Peter B. Gray Ph.D.

The Evolving Father

Parenting and Children’s Sociosexual Behavior

Is a child’s sexual expression a cause for concern or normal development?

Posted Apr 17, 2013

Alfred Kinsey, whose insights still guide us

One of the issues a father (and mother) eventually confronts is a child’s sexual curiosity. Perhaps a son takes interest in grabbing his genitals, or children are caught playing doctor and nurse. Maybe a child seems exceptionally captivated by a parent’s nudity after emerging from a shower. Is this childhood sexual curiosity a cause for concern or part of the package of normal human sociosexual development?

As Frank Marlowe notes among the Hadza, hunter-gatherers of Tanzania, “Hadza girls and boys begin ‘playing house’ literally, building little huts, around the age of 7 or 8. There is some sex play when they enter the huts. Sometimes sex play among children occurs in full view of everyone; sometimes it is between two children of the same sex.” (p. 168) Similar sorts of sex play have been characterized among foraging societies such as the !Kung and among northern Australian aborigines. Indeed, sex play has been observed quite widely in the cross-cultural record, to the limited degree such sensitive information has been obtained, in addition to other primates. As Mel Konner recognizes, in his “Evolution of Childhood,” “Under natural conditions, both rough-and-tumble play and sex play are universal components of juvenile play behavior in higher primates, including humans…except for the low levels of childhood sex play in state-level human societies.” (p. 496)

We are often accustomed to thinking that sexual behavior begins during adolescence. We imagine that this is the time when, as a father (or mother), we might need to have “the talk,” discussing the birds or the bees. Of course, by then, kids already have some sense of sexual realities, and of variable accuracy. However, the developmental science of sexuality indicates that those same individuals began a sociosexual trajectory long before. Genital differentiation and sex differentiation of the brain begin during fetal life. A remarkable ultrasound taken of a boy suggested he was engaging in auto-stimulation (that is, masturbation), offering the hint that sexual pleasure can begin even before birth. In early infancy and childhood, kids may have a keen interest in their own and others’ genitals. As the pleasure circuitry of the sexual response is partly developed early in development, young and older children may engage in increasing rates of autostimulation and sex play. Infant boys may display erections, infant girls are capable of vaginal lubrication, and both are capable of orgasm, although without ejaculation. During mid-childhood, more social sex play, with same- and other-sex partners, becomes more common. As kids around 6-7 years of age are more independent and increasingly engaged in a wider social world of other kids, sex play can be viewed as a common aspect of social development.

Can we be more specific about patterns of childhood sexuality? Given the ethical and social challenges of conducting research on this topic, less is known about children’s sexuality compared to other phases of the life course. Alfred Kinsey and colleagues’ mid-20th century studies thus still serve as an important touchstone in the literature. What Kinsey and colleagues learned, primarily through interviews conducted with adults who recalled their childhood sexual experiences, was that children’s sexual behavior was patterned with respect to age and sex. By around age 5, approximately 10% of girls and boys reported having engaged in any sex play. Across aged 5 through 13, however, that frequency remained comparable for girls, but increased steadily to around 35% for boys aged 11-13. A fraction of these experiences were same-sex: while 8% of girls aged 5-7 and 3% of girls aged 11 reported engaging in homosexual play, 5% of boys aged 5-7 and about 30% of boys aged 11 reported homosexual play. A more recent U.S. study found that masturbation frequencies in the U.S. increased from around 10% by age 7 to around 80% by age 13. As noted above in Mel Konner’s summary, these frequent observations of U.S. children’s sex play are also regularly found cross-culturally, with U.S. rates perhaps at the lower range and among other restrictive societies. Interestingly, in this cross-cultural scope, the variable latitude granted to children’s sex play appears to coincide with that granted to adult sexuality in the same societies, an observation consistent with channeling kids’ sexuality earlier in life for appropriate expression later.

Grappling with a child’s sexuality may not be the easiest of issues to raise, but there is a science behind the scene that helps inform how a parent might take stock of it all. Eventually, a son’s or daughter’s successful development may yield a fertile adult life, and sons or daughters of their own (whose developing sexuality they will also be forced to contemplate).

Ford, C. S., & Beach, F. A. (1951). Patterns of sexual behavior. New York: Ace Books.

Gray, P.B., & Garcia, J. R. (2013). Evolution and human sexual behavior. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kinsey, A., Pomeroy, W. B., & Martin, C. E. (1948). Sexual behavior in the human male. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Kinsey, A., Pomeroy, W., Martin, C., & Gebhard, P. (1953). Sexual behavior in the human female. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Konner, M. (2010). The evolution of childhood. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Meizner, I. (1987). Sonographic observation of in utero fetal ‘masturbation.’ Journal of Ultrasound, 6,111.

Mallants, C. & Casteels, K. (2008). Practical approach to childhood masturbation: A review. European Journal of Pediatrics, 167, 1111-1117.

Marlowe, F. (2010). The Hadza: Hunter-gatherers of Tanzania. Berkeley: University of California.

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