Human Sexuality > Chapter 2

Chapter 2: Sexuality and Lifecycles

Sexual development begins the moment we are born and does not end until we die. Every stage of development, from childhood to adolescence, adulthood, and old age is a never-ending journey of gaining knowledge, experience, and further development. Many researchers today don't fully understand childhood sexuality because its research is often difficult given the sensitive nature involved and taboos associated with it.

[QN.No.#7.Sexual development begins from:]

Despite today's more open attitudes toward sexual development, some topics are nevertheless difficult for many to discuss, and one of those is the idea of sexuality in children. While many aspects of childhood sexual development focuses on sexual abuse, there has been little research and study of otherwise normal childhood sexual development.

The study of sexuality in adolescence is more acceptable, and there have been multiple studies published regarding the sexual attitudes and behaviors of individuals between 12 and 18 years of age.

Many people look back on adolescents as a time fraught with difficulties, emotional minefields, unplanned pregnancies, and maybe the unfortunate experience with STDs (sexually transmitted diseases). This makes this stage of sexual development quite interesting and researchers and psychologists have long studied aspects of adolescent sexuality in this developmental stage. These studies incorporate behavioral, social and biological changes that take place. Several theories abound regarding the basics of sexual develop in adolescents as well as behaviors that continue into adulthood and old age. Adolescence is defined as extending from the late teens, but generally covers the advent of puberty, which usually takes place at 12 or 13 years of age, to 18 years old, or the end of high school.

Sexual Development Theories

Human sexual development has been studied for decades. Most of us are familiar with Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalytic theories, which emphasize sexuality in nearly every aspect of our psychological development. However, other common approaches for the study of sexual development include what are known as psychosocial theory and social cognitive theories, which strive to define and explain the parameters of human growth and development that are not connected with sexuality or sexual behaviors.

Freud's Psychosocial Theory

It is important to be aware of, and avoid, overemphasizing sexual behavior or removing aspects of sexual development from human behavior and development. Freud believed that the driving force for most behaviors in humans was emphasized by the sex drive. Freud's psychoanalytic theory has influenced cultures in the West for decades. As when it was introduced, Freud's psychoanalytic theory is still considered controversial. According to Freud, everything that a human does is related to struggles to fulfill needs and desires that may or may not be opposed by societal constraints or conflicts.

According to Freud, the sex drive, or libido as he referred to it, is the main force behind personality development that begins to occur in children. According to Freud, every human being takes a journey along "psychosexual stages":

  • Oral stage
  • Anal stage
  • Phallic stage
  • Latency period
  • Genital stage
For example, the oral stage, which Freud defined as lasting from birth through the first year, focuses on an infant’s ability to explore his or her world through the mouth. Infants require a balance of stimulation that explores his or her ability to chew, suck, and bite. Freud believed that if infants were not adequately stimulated during this stage, they would not enter the next stage, known as the anal stage.

Lasting from one to three years, the anal stage was the period of time in which a child masters toilet training. During this time frame, toddlers develop control over urinating and elimination. Toddlers in this age group recognize that parents or other adults placed limits and expectations on his or her behavior. Again according to Freud, if toilet training techniques or methods were either too permissive or too harsh, a child may develop lasting believes that may affect his or her behavior throughout life.

The period of three to six years is known as the phallic stage and focuses on a child's excessive and never-ending curiosity, both of his or her body and surrounding environment. Freud believed that this stage provides children the opportunity to identify with opposite sex parents. This phallic stage is also one of Freud's most controversial because he professed that boys develop attractions to their mother while experiencing jealousy or fear of what may be considered their chief rival for that affection, the father. Freud believed that a boy who suppresses such desires and identifies with a father is what lies behind male attitudes, appearance, sex roles, and behaviors.

Freud's theory, the "Oedipus complex" in males is comparative to his "Electra complex" in females. Freud argued that females naturally show affection for their fathers and secretly blame their mothers for a lack of male genital organs. However, these female children eventually accept they will never belong to their fathers, and therefore identify with their mothers.

The fourth stage of sexual development is called the latency period, and ranges from six to 12 years for both boys and girls. This period is known as a relatively asexual stage of development and one in which children are more focused and attentive on social activities and personal achievements. During this stage, Freud believed that the ego and super ego of each individual is strengthened and offers a great influence on the next stage of development.

