Bent Petersen, Sexologist, Cand. Psych.:

The Sexual Child

Today we realise that all babies are born as sexual creatures. Boys can have erections from birth on and girls can get moist in their vaginas and have an increased flow of blood to their clitorises. Both boys and girls can be sexually aroused by touching the sexual organs. But strong emotional barriers still have to be broken down in the large majority of people before the attitudes and norms of society can be changed to the point where it is generally realised that children really do have sexual organs responding to lust, and that the sexual excitement of a child does not always come from outside, but arises from the child's inner self.

The Israelites

The roots of the attitudes toward sexuality which prevail in our society today must be sought in pre-Christian Judaism. I do not plan here to delve far into Jewish history, but will point out just two fundamental facts. Firstly, that the Jews returned from their migration to Egypt at approximately 1580 B.C., and secondly, that they again became slaves in Babylon about 597 B.C.

Before the so-called Babylonian captivity, the Israelites had a very liberal attitude towards sex. They thought, for example, that it was completely acceptable for a man to have sexual relations with a friend, while, on the other hand, it was totally unacceptable for him to perform sexual atrocities upon a servant who could be forced into submitting to his advances. It was the use of compulsion, not the sex as such, that was condemned.

For the rest, sex played an important role in the culture of the Israelites - for example, in the temple religious ceremonies where both boys and girls were available for the satisfaction of visitors - for a suitable compensation to the priests, of course.

The Israelites who returned from the Babylonian exile had quite different views. Sexual intercourse outside marriage and homosexual activities between men were now forbidden. Society was indifferent to sexual activities between women, as the sexual value of a woman depended on her not being violated, that is to say, her hymen remained intact and, as the Israelites thought that the hymen could not be broken by sexual activities between women, lesbian relations were possible.


The Christians adopted nearly all of the sexual inhibitions, restrictions and prohibitions that the Israelites had developed during the later phases of their culture and incorporated them into the Christian faith. These norms gradually came to be considered laws of nature, but they have always been and still are merely tribal laws and we are still fighting them today.

Laws and codes of behaviour are indispensable for the survival of a society. However, it is dangerous when they are confused with the laws of nature, as has happened in the area of sexuality. People still today suffer from hatred, anxiety, persecution and hypocrisy because they cannot adapt their sexual natures to the laws laid down by a culture 2500 years ago.

Since the time when Christianity incorporated the Israelites' mores on sexuality, sex has been considered a moral issue. It is an unfortunate fact that many people still confuse morality with science when dealing with or discussing sexuality.

The Greeks

I believe that most people have by now heard of Greek boy-love, and therefore I will limit myself to simply reminding the reader that for the Greeks a relationship between a boy and a man involved far more than merely sexual pleasure. For the Greeks the male body was the most beautiful and forest of all works of nature. Their ideal of beauty was incarnated in young boys and adolescents, as is clearly shown in their sculpture and poetry.

For the Greeks it was a requirement that every man should choose for himself a boy or youth to educate in the manly virtues. The youngster was taught by instructive conversation and by the adult being a good example for the boy. The boy was also initiated into the joys and cares of sexual life.

In the Doric states it was even seen as neglectful of one's duty if a man did not concern himself with a youth; it was considered shameful for a boy not to have an older lover/teacher. As a rule, a man gave his son over to his best friend to care for the boy's spiritual as well as his sexual education.

The Romans

When the Romans would lounge back for their meals with family and friends, it was not uncommon that semi-nude young boys and girls be present for their amusement. After those dining had enjoyed themselves by looking at the children, young men would be called in to make love to the youths. Live shows and group sex as amusements for sexual stimulation are in no way modem inventions.

It could also be an afternoon's diversion to have a writer like Martial declaim his poems. The following is a fragment from one of them:

Wet as a meadow bathed by a passing shower, 
Sweet as a wreath upon valerian-anointed hair, 
So smells your kiss Diadumenus, cruel boy. 
If only you'd give it wholly, without reserve!

Other Cultures

Today anthropological studies of so-called primitive cultures are commonly used to help us understand the variations of human sexual behaviour.

Such research shows that humans generally start their sexual lives when still babies by self-stimulation of the genitals, and this is followed at a later age by mutual stimulation of the genitals with an individual of the same or of the opposite sex. Most humans then progress to sexual intercourse by the insertion of the penis into the vagina or rectum.

