C HAPTER 10:SEXUALITY &T HE L IFEC YCLE :C HILDHOOD &A DOLESCENCE
- This chapter is based on the lifespan (life-cycle), approach to understanding the
development of our sexual behaviour throughout the course of our lives.
- Most of the data come from surveys in which adults are questioned.
- Self-report data thus may be subject to reporting biases & forgetting.
- Recent innovation – the use of a talking computer to interview children (uses
headphones & a keyboard).
- This process preserves confidentiality, even when others are present, because only the
child knows the question.
- The studies of child & adolescent sexual behaviour have all been surveys that have
either questionnaires or interviews (no systematic, direct observation).
- Youth from ethno cultural minorities are influenced by the sexual attitudes,
expectations, and parenting practices of their family & community.
- Also influenced by the dominant Canadian culture as well as by the behaviour of their
peers from the majority culture (a source of conflict between parents & children).
INFANCY (0TO 2Y EARS )
- Before 1890, it was thought sexuality appeared at puberty.
- Sigmund Freud discovered that children (in fact, infants) have sexual urges & engage in
- Male infants get erections & are sometimes born with erections.
- Reflex erections occur in the make fetus & vaginal lubrication has been found in baby
girls in the 24 hours after birth.
- The highly physiological & emotionally charged first encounters of parent & infant play
an indispensable part in the development process.
- Infants are often observed fondling their own genitals.
- Rhythmic manipulation of the genitals associated with adult masturbation does not
occur until age 2 and a half to 3 years.
- Orgasms from self-stimulation are possible even at this early stage (boys are not capable
of ejaculation before puberty).
- Self-stimulation is a normal, natural form of sexual expression in infancy.
- Infants with optimal maternal relationships were more likely to stimulate their genitals.
Infant-Infant Sexual Encounters:
- Children may kiss, hug, pat, stroke, and gaze at each other, behaviours that are part of
erotic intimacy later in life.
Non-Genital Sensual Experiences:
- Some infants are cuddlers & some are non-cuddlers.
- Cuddlers enjoy physical contact, while non-cuddlers show displeasure and restlessness
when they are handled or held. 2
- A psychological bond that forms between an infant & mother, father, or other caregiver.
- Quality of the relationship with the parents at this age can be very important to the
child’s capacity for later sexual & emotional relationships.
- The bond begins in the hours immediately following birth & continues throughout the
period of infancy.
- Facilitated by cuddling & other forms of physical contact (later, attachments form to
other familiar people).
- Affects the person’s capacity for emotional attachment in adulthood.
- Recent research with humans indicates that adults’ styles of romantic attachment are
similar to the kinds of attachment they remember having with their parents in childhood.
Knowing about Boy-Girl Differences:
- By age 2 and a half or 3, children know what gender they are (first step in developing a
- Motivates them to be like other members of that group.
- By age three there may be some awareness of differences in the genital region and
increasing interest in the genitals of other children.
- At ages 4 to 6 ideas about gender are very rigid.
E ARLY CHILDHOOD (3TO 7Y EARS )
- Marked increase in sexual interest & activity.
- Children increasingly gain experience with masturbation during childhood.
- In a study of 1,114 children ages 2 to 5: mothers of 60% of the boys & of 44% of the
girls reported that the child touched his or her genitals.
- 43% of girls and 71% of the boys touched his or her own genitals at home, 18% of the
girls & 28% of the boys used their hand to masturbate (Swedish Study).
- Children also learn during this period that masturbation is something that one does in
- By the age of 4 or 5, children’s sexuality has become more social.
- 64% of girls & 65% of the boys had looked at another child’s genitals; 20% of the girls
& 34% of the boys had shown their genitals to other children.
- By about the age of five, children have formed a concept of marriage (at least its non-
- Know that a member of the other gender is the socially appropriate marriage partner &
are committed to marrying when they get older.
- Primal experience: children seeing or hearing their parents engage in sexual intercourse.
- Freud believed that this experience could inhibit the child’s subsequent psychosexual
development; some contemporary writers share this belief.
- During late childhood & preadolescence, sexual play with members of one’s own 3
gender may be more common than sexual play with members of the other gender.
- Normal part of sexual development.
Sex Knowledge & Interests:
- At age 3 or 4, children begin to have some notion that there are genital differences
between males & females, but their ideas are very vague.
- By age 7, 30% percent of North American children understand what the differences are.
- At age 3, children are very interested in different postures for urinating.
- At age 4, children are particularly interested in bathrooms & elimination.
