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Chapter 2

Self-Stimulation *1

During the first year of life infants discover and explore parts of their bodies. This early activity is more exploratory than autoerotic. Autoerotism is the technical term used to refer to self-gratification obtained through stimulation of one's own body, especially stimulation of one's genitals. By five or six months, many infants appear to enjoy pulling their ears or sticking their fingers in them. Some explore their genitals at this age as well. Levine (1957) reported that after six months infants gradually discontinue playing with their ears. Galenson and Roiphe (1974) reported that most boys began genital play at six or seven months of age, while most girls began at ten or eleven months. For their sample of infants, genital play among girls tended to disappear within a few weeks of onset, but boys continued casual play with additional visual and tactile exploration of the genitals starting at about eleven or twelve months of age.

An important distinction can be made between genital play and masturbation in infancy. Infants in the first year of life generally are not capable of the direct-volitional activity required for the behavior that we call masturbation. Any more or less random play with the genitals is nonspecific activity and should be labeled as genital play and not as masturbation. Genital play need not end with the end of infancy, as in the following case.

There was physical pleasure to be derived from fondling my genitals. The satisfaction was enough to develop this practice into a habit., And touching or holding the genitals is not only associated with erotic pleasuring:

Near the age of 6 or 7, holding the genitalia would give me a vague feeling of security. I would do this frequently in bed and it seemed almost an unconscious act that was associated with security.

According to Spitz and Wolf (1946), in the first eighteen months of life genital play is a reliable indicator of the adequacy or inadequacy of mothering. In their sample of cases, when the relationship between mother and infant was one in which the mother provided normal physical and emotional care and attention, genital play by the infant was present in all cases. When it was not provided, genital play was absent. This finding has been confirmed by others. 

The greatest autoerotic satisfaction, and certainly the occurrence of orgasm, depends on manipulation of the genitals that is rhythmic and repeated. Rhythmic manipulation with the hand does not occur before a child is approximately two and a half to three years old, probably because small muscle control is not well developed before that. On the other hand, large muscle control is well developed and well coordinated as early as six months of age. Hence, some infants form a pattern of rocking that is rhythmic and repeated. They rock and bump their heads against the crib with vigor. Once they are able to sit up, additional types of rocking may be observed, all of which appear to bring satisfaction. Some sit and sway rhythmically, some lift the trunk and pelvis and bounce up and down off the surface on which they are sitting. Some do both by elevating themselves up and down and swaying to and fro, giving the appearance of rising as a person does when riding a trotting horse (Levine 1957). Elevating to hands and knees and rocking forward and backward appears to be the most frequent type of rocking and is not uncommon as early as six to twelve months of age. In other words, infants may discover the pleasure of rhythmic genital sensation through rocking before they have adequate hand and arm small muscle control to masturbate. Rocking appears more satisfying than manual genital play in that infants in genital play can be easily distracted in contrast to infants who rock. Rockers often rock with great vigor and tension and are not easily distracted. The majority of rockers rock before going to sleep and immediately on rising. Many give it up before they are eighteen months to two years of age, but some continue to three years or older. One subject in Schaefer's (1964:128) interview study of thirty women reported that at age six she discovered that rocking and rubbing herself genitally on some bedclothes bunched between her legs could be continued "until something would happen-something moved, which I guess was a little orgasm."

Kinsey et al. (1948) reported that orgasm is not rare among children, both boys and girls, and has been observed in boys of every age from five months on and in an infant girl of four months. To understand the capacity of infants and small children to reach orgasm, we make a distinction between those who stimulate themselves and those who have been stimulated by others. Given the lack of capacity of infants for sustained rhythmic stimulation of their genitals, to determine the capacity of sexual response in infants would require stimulation by persons other than the infant. Kinsey had access to such data and reported on stimulation to orgasm of male infants under one year of age as follows:

The behavior involves a series of physiologic changes, the development of rhythmic body movements with distinct penis throbs and pelvic thrusts, an obvious change in sensory capacities, a final tension of muscles, especially of the abdomen, hips, and back, a sudden release with convulsions, including rhythmic anal contractions-followed by the disappearance of all symptoms. A fretful babe quiets down under the initial sexual stimulation, is distracted from other activities, begins rhythmic pelvic thrusts, becomes tense as climax approaches, is thrown into convulsive action, often with violent arm and leg movements, sometimes with weeping at the moment of climax. After climax the child loses erection quickly and subsides into the calm and peace that typically follows adult orgasm. (Kinsey et al. 1948:177)

Kinsey and his colleagues have been castigated for not exposing the persons responsible for stimulating these infants to orgasm. Such behavior is generally regarded as child sexual abuse today.

