From Vern Bullough and Bonnie Bullough (eds), Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia New York: Garland Publishing Company, 1994. Reprinted by permission of the editors.

Children and Sex, Part II: Childhood Sexuality

Humans are born prosocial. During the first minutes, hours, and days after birth, the neonate is in a state of readiness, ready to develop its first intimate relationship with a person. One of the states of consciousness of a healthy neonate is a recurring, quiet, alert stage during which eyes are wide open and the neonate is able to respond to the faces of others, especially their eyes, through eye-to-eye en face interaction. Such interaction captivates the newborn as it watches and responds to the movements and facial expressions of others. A high degree of eye-to-eye contact between mother and infant has been observed to lead to an immediate cessation of crying, for instance, and to the development of a strong bond with the mother. The neonate's motor behavior becomes entrained by and synchronized with the facial and speech behavior of its mother. Their communication becomes a sort of "mating dance" as their responses become synchronized. One researcher characterized the dyad as the true locus of intimacy. An infant-mother relationship at its best is such a dyad as the two interact with a high degree of emotional access to each other. In a healthy relationship, the two develop pronounced feelings for each other as they jointly engage in more and more facial and verbal activity. The interaction is very sensual because of the physical dependency of the neonate and its inability to interact at a distal or symbolic level.

Although the neonate is totally dependent, it is not merely passive and receptive. Those who observe newborns are struck by the initiative they display in the development of attachments. The infant-mother physical interaction is intense, involving physical care, nursing, fondling, kissing, vocalizing, cuddling, and prolonged gazing. Infants who have been held tenderly and carefully early on tend later to respond positively to close bodily contact as well. Intimate, or sensate dyadic, relationships can become so intense, concentrated, and consuming as to appear almost hypnotic. Ecstasy is another word used by interactionists to characterize intense and perhaps erotic activity, such as occurs when a baby nurses at its mother's breast.

Breast feeding is the most physiologically charged relationship of infant and mother. The two organisms mutually excite each other. This ecstatic intimacy for both infant and mother can on occasion be orgasmic for both. The suckling experience gives the infant oral sensate pleasure; penile erections for the boy (and perhaps clitoral erections for the girl) can occur in connection with breast feeding. But attributing erections to stimulations resulting from the pleasant sensual aspects of the sucking experience must be done with caution. Based on observations of sucking infants, one researcher's inclination was to interpret the erections as often related to abdominal pressure, for when thwarting was introduced (e.g., removing a nipple or giving the infant a difficult nipple), the resulting movements were conspicuously characterized by severe contractions of the abdominal wall. Pleasure, pain, and frustration can all result in erections when infants interact with adults.

In American society, mothers are assured that interaction with a baby that is intimate and sensual is appropriate. There is no quarrel with the prescription that the proper socialization of infants calls for intimate, tender, loving care. Child care experts and the society in general approve of it. Developmental studies suggest that infants' emotional maturation depends on such stimulation. On the other hand, clinical studies credit deficient physical contact between infant and parent as the cause of later inability to form attachments. It happens that it is this same intimate socialization that leads to development of the sexual potential of infants, for infants who are given optimum intimate attention are much more likely to masturbate than are children who are raised in an indifferent or inattentive way. Spitz reported that when the relationship between mother and infant was optimal, (i.e., there was tender, loving care of the infant), genital play was present in all infants in his study. In fact, autoerotic activity on the part of an infant in the first 18 months of life may be a reliable indicator of the adequacy of parenting according to Spitz. The highly emotional and physiologically charged interaction of parents and infants is an important phase in a child's sexual development.

Self-Exploration and Autoerotic Activity

During the first year of life, there is progression in an infant's discovery of its body and its exploration of parts of the body, including the genitals. The fingering or simple pleasurable handling of the genitals is referred to as genital play. Infants in their first year are generally not capable of the direct, volitional, rhythmic movement that characterizes masturbation, while genital play requires little coordination and begins as early as the second half of the first year of life. The greater autoerotic satisfaction climaxing in orgasm depends largely on rhythmic, repetitive movement. Rhythmic manipulation of the genitals involving use of the hands does not generally begin until the child is approximately two and one-half or three years old, probably because small muscle control is not well enough developed earlier, yet Kinsey reported on one seven-month-old infant and five infants under age one who were observed masturbating.

