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Sexual Development and Behavior  

Sexual development begins in utero, and continues in infancy and throughout the lifespan.  Humans are innately sexual beings.  How sexual behavior is expressed, however, depends upon social learning as well as physiological and psychosocial reinforcement. 

It is important to note that attitudes and beliefs about sexual behavior, and what is considered appropriate, varies according to cultural context. This variability is reflected in diverse state laws, different religious or cultural views, and range of family beliefs.  For these reasons, sexual behavior that is found to be normative or typical are not necessarily approved of by the parents or caregivers.  When we discuss “normative sexual behavior,” we are referring to what is common or typical for developmental age rather than what may be desired by a specific group or individual.

How do you know if a sexual behavior is normative or concerning? 

Normative Sexual Behaviors are behaviors that involve parts of the body considered to be “private” or “sexual” (e.g., genitals, breasts, buttocks, etc.). These behaviors may be referred to as “sex play,” and are normally part of growing up for many children and adolescents. They are not considered to be harmful by most experts. For more information on normative sexual behaviors throughout child and adolescent development click here.

Problematic Sexual Behaviors are deviations from normative or typical sexual behavior.  They are child initiated behaviors involving sexual body parts (i.e., genitals, anus, buttocks, or breasts) and are developmentally inappropriate and/or potentially harmful to themselves or others. Problematic sexual behaviors may involve behaviors that are entirely self-focused such as excessive masturbation, or behaviors that involve other children, such as touching other children’s genitals or sexual intercourse. Normative sexual behaviors may become problematic sexual behaviors when it increases in frequency and doesn’t respond to parenting strategies.  Problematic sexual behaviors are a set of behaviors that are not normative, are considered unacceptable by society, and can cause impairment in functioning.

Why do children engage in sexual behaviors?  

Professionals must consider the reasons why children engage in normative or problematic sexual behaviors. Although the term sexual is used, the intentions and motivations for these behaviors in children often is unrelated to sexual gratification. Rather, the behaviors may reflect curiosity, imitation, attention-seeking, anxiety, reenacting trauma, self-calming, loneliness, boredom, or anger. While problematic sexual behavior may originate as a trauma reaction to the child’s own sexual abuse experience, it is not always the case.  Problematic sexual behaviors are not always “caused” by having been sexually abused.  Where do these behaviors come from? (Coming Soon)

Even in adolescents, when sexual arousal is more likely to be present, nonsexual motivating factors, such as those just described, may contribute to problematic sexual behaviors.  As a result, when adolescents focus their sexual behavior on pre-pubescent children, do NOT assume their motivations reflect exclusive sexual arousal to young children—such interests are rare in teens. When teens engage prepubescent children in sexual behavior, such actions may be a response to a perceived opportunity rather than suggestive of problematic attraction to young children. Where do these behaviors come from? (Coming Soon)

Sex Play 

Sex play between children, where behaviors and play activities are focused on body parts and functioning is a normal part of child development. This play involves children exploring each other’s bodies and gender roles. It is natural for children to have curiosity about sexual behavior, their and others’ bodies, and to show interest in sexual activities.

Sex play is different from problematic sexual behavior. Sex play usually occurs between children of similar age, size, development, and abilities.  The children typically know and play with each other regularly, such as siblings, other children in the family, neighbors, or friends, rather than among strangers.  The children involved in sex play may be of the same or different genders.  As children get older and more aware of the social rules, their sexual behavior, including sex play, becomes hidden and is generally not known to caregivers.  Thus, incidents of sex play in school age children may be unknown by caregivers as these youths have greater awareness of social norms.

Additional information on the topic can be found here.

Next: Normative Sexual Behavior and Problematic Sexual Behavior