South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence

Child & adolescent sexuality

For Family & Friends, Female Survivors, Male Survivors, Teachers, Workers, Young People

Tags: Child Development, Medical Information

Author: South Eastern CASA

Some and probably all children are capable of what appear to be sexual responses even in earliest years. Most infants probably explore and fondle their own genitals, but not in a goal directed way. As a child grows, masturbation to orgasm becomes more and more likely. Researchers and experts disagree on how many children masturbate before adolescence. Most children seem to have the biological capacity to derive pleasure from self-stimulation.

Sexual experiences with the other sex are common during childhood. Children often kiss, touch and play doctor. Sexual contacts with the same sex are more common than opposite sex contacts. Like adults, children appear to have sexual thoughts. It is not clear how common sexual themes are in children's fantasies.

Many theorists believe that sexual desires and behaviours are innate. However, sociologists argue that sexual behaviour is not determined but learned according to cultural scripts. Because children lack sexual scripts they experience genital activity differently than do adults. Children learn certain values related to sexuality that lay a foundation for later sexual development. The most important determinants of sexual patterns, expectations and responses occur during adolescence.

For most children the primary source of information about sex is friends.

Most males learn to masturbate during adolescence; fewer females do. Some sex therapists believe that girls who do not masturbate miss an important step in their sexual development, since masturbation provides an opportunity to learn how one's body responds to erotic stimulation.

Because boys usually masturbate and girls often do not, boys are more likely to learn a sexuality that is genitally focused. Boys learn their sexuality in a context that is homosocial - the audience bestows a sense of esteem on the boy. Girls who masturbate almost always discover it on their own. Girls generally talk among themselves about masturbation and do not perform in front of others. There is no peer support for sexual exploration or reward for reaching orgasm.

Boys emerge from adolescence both sexually advantaged and disadvantaged. They are practiced at having orgasms and comfortable with the physical aspects of sex. They are less adept at handling emotional relationships with girls.

Childhood sexual behaviour

Most information comes from the retrospective accounts of adults who are asked to recall childhood experiences. These may or may not be reliable.

Children are capable of what appear to be sexual responses even in earliest years.


Most infants probably explore and fondle their own genitals. Not goal-directed or systematic play in the same casual way that they do with their ears, noses, fingers and toes. As a child grows older, masturbation to orgasm becomes more and more likely. Most have the biological capacity to derive pleasure from self-stimulation.

In societies permissive about childhood masturbation most masturbate by 6-8 years.

Sexual play:

0 - 3 years: Children are egocentric and are not interested in, nor capable of any sort of social give or take.

3 - 4 years: Boys and girls may hug and kiss and say they plan to marry when they grow up. The meaning is not clear.

4 years: Awareness of genital differences around urinating. Play at school is more organised. Children act out sex roles by playing house. May show one another their genitals playing doctor.

Sometimes there can be a physiological response.

5 - 11 years: Conventional rules of modesty take hold. Games like doctors decrease but kissing, touching and showing continue, interest in sex is apparent. Boys and girls profess hatred for each other.

Teasing occurs.


Tell jokes, write and whisper sexual words, talk about sex with same sex friends. Send notes. Some sort of coitus or attempt.


Date, attend mix-sex parties, dances, play kissing games, go steady, exchange letters and gifts pre-marital sex - fondling of breasts and genitals, oral-genital contact, intercourse.

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