In descriptions of "primitive" societies it is not uncommon to read about sexual contacts between two individuals of a considerable age difference. Girls not yet into puberty were observed having intercourse with adult men, and adults were observed soothing their children by stroking their genitals. I did not find any anthropological descriptions of paedophilia or gerontophilia, i.e. where children or elderly people were preferred as sexual partners. But there are numerous sadomasochistic descriptions, especially during puberty rites, wherein it is difficult to detect any joyful sexual elements.

Speaking of initiation rituals, I cannot refrain from mentioning a description by a group of American anthropologists who, upon arrival at a South American village, were assaulted by the boys of the tribe starting to perform fellatio on the scientists. It appeared that this tribe believed that the more sperm a boy ingested (be it through mouth or rectum) the stronger he would become.

Our Culture

I know of no other culture where children's sexuality is as severely tabooed as in ours. We have bound ourselves to the Christian myth of childhood innocence and purity, with the result that we now live in a society that gives rise to many sexual conflicts. Everyone of us in one way or another experiences limitations and inhibitions in his or her sexual life. From our earliest childhood we are bombarded with moral codes - to cite just a few: the prohibition against having sex with family members; religious beliefs such as that homosexuality is sinful. We are victimized by the fixed idea that children do not have a sexual life before puberty.

Most children grow up in family units made up of one or more adults, each of whom has his or her own sexual standard of values consisting of taboos and opinions on chastity, morality and sin. Generally, the adult never discusses these concepts with the children, leaving the children to discover for themselves what the sexual standards actually are. And this becomes no easier for the children if the sexual standards of the adults around them are poles apart, while at the same time there is also a strong prohibition against children expressing thoughts, fantasies or emotions about sex.

For example, when my sister, who is one year my junior, and I were five and six years old, our parents told us that if we put a lump of sugar on the windowsill before going to bed at night the stork would come one day and bring us a little brother or sister. The stork came every night for a week and ate our sugar, and as a reward a little brother appeared one morning at our mother's side. My sister was disappointed that there was not also a little sister so she continued putting lumps of sugar on the windowsill, but the stork never returned and we never did get a little sister.

Fortunately, there are not many children today who are still brought up on such tales. But today's children are impressed by another story, to wit, the tale about the small, lively tadpole with its long tail, dancing with a big smile toward the indolent, passive egg which just lies and waits until a male reproductive cell succeeds in winning the race and as a reward may penetrate into the egg and produce a child. This story is swallowed raw by children, and they have no chance to protect themselves from this subtle indoctrination of sex roles. For this is in no way the truth about how procreation happens. In reality both egg and sperm are in motion and at the time they meet it is the egg which, for still unexplained reasons, will pick out a fitting sperm, after which the egg opens and the sperm enters. The egg is actually the active partner, but this does not fit into the role pattern our society wishes to teach its boys and girls, and so there are still today many children who have engraved in their young minds the image of the passive egg and the thousands of active sperm, all of which are competing with one another to be the first to reach the finish line and, as the reward of victory, be allowed to penetrate the egg.

The sex education children get today is straightforward procreation sex. But, although it is true that intercourse can lead to procreation, most heterosexuals today join in the dance of intercourse for purely emotional reasons - not because they want to beget a child.

But children are told nothing about this lustful, voluptuous aspect of sex. They must discover for themselves that sex may be practiced for reasons other than procreation.

And society prefers that the small, new human being lives in total abstinence until it can participate in the procreation game.

Punishment by God

All these factors taken together create conflicts between sexual desires and needs and the fear of punishment by God, parents and society. Such a fear is, to a certain extent, unavoidable in our culture. People are not generally aware of such conflicts, and that is regrettable because they may have a disastrous influence upon one's sexual as well as non-sexual life.

Once I was sitting in a staff room talking to the second-form teacher, when the gymnastics instructor came over to us and said, "Listen, when I went into the washroom, Hans and Grete were standing close together, face to face, and Tulle was standing near them pushing on Grete's behind while she was singing, "Fuck, fuck, fuck!" The children immediately sprang apart and Hans' penis was pointing to the sky." The form master replied, "Yes, obviously the children are becoming `shameless'."

Here, I intervened and asked the two women, each of whom has a boy of her own, "Tell me, when do you think boys can have their first erections?"

The gym instructor answered immediately, "At least by the time they are nine!" Well, we have digressed a bit from the subject of sexual instruction.

My grandparents only started having sex on their wedding night, at least officially, my parents at about the time of their betrothal. Kids in my own generation started at about the time of their confirmation, when fathers whispered to their sons where they could buy condoms and mothers admonished the girls that they should remember to be chaste and follow the narrow path of virtue.

