The seeds of adult sexuality are sown in the womb and nurtured throughout childhood and adolescence. It is during these early days that the roots of sexual behaviour grow.
Our sexual lives start even before we are born – and day by day we grow and develop, learning about ourselves and our bodies by a process of exploration, imitation and instinct.
Some psychologists have linked a baby’s sucking at the mother’s breasts to later sexual pleasure, and certainly the two are connected.
The use of X-rays and scanning techniques in pregnancy have revealed that many babies still forming inside their mother’s womb are sucking their thumbs – some babies even have a telltale blister on their thumbs at birth.
Sexuality can be viewed as a seeking of pleasure. It is not just a matter of growth and of physiological differences between men and women. All our senses – touch, smell, taste, vision and hearing – are involved.
A newborn baby is sexually immature but is by no means asexual. The senses of touch, taste and smell are surprisingly developed. From just one day old a baby can recognize its mother’s voice from those of other mothers, and can distinguish its mother’s milk from that of other nursing mothers simply by smell.
From the moment of birth, comfort is derived from feeding, being cuddled and reassuring sights and sounds. The baby’s most immediate needs are for food, and so the earliest pleasures are mainly attached to the relief of hunger.
Suckling provides food, and reassures the infant that his cries will summon help and that his needs will be satisfied. But, more importantly, it establishes a bond of warmth and trust between baby and mother. If all goes well at this stage, the baby develops its first trusting relationship with another human being, laying the foundation-stone for the success of future relationships as sexual adults.
It has been found that babies who are not loved and cuddled by either parent are less sexually happy as adults.
In one well-documented series of experiments carried out in the United States, rhesus monkeys were separated from their mothers at birth and were placed with surrogate ‘mothers’ made of wire. These artificial mothers had teats which delivered milk and some were covered in soft, terry towelling material. The research showed that when frightened, the monkeys turned to the towel-covered ‘mothers’ for comfort, clearly preferring their softness against their skin. But more significantly, deprived of normal mother/baby stimulation, none of the monkeys was able to function sexually when it reached maturity.
Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalyst, believed that all sexual problems stemmed from difficulties experienced during childhood.
The three stages
Freud divided a child’s development into three distinct stages – oral, anal and genital. He felt that children derived their first pleasures orally, through sucking, then became concerned with excretion, in the toilet-training phase, and finally progressed to the genital stage. He said that it is only when oral needs have been satisfied without hours of crying, and toilet training effected with the minimum of pressure and anxiety that the sexually happy adult could be said to have been born.
Studies show that babies derive sexual pleasure from their bodies from very early on. A baby boy on discovering his penis will play with it, rubbing it gently, from about two months, and baby girls will also play with themselves from a similarly early age.
These early explorations are normal and healthy, and they could even be said to be essential. Sexual fulfilment as adults is all about pleasure, and it would be wrong to reprimand a small child for their own with their dolls and toys.
From the age of about three onwards, children become more aware of their bodies. Little girls start looking at little boys and wonder what that thing is between their legs. And, they wonder, what has happened to theirs?
By the time children are 11 or 12, their worlds are broader. They still have heroes and idols, but now instead of parents and teachers being viewed as larger than life, their role models usually come from outside, often brought to their awareness by reading books or watching videos and television programmes.
The 11-year-old boy may revere a sports hero and have signed mementoes on all his walls, but by the time he is 14 the focus is likely to have shifted to include female idols such as current movie stars. The same is true for girls and for them it may be the lead singer of a pop group or an Australian soap star.
It is a time of turbulence. Teenagers are struggling to grow into adulthood and to establish their own identity, separate from the view that parents and teachers have of the world. It is a necessary stage, however difficult it seems.
Adolescence is the time when physiological factors propel children into adulthood, sometimes much faster than they can cope with.
School and friends are now of paramount importance, and how friends think and behave exerts considerably more influence than parents or other adults. This can be a major cause of friction between parent and child, particularly single children whose parents, especially their mothers, may be more clinging than mothers of large families and less able to cope psychologically with the idea that their child is establishing a definite personality of its own.
One of the advantages of having older brothers or sisters is that the parents find it easier to cope with the problems of their younger children growing up as they have already been through the same arguments and emotional difficulties with their older siblings as they established themselves as individuals.
There is now intense interest in things sexual – their own bodies, the changes, and the mysteries surrounding exactly what men and women do together. Girls usually develop earlier and have learned about periods from their mothers or older female friends. Generally, they can step into their adult bodies much more easily than boys do.
At about the age of 13 both boys and girls are likely to start masturbating if they have not already done so. Studies generally show the figures for boys as higher than for girls.
First sexual experiences are often with their own sex, especially among children at single-sex schools, although this is less common among girls. Far from being dangerous, this early experimentation is a normal and harmless part of self-learning and growing up.
Masturbation and experimentation are all aspects of healthy adult sexuality. Indeed, both are necessary precursors to a well-adjusted sex-aware adult.
Most teenagers go on to become heterosexual. But others go on to be sexually attracted to others of their own sex. The process of establishing one’s sexual identity can be painful for homosexuals, especially when they make their sexual orientation known to their parents and friends and decide to live a lifestyle true to their sexuality.
Fortunately, most homosexuals find that after the initial shock has worn off, parents and friends alike accept them and their partners for what they are – well-adjusted, sexually responsible adults.