Sexual Development Across the Lifespan
The sexual lifespan includes childhood sexual development, adolescent sexual development, adult sexual development, and sex in older adults. Impacts include puberty, menarche, and adolescent issues such as teen pregnancy, use of birth control, and statistical applications. Marriage and sexual activity is also presented. Applications related to the roots of sexual development theory are also given. Issues concerning homosexual sexual development indicate relevant themes from research and implications for extended research.
Keywords Adolescence; Andropause; Childhood Sexual Development; Cohabitation; Gender Identity; Homosocial Groups; Human Sexuality; Marriage; Maturity; Menopause; Reproduction
Human Sexual Development
According to DeLamater and Friedrich (2002), human sexuality might be described as a developmental process manifesting different characteristics throughout the human lifespan resulting in stages and milestones consisting of biological and behavioral components. Four stages of development can be identified and characterized in accordance with resulting biological and behavioral manifestations:
- Childhood sexual development,
- Adolescent sexual development,
- Adult sexual development, and
- Sex among older adults.
In his model of sexual development, Bancroft (1989) distinguished three different strands of sexual development, which can be identified as "gender identity, sexual response and the capacity for close, dyadic relationships" (p. 149). Jannsen (2007) added to the conversation regarding human sexual development by arguing that cultural aspects affect human sexuality in multiple ways. All of these factors create the context for better understanding the different stages of human sexuality and provide a framework for understanding not only the biological and behavioral attributes of human sexuality, but may also contribute to the cultural interplay as well.
Childhood Sexual Development
De Graaf and Rademakers (2006) indicated that developing an improved insight into the sexual behavior and feelings of children has become increasingly important. In Western society, parents and educators find it difficult to decide how to react to children's sexual behaviors or questions about sexuality asked by children due to a growing societal fear regarding the risks of sexual victimization by adult predators. According to research that is available on child sexual development and a general consensus of empirical evidence, many opportunities for enhanced understanding regarding increased knowledge of childhood sexual developmental stages exist that seems to point out "which sexual behaviors and feelings should be considered ‘normal’ for children of certain ages, genders, or cultural backgrounds" (p. 2).
According to Masters, Johnson, and Kolodny (1982), sexual response in infants was found to be evident from birth. For example, vaginal lubrication has been identified in female infants within 24 hours after birth, and in male infants, erections have also been triggered and documented. Moreover, Martinson (1994) indicated that infants have been identified fondling their genitalia and digitally manipulating their genitalia from 2 ½ to 3 years of age. Moreover, the touching of genital parts has been documented in early childhood and even before birth (Brenot & Broussin, 1996). "After birth boys of 6 to 8 months of age and girls of 8 to 11 months of age reportedly discover their genitals by unintentionally touching them" (De Graaf & Rademakers, 2006, p. 4). Masturbation can be identified as a behavior that is solitary in nature and occurs when an individual touches or stimulates his or her own genitals typically for the purpose of stimulating sexual arousal (Bancroft, Herbenick, & Reynolds, 2003; Goldman & Goldman, 1988). Friedrich, Fisher, Broughton, Houston, and Shafran (1998) indicated that masturbatory behaviors are normal and can be observed and indicated by the sexual play of young children, and becomes more clandestine in children aged 6 to 9 after children become more aware of cultural norms attributed to sexual behavior (Reynolds, Herbenick, & Brancroft, 2003). Other sexual expressions might be rooted in pervasive sucking behaviors, cuddling, and other kinds of stimulation (De Lamater & Friedrich, 2002, p. 10).
Bowlby (1965) indicated that attachments form between infants and their parents that affect the quality and capability of relationships and form the basis for a child's sexual and emotional attachments and relationships throughout the lifespan. Goldberg, Muir, and Kerr (1995) argued that appropriate and positive physical contact offers the opportunity to provide stable and fulfilling emotional attachments in adulthood. Moreover, the role of gender identity typically forms around the age of 3 and can be described as an individual's sense of "maleness" or "femaleness." At the same time biological identity forms, a behavioral manifestation of gender-role identity is being socialized by others in relationship to the child (Bussey & Bandura, 1999). Goldman and Goldman (1982) further identified that children from ages 3 to 7 demonstrate an increased level of sexual interest, practiced by playing house or assuming other adult roles tending toward gender specificity. Moreover, children might engage in "playing doctor" and demonstrate an increased interest in the genitals of other children or adults (Okami, Olmstead, & Abramson, 1997).