Today, youngsters start practicing sex at about their first ejaculation or their first menstruation. At that time parents start worrying about becoming premature grandparents, so they send their daughters to the physician for some conscience-blurring pregnancy pills, that big security blanket! It helps block the way to factual and effective sex education which ought to teach that sex is really more than just a penis entering a vagina and ejaculating semen.

Where is the information about the fact that sexual feelings may vary from joy, lust, fright, tenderness, anger, to envy and fear of loss? Sex can be an enormous and inexhaustible source of satisfaction, but it can also be troublesome, wounding and hurtful.

Where is the instruction about the importance of reciprocity between the capacity to give and the capacity to receive sexual. emotions and caresses? The nuances of activity and passivity, which we all received at birth with a scattering of doses of femininity and masculinity, are so delicately balanced that there are no two individuals with like amounts.

Sigmund Freud

Freud encountered strong resistance when, at the beginning of this century, he began to write about his sexual theories, but the greatest opposition (he lost many friends for good) was met only after he pointed out that the capacity to experience erotic feelings is present in all of us from birth and remains with us until death. This means that "the little innocent children" are experiencing voluptuous erotic impulses and fantasies. Yes, they are polymorphously perverse, which means that a tendency to all possible sexual variations is already surging through their bodies while still in their mother's womb.

Today, science accepts that human sexuality is present from birth onwards and that psychosexual evolution plays a decisive role in the total development of the personality. Actually, the most impressive fact is that it is during childhood that the most important part of an individual's sexual gift is suppressed.

The little child soon learns, by a rap on the fingers, a disapproving look, emotional coldness from the parents, together with - worst of all - a withdrawal of love, that there are parts of the body and also certain ways of moving that are unbecoming. Within a short period of time the child learns to avoid these "disagreeable sexual feelings" by suppressing them. However, these sexual impulses remain active on the child's consciousness and may succeed in troubling the individual and influencing his or her sexual life for the remainder of life.

Mark well what I wrote above that science has accepted children's sexual life, for, regretfully, most adults still wrongly believe that children lack any sexual feelings and have no sexual experiences. We hear every day such expressions as "the innocent child" or "the untouched child". But all children, without exception, have received their sexuality as a gift while still in their cradle and soon start to masturbate as a natural and quite harmless activity.

It is interesting that very young children try to receive satisfaction from their own bodies. The sexual impulse is not, as with so many adults, entirely concentrated in the region of the genitals. In children the entire body is sexually active and in babies we can observe activities evidently carried out to experience gratification of a sexual need.

The interaction between the child's development of its sexual impulses and the effects of growing up in our society, which is so strongly alienated from sex, contributes to creating sexual conflicts of varying importance. The main cause is, perhaps, that our society equates sex with sin.

Sex = Sin

One of the first things children learn is that their desire for sexual pleasure is denied, ignored or treated as something shameful and unbecoming.

A child learns from its earliest years that it is nice and fine to walk, to make a drawing, to eat, to sleep, to see what's in the pot, etc., but to have sex or to give in to sexual impulses is wholly unacceptable. A child learns to deny its sexuality by being given the impression that sex is dangerous, repulsive, hostile, dirty, loathsome and immoral. These negative feelings are usually stronger in children growing up in a religious environment where concepts like sin and guilt, which are uppermost in people's minds, are connected to masturbation and other tabooed sexual activities.

If adults would just carefully watch the little ones, they would see that children of both sexes like to touch their genitals and they will happily laugh and chatter while their genitals are stimulated - when, for example, they are being bathed or dressed.

Masturbation in Children

A child will stimulate his own penis or her clitoris as soon as the necessary muscle coordination is mastered. But this activity is unfortunately still strongly prohibited in our society and is often met with reproaches and punishment. The little boy's hands are repeatedly taken away from his penis, often accompanied by a rap on the fingers, and the scolding, "You little pig," or "Stop playing with yourself, damn it!" And the little girl is told, "Pooh, your forgers smell!" or "If you don't stop touching yourself, a little mouse will come and eat it."

The disapproval will be even more intense if a child tries to touch its father's penis, or attempts to put it in its mouth.

In former times, when everybody in the home slept in the nude and, if not in the same bed, at least in the same room, a child was in no need of special sex instruction. Children could, from the time they were still very small, see, hear and feel with their own eyes, ears and bodies, what there was to be done.

