What do we know about children’s sexuality?

Most research on the development of children’s sexuality and sexual behaviours is conducted after puberty. There is very little research on preteens, and, most of what there is focuses on children in the context of sexual abuse. We know very little about children’s sexuality in other settings and in everyday lives[271].

How children become sexual is a complex process[272]. The model of a natural, staged progression towards sexual adulthood is no longer thought to be as helpful as it once was[273], and, there is no universal agreement about what constitutes adulthood and childhood. Because sexuality is more than just sex acts (i.e. it encompasses identity, social interaction and culture) it is dependent upon a range of factors such as gender, social class, and ethnicity, as well as children’s own understandings of their sexual cultures. For example, while a developmentalist model might interpret young children’s boyfriend/girlfriend cultures as a rehearsal for adult roles, an approach that generates understandings from children’s own meanings and values suggests that boys and girls are just using the available positions of ‘girlfriend and boyfriend’ to sustain their close friendships[274].

What we do know about children’s sexuality, sexual experience and behaviours suggests variation across countries. Research on the health behaviour of school-aged children in 42 countries in and beyond Europe suggests that experience of sexual intercourse as reported by 15-year-olds varies considerably across countries, from 12% in Slovakia to 38% in Bulgaria and Denmark275 . Among 15-year-olds, a third or more have experienced sexual intercourse in England, Scotland and Ukraine, compared to about a fifth in Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Spain. The gender gap between age at first sexual intercourse is narrowing in the European Union with rates of first sexual intercourse for girls highest in Northern Europe, and relatively low in Southern and Western Europe.

In nations where data is collected, a steep decrease in age at first intercourse among women up to and including the 1970s is shown. However, in many countries (including the UK), there is evidence of subsequent stabilization. In several European countries this stabilization occurred in the early 1980s. In the USA, it occurred in the late 1980s. In Britain and New Zealand, heterosexual intercourse continued to occur at earlier ages throughout the 1980s, but recent comparisons suggest a convergence of behaviour among young men and women in the mid to late 1980s, and what seems to be a stabilization of age at first intercourse among young women in the 1990s. The average age for first intercourse in males and females in England, Scotland and Wales is 16, and slightly lower (15.9) in Northern Ireland[276].

Penis in vagina (PIV) intercourse is consistently defined by the vast majority of people as ‘sex’, but US studies have found that oral-genital contact is less likely to be considered ‘sex’ than in the 1990s, particularly among young people[277]. Relatively small scale research in the UK found that young women identifying as lesbian were more likely to consider a range of forms of genital stimulation as ‘sex’ than young women or men identifying as heterosexual[278]. Meanings of ‘virginity’ and ‘abstinence’ also vary by gender, ethnicity and extent of sexual experience[279]. There is minimal evidence to support the claim that young people substitute anal intercourse for vaginal intercourse on a widespread scale as a way of ‘maintaining virginity’. Investigating the meanings of virginity and abstinence has been a stronger focus in US studies than those in the UK, probably due to the political and moral climate around abstinence-only sex education.

Evidence suggests that the conceivable sexual repertoire of genital contact for young people includes hand-genital contact, oral sex (mouth-penis, mouth-vulva, and 69ers), vaginal intercourse and anal intercourse[280]. Noncoital sex tends to be imagined in terms of heterosexual norms. For example hand jobs, vaginal fingering, and oral sex are often seen as preparation for vaginal intercourse[281] . In partnered sex, PIV intercourse continues to predominate as the most common practice in most sexual interactions[282]. US data from 2010 found that only 12% of boys and 10% of girls claimed to have received oral sex from an opposite gender sex partner with only 1% from a same sex partner. The response rate for vaginal and anal intercourse was equally low; 9% of boys and 11% of girls had had vaginal intercourse in the last twelve months while 1% of boys and 4% of girls engaged in anal sex 283 . In the most recent NATSAL survey 74% of men and 71% of women aged 16-24 had had vaginal sex in the last year, 71% of both men and women aged 16-24 had had oral sex in the last year, and 19% of men and 17% of women aged 16-24 had had anal sex in the last year[284] .

US data shows that masturbation rather than penetrative sex is the most common sexual practice among 14-15 year olds; with 62% of boys and 40% of girls engaging in this form of sexual practice. Young women’s experiences of masturbation may be related to positive early childhood communication and positive views of their sexual identity and their subsequent sexual activity[285].

US data also suggests that when young people between the ages of 14-17 have vaginal intercourse they engage in safer sex practices; 79.1% of males and 58.1% of females used a condom in their last ten acts of intercourse. It suggests downward trends in the onset of first sex and an increase in condom use[286]. In England 80% of young people (16-24) use a condom at first sex and less than 1 in ten use no contraception[287]. It is worth noting that these figures are lower in Northern Ireland (63.8% and over a quarter), which may be related to religious views and subsequent access to services[288].

13-16 year olds’ reports of their experiences of heterosexual relationships in Scotland and England show that most evaluate their early sexual experiences positively, but that greater proportions of young women than men felt pressure at first sexual intercourse (19% vs. 10%), regretted their first time (38% vs. 20%) and did not enjoy their most recent sex (12% vs. 5%). The psychology of sexual regret suggests that these feelings are shaped by commonly understood sex/gender differences; i.e. males are active and females passive[289]. Regret is often judged against a perceived failure to save sex for the ‘right person’ or the ‘right’ time[290] and argued to relate to a sense of failure to conform to dominant ideas about normal and appropriate sexual norms[291].

Are teenage pregnancies rising?

271. James, A. & Prout, A. (Eds). Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood: Contemporary Issues in the Sociological Construction of Childhood. London: Routledge; Sandfort, T. & Rademakers, R. (Eds.) (2000). Childhood Sexuality: Normal Sexual Behaviour and Development. New York. Haworth Press; Goldman, R. & Goldman, J. (1982). Children’s Sexual Thinking: A Comparative Study of Children aged 5 to 15 years in Australia, North America, Britain, and Sweden. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
272. Walkerdine, V. (2004). Developmental Psychology and the Study of Childhood in Kehily, M.J. (Ed). An Introduction to Childhood Studies. Buckingham: Open University Press, 96-107.
273. Thorne, B. (1987). Re-visioning Women and Social Change: Where are the Children? Gender and Society, 1(1), 85-109.
274. Renold, E. (2006). ‘They won’t let us play unless you’re going out with one of them’: Girls, Boys and Butler’s ‘heterosexual matrix’ in the Primary Years, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 27(4), 489-509.
275. WHO (2009). A Snapshot of the Health of Young People in Europe, http://www.euro.who.int/en/what-we-do/health-topics/Life-stages/child-and-adolescenthealth/publications/2009/a-snapshot-of-young-peoples-health-in-europe
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284. NATSAL (2013). Sexual attitudes and lifestyles in Britain: Highlights from Natsal-3, http://www.natsal.ac.uk/media/823260/natsal_findings_final.pdf?utm_source=2013%20Findings&utm_medium=Download&utm_campaign=Infographic%20findings%202013; see also http://www.natsal.ac.uk/
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288. FPA Sexual behaviour factsheet, http://www.fpa.org.uk/factsheets/sexual-behaviour
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291. Ingham, R. (2005). ‘We didn’t cover that at school’: Education against pleasure or education for pleasure? Sex Education, 5(4), 375-388.

Are teenage pregnancies rising?

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