What constitutes normal and healthy sexual behavior in children? This is a difficult question for which we have no definitive answer; the data on childhood sexuality are scarce. Research in this area is limited by a number of factors, not the least of which is the difficulty of obtaining financial support for basic research on childhood sexuality, and federal guidelines in the United States either prohibit such studies or make them considerably difficult to conduct. Some years ago, a team of researchers surmounted some of these obstacles to research in the United States by interviewing a large sample of primary caregivers (all mothers) of children, ages 2 to 12. The results of this informative study are described in the Spotlight on Research box, "Normative Sexual Behavior in Children: A Contemporary Sample."
People show considerable variation in their sexual development during childhood, and diverse influences are involved (Bancroft, 2003). Despite these differences, however, certain common features in the developmental sequence tend to emerge. As we outline our somewhat limited knowledge of some of these typical behaviors, keep in mind that
each person’s unique sexual history can differ in some respects from the described behaviors. It is also important to realize that, other than reports from primary caregivers, most of what we know about childhood sexual behavior is based on recollections of adults who are asked to recall their childhood experiences. As we noted in Chapter 2, accurately remembering experiences that occurred many years earlier is quite difficult.
A child can learn to express her or his affectionate and sensual feelings through activities such as kissing and hugging. The responses the child receives to these expressions of intimacy can have a strong influence on the manner in which he or she expresses sexuality in later years. The inclinations we have as adults toward giving and receiving affection seem to be related to our early opportunities for warm, pleasurable contact with significant others, particularly parents (DeLama – ter & Friedrich, 2002; Newman, 2008). A number of researchers believe that children who are deprived of "contact comfort" (being touched and held) during the first months and years of life can have difficulty establishing intimate relationships later in their lives (Harlow & Harlow, 1962; Prescott, 1989). Furthermore, other research suggests that affection and physical violence are, to some extent, mutually exclusive. For example, a study of 49 separate societies found that in cultures where children are nurtured with physical affection, instances of adult violence are few. Conversely, high levels of adult violence are manifested in those cultures in which children are deprived of physical affection (Prescott, 1975).