Today's children who do not often see their parents, sisters or brothers naked are quick to experience nudity as shocking and shameful, connected with feelings of guilt and a guilty conscience. Therefore, I think that it is most important to give a child the chance to feel and learn that all parts of the body are good - including his willie or her pussy!

Ideally, if you fondle a child, you shouldn't fondle just its stomach, bottom, arms and legs, but its genitals as well. The enjoyment involved in caressing and being caressed over the entire body is something that must be experienced to be learned, just as, for example, does learning to sit properly at the dinner table or on the toilet.


Freud's rediscovery of sexuality in children was later confirmed by the zoologist Kinsey, whose team of researchers observed the sexual behaviour of five-month-old children and noted that they experienced feelings of sexual lust similar to those of adults. Very young children masturbate in a number of different ways, but in general they play with their genitals just as they play with their fingers and toes. In so doing, boys achieve a state in which their bodies become tense, their faces red and their eyes get glassy. The child concentrates fully on this activity and is unaware of his surroundings. The masturbatory event reaches a climax after which the child relaxes and often falls asleep.

I find it very significant that children do not close their eyes during climax, as generally happens with adults. Children at this young age have not yet learned to be ashamed of sex.

One thing I should truly like to see is parents saying to their children, when they see the rays of the sun playing upon their naked bodies, that the little toys between their legs "look really nice". If children were told that masturbation was just as nice and praiseworthy as the other good things they did, they could learn to accept their erotic feelings as good, pleasurable and acceptable.

Unfortunately, it is still not unusual for parents to burden their son with lies about his willie falling off if he doesn't stop playing with it. When a child hears this over and over he quite understandably postpones playing with his genitals until he is alone. And so the parents sit in the living room convinced that their children have no sex life, while the latter hide in the dark with their sexual reality. The child is taught "decent" sexual restraint as demanded by our society, and the result is all too often destructive conflicts, guilt feelings and alienation. Every time a child has an impulse to masturbate, to look at or touch the parent's genitals, to experiment sexually with brothers or sisters, or feels the urge to exhibit itself naked, it may come to feel afraid, ashamed and guilty.

It is truly surprising that a greater number of adults are not totally alienated from their sexuality. Most of us, fortunately, have integrated sex into our personalities and thus are able to distinguish permitted sexuality from that which is unacceptable - at least up to the present.

Kiddy Porn

Late in the summer of 1984 concern over child pornography spread like wildfire through the Danish media. Even in the intimacy of the home the child pornography phantom loomed because some sensationalist American journalists claimed Denmark was the world centre of kiddy porn. Panic immediately broke out among the Danish population and the politicians competed with one another in affirming how horrible, how disgusting, how shocking and how gruesome were pictures of naked children with stiff penises, not to mention the unbelievable obscenity of children and adults in sexual intercourse, or images of the stiff cock of an adult being playfully tickled by the little hands or lips of a child.

And this was served up with the after-dinner coffee to people relaxing in their living rooms. The viewers, in a state of shock, carried their uneaten cakes and cold coffee back to the kitchen, and the wave of anger rolled on out of control through the country. But where in all of this is a sense of proportion? We have all seen images of children killed or maimed by traffic accidents, burned alive by napalm, blown apart by bombs, eaten and crippled by leprosy - children naked and with fear-filled eyes being led off to the gas chambers. We can look at these dead, dying and cruelly suffering children while eating our delicious little cakes and washing them down with coffee nicely sweetened with sugar and cream.

But the moment we see children in the simplest - or even only suggested - sexual attitudes, there is an immediate outcry; fury is kindled and the law must at once be reformed to provide for much more severe punishments.

I cannot help laughing a little at this, and for two reasons. Firstly, it is a fact that some of the most outspoken, hard core child pornography that I have ever seen - and I've seen a lot of it - was in America, produced with American child models in American homes. Secondly, I cannot take a country's anger about child pornography seriously when that same country has enough atomic bombs to blow up the whole earth a hundred times over.

I spent last summer writing in a small house by the sea. My typewriter was set up in front of a window only three meters from the room of a five-year-old boy by the name of Peter.

Every evening a young hedgehog whom we called "Sniff' would come from his hiding place to drink some milk we set out for him. Unfortunately, one night shortly before being put to bed, Peter and his age-mate Jonas started playing football with Sniff and after many blows and caresses the creature came to a rather dramatic end.