Kinsey reported an increase in the percentage of individuals able to reach a sexual climax from 32 percent of boys two to twelve months of age to 57 percent of those two to five years of age and nearly 80 percent of preadolescent boys ten to thirteen years of age.

Masturbation has been largely ignored in books on infant and child development, yet it has long been recognized as a near-universal phenomenon. Roberts, Kline, and Gagnon (1978) found in a sample of American parents that 80 to 90 percent believed most children masturbate. Galenson and Roiphe (1974), utilizing interviews with parents for the first year and direct observation for the second year of life, found that for boys the onset of masturbation proper began at fifteen to sixteen months of age, whereas for girls a pattern of intermittent genital play was observed. Levine (1957) observed that most of the sexual activity at this young age remained genital play rather than true masturbation. He reported that most children, even through twenty-four to thirty months of age, indulge in genital play with a certain degree of satisfaction but in most cases without any apparent emotional excitement or increased stimulation. There appears to be a great deal of overlap between genital play and masturbation, however. Yates (1978) reports the following case of a seven-month-old girl.

At about 7 months of age she took a great fancy to dolls. She would press her body against a large rag doll to which she was very attached and make rhythmic movements. The movements at first took place only in the evening at bedtime. At one year of age she and a doll became inseparable. She carried this doll about with her all day and from time to time would throw the doll on the floor, lie down on top of it, "as in the sexual act," according to her parents. Attempts to distract her during these episodes caused screaming. She would cling to the doll until she felt satisfied. The parents thought that she completed an orgasm in her own way. By about fifteen months of age the episodes had decreased in frequency and were of shorter duration and by seventeen months the masturbation took place only at bedtime.

From three years of age and on, children retain some memories of sexual experiences and can recall diem. They may be able to report quite clearly on the first time they remember experiencing pleasurable genital sensation, the first time they masturbated, or the first time they had an orgasm. It may not in fact have been the first time, but earlier sexual experiences have been forgotten. The first memories that a child has appear to be those that were highly emotional.

According to Levine (1957), at three years of age most boys who masturbate do so manually by rubbing the penis or by wrapping the fingers around the erect penis and moving the hand. Still, at this age, many boys lie on their stomachs on a flat surface and writhe while engaged in other activity such as watching television. Some raise themselves slightly from the surface and propel themselves forward and backward, rubbing the genitals in so doing, and continue until orgasm is reached. A small number rub themselves against something-a hard pillow, the leg of a chair, a person's leg, or their own stiff forearm-and derive satisfaction in that way.

In girls, already at three years of age there are manifold varieties of masturbation (Kinsey et al. 1953; Levine 1957). These include thigh pressure; rubbing the genitals against a soft toy or blanket; manually stroking the labia and clitoris; and, less frequently, inserting objects in the vagina.

Some form of manual manipulation of the genitalia seems to be most common (Kinsey et al. 1953). Kinsey reports on a mother who observed her daughter masturbating.

Lying face down on the bed, with her knees drawn up, she started rhythmic pelvic thrusts, about one second or less apart. The thrusts were primarily pelvic, with the legs tensed in a fixed position. The forward components of the thrust were in a smooth and perfect rhythm which was unbroken except for momentarily pauses during which the genitalia were readjusted against the doll on which they were pressed; the return from each thrust was convulsive, jerky. There were 44 thrusts in unbroken rhythm, a slight momentary pause, 87 thrusts followed by a slight momentary pause, then 10 thrusts, and then a cessation of all movement. There was marked concentration and intense breathing with abrupt jerks as orgasm approached. She was completely oblivious to everything during these later stages of the activity. Her eyes were glassy and fixed in a vacant stare. There was noticeable relief and relaxation after orgasm. A second series of reactions began two minutes later with series of 48, 18, and 57 thrusts, with slight momentary pauses between each series. With the mounting tensions there were audible gasps but immediately following the cessation of pelvic thrusts, there was complete relaxation and only desultory movements thereafter. (Kinsey et al. 1953:104-105)

Among the women interviewed by Schaefer, the earliest reported experience of first orgasm through self-stimulation was at age four. The subject discovered

that pleasure involved in exposing my genital area to the forceful stream of water in the bathtub. My mother seemed to be very angry when she caught me doing this.... There was something very repressive about her when she reprimanded me-as though she was holding in something ... but it was coming out in anger from her frozen face and stem eyes. (Schaefer 1964:127)

For many, even young children, masturbation is very satisfying from the first time they recall doing it.

The first time I recall having a sexually pleasing sensation was when I was around 3 or 4. I remember feeling very proud of what I had learned (how to masturbate) and the strange sensation it aroused.

