Sexual knowledge

A Dutch study of young children’s sexual knowledge.

This research investigated the sexual knowledge of 63 children
aged two to six from five nurseries in Amsterdam. They were from
white, Dutch-born well-educated families (the only ones who would
allow their children to participate). None was known to be sexually
abused. The children were asked to describe pictures of situations
ranging from a clothed and naked boy and girl through adults
kissing and having sexual intercourse, five of which could be
perceived by adults as sexual abuse.

Parents were asked what sex education they had given and tested
on their attitudes to sexuality. The majority discussed genital
differences, pregnancy and birth without difficulty, but few talked
about intercourse or sexual abuse.

All but the smallest children were aware of their own gender,
although some could not explain how they knew. They could identify
the sex of the pictured children, using genital differences where
they were naked. They could name body parts. They named the
elimination functions of the genitals, but only two of the oldest
children knew about a sexual function. Almost half said that babies
come from the “belly” but few understand conception or birth. 65
per cent knew that both men and women have a role in reproduction,
but only one could describe it accurately.

The pictures relating to possible abuse were interpreted
according to the child’s own experience. A man bending over
the girl in bed was saying goodnight to his daughter, the girl
touching a boy’s penis was “helping him to pee”. The sexual
knowledge of small children was found to be very limited. This
supports the view that small children’s knowledge of
sexuality, as distinct from anatomy, could be an indicator of

Source: SN Brilleslijper-Kater, and HEM Baartman, “What do Young
Children Know about Sex?: Research on the Sexual Knowledge of
Children Between the Ages of 2 and 6 Years”, Child Abuse
, No 9, 2000.

Jim Christopherson is associate lecturer in social work at
the University of Nottingham

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