- In the rare society that puts no restrictions on childhood sex play, intercourse may occur
as young as six or seven.
- Important to remember that children’s sex play at this age is motivated largely by
curiosity and is part of the general learning experiences of childhood.
- Longitudinal study: 47% of mothers reported that their child had engaged in interactive
sex play at the age of 6 there was no significant differences between male & female
adolescents whose mothers reported such play, and those whose mothers did not report
P READOLESCENCE (8 TO 12Y EARS )
- Period of transition between the years of childhood and the years of puberty &
- Freud used the term “latency” to refer to the preadolescent period following the
resolution of the Oedipus complex (believed that sexual urges go underground in latency
are not expressed).
- Freud was wrong – children’s interests in & expression of sexuality remain lively
throughout this period.
- Around age 9 or 10, the first bodily changes of puberty begin.
- Growth of pubic hair occurs in response to adrenarche, the maturation of the adrenal
glands, leading to increasing levels of androgens.
- The average age at which attraction to another person is reported is ten years old.
- May reflect the maturation of the adrenal gland & the increases in testosterone &
estradiol (a steroid responsible for the development of female reproductive organs) that
- First experience of sexual attraction may lead the child to consider his or her sexual
- During preadolescence, more & more children gain experience with masturbation.
- In a sample of university women, 40% recalled masturbating before puberty.
- The comparable figure for men was 38%.
- Boys generally start masturbating earlier than girls do.
- 42% of the boys & 20% of the girls reported masturbating to orgasm by age 12; an
additional 27% of the boys & 18% of the girls reported masturbating without orgasm
- Boys & girls learn about masturbation in different ways: typically boys are told about it
by their male peers, they see their peers doing it, or they read about it; girls most
frequently learn about masturbation through accidental self-discovery. 4
- Generally little sexual behaviour with the other gender during the preadolescent period,
mainly because of the social division of males & females into separate groups.
- In a sample of adult women, 61% recalled having learned about intercourse by age 12.
- Children’s reactions to this new information are an amusing combination of shock and
disbelief – particularly disbelief that their parents would do such a thing.
- 80% of Swedish high school students reported having a consensual sexual experience
with another child when they were 6 to 12 years old.
- The most common activities were talking about sex, kissing & hugging, looking at
pornographic videos, and teasing other children sexually.
- 57% of the boys reported such experiences with girls, 11% with another boy, & 33%
with both boys & girls.
- For girls, the percentages were 31 with a boy, 29 with a girl, & 40 with both.
- Sexual experiences are very common, especially at ages 11 & 12, & involve consensual
experiences with boys & girls.
- The age at which youth have their first consensual sexual intercourse experience has
- 9% of the women & 16% of the men reported oral-genital contact, 3% of both reported
inserting objects in the anus, 18% of the women & 22% of the men reported inserting
objects into the vagina, & 2% of the women & 5% of the men reported having vaginal
intercourse prior to entering high school.
- 5% of male adolescents and 1% of female adolescents in Canada report that they had
engaged in sexual intercourse by the age of 12.
- The majority of Canadians first engage in intercourse between the ages of 16 & 19.
- Canadian youth who engage in intercourse during preadolescence are more likely to
report a poor relationship with their parents, having experienced pressure to engage in
unwanted sex, having used drugs other than marijuana, and believing that they must
break the rules to be popular.
- A normal part of the sexual development of children.
- Gender-segregated social organization: a general form of social grouping in which
males play & associate with other males, and females play & associate with other
females; that is, the genders are separate from each other.
- At ages 12 – 13 children are simultaneously the most segregated by gender and the most
interested in members of the other gender.
- Given that children are socializing with other members of their own gender, sexual
exploring at this age is likely to be with partners of the same gender.
- These activities generally involve masturbation, exhibitionism, and the fondling of
- A study of psychosexual development among lesbian, gay & bisexual youth ages 14 to
21 found that the participants reported their first experience of sexual attraction at age 10
- First sexual activity with another person occurred on average at age 12 or 13.
Dating & Romantic Relationships:
- Around age 10 or 11, children begin to spend time in mixed-gender or heterosexual 5
- In these mixed group settings youth typically experience dyadic pairings & their first
romantic or sexual behaviours.
- 70% of boys & 77% of girls said that they had a boyfriend or girlfriend.
- At age 13, the figures were 82% for the boys & 85% for the girls – many of these
relationships were short lived (New Brunswick study).
