Infants fondle their genitals and masturbate by rubbing or thrusting their genital area against an object, such as a pillow or a doll, but the rhythmic manipulation of the genitals associated with adult masturbation generally does not occur until a child reaches the age of 21/ or 3 years old (DeLamater & Friedrich, 2002; Kaestle & Allen, 2011).

Masturbation is one of the most common and natural forms of sexual expression during the childhood years (Thanasiu, 2004). The study described in the Spotlight on Research box reported that approximately 16% of mothers observed their 2- to 5-year – old children masturbating with their hands (Friedrich et al., 1998). Various other stud­ies indicate that approximately one third of female respondents and two thirds of males reported having masturbated before adolescence (Elias & Gebhard, 1969; Friedrich et al., 1991). In one study of college students, a slightly larger percentage of women respondents (40%) than men respondents (38%) reported masturbating before reach­ing puberty (Bancroft et al., 2003). A review of numerous studies of childhood sexuality revealed that a "substantial proportion" of people of both sexes experience first orgasm before puberty, often via masturbation (Janssen, 2007).

Parental reactions to self-pleasuring can be an important influence on develop­ing sexuality. Most parents and other primary caregivers in American society tend to discourage or prohibit such activities and may even describe them to other adults as unusual or problematic. Comments about masturbation that pass from parent to child are typically either nonexistent or often negative. Think back to your youth. Did your parents ever express to you that they accepted this activity? Or did you have an intuitive sense that your parents were comfortable with self-pleasuring in their chil­dren? Probably not. Most often, a verbal message to "stop doing that," a disapproving look, or a slap on the hand is the response children receive to masturbation. These gestures may be noted even by a very young child who has not yet developed language capabilities.

Sexuality During Childhood and Adolescence

SPOTLiGHT ON

RESEARCH

Psychologist William Friedrich and his colleagues (1998) at the Mayo Clinic interviewed a large sample of mothers regarding sexual behaviors they had observed in their chil­dren. Sexual behaviors were reported for 834 children, ages 2 to 12, who were screened for the absence of sexual abuse. The mother informants were asked how often they had seen their children displaying 38 different sexual behaviors over the past 6 months. When 20 or more mothers reported observing a specific behavior, Friedrich and his associates considered it a developmentally normal form of childhood sexual expression. We outline some of the key findings of this important study in the following paragraphs.

A wide range of sexual behaviors were observed at varying levels of frequency throughout the entire age range of children. As shown in ■ table 12.1, the most fre­quently observed sexual behaviors were self-stimulation, exhibitionism (often exposure of private body parts to another child or adult), and behavior related to personal boundaries, such as touching their mother’s or other women’s breasts.

Sexually intrusive behaviors— such as a child putting his or her hand on another child’s genitals—were observed less frequently.

the frequency of observed sexual behaviors was inversely related to age, with overall frequency peaking at age 5 for both sexes and then declin­ing over the next 7 years. the observed decline in sexual behaviors after age 5 does not necessarily suggest that chil­dren actually engage in fewer sexual behaviors as they grow

How can adults convey their acceptance of this natural and normal form of self­exploration? One way to begin is by not reacting negatively to the genital fondling that is typical of infants and young children. Later, as we respond to children’s questions about their bodies, it may be desirable to mention the potential for pleasure that exists in their genital anatomy ("It feels good when you touch it"). Respecting privacy—for example, knocking before entering a child’s room—is another way to foster comfort with this very personal activity. Perhaps you may feel comfortable with making specific accepting responses to self-pleasuring activity in your children, as did the parent in the following account:

chapter 12

One day my seven-year-old son joined me on the couch to watch a football game. He was still in the process of toweling off from a shower. While he appeared to be engrossed in the activity on the screen, I noticed one hand was busy strok­ing his penis. Suddenly his eyes caught mine observing him. An uneasy grin crossed his face. I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I simply stated, "It feels good, doesn’t it?" He didn’t say anything, nor did he continue touching himself, but his smile grew a little wider. I must admit I had some initial hesitancy in openly indicating my approval for such behavior. I was afraid he might begin openly masturbating in the presence of others. However, my fears were demonstrated to be groundless in that he continues to be quite private about such activity. It is gratifying to know that he can experience the pleasures of his body without the unpleasant guilt feelings that his father grew up with. (Authors’ files)

Another concern, voiced in the previous anecdote, is that children will begin mastur­bating openly in front of others if they are aware that their parents accept such behavior. This also is a reasonable concern. Few of us would be enthusiastic about needing to deal with Johnny or Suzy masturbating in front of Grandma. However, children are generally aware enough of social expectations to maintain a high degree of privacy in something as emotionally laden and personal as self-pleasuring. Most of them are much more capable of making important discriminations than parents sometimes acknowl­edge. In the event that children do masturbate in the presence of others, it would seem reasonable for parents to voice their concerns, taking care to label the choice of location and not the activity as inappropriate. An example of how this situation can be handled with sensitivity and tact is to say to the child, "I know that feels good, but it is a private way to feel good. Let’s find a place where you will have the privacy you need" (Planned Parenthood Federation of America, 2002, p. 12).

Many children masturbate. Telling them to stop this behavior rarely eliminates it, even if such requests are backed with threats of punishment or claims that masturbation causes mental or physical deterioration. Rather, these negative responses most likely succeed only in greatly magnifying the guilt and anxiety associated with this behavior (Singer, 2002). •