Childhood Sexuality and Sexual Development

Various theories of sexual development exist, including cognitive-developmental, social-learning, and psychoanalytic theory. Recent empirical evidence has cast some doubt on each, but each is useful in helping us understand how sexuality develops.

First, some definitions, or Gender Concepts:

Sex = biological sex = sex as determined by chromosomes, gonads, internal and external genitalia. This would complete the statement, "I was born a "

Gender Identity = self image of biological sex. "I think of myself as a " This is usually consistent with biological sex, but can deviate, e.g., in transsexualism, pseudohermaphroditism. Note that gender identity, the ability to label not only oneself, but others as male or female, develops relatively early.

Gender Stability = child knows that a boy becomes a man and a girl a woman.

Gender Constancy = child knows that gender a function of biology and won't change.

Sexual Orientation = person's preference for persons of same, opposite, or either sex. This involves:

This can be homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual. There is some evidence that this maybe at least partially biological and relatively constant. Note however that isolated same sex experiences are relatively common among experimenting children and adolescents who later develop into exclusively heterosexual adults. In fact, 9% of males admitted to having had at least one homosexual experience; 40% of these occurred before age 18 and never again thereafter.

The Myth of Latency

Much of Freudian theory assumed that most of childhood is "latent" or quiescent sexually from about age 5 through puberty. Empirically, this does not seem to be true.

Friedrich et al, 1991, conducted a community-based survey to determine normative sexual behaviors and thoughts of children. Suspected or known cases of childhood sexual abuse were excluded. The children ranged in age from 2-12. The parents, not the children, were interviewed, however which may have led to underreporting of some behaviors. The results:

Further evidence of this was found in a retrospective study of adult males and females who reported 57% and 48% prevalence of sexual play in childhood (Kinsey, 1948,1953). 85% of female college students in another survey (Lamb and Coakley, 1993) remembered engaging in sexual play, with a mean age of 7.5 years; 85% of these girls were NOT coerced or persuaded.

Historical Changes in Sexual Development

Some interesting statistics:


The bottom line: if any intervention to decrease rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is to succeed, it must start early, in the pre-teen years. This contrasts with the reality of the American school system in which sexual education is often inadequate or completely absent, the curriculum maybe hampered or paralyzed by political constraints (usually in combination with some form of denial on the part of both parents and adolescents), and the availability of contraception, especially barrier contraception, is highly variable. One survey indicated only 28% of parents talk to their children about sex. Sexual education must be proactive. Health care providers must bring it up; it is very unlikely that children or adolescents will begin discussing it spontaneously.