, in college, or in graduate school, I was unprepared to critique such papers. It called for quick self-education. I read Moll, Freud, Ford and Beach, Kinsey, Money, and others I attended summer institutes on sexuality, one being the first summer session offered by the Kinsey Institute. In subsequent years I spent two on-leave years in Sweden studying its sex culture and its touted sexuality education system; and I conducted studies of the sexual culture of several communities in Sweden and in the United States, in two Midwestern communities and in the urban-industrial Northeast. In this way I was accepted into the field of child sexual science, a field still only sparsely populated.
My goal in this book is to bring the reader up to date on what we know about early sexual development and sexual experience in the life of prepubescent children. I do so knowing full well the limits of empirical knowledge on child sexuality and the high emotion as well as the taboos that have hindered free, open, balanced discussion of the subject in the past. My hope is that this book will contribute to a freer and better informed atmosphere of discussion in the future.