Academic journal article
By Thigpen, Jeffry W.
The Journal of Sex Research , Vol. 46, No. 1
Sexuality is widely accepted as a fundamental and important dimension of human life, but few empirical studies are available regarding the sexual behavior of children. Contributing to this paucity of research is a cultural belief in the sexual innocence of children and an attendant commitment to its protection that emerged with the conceptualization of childhood as a distinct period of life characterized by purity, innocence, and faith (Bullough, 2004). Protecting the sexual innocence of children has evolved over time to not only include protection from those who would destroy their innocence through sexual contact but also protection from exposure to material with overt sexual themes (Bullough, 2004; Mirkin, 1999). As a consequence, few existing studies have involved asking children about their behavior. Instead, researchers have relied on parental observation and retrospective report from adults. Given the challenges associated with these methodological approaches, some researchers may have been deterred from pursuing studies in this area. Similarly, institutional review boards that call into question the fundamental aims of childhood sexual behavior research, as well as the intentions of those proposing such research, may dissuade researchers. Ultimately, the unique cultural, methodological, and ethical challenges confronting the field have impeded the generation of knowledge and curbed our understanding of the sexual behavior of children.
Two interrelated literatures associated with the cultural commitment to protect the sexual innocence of children illuminate the limited state of knowledge regarding the sexual behavior of children. One area seeks to understand the nature and effects of child sexual abuse, and the other examines children as a category of sexual aggressors who prey on other children. Although the child sexual abuse literature shows that sexually abused children have significantly higher levels of sexual behavior than non-abused children (Browning & Laumann, 1997; Einbender & Friedrich, 1989; Kendall-Tackett, Williams, & Finkelhor, 1993; White, Halpin, Strom, & Santilli, 1988), both literatures critically speak to the difficulty of identifying problematic sexual behavior in children in the absence of knowledge of typical ranges of sexual behavior.
Some recent studies of primarily White, middle-class children have expanded our knowledge of the types of sexual behavior observed in children without known or suspected histories of sexual abuse. These studies show that children engage in sexual play (Lamb & Coakley, 1993; Leitenberg, Greenwald, & Tarran, 1989; Okami, Olmstead, & Abramson, 1997); show interest in viewing the bodies of others, as well as displaying their own (Friedrich, Fisher, Broughton, Houston, & Shafran, 1998; Friedrich, Grambsch, Broughton, Kuiper, & Beilke, 1991; Phipps-Yonas, Yonas, Turner, & Kauper, 1992; Shafran, 1995); and have knowledge of sexual anatomy and function (Gordon, Schroeder, & Abrams, 1990a,b; Grocke, Smith, & Graham, 1995). Taken with the findings from earlier descriptive studies that document the occurrence of such sexual behavior as penile erections in male infants, genital manipulation and play, and masturbation (Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948; Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin, & Gebhard, 1953; Moll, 1913; Spitz, 1949), non-abused children are suggested to display a wide range of sexual behavior. Behavioral differentiation by gender has been suggested, as genital manipulation and masturbatory behavior have been reported to be more common among boys (Friedrich et al., 1998; Gagnon, 1985; Rutter, 1971). Older children are suggested to be more knowledgeable than younger children about sexual behavior, pregnancy, and sexual abuse prevention (Gordon et al., 1990a), whereas hugging and kissing, self-stimulation, and exhibitionism are reported to be more common among younger children (Friedrich et al., 1991; Kinsey et al. …