The Sex Lives of Children

My earliest sexual memory is at Fresh Meadow Swimming Pool in Queens, New York on a rare outing with my father. I must have been five or six. We enter the locker room to change into our swimsuits, me trailing behind him, carefully glancing up from the puddles in the green tile floors to see naked men for the first time in my life.

It’s crowded, and I am aware of nothing as much as my own smallness. No other boys seem to be present. Tall and taller men stand, shuffle, bend, stoop, and stretch wherever I cast my eyes. They are dressed, half-dressed, and undressed. I see hair gray, red, brown and black. I see pencil-point darts of hair soaked and flattened against calves and thighs. I see tufted curls rising from chests and stomachs, and sometimes backs and buttocks. I see thick forests of pubic hair surrounding penises. I am trying not to stare. My skin is tingling as I strip off my street clothes.

Arlen Shumer, "Scream"

Spent towels are draped over benches and from the tops of locker doors. Gentle, almost childish sounds of feet plinking in the shallow puddles contrast with the tremendous stentorian weight of deep exotic voices all around.

The steamy air forces into my little lungs the scent of masculinity and power, the combined aromas of sweat, aftershave lotion, and shoe leather. I am intoxicated and terrified by the sensory assault.

My father and I stash our clothing in a locker and walk together down a lane of lockers, sometimes turning sideways to avoid contact with men. I actually feel the proximity of men on the skin of my upper arm, neck, and of all things, my ears, which feel hot. I follow my father through a sort of tunnel leading to the pool. At the end is a hard bright archway of sunlight and a blinding, concrete pool deck surface beyond. In my memory of it I feel as if I am passing from a safe and comforting world into a harsh, cruel world I will never trust as I do the locker room.

Many of the adults I interviewed for my books, Unchartered Lives and Your Brain on Sex, shared similar stories. Some remembered sexual feelings from as far back as ages four, five, and six, others when most children discover the pleasure of genital stimulation, though at the time there is no concept or language to understand or describe it. Almost every adult harbors at least one vivid, early childhood recollection which s/he later realized was based on sexual excitement. 

Later, children learn about masturbation, first through their own maturing bodies inaugurate form, beginning with “wet dreams,” in which they awaken in the middle of the night and discover their bodies nocturnal emissions or vaginal wetness. At that stage, it is generally disconnected from conscious sexual fantasy or other adult notions of sex. Still, the body sensations are overwhelmingly mysterious as is the desire to repeat the experience, even when ejaculation may not be biologically possible. Eventually this exploration leads to intentional masturbation, and in time, to orgasm. I’ve been told many stories by adults, who when their orgasms first occurred, had no idea what it was. And while most felt terrified by their first orgasm, they were drawn right back to whatever activity caused it.

In fact, it is the experience of childhood orgasm that in many cases heralds the beginning of a concept of sex that unites body and mind, bringing desire and fantasy into the foreground for the first time. Child sexuality is fundamentally different from adult sexual behavior, until it becomes goal-driven, usually during late adolescence when sexual fantasies become conscious and reaching orgasm through them becomes a focus in the transition from sex play to autoeroticism. Intentional orgasm is sufficiently powerful as a pleasure and leads to self-reflection, in which we begin to weave together what until then have been random physical sensations, thoughts,biochemicals, familial constructs, and social ideas about sex into what inevitably becomes solidified as our sexual code, the psychosexual “DNA” which guides our sexual lives as adults.

Pubescent sexual experimentation or sex play with playmates or friends is a natural part of this self-discovery for most children (pre- and post- intentional masturbation).

Sex play often begins in same-sex friendships and is therefore bound to be homosexual in appearance, yet not necessarily based in same-sex attraction. As heterosexual boys and girls naturally feel individually drawn to one another, gay children also naturally feel their own pre-programmed magnetic pulls. But, the reason most children can participate in same-sex play is because they do not comprehend the social labels and, in general, have not been schooled in sexuality at all. Sex play is driven by both the forces of biology and genuine curiosity. Where a lesbian or gay child may feel a vague sense of desire for closeness during exploratory sessions, conscious of how much he admires the person with whom he is playing, or may long for some communication that the sex play suggests more meaning to the same-sex friendship, the straight child’s plain and simple goal in the exchange is to experience whatever new pleasure becomes available, including, the stunning experience of orgasm. Eventually the straight child will wander into sexual play with the opposite sex with same intensity and longing for the encounter as his gay playmate felt with him.

As time goes on, sex play moves beyond the simple curiosity or the testing out of the equipment: it serves as a training ground for future sex and love games providing valuable lessons for practical use in situations that occur later in life. Explorations of roles, experiences of intimacy, bonding, friendship, admiration and even love and loss are often first experienced in these encounters. Those who feel free enough and trusting enough of each other to share their fears and confusion often pass through a stage of sex play that, for the cooperation, alleviates some of the more exaggerated fears. especially from religious, parental, or peer disapproval.