I had no idea what I was doing or what it meant, but the feeling was terrific.

The first time was a very unique, stimulating, and fascinating experience. I almost reached climax two or three times and then chickened out.

I came across the enjoyable feeling by accident. The feeling was good, so I continued until I climaxed.

Three studies of female sexual activity contained data on the practice of self-stimulation in childhood and the number of subjects who attained climax by this means: in Davis's (1929) study, 25 percent to age ten had practiced self-stimulation and 12 percent had attained climax; in Kinsey et al.'s (1953) study, 19 percent practiced to age twelve and 12 percent attained climax; and in Schaefer's (1964) study, 43 percent practiced to age twelve and 23 percent attained climax. Among the Schaefer subjects, all those who reported self-stimulation before age twelve and who attained climax thereby continued the practice through adolescence and into adulthood whether or not they had been discovered or reprimanded. "For the ones who had not achieved orgasm, the pleasure evidently did not outweigh the guilt feelings and other negative pressures osmosed from the milieu" (Schaefer. 1964:127).

Achieving orgasm can be a powerful motivator for girls as well as for boys.

I loved it. I knew it was punishable ... yet it was enjoyable, so I did it. It was comforting. (Schaefer 1964:204)

Once having produced that kind of experience, it was imperative that I experience this, one way or another, each time. (Schaefer 1964:204)

But masturbating during childhood is not always viewed so positively.

I remember trying my brother's "neat thing" but masturbation never thrilled me.

I derived pleasure from a rather masochistic masturbation and my sex fantasies were sadistic.

I cannot recall the exact date of my first masturbation or the circumstances leading to it, but I remember vividly the traumatic moments after I had completed the act. I didn't know what I had done or what had happened. Boy, was I scared!

I felt shameful about it.

I felt that somehow masturbation was going to stunt my growth.

I felt guilty about going to church the next morning.

Despite the pleasant feeling associated with orgasm, the words that women with masturbatory experiences used to describe the feeling attached to those experiences seemed to Schaefer (1964) to be guilt, anxiety, and shame. Kinsey et al. (1953) also noted that no other type of sexual activity had worried so many women as masturbation.

Masturbation was a good idea in the sense that it was a pleasure ...
but the guilt robbed it of all those good feelings, I think. (Schaefer

One subject was told by the teachers in her parochial school that "if you touch yourself in your private places, you'll go crazy" (Schaefer 1964:205).

In some cases a child fails to find masturbating satisfying because of failure to reach orgasm. The failure may be due to negative prior conditioning, ignorance due to lack of knowledge, or failure to discover a technique for effective self-stimulation.

At first I felt no satisfaction in it, but after a month of practice, I
obtained my first orgasm.

In Scandinavia, where child sexual capacity is more widely recognized, preschool teachers, sex educators, and therapists have on occasion instructed children in better masturbatory techniques.
According to Thore Langfeldt (1990), the Norwegian sex therapistthose with serious masturbatory problems may need therapy to learn how to be orgasmic. He asserted that reducing anxiety, changing masturbatory techniques, and being supportive of sex in privacy are the most common effective aspects of the therapy, but that changing masturbatory patterns once they are established is very difficult in both boys and girls, even in small children as young as three to four years of age. Langfeldt reasoned that since girls have a less stereotypical masturbatory technique than boys, girls more often develop a masturbatory technique requiring a higher amount of genital stimulation than would be necessary with better technique.

The most satisfactory technique of genital self-stimulation, even for small children, appears to be repeated manipulation of a specific rhythmic form that leads to orgasm. According to Langfeldt, most children who masturbate to climax stop after one orgasm, but some children have several orgasms.

By the age of 6, it had become a habit. I masturbated to orgasm at least once a day, usually at night. It was very pleasurable. It served the same purpose as a tranquilizer. I would almost immediately fall asleep and dream of my fantasies.

Not all children relax and go to sleep after reaching orgasm. A few appear to be stimulated by the activity. Levine reported on a three-year-old boy who would masturbate vigorously and end by sitting up alert, bright-eyed, and apparently satisfied and content. Masturbation is recognized as a tension reliever and is often observed among nursery school children. It is unquestionably increased during periods of emotional tension, but three-year-old children have also been observed to masturbate as an expression of delight and not when tired, stressed, or unhappy (Levine 1957).

A child's initial attempts at self-stimulation are inspired in a number of ways. Many discover the possibility of such activity entirely on their own and quite by accident. The great majority of females in the Kinsey et al. study (1953) learned to masturbate on their own as a result of their exploration of their genitals, but only 28 percent of the boys had discovered masturbation on their own. Most boys hear about it from others. Boys also learn by observing the behavior of other boys or through deliberate instruction given by one of their acquaintances.