Large muscle control involving muscles used in rocking or in rubbing against persons or objects is well enough coordinated by six months of age to make such masturbatory activity possible. Many infants form a pattern of rocking that is more rhythmic and repeated than is possible in manual genital play. Once the infant is able to sit up, many types of rocking may be observed which appear to bring satisfaction. Some infants sit and sway rhythmically, some lift the trunk and pelvis and bounce up and down off the surface on which they are sitting. Elevating to hands and knees and rocking forward and backward appears to be most frequent and is not uncommon as early as six to twelve months. Rocking infants are not as easily distracted from what they are doing as are infants engaged in genital play.

From their observations of 66 infants, and from interviews with their mothers, Roiphe and Galenson hypothesized that there is an endogenously routed early genital phase in children, a sexual current that normally emerges early in the second year that is different from genital play that might occur in the first year of life. They contend that the genital zone emerges as a distinct and differentiated source of pleasure, exerting a new influence on the sense of sexual identity, relation to objects and persons, basic moods, and other aspects of functioning characterized by psychological awareness of the genitals. The height of genital sensitivity begins to serve as a source of focused pleasure with repetitive intense genital self-stimulation and thigh pressure. The accompanying erotic arousal includes facial expressions of excitement and pleasure, flushing, rapid respiration, and perspiration. In both sexes, open affectionate behavior toward the mother begins to disappear as an accompaniment to the new genital self-stimulation and is replaced by an inward gaze and a self-absorbed look more characteristic of a masturbatory state.

At age three, most boys masturbate manually, but many still lie on their stomachs and writhe while engaging in other activities, such as watching television, and a few use other means of stimulation. Girls at this age use many masturbatory techniques, including placing a soft toy or blanket between their legs in the region of the genitals and wriggling the body, manually titillating the clitoris, and, less frequently, inserting fingers or other objects into the vagina. Masturbation appears to be a common experience in the development of normal infants and children, and most parents believe that children do it.

To determine the capacity of infants to respond to sexual stimulation, it is necessary to distinguish between self-stimulation and stimulation by others. It does appear that many more infants are capable of a sexual response, at the reflexive level, than stimulate themselves to such response. One researcher reported that if the edge of an infant's foreskin was tickled with a feather, the penis would swell and become erect and the infant would grasp at it with his hand. Kinsey, reporting on stimulation to orgasm in nine male infants under age one, found that the response involved a series of gradual physiological changes, the development of rhythmic body movements with distinct penis throbs and pelvic thrusts, tension of muscles, and a sudden convulsive release followed by disappearance of all symptoms. This was followed by a quick loss of erection and calm that impressed the observer as typical following orgasm in adults. Further, Kinsey reported that 32 percent of boys two to 12 months old were able to reach climax. One boy of 11 months had ten climaxes in an hour and another of the same age had 14 climaxes in 38 minutes.

Sexual Fantasy

Whether sexual activity engaged in by young children is purely reflexive or whether it is sometimes accompanied or preceded by erotic or sexual fantasy, as it is apt to be in adolescents or adults, has not been determined. It is reasonable to assume that children in societies that are inclined to repress what sexual activity children see, hear about, or do have little sexual content in their fantasy lives and that if they do, they do not readily reveal it to adults. In analyzing stories told by American children ages two to five, researchers found many references to violence in the stories of both boys and girls, even among those as young as age two. Although one researcher did not find kind or friendly stories common at this or at any age, one research team, in its sample of children ages two to five, found that girls did refer to love, courtship, and marriage.

That activities involving bodily functions, including sexual intercourse, are present in the consciousness of the children even in repressive societies is apparent in children's riddles, songs, verses, and games dealing with forbidden topics. Younger children refer mainly to bodily activity related to the anus, (e.g., excrement, flatulence, and enemas), while children ages six and seven have what Borneman refers to as an inordinate number of verses about brother-sister incest and some verses about parental intercourse. A rich sexual fantasy life would depend on more observation and sexual knowledge than children in sexually repressive societies usually have.