Later, when the children were tucked in their beds, I saw that they, after crying a while, started chattering with one another, and then they pulled the bedclothes off of each other and exhibited their stiff pricks. Jonas turned over on his back and Peter kissed Jonas all over, as well as taking the little erection into his mouth and sucking on it. Then it was Peter's turn to lie on prone and be fondled and have his prick sucked. After this Jonas turned over once again on his back and Peter lay down upon him to rub his prick rhythmically against that of his friend. Shortly afterwards they went to sleep with their arms around each other.

It seemed obvious to me that their sex play was connected to the death of Sniff: the evident pleasure they derived from each other's bodies and their own helped console them in their sorrow.

What was it I had observed? Was it pornography, a live sex show, gay children's sex, or nothing more than pure, pleasurable sex? If I had made a movie of it there is no doubt what the laws of this country would have classified it as. Those laws are to protect children from sex. But is it so certain that these two boys, these two children, would have wanted to be protected from the pleasurable sensations radiating from their erect cocks? I don't think so, and for me it is very important to consider children as individuals entitled to develop their sexuality with age peers in rooms where adults do not continuously enter. Children need to learn how to look after themselves, to become independent and should have the opportunity to regulate their own sexual needs. Adults shouldn't feel they have to tell children what they do or do not like sexually. We should respect a child's own sexual feelings and needs.

In this case, Peter and Jonas were allowed to love and hug each other without interference, but there are all too many people who call the police and the child protection authorities when they discover that children have lovingly touched each other's genitals while playing at home or in the garden - and this despite all that has been published explaining that such sexual behaviour almost never hurts the child.

Strangely enough, nobody will call the police or the child protection authorities when parents indoctrinate their children with a horror for sex, something that is immensely harmful to the body, a horror that may cripple them forever as partners in a sexual relationship.


Most people love children, and some people are sexually excited by looking at children, by being with them and by touching them. People who love their own children are called parents and people who find in children their sexual object, are called child-seducers, child-lovers, or paedophiles. In the literature about child-lovers we may also encounter the word paederasty. This is used to refer to the relations of men with boys, particularly if the man inserts his erect penis into the boy's rectum. And so the word has also come to signify anal intercourse which has led many people to think of a paedophile as a "child-molester", as a man who will "abuse" and "molest" a child.

In fact, the child-lover is usually a man or a woman with a desire to have sexual contact with children, usually by fondling the child's genitals, with the child simultaneously fondling his or her genitals. There is seldom any direct attempt at anal or coital intercourse. Paedophiles are on the whole kind people who do not want to hurt children. On the contrary, they wish to give the child some of the love and warmth which, sadly, so many children lack at home. If a paedophile treats a child with love and tenderness, the child's sexual curiosity and lasciviousness will run a satisfying course, as will the adult's.

In the last few years there has been mounting public attention paid to incest. Incest refers to sexual relations between persons who are closely related. Thus incest can occur between parent and child - mother makes love to her son or daughter, or father makes love to his son or daughter - grandparents and their grandchildren, brothers and sisters and each other, uncle or aunt and niece or nephew.

In the many incestuous relations that have been studied, it has often been found that the child or adolescent later has serious adjustment problems. The reason is that the adult has commonly taken advantage of his or her greater power over the child. The child experiences this as a breach of trust when the adult is a person whom the child trusts and likes. The sexual contact is often carried out under the cover of affection - an affection belied by all of this taking place in the dark, under the covers and accompanied by the most terrible threats if the child dares to tell.

The psychological effects of sexual relations between children and adults depend to a great extent on the child's sexual upbringing, together with the tales the children have heard about paedophiles. A child who is frightened beforehand, and for whom sex is fraught with prohibitions and anxiety, is more likely to suffer psychological problems.

In by far the majority of cases it is not the sexual events themselves that infect the child with feelings of sex guilt which might disfigure the rest of its life, but rather the reactions of those in the immediate environment.

I am not talking about physical damage, as, for example, injuries to the genitals or the anal sphincter. Such injuries are the result of violence, and violence against children in any form should not be permitted. However, telling children horror stories about evil men gives them little or no protection. Only rarely is a child killed or maimed by a paedophile; in comparison with the number of children killed or crippled by traffic accidents, it happens so seldom that it is hardly worth discussing.

The child who has a calm, happy and fearless attitude towards the sexual feelings bubbling up in his or her body will also be able to experience this aspect of sexuality without undesirable psychological traces being left.

Making love to yourself and making love to others is one of the most precious things in Life. We are very lucky that we were born with the capacity to love and that this capacity is not lost until death sets its final period after our lives here on earth.

Table of contents Next