Childhood Studies Sexuality
by
Mary Jane Kehily
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0026

Introduction

Childhood and sexuality is a contested subject area that has been researched from different perspectives across a range of academic disciplines including sociology, science, psychology, anthropology, art history, education, history, and the emergent field of childhood studies. The social mores of contemporary Western societies position sexuality as firmly embedded in the adult world. In this context, children’s premature awareness of sexuality may signal a loss of innocence, assuming both that children are naturally asexual and that sexuality is something that children need protecting from. Normative discourses invoke childhood as a state of innocence to be preserved in the face of a dangerous and potentially corrupting adult world. Childhood studies approaches the concept of childhood innocence critically. Researchers in this field begin with the recognition that there are many different childhoods and, by implication, many different experiences of sexuality during childhood. Sexuality is often seen as a universal, biological norm, yet sexual acts and behavior do not carry the same meanings cross-culturally. This body of work recognizes children’s sexuality as a social and cultural construct dependent upon a range of social and cultural factors such as gender, social class, and ethnicity. Comparative studies suggest that children’s sexuality is particularly regulated and repressed in the West, often leading to a denial that children are sexually knowledgeable or experienced: a situation not found in other times or places. This entry documents bodies of work that offer a particular interpretation of childhood sexuality. Taking a broadly chronological approach, the sections identify research clusters located in time and place by academic discipline, method, or theme.

General Overviews

Within the social sciences, literature exploring the domain of sexuality tends to focus on adult sexuality in the West. Studies that develop an overview of the field commonly explore the concept of sexuality and its constitutive sexual practices, with the emphasis on developing an account of what sexuality means and how it can be understood in cultural terms. Sexuality also features in contemporary accounts of social relations as a significant part of an individual’s identity, defining personhood and ways of being in the world. Anthony Giddens, for example, describes sexuality as “a terrain of fundamental political struggle and also a medium of emancipation” (see Giddens 1992). Most contemporary studies echo Weeks 1986’s observation of sexuality as a vehicle for intense emotions. Weeks summarizes the sexual tradition of the West as offering two ways of perceiving sex: dangerous and needing to be channeled by society into appropriate forms and sex as healthy and good but repressed and distorted by society. While many studies may be identified as oriented toward one of these positions, Weeks poses an alternative to the binary of regulatory versus the libertarian positions. He suggests that sexual practices can be understood in relation to, and as part of, wider social relations in an exploration of the contexts in which acts become meaningful. Clearly indebted to Foucault, Weeks’s approach has been influential. His own body of work has applied this framework productively to the study of homosexuality. While some studies address the idea of becoming sexual, in studies such as Bristow 1997, Segal 1994, and Gagnon and Simon 1973, matters of childhood sexuality remain marginal to the main story of adult desire. Exceptions to the adult-centered perspective include Sandfort 2001, a study of children’s sexual behavior; Jackson 1982, a cultural approach to childhood and sexuality; and Holland 1992, which is a more general account of childhood that explores how sexuality and sexualized themes may be present in popular representations of children.

  • Bristow, Joseph. Sexuality. New Critical Idiom. New York: Routledge, 1997.

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    A clear and fluently written introduction to contemporary theories of sexual desire and the “invention” of sexuality by 19th-century scientists. There is some discussion of children as sexual subjects and childhood sexuality, as featured in theoretical accounts under discussion. “Introduction” reprinted in Lizbeth Goodman and Jane de Gay, eds., Routledge Reader in Politics and Performance (New York: Routledge, 2000), 157–161.

  • Gagnon, John, and William Simon. Sexual Conduct. Chicago: Aldine, 1973.

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    A highly influential study pioneering sociological approaches to sexuality. The text can be seen as an early example of studies that demonstrated the explanatory power of social constructionism as a theoretical framework and the first study to view sexuality as scripted.

  • Giddens, Anthony. The Transformation of Intimacy, Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1992.

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    Extending the individualization thesis, Giddens turns his attention to personal relationships and changing patterns of intimacy in late modern times, exploring the shift from social obligation to a new form of democracy between couples referred to as the “pure relationship.”

  • Holland, Patricia. What is a Child? London: Virago, 1992.

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    Documents the pervasive presence of the sexualized girl in representations of children in advertising and other popular cultural forms. The study considers the phenomenon of the sexualized girl as an object of male desire fueled by the construction of boundaries that make an attraction of innocence itself.

  • Jackson, Stevi. Childhood and Sexuality. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982.

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    Commenting on children and sex as controversial territory, Jackson suggests that children are defined by adults as a “special category of people,” and sexuality is defined as a “special area of life” that remains the preserve of adults. Hence, the formation of a powerful social taboo: that children and sex should be kept apart.

  • Sandfort, Theo. Childhood Sexuality, Normal Sexual Behavior and Development. London and New York: Haworth, 2000.

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    Exploring the question of what constitutes “normal sexual behavior” in a child, the text views the child as a subject learning about sexuality and capable of experiencing sexual pleasures. Provides information about the relationship between age and sexual development, both mental and physical, in both males and females.

  • Segal, Lynne. Straight Sex: Rethinking the Politics of Pleasure. London: Virago, 1994.

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    A free-ranging exploration of feminist thinking on sexuality over the past twenty-five years. Imaginatively tracing the boundaries of sex in contemporary culture, this monograph documents and analyzes the power dynamics at play in heterosexual relationships and relational constructions of male and female sexuality.

  • Weeks, Jeffrey. Sexuality. London: Tavistock, 1986.

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    An influential introductory text providing a clear sociological account of sexuality as a construction that can be understood within the context of social relations and the meaning making practices of the social domain.

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