Encounters With Peers

Children as young as age two are mobile and prosocial in their sensual and sexual lives, as well as being autoerotic. Healthy children show strong affection toward parents, and kissing, cuddling, and hugging parents and other children and adults are common. On the other hand, abused toddlers are more likely to avoid eye contact with adults and to respond negatively or to ignore friendly overtures and adult caring approaches.

If children are left unsupervised and find nothing to interest them more, their play together can be sexual. In other words, the interest in sex play is not a dominant interest of children; it tends to ebb and flow. In an Israeli kevutza wherein children with a mean age of two slept in the same room, showered together, sat on toilets together, and often ran around the room nude before dressing or after undressing, Spiro found that intimate heterosexual play included a simple embrace as its most common expression, followed in frequency by stroking and caressing, kissing, and touching the genitals.

Based on observation of a large number of peer relationships of children, one researcher reported that love relationships were apparent and that the emotion of love between the sexes during the ages three to eight was characterized by hugging, kissing, lifting each other, scuffling, sitting close to each other, confessing to each other, grieving at being separated, giving gifts, extending courtesies to each other, and making sacrifices for each other. These intimacies have been characterized as social, while intimacies of pairs from age eight and older were characterized as more sexual in nature.

How sexual relationships become after around age eight depends on how much sexual activity the children have observed and how permissive the society is. There are records of societies wherein children engage freely in a variety of sexual practices and where few children are said to be virgins beyond the age ten or eleven.

Inhibiting Sexual Experiences of Infants and Young Children

Children depend on adults, therefore how they are expected to behave sexually depends on the values and norms guiding the thoughts and actions of their parents and others. The sexual socialization of infants and young children in the United States has been largely the responsibility of their mothers throughout the 20th century. Generally, her task has been to discourage sexual self-stimulation, inhibit sexual impulses toward family members, supervise and thus frustrate attempts at sexual play with peers, and teach children to be wary of strangers. Her task, generally with the full support of her husband, includes information control. The family attempts to govern how, when, and how many of the "facts of life" the child learns. As part of the conspiracy of silence, parents maintain a secrecy and privacy concerning their own sexual activity. Sears indicates a number of methods used as aids to sexual control in the home (e.g., closed bedroom doors, separate sleeping arrangements for each child, separate bathing, and early modesty training). Such methods have an implicit goal of keeping dormant the young child's pervasive curiosity and imitativeness, postponing the onset of sexual self-gratification, and limiting sexual activity.

Many families refrain from giving proper names or give no names to the genital organs and genital activity as a way of controlling information. Another form of mislabeling is to unwittingly, or wittingly, characterize a child's sexual activity in a nonsexual way, by suggesting that a child playing with its genitals needs to go to the bathroom, for instance. Controlling sexual observation and experience and nonlabeling or mislabeling have the effect of keeping sexual thoughts and fantasy unfocused, imprecise, and incorrect. As far as Sears and associates could judge, no mother in their study labeled genital activity as sexual activity or encouraged it. Twenty years later, Yates still found no one reenforcing children's sexuality, nor were parents transmitting enthusiasm, providing direction, or aiding in the development of a firm erotic base for their children's sexual lives.

Some change toward greater openness is occurring, however. For example, at least seven books published in the United States during the 1980s instructed parents how to educate their children about sexuality and how to deal with their children's sexuality. In general, the authors recognize that children are sexual and that sexual development and sexual expression are normal characteristics of childhood.