I began about the age 7. I believe it may have been when feeling a need to urinate. I began fingering my genitals and found it produced a very pleasurable sensation.

It occurred when I climbed up a rope on a swing set. I discovered this quite by accident and told certain of my friends about it. They also proceeded to try.

I started consciously masturbating at about age 6. I was hanging on a door by the knobs straddling the edge of the door. My penis rubbed on the door as I pulled myself up and down. It felt so good that I continued until I climaxed.

The first time I remember masturbating was when I was about 10 years old. I discovered it while washing myself in the bathtub. I remember reaching orgasm.

We were both young, prepuberty. We were out walking and stopped for a rest. After a prolonged rest, I noticed that he was masturbating. Finally, overcome by curiosity, I asked him to teach me how.

I was about 8 or 9 and he was 9 months older. He encouraged me to try it and I did. I didn't enjoy it, but on his instruction to keep at it, I did achieve an orgasm.

Once my younger sister asked what I was doing (masturbating) so I explained to her the feeling I got from it. She tried it and it felt good for her too.

I happened upon my younger sister manipulating herself through her clothes. She showed me how to add pressure to the sides of my labia to gain a "funny feeling."

In the Kinsey sample, 9 percent of the boys had been masturbated by other males before they began to do it by themselves.

My brother persuaded me to let him do something to me which he termed 'Jackin' off." I enjoyed the physical reaction which the act produced.

Similar same-age activity occurs among girls, but it is not nearly as common. Only about 3 percent of the females in the Kinsey et al. (1953) sample had begun masturbating as a result of childhood same-sex contacts.

Several of us girls used to sleep together in a tent occasionally. We sometimes talked about sex, and under the guidance of one of the girls, we started to stroke each other's genitals and enjoyed the feeling. I wanted to see if I could reproduce those sensations by myself, and I could!!

Some girls wait months and even years after learning about masturbating before they try it themselves (Kinsey et al. 1953). Unlike girls, boys once they have heard about it rarely delay experimenting on their own.

As we have already mentioned, intense self-stimulation that occurs during the first year of life rarely involves use of the hands. Besides rocking, friction caused by rhythmic thigh pressure on the genitals is used. Thigh pressure is also used by older children wanting to avoid detection when masturbating.

Before the crushing boredom of a second grade classroom would grip
me, I would swing my legs under my desk in a fashion which would
end in an orgasm. I may have embarrassed a few teachers.

Masturbation is common during childhood, but by no means all children masturbate. We have no accurate count of the number who do or the frequency of occurrence for those who do. Several studies have dealt with the topic, but lack of methodological rigor and consistency makes comparisons between the findings of the various studies less useful than it might be. Sears, Maccoby, and Levine (1957) reported that only two fifths of the mothers said they had never noticed their children doing anything that could be referred to as masturbating. In a study involving 284 boys, Ramsey (1943) reported that 5 percent of those age six and under had had masturbatory experiences, and 10 percent of seven-year-olds had.
Some children of both sexes masturbate in early childhood. Reports conflict as to which sex has the higher incidence. Kinsey et al. (1953) reported more girls than boys. Ramsey (1943) summarized five personal interview studies that, when taken along with his own study, indicate that masturbation occurs at some time in the sexual histories of nearly all males. In Ramsey's sample, three fourths reported that their first experience was between the ages of ten and sixteen. Fourteen percent of those eight years old reported masturbatory experiences, 23 percent of those nine years old, 29 percent of those ten years old, 52 percent of those eleven years old, 73 percent of those twelve years old, 85 percent of those thirteen years old, 95 percent of those fourteen years old, and 98 percent of those fifteen years old. The highest percentage increment came at ages eleven, twelve, thirteen, and fourteen, and in that order. The increase at each age from six to age fifteen was 5.3, 4.2, 4.6, 8.8, 5.9, 24.7 (age eleven), 19.1, 12.2, 10.2, and 3. 1. Note the marked increment between age ten and age eleven. This is a considerably more rapid rise in incidence than that reported for a British sample (Capes 1972) and perhaps for a Norwegian study (Langfeldt 1990) as well, but both Capes's and Langfeldt's data agree with Ramsey's that by the end of puberty masturbation is almost universal among boys.

