Development of sexuality and sexual identity

Sexuality is a dynamic concept and is about much more than sexual activity and sexual orientation alone. It includes what being male or female means to us and how we express our gender; how we feel about our bodies, about our appearance and about physical pleasure; whom we are attracted to and what we choose to do about it; and, if we have intimate relationships, how we behave with our partners. Our ability to reproduce comes from our sexual behaviour and our feelings about our sexuality and sexual identity can be deeply affected by our sense of our own fertility.

We are all born either male or female (with some exceptions covered in Chapter 12), with different chromosome patterns and body chemistry. From birth we are spoken to, handled and usually dressed differently as part of our socialization into our gender roles. As we grow up we learn how boys and girls are supposed to behave and our differing personalities and experiences leave us more or less comfortable with living up to these expectations. Some of these expectations and roles are based on the assumption that we will be parents in the future: for example, girls the world over may be given dolls with which to practise nurturing.

As we get older we learn the rules about when and where to cover up our private parts. These rules vary somewhat from culture to culture. The age at which these rules apply can differ even between siblings but at some point this is manifest by children becoming self-conscious about their bodies and desirous of privacy. The capacity for shame and embarrassment seems to be universal.

But are children sexual? Wilhelm Reich (1968) tells us that before the time of Sigmund Freud it was believed that 'Sexuality was something that, at the time of puberty, descended on the human out of a clear sky. "Sexuality awakens" so they said. Where it had been before, nobody seemed to know' (p.49).

The first widespread understanding of childhood sexuality began when Freud (1901) defined distinct developmental stages that children go through, with a sexual/pleasure focus being on a different part of their bodies in each stage. He labelled the first stage as oral, with pleasure gained through sensations in the mouth. The anal stage, during toilet training, comes next, then a phallic stage, from around ages three to five, as children first discover the pleasure of exploring their own genitals. Freud saw the middle childhood period (ages 5 to 12) as being a time of sexual latency, which is followed by the final mature genital stage, after puberty, when sexual feelings are directed towards other adults.

These stages have been used, contested and developed mainly within the field of adult psychotherapy (Bateman, Brown and Pedder 2000), but have been less used to aid understanding of children's sexual feelings, thoughts and behaviours. Freud's pronouncement that sexuality is 'latent' in the middle childhood years has led, in many cultures, to a lack of recognition of childhood sexuality (Ryan 2000). However, as Ryan points out, research across cultures has found evidence of considerable sexual activity and interest amongst pre-pubescent children. Her own American survey of adult child abuse professionals found that almost 20 per cent of respondents remembered experiencing sexual arousal by the age of six years (Ryan, Miyoshi and Krugman 1988).

It is clear that children of all ages, from infancy upwards, have the capacity to experience pleasure and reassurance from touching their genitals. Although there is wide variation between individuals, most girls and virtually all boys start to masturbate at some stage in their development. Some parents find this alarming and embarrassing and children may be told that touching themselves is wrong or 'naughty'. Scare stories told to children in the past to prohibit touching, such as 'It'll make you go blind' or 'You'll get hair growing on the palms of your hands', together with religious prohibitions, have had wide currency (Ryan 2000) and their legacy remains today in a general discomfort with the subject. Teaching children that private touching is for a private place (such as bathroom or bedroom) is a simple concept that helps children learn appropriate public behaviour without creating guilty feelings about sexual pleasure.

After falling for more than a century, the age at which puberty occurs has levelled off in many developed countries, both for boys and girls (see Chapter 4). Puberty in girls starts slowly with changes in body shape, but is usually marked by the onset of menstruation any time between the ages of 8 and 17, with the median age between 12 and 13 (Whincup et al. 2001). Boys start puberty slightly later than girls - at any time between 10 and 16 - but their body changes continue longer, until late teens or early twenties (Lee, Guo and Kulin 2001). While children with learning disabilities, physical disabilities and/or serious health conditions usually enter puberty at a similar age to their peers, they may have delayed emotional and social development that results in a need for extra help in understanding the changes they are experiencing (Hudson 2003).

The physical changes at puberty can bring changes in patterns of mood and emotions; for example, intense emotional attractions can be felt to adults of the same or opposite sex, such as pop stars, sporting stars and respected adults like teachers. This is part of the preparation for sexual relationships as sexual orientation becomes clearer. Sexual orientation is broader than whether we are attracted to males or females or both. It also covers other aspects of what we find attractive, including physical appearance and personality type, as well as any tendency for disordered attractions, such as towards children.

The average age of first sexual intercourse has gone down in many developed countries over recent years: in the UK the mean age is around 16 to 17 for both boys and girls (McCabe and Killackey 2004; Schubotz, Rolston and Simpson 2004). The age varies considerably between different groups in society, and those that start youngest are least likely to use contraception or safer sex the first time (Coleman and Roker 1998). There is much less information available about the age at which young people start to experiment with sexual activity other than intercourse, including with partners of the same sex, and it must be presumed that some of this will start earlier than intercourse.

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