Indicated by multiple researchers, the showing and touching of genitals can also be part of mutual sexual experiences between children in which both children play an active role (Goldman & Goldman, 1988; Haugaard, 1996; Lamb & Coakley, 1993; Larsson & Svedin, 2002; Reynolds, Herbenick, & Bancroft, 2003). As a result of increased sexual interest, parents may restrict the information they provide their children, and children may resort to gaining information from their peers (Martinson, 1994), leading to potential misinformation resulting in misinterpretation and misidentification. It should be noted that experiences with no direct genital contact, such as talking about sex, kissing and hugging, and exposure of genitals are most common in children up to 12 years. Finally, experiences with oral-genital contact, vaginal or anal insertion with an object or finger, and vaginal or anal intercourse are highly unusual between children 12 years old and younger (de Graaf & Rademakers, 2006, p. 11).
Adolescent Sexual Development
Thome (1993) indicated that during the stage of preadolescent sexual development, children organize themselves into homosocial groups, which can be described as a social division of males and females. One theory as to why this occurs is due to the sexual exploration and learning that occurs in homosocial groups involving individuals of the same gender. Children at this stage gain experience with masturbation as identified by a study indicating that 38 percent of men surveyed and 40 percent of women surveyed recalled masturbating before the onset of puberty (Bancroft, Herbenick, & Reynolds, 2003, p. 161). Furthermore, preadolescents at the ages of 10 to 12 years begin to experience sexual attraction followed by sexual fantasies occurring from several months to one year later (Bancroft et al, 2003; Rosario, Meyer-Bahlburg, Hunter, Exner, Gwadz, & Keller, 1996). Indicatively, homosocial interactions and subsequent exposures from these relationships may initiate the capacity for sustained intimate relationships (Thome, 1993). Simultaneously, behavioral changes are accompanied by biological changes associated with puberty, which begins from 10 years of age to 14 years of age. From a physiological perspective, gonads, genitalia, and secondary sexual characteristics enlarge and mature during this time (Tanner, 1967), all leading to an increased sexual interest and rising levels of sexual hormones and accompanying sexual fantasies.
During adolescence, bodily changes stimulate physical growth, increases in genital size and female breast size, combined with the onset of facial and pubic hair. Reportedly, these changes signal to the adolescent and to others that sexual maturity is occurring. In addition to increased testosterone and estrogen levels and other biological factors, behavioral manifestations create opportunities for sexual interactions that facilitate or inhibit sexual expression (Udry, 1988). Bancroft et al. (2003) reported that males typically begin masturbating between the ages of 13 to 15, and girls somewhat later. However, precipitating factors for increased masturbation and heterosexual intercourse may be attributed to father absence and permissive attitudes regarding sexual behavior, contrasted by regular "church attendance and long-range educational and career plans," both of which may delay female sexual activity (de Lamater & Friedrich, 2002, p. 11).
According to researchers, adolescents are having heterosexual and homosexual intercourse at earlier ages than in the past, which can be attributed to several factors. First, the age at which females have their first period has been falling since the beginning of the twentieth century. The average Caucasian female has her menarche (or first period) at about 150 months (or 12.5 years) of age and the average African American female has her first period at 144 months (12 years) of age, according to a 2012 study published in Social Science & Medicine. Additionally, young men and women are increasingly delaying marriage. In 1960, women, on average, married for the first time at 20.8 years of age, while men, on average, married for the first time at 22.8 years of age. In 2009, the median age of first marriage was 26.5 years of age for women and 28.4 years of age for men (Elliott & Simmons, 2011). Additionally, since increasing numbers of individuals are marrying later, there has been a substantial gap between biological readiness and age of marriage of typically 14 to 16 years. Finally, that the rate of teen pregnancies increased between the 1970s and 1991 would appear to indicate that teens used birth control only sporadically during these years; however, the teen pregnancy rate declined by 44 percent between 1991 and 2010 (Hamilton & Ventura, 2012), potentially reflecting an increased access to birth control by teens, increased attention in society to the importance of preventing pregnancy for adolescents, and increased economic opportunities for teenagers (Ventura, Mosher, Curtin, Abma, & Henshaw, 1998). Additional research should be conducted in the areas of sexual education, STDs, and teenagers, and birth control and consistent teen use.
A National Health Statistics Report released in March 2011 indicated that from 2006 to 2008, 2 percent of adolescent males had had sexual encounters with other males, while 10 percent of adolescent females had had sexual encounters with other females. The adolescents participating in studies on teen homosexual behavior generally reported that these encounters were with a peer; some of the participants also indicated that these encounters were initiated out of curiosity and that the behavior was not ongoing (Bancroft et al., 2003; Turner, Rogers, Lindberg, Pleck, Sonenstein, & Turner, 1998).
According to findings from the national High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 47.4 percent of U.S. high school students had had sexual intercourse at least once (2011). Adolescence is certainly a pivotal time in human sexual development (de Lamater & Friedrich, 2002, p. 11).
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