A 4-year-old girl chases all the boys around on the playground, giving them a passionate smooch when she catches them. A 6-year-old tells his father, “When I see a pretty girl my penis gets so hard!” A voyeuristic grade school boy is scolded for disrobing in front of company and trying to peep on others when they undress. Two 10-year-old girls are caught kissing and exploring one another during a sleepover. A preschool-age girl theatrically masturbates on her cot every naptime using the head of her Elmo doll. Another 4-year-old, after tying her shirt off to expose her belly and dancing seductively, repeatedly kisses the cover of her Backstreet Boys album while expressing her desire to take off Donnie’s clothes and kiss him all over. Two 5-year-old romantics, in a comical quest to consummate their love in the school bathroom, fumble around attempting intercourse. It ends with a teacher having to fish out a condom that got stuck in the girl’s nether regions. On the bright side, at least they used protection. (*1)
This is just a sampling of some of the sexual behavior exhibited by children. Stories like these are happening all around us, but seldom receive public attention. They are spoken about in hushed tones or tucked away as anecdotes in parenting books.
Because this topic gets so little public attention, when adults observe the sexual behavior of children, they are often alarmed, upset, confused, concerned, or all of the above. Such behavior doesn’t align with the template many have in their mind of what children should be. Yet the reality is that children have erotic inclinations pretty much since birth, and as a study in Pediatrics notes, “there are many sexual behaviors exhibited by children.” (*2)
Is it normal for children to engage in sexual behavior?
Once the initial shock wears off, “Is this normal?” is usually the first thought to cross a parent’s mind. All available evidence suggests that sexual behavior in childhood is both perfectly normal and usually a healthy aspect of development. Childhood sexual behavior can be observed in every culture and society throughout the world, even in those that try to suppress it. (*3) This suggests it is a naturally occurring behavior and something nature intended children to explore. Childhood sexual behavior is also well-documented among all our closest primate relatives. “The fact that there is a universal tendency among mammals to indulge in sexual play in childhood, long before fertility is achieved,” write professors Clellan Ford and Frank Beach, “sheds new light upon the behavior of youngsters in our own and other societies that restrict the sexual activities of children.” (*4)
Normal Versus Abnormal Sexual Behavior in Children
Even knowing that sexual behavior can be a normal aspect of child development, you may still be wondering whether your child’s particular behavior is normal or not. There are varying degrees of normalcy when it comes to sexual behavior in children, and I hesitate to even use the term “abnormal.” Even things that aren’t very common can nonetheless arise spontaneously on a child’s own accord, and therefore aren’t necessarily anything ‘abnormal’ that you need to worry about. So instead of throwing various behaviors into the category of ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal,’ below is a breakdown of where various behaviors fall on the spectrum according to how common they are.
Types of Childhood Sexual Behavior & Their Frequency
The majority of children will exhibit these behaviors at some point during childhood:
- Expressing an interest in the opposite sex
- Body exploration
- Developing crushes (on other children or adults)
- Viewing pornography (average age of 1st exposure is 8-years-old, which means some view it earlier, others later)
- Peeping or voyeuristic behavior
- Sexual talk or telling sexual jokes
- Touching or attempting to explore an adult’s sexual areas (breasts or genitals)
A significant number of children will engage in the following behavior:
- Sexting or taking/sending a nude picture of themselves (12% of 8- to 12-year-olds and 20-28% of adolescents have sexted a nude picture
- Sexual play, either in a pair or in a group
- Same-sex sexual play
- Sibling sexual play or exploration
- French kissing/tongue kissing
- Sensual or overly affectionate behavior
- Flirting or flirtatious behavior
- Rubbing up against other sexual play
These behaviors are not very common, typically occurring in only about 1%-3% of the pre-teen population. Yet just because they are fairly uncommon does not in and of itself mean they are unnatural or abnormal.
- Self-pleasure through penetration
- Inserting items/fingers into the anus or vagina
- Propositioning adults for sex
What’s normal also varies quite a bit depending on a child’s age. For example, exploring the sexual areas of an adult’s body is quite common among young kids, but fairly rare by the latter grades of elementary school, since children will have developed a greater awareness of social boundaries by then. So what’s natural in a preschooler wouldn’t be normal if a 6th grader did it.
When you should be concerned about a child’s sexual behavior
Sexual behavior becomes a concern when…
- It’s associated with bullying, force, coercion or aggression
- It is leading to physical injury
- It is random, indiscriminate, or a child doesn’t seem to understand social boundaries (i.e., they masturbate in public or attempt sexual interaction with unfamiliar peers or adults
- Sexual behavior is excessive or compulsive, which could be a sign of persistent sexual arousal disorder.
Of course, in the sexually neurotic society we live in, even developmentally normal sexual behavior can be a problem if the adults around a child react in a hysterical fashion. So even normal sexual behavior in children could have legal consequences if an irate parent decides to sue or if a child-abusing prosecutor decides to make an issue of it.
Sexual Behavior By Ages & Stages
Here’s a brief overview of the more typical behavior for each age group.
Typical sexual behavior in infants & toddlers
Children this young rarely exhibit ay obvious sexual behavior. That said, it’s not unheard of, and not ‘abnormal’ in a clinical sense of the word, for infants and toddlers to masturbate, explore the body of others with their hands or mouth, take an interest in the genitals or urination process, or to instinctually mimic copulatory thrusting when excited.
Typical sexual behavior in a preschool child
Children develop by leaps and bounds during the preschool years, and with this coms the first significant forays into sexual behavior. Almost all children this age will occasionally touch themselves or masturbate, even if you don’t observe it. Body exploration, s_x play, kissing games, and an interest in romantic themes are all common during the preschool years. Sexual desire systems frequently come online during this age, and so children may start to develop crushes on gender-opposite peers or adults, or start describing others as “pretty” or “handsome.”
Typical sexual behavior in a school-age child
As children become more socially aware they learn to better hide such behavior from adults. Thus the visibility of such inclinations tends to decrease, resulting in the so-called “latency” period. Yet latency, as was originally suggested, isn’t a time when children lose interest in sex; it’s an artificial drop in statistics created by the fact that children become more sophisticated and have learned to conceal such behavior. Sexual development continues unabated. Romance grows more sophisticated. Children pair up and start “dating” on the school yard. Crushes can become more intense and longer lasting. The majority of kids will view pornography during elementary school, whether out of curiosity or habit. Kids create elaborate games to experiment with sex, and may begin experimenting with more sophisticated adult-like sexual behavior.
Typical sexual behavior during adolescence
Puberty ushers in the full gamut of sexual motivations and desires, giving children a sexual nature identical to that of an adult. In fact, for a few years their hormones will typically spike above average adult levels, making them even hornier than the average 20-30 year old. Some kids will begin having oral sex or intercourse. For others, sexual repression and pent-up desire can prompt them to experiment or explore in whatever means available to them, which can lead to some rather peculiar, American Pie-style episodes. So it’s hard to label anything that occurs during this age as ‘abnormal.’
See also . . .