The last stage of sexual development, according to Freud, is the genital stage, which incorporates those 12 years of age and older. Freud believed that this stage focuses the libido on sexual pleasure with partners with a growing interest in dating. Also, that those of this age group express sexual behavior.

Again, many of the aspects of Freud's theories of sexual development offer little scientific support. While toddlers may often express curiosity regarding genitalia of males and females, it can be argued that there is no evidence that this reflects incestuous feelings. While it is understood that sexuality is a part of the human psyche, today's theories of human development do not rely solely on the human sex drive.

Erikson's Psychosocial Theory

Freud's views of male and female development, attitudes, and beliefs are dismissed by some researchers, and have brought forth alternative psychosocial theories, among those presented by Erik Erikson. Erikson believed that social and cultural motives were more prevalent in the development of human behavior than the sex drive. Basically, he believed that social environments shape a child's attitude and sexuality. During various developmental stages, Erikson believes that children are offered and face various challenges for emotional growth and development.

[QN.No.#8.Erik Erikson believed that social environments shaped individuals.True/False]

Erikson developed eight major psychosocial challenges or stages of development that may be compared to Freud's corresponding development. As with Freud's psychosocial theory, Erikson's psychosocial theory also believed that individuals must master each stage of development in order to adjust successfully to life's challenges. Erikson did believe that sexual development plays a role in shaping sexual behavior, but that it is not the driving factor for success.

Erikson's stages of development, like those of Freud, have been criticized because they do not offer why such challenges or stages of development occur in the first place. However, it may forever elude us in determining the answers to those questions. Nevertheless, many Western and Eastern cultures experience similar social challenges, and the development of such psychosocial theories provides at least the beginning of an understanding of human nature.

For example, take a look at Erikson's various stages of development. According to Erikson, psychosocial development occurs with special challenges and these challenges may be classified as follows:

  • Birth to one year - basic trust versus mistrust
  • One to three years - autonomy versus shame in doubt
  • Three to six years - initiative versus guilt
  • Six to 12 years - industry versus inferiority
  • 12 to 20 years - identity versus role confusion

These classifications are broken down into a variety of influences and events. For example, basic trust in mistrust is the point in time when infants learn to trust others and rely on others to care for their needs. Parents or other caregivers who are inconsistent or reject such responsibilities of care encourage infants to become wary or mistrusting of people. At this stage, the primary caregiver parent is the key to attachment and social development.

The development of one to three-year-olds incorporates economy versus shame in doubt. At this stage, Erikson believed the children need to learn to be autonomous, such as feeding and dressing themselves, taking care of toileting habits, brushing their teeth, and so forth. Erikson believed that children who fail to gain this type of independence would encourage children to doubt their abilities, which generates shame and embarrassment. As with the first stage of development, the parents or the primary caregiver plays a major part of the toddler’s ability to learn to socialize successfully.

During the third to sixth year of life, Erikson believed that children begin to accept responsibilities, many of which are beyond their capacity to manage. Children enjoy acting and playing grown-up. They also experience a certain degree of independence. This independence may produce conflicts with parents as well as siblings or other family members. Such conflicts initiate guilt. It's at this stage Erikson believes that children learn how to balance their curiosity with their privileges, as well as the rights and wishes of others. At this stage, social development spreads to other family members and not just the parents.

Six to 12-year-old children are learning how to socialize in outside environments. They also are learning skills and acquiring knowledge at school. During this stage, children are continually comparing themselves with their peers as well as other members of society. Children at this stage typically develop self-assurance and confidence in themselves, but feelings of inferiority are often common. At this stage, a child's reliance on social development ventures beyond parental or family boundaries and also incorporates friends, peers, and teachers.

[QN.No.#9. According to Erikson's Psychosocial Theory, children typically develop self-assurance and confidence in themselves and learn how to socialize in outside environments at the age of:]

The growth of an individual between 12 and 20-years-old is a constant journey toward maturity and self-awareness. During this stage, most adolescents have established their identities within social groups and school situations, but often remain uncertain or confused about how they should behave on an adult level. They might also be confused about what to achieve as adults. Their peers have a major influence on behaviors as well as attitudes, with less emphasis is placed on family and parental guidance.