We do not have incidence data for girls that are comparable to the Ramsey data for boys, but it has been generally observed that the incidence of recalled onset of masturbation is a smaller percentage for females than for males at each age. In the Kinsey et al. sample (1953), 4 percent of females reported remembering having masturbated at age five; 7 percent at age seven; 13 percent at age ten; 19 percent at age twelve; and 28 percent at age fifteen. Langfeldt (1990) reported a considerably higher percentage for fifteen- to sixteen-year-old Norwegian girls; Langfeldt reported an incidence of about 50 percent masturbating to orgasm. The difference between Kinsey's and Langfeldt's findings could reflect, besides sampling differences, differences in culture and in time. Langfeldt's data were collected almost forty years after Kinsey's.

As to the frequency of masturbating for those with masturbatory experience, Ramsey (1943) reported a wide variation in frequency of occurrence for the 257 boys with experience, from a single experience to a maximum frequency of over 1,000 times per year. Seventy-three percent of the boys reported masturbatory frequencies of one to four times per week. Nor are such frequencies uncommon for girls, though there are less girls who masturbate.

As to the effect of masturbation, masturbation appears to be a common experience in normal and healthy infants and children. Levine (1957) reported that except for excoriated penile shafts and irritated vulvae and perineum in some children, "most of the active masturbators that I have observed have been beautifully built with good posture and excellent muscle tone" (Levine 1957:123). Evidence of guilt feelings in children who masturbate is relatively common in our society.

It has always puzzled me as to exactly where I got the feelings of guilt. As far as I can remember, my parents never said much of anything about sex. Certainly nothing that would lead me to believe sex was wrong or bad. Possibly it was because they said nothing that I felt there was something secret about sex. Likewise, I can't remember picking up much in church that would have led me to believe that I should not masturbate. Maybe I merely picked up the guilt feelings about sex from off-hand comments I might have heard. At any rate, regardless of where I acquired my feelings, I definitely felt it was wrong to masturbate and had deep guilt feelings about the activity.

The Child Study Association, in its 1969 publication When Children Ask About Sex, referred to masturbation as a necessary phase of sex maturing and suggested that it helps parents to think of masturbation as part of the growing-up process instead of as a dangerous habit. This perspective has been around for some time, yet parents find it a perspective difficult to accept when their own children are concerned. If children could remember the kind of sexual socialization they had received in childhood, they would likely know why they feel guilty when masturbating.

Several recent studies (Berges et al. 1983; Gagnon 1985) have dealt with the topic of parental awareness of and reaction to child masturbation. Gagnon found that a large majority of parents, especially mothers, recognize that children do masturbate; a smaller number, but still a majority, agreed that masturbation was all right, especially mothers of sons, 60 percent of whom thought it was all right. A large number of parents reported that they had observed their children masturbating (Berges et a]. 1983). Levine (1957) reported that almost 100 percent, if not 100 percent, of all parents that he had questioned or observed expressed some revulsion when watching their children masturbate, even if they made no attempt to stop it. Berges et al. (1983) found that parents took great satisfaction in observing their children's enjoyment of the various parts of their bodies--except when it came to genital touching even though they acknowledged that their children derived pleasure from it. Gagnon (1985), too, found that only a few parents actually approved of their own child masturbating, mainly mothers of sons and only 4 percent of them. The most common reaction was to ignore the child's masturbating or to suggest that the child do it in private. A fourth of the mothers told their daughters that masturbating was harmful for them; less than 10 percent told their sons the same thing. Less than half of the parents wanted their children in adolescence to have a positive attitude toward masturbation; 62.5 percent of mothers with liberal sex attitudes wanted their sons to have positive attitudes. According to Berges et al. (1983), a sizable group of parents saw masturbation as a positive part of human development, a good thing in itself, a joyous and enriching experience. It is a rare mother who is as positive when it concerns her own child as the mother of the boy in the following case.

My mother asked me straight out if I masturbated. I didn't want to discuss it, but I said that I did. My mother's only reply was that she didn't want me to masturbate for short periods of time because I could become a premature ejaculator.

There is little doubt that the attitudes of parents influence the attitudes of children toward masturbation.

The openness toward nudity in my family created an atmosphere where I was not self-conscious or reluctant to acknowledge my genitals. Consequently, I started masturbating at a very young age. I had no negative feelings about it.

Parents in the Berges study indicated rather apologetically that they had never brought up the subject of orgasm with their children. The majority did not think their children had any understanding of what orgasm was.

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  1. All cases of sexual experiences used in the text are from the author's files
    unless otherwise indicated and are drawn from over 200 cases of recall of child
    hood sexual experiences by undergraduate college students. Cases are used to
    elaborate on a point, not to prove it.


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Sears, R. R., E. E. Maccoby, and H. Levine. Pattems of Child Rearing. Evanston, Ill.: Row, Peterson,1957.

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