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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
Child Psychologists

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 genitals.

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 <file://www.dollandassociates.com/sexuality>www.dollandassociates.com/sexuality.