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Sexual behavior in children: What's normal?
Guessing that folks who want to raise their children in non-sexist ways
would also likely want to raise them in sexually healthy ways, I thought
I'd forward this excellent article.
Sexual behavior in children: What's normal?
By Karin Suesser, PhD and Matthew Doll, PhD
Because of events in the Fond du Lac Community that occurred last year
involving reports of inappropriate sexual contact among 36 children, many
parents and teachers might be very sensitive to any sexual behavior a
child is showing. Specifically, they might wonder whether the behavior may
be an indication of possible sexual abuse.
Sexual behavior in children is not an easy topic to discuss. Many
communities and families are uncomfortable addressing it, and even
scientists have shown reluctance. Only recently have studies been done
that clarify what we can consider to be normal sexual behavior for
children, with Dr. William Friedrich of the Mayo Clinic as one of the
leading researchers in the field.
This column is the first of two explaining the topic.
What is normal sexual behavior?
Caregivers are often unsure about what kinds of sexual behaviors are
normal in children, and when they should be concerned. For example, if a
5-year-old boy openly touches his penis after returning from an afternoon
at a friend s house, does this mean that he was sexually abused while gone?
It is easy to overreact to this kind of behavior if we don t have any
comparison to what other children that age typically do. In this case, it
helps to know that approximately 6 percent of 2- to 5-year-old boys have
been observed to show this kind of behavior, and that occasional rubbing
and touching of genitals is a very common behavior for that age group.
When Friedrich asked caregivers of non-abused children to list the kinds
of sexual behaviors they have observed, he found that many sexual
behaviors among children are in fact rather common, and not related to
sexual abuse. An estimated 40 percent to 85 percent of children will
engage in some sexual behavior before age 13, and those behaviors tend to
vary with age, as explained below.
Kids are born with sexual feelings
Human beings have sexual feelings from birth on. Boys often have erections
while still in the womb; infant girls already show signs of vaginal
lubrication. Both male and female infants touch and rub their genitals
because it provides pleasure. By their first birthday, one-third of all
children have been observed to rub, touch or otherwise stimulate their
Between the ages of 2 and 5, half of the boys and a third of the girls
masturbate occasionally, particularly when they are tired or tense. They
are also naturally curious about their own and other people s bodies, and
often enjoy being in the nude, as well as looking at others when they are
nude or undressing. Many young children play doctor where they look at
other children s genitals and show their own. Curiosity is the driving
force behind their behavior; they may even imitate adult sexual behavior,
such as intimately kissing another child.
This is normal exploration and shouldn t cause alarm for parents unless
the behavior becomes excessive, or occurs with children who are much older
or much younger. At about age 6, children often become more private about
dressing and bathing, as well as masturbation; this leads to sexual
behavior being observed less frequently as children learn that
self-stimulation is something they should do in private. Children in the
6- to 12-year-old age group frequently show interest in nudity and sexual
behavior they see on TV or in pictures, and they might use sexual language
with their peers, often without fully understanding the meaning of the
words and phrases they use.
Sex education has come a long way
In the 1950s we did not talk to our children very much about sex, and they
were exposed to comparatively low levels of sexual material in the media.
Nowadays, mainstream media is full of sexual images and messages, yet we
as parents and community members have failed to respond. Research has
shown that we still talk to our children about sex as much (or as little)
as we did in the 1950s.
For more information and additional resources on child sexual behavior and
how to talk with children about sexuality, please visit our Web site at