As natural as sex play is for children, it is as complicated and confusing for parents. As parents, we cherish the idea of childhood as a state of innocence, free of conflict and danger, and we take every measure to protect our children from what we perceive as harm. The idea of childhood orgasm shakes our foundation because many of us have experienced sex as emotionally fraught. Many adults have not reconciled their own sexual desires with social, familial, and religious attitudes. Instead of understanding childhood sexuality and allowing their children to discover it freely without interference, these parents judge it as bad, sinful, inappropriate, or dishonorable, messages that do not go unheard regardless of how subtly they may be expressed.

How parents handle childhood sexuality is crucial to the future well-being of their offspring.

To the degree that a parent reacts to a child’s sexual experience through criticism, cautionary tales, or angry tirades, feelings of guilt, shame, fear, and disloyalty will infect the child’s feeling about him/herself. For children, the first expressions of their sexuality are truly pure and innocent, an enactment based of biological forces. But when children are met with negativity, they internalize the messages in such a way that the background music in their minds repeats the same refrain: “You should be ashamed of yourself.” These internalized attitudes become part of the DNA which makes up our adult sexual code. The idea that we are wrong, bad, or damaged for engaging in sex, echoes throughout our lives with long-lasting effects

If a parent is non-judgmental with a child upon learning about their sexual behavior, and does not seek to redirect or influence it, instead using the moment as an opportunity to openly discuss it, a child will feel safer with his sexual curiosity. Parental respect for the sexual discovery process engenders a sense of trust in the child’s ability to navigate his own body as well concepts of pleasure and self-gratification. Rather than poisoning a child’s sexual experimentation, a child learns that sex can be a window to a deeper understanding of who and what she is. In contrast to other parents’ negative attitudes, this positivity then becomes encoded into a child’s psychosexual DNA.

During the heightened sexuality of adolescence, we begin to merge all of the elements of our childhood sexual experience thus far with one crucial addition, the accumulated emotional experience of family life, especially the effects of conflict or unmet needs. Few of us leave childhood without some pain or unhappiness that becomes part of our individual psychology, setting the stage on which we interact with the world.

As human beings, we are naturally driven toward self-healing whether it’s a small cut on our skin or a deep psychological trauma. Self-recovery enhances our chances of physical and emotional survival. We are designed to do whatever we can to lessen the pain. In other words, we turn early painful experiences into pleasurable ones in order to counteract their power over us. During adolescence, we eroticize these unmet needs of emotional conflict from childhood in a complicated attempt to heal ourselves.

(repeated line) As we grow into adults, these old conflicts are coded into our fantasies, desires, and behavior. Combined with childhood sexual experience, they complete the design of our psychosexual DNA. Much like the human genome, we emerge as adults with a programed sexual code, the software that drives our sexual life.

To help clarify this idea, here’s a simplified example from one of my patients, Sarah, thirty-eight, the only child of unhappily married parents. Sarah’s father, a warm and affable man, had failed in business as a contractor because, out of kindness, he often underestimated the cost of jobs, giving his clients bargains he couldn’t afford. He also had a secret habit of gambling on weekends and, over the course of a few years, lost the family savings. Furious, Sarah’s mother, Abby, never let her husband or Sarah forget this; Sarah was constantly compared to her father for her weaknesses and inability to assert herself in the world. Over the years, Abby’s anger grew increasingly abusive.

Sarah secretly wished that her father would stand up to Abby’s attacks and protect her–and himself. Instead, he withdrew from the family by sitting in front of the television for endless hours. Sarah felt abandoned by her father as he faded from her life.

During adolescence, Sarah daydreamed about sailors and sea captains and devoured romance novels with these themes. By the time she reached her late teenage years, this conflict became encoded into her psychosexual DNA. Soon she was having sexual fantasies in which she was kidnapped by pirates, only to be later rescued by a strong and handsome sea captain. In her fantasies she unconsciously found an erotic solution to her childhood feelings of helplessness and abandonment by inventing a story in which she was held captive and finally rescued, bringing pleasure to unmet needs.

Our sexual code remains steadfast in defining the context for our sexual experience throughout our lives. While our partners may change, we continue to act out the same roles, rituals, and feelings encoded in our childhood and adolescent sexual experiences and thereby continually reinforce the code. Thus, in a circular manner, or closed system, program and behavior support each other in an intractable manner. Becoming conscious of our sexual code and understanding its meaning, purpose, and history can allow us the change it. I call this process, Intelligent Lust.


You can learn more extensively about Intelligent Lust in my current book, Your Brain on Sex.