The Importance of Observational Learning

Observational learning is defined as patterns of behavior that are learned by imitation. In the field of psychology, observational learning is one of the most important forms or methods of learning engaged by others. Life experiences serve to shape and develop human behavior in a multitude of situations and circumstances. Experiences among families, friends, neighborhoods, and cultures plays a large role in how beliefs and attitudes develop.

[QN.No.#10.Patterns of behavior that are learned by imitation are defined as:]

Sexual development relies a great deal on how various individuals perceive role models in his or her environment. Role models can include parents, peers, celebrities, siblings, and other acquaintances. Listening to and watching friends, television, books and movies generally influence developing sexual skills. Different cultures view the sexual development of adolescents in different ways. In some South American societies, sexual experimentation and curiosity is encouraged to promote close-knit communities. In the United States, sexual experimentation among teens is generally discouraged.

Attitudes, values and beliefs also have a great impact on how sexuality is developed. Many psychologists believe that values and morals influence reactions to the development of sexual relationships. Attitude also plays a great role in the success or failure of dating relationships and decisions that individuals make about their own sexuality. It is during the adolescent stage that most individuals develop tolerances and intolerances of certain behaviors, and that includes tolerance and intolerances regarding their attitudes about different aspects of human sexuality.

Erikson’s Adult Stages of Development

Human sexual development does not end at young adulthood. Erikson believed that adult stages of development continure to progress from the age of 20 to old age. For example, Erikson believed the young adulthood (20 to 40 years of age) provided the psychosocial challenge of intimacy versus isolation. He also believed that this stage of human development provided the foundation for developing friendships and achieving companionship and love with others. Those unable to develop and maintain such relationships are prone to feeling lonely or isolated. Primary social attention is placed on close friends, spouses, and lovers rather than parents, siblings, or acquaintances.

Erikson believed that individuals 40 to 65 years of age (middle adulthood) reached a stage called generativity versus stagnation. During this stage, he believed that adults face challenges of raising families and pursuing careers. At this stage, adults are basically charged with responding and addressing the needs of younger people, including children, family members, and young members of society. Those who are unable to share such responsibilities may become self-centered and may literally be considered as in a state of general stagnation.

Old age is considered an adult stage of development that creates a challenge between ego integrity and despair. Erikson believed that older adults tend to view life as either having been happy, productive or meaningful or one filled with disappointments, empty promises, or unrealized life goals. Older people rely on social experiences as well as one's own life experience to determine whether or not he or she feels their life has been successful and fulfilling.

Establishing Sexual Identity

Sexual identity is defined as an individual's perception of his or her sexuality, orientation, and sexual preferences. The concept of sexual identity typically begins in early adolescence and continues into adulthood. Establishing sexual identity is a process that develops over a number of years. It is at this stage of development that the concept of self, such as self-views or self-concept is realized.

Individuals who develop healthy sexual viewpoints, meaning they are knowledgeable about their bodies, how their bodies work, how their partners bodies work, what they partners like, what they like, and are able to talk or communicate these thing with their partners in a safe, caring way generally enjoy positive relationships. For those who have been taught to believe that sex is bad or "dirty" it may be more difficult for them to develop a healthy sexual viewpoint. Different cultures, and sub-cultures, have differing standards on what sexual behaviors are acceptable; however, the concept of unacceptable behaviors or taboos often changes within cultures over a period of time.

At this stage of development, an individual enjoys additional clarification of the type of people he or she finds sexually attractive. The formation of a sexual identity not only incorporates personal beliefs and views, but it's also based on attitudes, "messages," and past as well as current sexual partners and experiences.

In some ways, sexual identity is often defined as a process of acquiring sexual meaning or an individual's interpretation or feeling regarding sexual experiences and cultural norms. In many cases, sexual development and meaning is generated through interactions within a person’s environment. Personal experience plays a great role in sexual meanings and identity of any given individual but is also dependent on the laws, values, morals, and expectations in one's own culture or society.

[QN.No.#11.Sexual identity is defined as:]

For example, different cultures believe or tolerate different attitudes regarding sex education, premarital sex, homosexuality, as well as the viewing of nudity in the media. For example:

  • Do you believe it's wrong for men and women to engage in premarital sex?
  • Do you believe it's wrong for men or women to commit adultery?
  • Do you believe it's wrong for men or women to engage in same-sex relationships?
  • Do you believe it's wrong for adolescents less than 16 years of age to engage in sexual relationships?

