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Sexual Development through the Life Cycle

Many people cannot imagine that everyone—babies, children, teens, adults, and the elderly—are sexual beings. Some believe that sexual activity is reserved for early and middle adulthood. Teens often feel that adults are too old for sexual intercourse. Sexuality, though, is much more than sexual intercourse and humans are sexual beings throughout life.

Sexuality in infants and toddlers—Children are sexual even before birth. Males can have erections while still in the uterus, and some boys are born with an erection. Infants touch and rub their genitals because it provides pleasure. Little boys and girls can experience orgasm from masturbation although boys will not ejaculate until puberty. By about age two, children know their own gender. They are aware of differences in the genitals of males and females and in how males and females urinate.

Sexuality in children ages three to seven—Preschool children are interested in everything about their world, including sexuality. They may practice urinating in different positions. They are highly affectionate and enjoy hugging other children and adults. They begin to be more social and may imitate adult social and sexual behaviors, such as holding hands and kissing. Many young children play "doctor" during this stage, looking at other children's genitals and showing theirs. This is normal curiosity. By age five or six, most children become more modest and private about dressing and bathing.

Children of this age are aware of marriage and understand living together, based on their family experience. They may role-play about being married or having a partner while they "play house." Most young children talk about marrying and/or living with a person they love when they get older. School-age children may play sexual games with friends of their same sex, touching each other's genitals and/or masturbating together. Most sex play at this age happens because of curiosity.

Sexuality in preadolescent youth ages eight to 12—Puberty, the time when the body matures, begins between the ages of nine and 12 for most children. Girls begin to grow breast buds and public hair as early as nine or 10. Boys' development of penis and testicles usually begins between 10 and 11. Children become more self-conscious about their bodies at this age and often feel uncomfortable undressing in front of others, even a same-sex parent.

Masturbation increases during these years. Preadolescent boys and girls do not usually have much sexual experience, but they often have many questions. They usually have heard about sexual intercourse, petting, oral sex, and anal sex, homosexuality, rape and incest, and they want to know more about all these things. The idea of actually having sexual intercourse, however, is unpleasant to most preadolescent boys and girls.

Same-gender sexual behavior is common at this age. Boys and girls tend to play with friends of the same gender and are likely to explore sexuality with them. Masturbating together and looking at or caressing each other's genitals is common among preadolescent boys and girls. Such same-gender sexual behavior is unrelated to a child's sexual orientation.

Some group dating occurs at this age. Preadolescents may attend parties that have guests of both genders, and they may dance and play kissing games. By age 12 or 13, some young adolescents may pair off and begin dating and/or "making out." In some urban areas, preadolescent boys seek out situations in which they experience vaginal intercourse. Young women are usually older when they begin voluntary sexual intercourse. However, many very young teens to practice sexual behaviors other than vaginal intercourse, such as petting to orgasm and oral intercourse.

Sexuality in adolescent youth (ages 13 to 19)—Once youth have reached puberty and beyond, they experience increased interest in romantic and sexual relationships and in genital sex behaviors. As youth mature, they experience strong emotional attachments to romantic partners and find it natural to express their feelings within sexual relationships. There is no way to predict how a particular teenager will act sexually. Overall, most adolescents explore relationships with one another, fall in and out of love, and participate in sexual intercourse before the age of 20.

Adult sexuality—Adult sexual behaviors are extremely varied and, in most cases, remain part of an adult's life until death. At around age 50, women experience menopause, which affects their sexuality in that their ovaries no longer release eggs and their bodies no longer produce estrogen. They may experience several physical changes. Vaginal walls become thinner and vaginal intercourse may be painful as there is less vaginal lubrication and the entrance to the vagina becomes smaller. Many women use estrogen replacement therapy to relieve physical and emotional side effects of menopause. Use of vaginal lubricants can also make vaginal intercourse easier. Most women are able to have pleasurable sexual intercourse and to experience orgasm for their entire lives.

Adult men also experience some changes in their sexuality, but not at such a predictable time as with menopause in women. Men's testicles slow testosterone production after age 25 or so. Erections may occur more slowly once testosterone production slows. Men also become less able to have another erection after an orgasm and may take up to 24 hours to achieve and sustain another erection. The amount of semen released during ejaculation also decreases, but men are capable of fathering a baby even when they are in their 80's and 90's. Some older men develop an enlarged or cancerous prostate gland. If the doctors deem it necessary to remove the prostate gland, a man's ability to have an erection or an orgasm is normally unaffected. Recently, Viagra has become available to help older men achieve and maintain erections.

Although adult men and women go through some sexual changes as they age, they do not lose their desire or their ability for sexual expression. Even among the very old, the need for touch and intimacy remains, although the desire and ability to have sexual intercourse may lessen.

Adapted from Life Planning Education. Washington, DC: Advocates for Youth, ©1995.

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