June 13, 2022

Early Childhood Sexual Curiosity

If you’re an adult in 2022, you’ve probably noticed by now that our society has done us a great disservice in the way we handle sex education. The amount of clients I have that experience sexual shame, a lack of sexual confidence, pain, disappointment, etc. as a result of poor sex education is astronomical. When I’m assessing for where this shame/lack of confidence derives from, I always go back to childhood and the sexual messages and education folx received growing up. 

Photo by Karolina Grabowska


One question in my assessment that stands out is: “Did you recall ever playing “sex games” (e.g., playing doctor, exploration, comparison, etc.) growing up?” A fair amount of clients say “yes” and experience a lot of shame and confusion about that. Many people are afraid something was wrong with them in that they were either abused or perpetuators of abuse as a result of engaging in those behaviors. In reality, children are curious beings and that includes being curious about their bodies, sex, and pleasure - and typically any sort of “sex games” they play growing up are a natural result of curiosity that typically does not create any lasting harm from those involved. 

Research supports that even in utero, children masturbate. Starting from a very young age, children don’t know shame unless it is modeled for them, so if they touch their vulva or penis and notice that it feels good, they’re probably going to go with that good feeling and see where it leads. Kids are also social creatures and are constantly monitoring adults around them to see what is socially appropriate as expressions of love and affection. Little boys and girls often want to marry their parents because they think that’s a form of love. I remember as a little girl, opening my mouth wide for a kiss from my dad because that’s what I saw in the movies. He asked “what are you doing?” and I learned very quickly there are different types of kisses for different types of relationships. But we don’t know the distinction until someone educates us, so until then, we go with what we see. 

Photo by Mike B

Kids play “sex” with dolls all the time because they learn that this is a form of affection between adults and are curious about it. So very much the same, when kids are growing up and playing house, they will often incorporate “doctor” into their play as a way of curiously exploring each others’ bodies and doing what they think adults do. Typically, kids don’t have any form of sex education so they end up mushing parts together or pretend to stick things in places where they don’t belong, which again, is generally harmless. They might kiss because that’s what they’ve seen in the movies or have seen adults do, without any expectation of it going anywhere. Essentially, they are trying to explore these big concepts that they don’t fully understand as a result of trying to make sense of their social world. 

Some important pieces to note:

  1. If you are a parent and catch your child doing this, try to maintain a calm and non-judgmental reaction. Shaming your child and other children involved can perpetuate a feeling that something is wrong with them, that they are dirty, that sex is bad, etc. This experience has opened the door for you to have a conversation about bodies, consent, sex, privacy, age-appropriate activities, etc. If you haven’t had that talk yet, now is the time! 
  2. Perpetuating abuse can look a bit more specific, i.e. performing sexual acts that a child should not have been aware of (i.e. typically kids don’t know any sexual acts, so actual penis in vagina penetration could be a concern), more forceful/non-consensual behavior, bruising/marks being left on body, etc. If you are even slightly concerned, please reach out to a healthcare provider to discuss in greater depth
  3. If you are bothered by your behaviors or the behaviors that happened to you, process with a sex therapist. We are trained to understand age-appropriate sexual behaviors and can generally help you understand if what you or your child did is considered non-age-appropriate or abusive 

Generally, if you engaged in some “sex games” as a child with peers or siblings, you’re normal! These usually only last a short period of time and then kids move on to other things. If you continue to be haunted by your experiences and worry if what you did was appropriate or not, again, please chat with a sex educator/therapist. Every situation is unique and by no means am I here to say that non-consensual sexual exploration by kids is acceptable. However, I’m here to let you know that kids are sexually curious and therefore, might explore with themselves/peers/siblings, which is why providing sex education and education on consent at an early age is so valuable and important. It doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you or your child - it’s just a moment to recognize that exploration and curiosity are a part of a child’s life and we need to model for kids the behavior we want them to exhibit. So make sure you’re talking to your kids about these important topics and if you yourself are bothered by your own experiences, know that you’re likely normal but the door is always open to talking to an expert in the field to help you better understand your own personal experiences. 


Profile image of the author.

Julie Labanz, MA, LPCC-S, CST

Don't miss these similar posts