- Survey of 12- & 13-year-olds in the US found that about half of the 13-year-olds had
held hands, kissed, or hugged.
- Fewer than 10% had engaged in genital fondling or intercourse; these youths were more
likely to report going out on dates alone (without friends).
- Most lesbian & gay youth do not date those they are most attracted to out of very real
fear of harassment from their peers.
- Many date partners of the other gender to conform to societal expectations.
Sexualization of Children:
- Sexualization occurs when:
• a person’s values come only from his or her sexual appeal or behaviour;
• a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness with being sexy;
• a person is sexually objectified;
• sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.
- Imposed upon them at a time when it may have wide-ranging effects.
- Sexualization of girls involves cultural contributions, including sexualized
representations of girls & women on TV & the Internet, in movies, MTV, cartoons,
magazines, & sports media.
- The cultural contribution also involves sexualized products – dolls, toys, books, &
- Boys are exposed to TV shows, videogames, & movies that often include messages that
boys & men should have “buff” bodies, be physically powerful & always ready to fight.
& that for men sexual pleasure involves aggression & domination of beautiful women.
- Intrapersonal contribution – when girls are treated like sexual objects by family, friends,
teachers & other adults.
- “Fat talk” – concern about a girl’s weight & appearance can create a self-consciousness
that can be debilitating.
- Many girls & women engage in self-sexualization, including purchasing clothing &
undergoing cosmetic surgery before they are physically mature.
- Sexualization may lead to reduced self-esteem, impaired cognitive functioning &
physical performance, anxiety about appearance in interaction with others, body-image
dissatisfaction, & reduced educational & occupational aspirations.
- Viewing oneself as a sexual object may lead young people to initiate sexual intimacy, to
engage in unwanted sexual activity & relationships, & to engage in risky sexual
- To counteract sexualization within the schools, we can provide media literacy training
programs, a broader range of athletic opportunities, & a broad-based sexuality education.
- Within the family, we can encourage parents to watch TV & movies & to navigate the
Internet with children, commenting on appropriate & inappropriate content.
- Creating girl empowerment groups to support girls in a variety of ways can be very
- Activism & resistance, such as campaigning against companies that use sexualized
images to sell products or specifically target children & teens.
A DOLESCENCE (13 TO 19Y EARS )
- Heightened sexuality may be caused by a number of factors, including bodily changes
& an awareness of them, rises in the levels of sex hormones, & increased cultural
emphasis on sex.
- We can see evidence of this heightened sexuality particularly in the data on
- For boys, testosterone levels had a very strong relationship to sexual activity.
- Sexually permissive attitudes, a social variable, were related to sexuality among boys
although they had a much smaller effect than testosterone did.
- For girls, the relationship between testosterone level & sexual activity was not as strong
as it was for boys, but it was a significant relationship, & it was testosterone not estrogen
or progesterone that was related to sexuality.
- Pubertal development (developing a curvy figure) had an effect, probably by increasing
the girl’s attractiveness.
- The effects of testosterone were accentuated among girls in father-absent families.
- Social variables (such as permissive attitudes, father absence for girls, & church
attendance) seem to interact with the biological effects, in some cases magnifying them &
in some cases suppressing them.
- A study with gay & lesbian youth found that increases in hormone levels with puberty
resulted in increases in homoerotic sexual feelings & behaviours.
- Cognitive changes mediate the effects of these biological changes on sexual behaviour.
- Girls who initiated sexual intimacy had weaker abstinence values, & lower arousability
& sexual self-esteem scores.
- These measures of cognitive readiness were in turn related to reports of greater sexual
feelings & competency than age-mates who did not feel ready.
- There is a sharp increase in the incidence of masturbation for boys between the ages of
13 & 15 (Kinsey Data).
- By age 15, 82% of the boys in Kinsey’s study had masturbated.
- Many girls also begin masturbating in adolescence – but do not begin till later.
- 80% of male students & 48 % of female students reported masturbating at least once
- Asian students were significantly less likely to report masturbating than were non-Asian
- Being in a satisfying sexual relationship did not affect how likely one was to report
- On average, female students reported masturbation 3 times a month & male students
about 8 times a month (German study).
- More recent data indicate that children & adolescence begin to masturbate earlier today
(particularly true of girls).
- Attitudes toward masturbation underwent a dramatic change in the 20 century.
- Adolescents now given much different information about masturbation than were earlier 7
adolescents, & this may affect both their behaviour & their feelings about masturbation.
- In short, masturbation was once believed to cause ev