Child Sexuality as Society Sees It

Society's blueprint for child socialization and child-parent interaction is less clear and unequivocal than that for infancy. The child-parent relationship is to be loving and nurturant it is true, but the loving way to treat children in the United States is not necessarily intimate and permissive. Child-parent intimate interaction is restrained and proscribed; the parent represents a more demanding, authoritative, normative structure for the child than for the infant. In defense, it is argued that prolonged infant-parent attachment produces habits of dependency that are to be left behind. The "loving way" to treat a child is to make demands, to apply close supervision, and to use firm disciplinary measures that sometimes include physical punishment. In many homes and elementary schools, the "rod" is used so that the child not be "spoiled." So the ego, already as a young child, enters the stage of socially proscribed sensory and sexual intimacy that begins early in childhood and lasts at least until adolescence, until the getting-together and dating stages that young people enter--and for which they appear to be ill-prepared as witnessed by the number of unplanned, unwanted pregnancies during adolescence.

It has been the American practice to move offspring as rapidly as possible from a proximal, analogic mode of touching, holding, and caressing to a distal and digital mode in which interaction can be performed at a distance: looking at, smiling, and vocalizing. Children are socialized away from body contact with self as well as with others. According to one researcher, the American child-rearing climate is one of weaning before age two, consistent positive reinforcement of self-reliance and achievement, the encouragement of male physical aggression, lower status for the female child, the use of supernatural forces to elicit moral behavior, and culturally sanctioned physical violence in disciplining children.

Children begin early to consciously sense that touching patterns as part of their tactile communications system with their parents are non-reciprocative. In a study of intimacy of four-year-olds, Blackman has shown that at least by that age permission to touch parents has been proscribed. There was not much child-parent touching at all, and what there was, was not interactive. The blocked response was the essence of their emotional experience. Many children still, as young adults, remember their mother's restricted expressiveness--asexual, sexually repressive, or even sexually punitive. Mother's own sexuality is hardly perceived at all. According to Finkelhor, mothers were perceived by the children as holding a greater number of sexually repressive attitudes than their fathers and were over twice as likely as fathers to punish their daughters for masturbating, playing sex games, or asking sex questions.

"Too much" touching, especially for boys, causes discomfort for many parents. The male macho image and the fear of homosexuality appear to inhibit sons in many families from openly shared affection, especially with their fathers. Sons, imitating their fathers, express noticeably less physical affection than do daughters for friends and relatives as well. Appropriate behavior for men in showing affection toward one another is by a handshake, a punch on the arm, or a pat on the back. Some parents report that they would like their sons to be able to experience and express a fuller range of feelings, including affection, intimacy, and vulnerability. Their commitment to this espoused value appears to be tenuous and ambiguous, however. The majority of fathers are not modeling the kind of behavior they say they would like their sons to be able to exhibit. And parents refuse to model intimacy and affection for their children. American parents are more likely to be seen as associates than as lovers by their children; comrades rather than a couple. For American children, the adult is not a sexual, but rather a social, ideal. They experience conflict over how to find a balance between what they believe and what they want their children to believe about intimacy and affection. Equivocal social messages and parental uncertainty, or lack of clarity about their own beliefs, contribute to communication problems. In the Roberts' study, in talking about the most important reasons for educating a child about sexuality, only about ten percent of the parents replied that it is to help the child "enjoy his or her sexuality" when grown up. Two thirds of the mothers and about one half of the fathers said their child was the one who usually took the initiative in raising sexual issues for discussion. Hence, the level of sophistication of conversation about sexuality appears to depend in such homes on the level of the child's sophistication and how inquisitive the child is.

That infants and small children have the physiological capacity for sexual response, that they are curious about their bodies and the bodies of others, that they are attracted to intimate interaction with others have all been established. With a permissive environment, modeling, encouragement, and stimulation, there appears to be no cessation of sensual and sexual activity from first discovery and on through life. The question for any society is: Is there such a thing as age-appropriate sexual behavior for children? There is no agreement on the answer to that question in American society. There is one universal norm of child sexuality that is accepted by all responsible adults; namely, that children should not be sexually abused. Beginning in 1962 with the report on a study on battered children, it came to be recognized that there are parents who abuse their own children, including sexual abuse, and that measures must be taken to protect the child and prevent the abuse. That universal norm does not take one very far in understanding age-appropriate sexual behavior, however. In fact, rational discussion of age-appropriate sexual behavior and research on human sexual development have scarcely begun.


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Floyd M. Martinson