When these questions are presented to many different individuals there will be many different answers given with many different explanations as to why different things are acceptable or unacceptable. For example, in many cultures, sex before marriage is acceptable, while many believe that sex between individuals less than 16 years of age is wrong. In many cultures, extramarital affairs is considered wrong. In some cultures, dating is unacceptable.

Homosexuality is not considered particularly disturbing in countries that are permissive in sexual attitudes, such as Canada, Spain, Norway, or the Netherlands. In the Philippines, any sexual activity outside of marriage is considered unacceptable. If you are a woman, extramarital affairs are disapproved of in the Japanese culture, not so much if you are a man, while homosexuality is extremely frowned upon.

Individuals in the United States show an almost equal division in attitudes regarding premarital sex, homosexuality, and teenage sex. Studies have shown that cultures in Asia and the Middle East place a great deal of importance on virginity among females and in some countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Syria or Jordan, family on a relies on female chastity. In some cultures, virginity of the woman must be assured for an honorable marriage. Any loss of virginity of a woman or girl, even rape, requires the woman or girls' death to restore honor to the family. While the latter is an extreme view, it is a good example of how culture shapes mores and values. As a matter of fact, among such cultures, men who murder female relatives who have been caught having sex before marriage, engage in adulterous affairs, or have been raped, are not punished in any way.

Phases of Sexual Development

The driving factor behind most adult’s sexual development is the seeking of intimacy, companionship, and long-term relationships. However, the phases of adult sexual development can be divided into several categories that include:

[QN.No.#.12.The driving factor behind most adult’s sexual development is:]

  • Early adulthood
  • Midlife
  • Late adulthood

For example, one of the largest psychosocial challenges that faces young adults is their desire to achieve meaningful relationships. At this stage, most people have developed concepts of self that have enabled them to distance themselves from seeking approval from parents or teachers and develop their own sense of identity, values, goals and desires. In most cases, such individuals look for a partner who echoes or mirrors their own goals.

Establishing trust is a basic foundation of reaching such intimacy, and identifying likes and dislikes, values, morals and goals are often the result of what we know as the "couple". However, intimacy also requires that an individual knows and feels comfortable with his or her own thoughts and feelings, has a willingness to share such feelings, and the ability to use such skills such as communication and awareness to effectively communicate with partners.

[QN.No.#13.In lasting relationships intimacy and trust are not important.True/False]

As individuals reached their 20s, the search for clarification of sexual behavior and values, the desire for intimate relationships, and concepts of self-assurance and confidence helped to establish relationships that often prove satisfying on both emotional and sexual levels. During our 20s, we learn how to become partners, wives, husbands, parents, and working members of society. At this stage of development, both men and women are learning to adapt to new roles as well as meeting challenges in developing relationships.

This stage also requires that women especially cope with the changes in appearance brought about by adulthood, pregnancy, or childbirth and a perpetual search for a youthful appearance. In many cultures, adults in their 20s are considered as being in their sexual prime.

The Midlife Stage of Sexual Development

As we enter in to our 40s and 50s, most adults have settled into responsible jobs, careers, and are comfortable with their role in the family unit. In addition, the midlife stage also encourages us to adjust and accept changes in physical appearance, such as a receding hairline, weight gain, slowed metabolisms, decreased endurance, loss of muscle tone, and an enhanced vulnerability to illnesses.

Most women experience an end to their reproductive years in their 50s, though some reach this stage more commonly known as menopause sooner and sometimes later. In many situations, women who have identified their concept of self worth in their ability to bear children are tormented by this change and often base their sexual desirability on this factor.

Men and women feel differently about aging. For women, getting old may mean being less sexually attractive and experiencing changes in the body that often bring about feelings of self-consciousness and frustration. Men are generally considered to be more vulnerable to a slowing of their sexual functions and abilities, which often plays a great role in how they feel about themselves.

However, for many, the aging process is a normal part of human growth and development, and approaching middle age with a healthy and positive attitude often makes up for changes in body shape and capabilities. Many adults in this age group are happy to discover that their sex lives actually improve.

Many changes in sexual activity are often related to outside factors such as partners that are not emotionally supportive, healthy, or who are suffering from alcoholism or a depression. Partners that are no longer partners; nearly one third of divorces occur during these years.

Sexual Development during Late Adulthood

It is generally believed by the "younger generation" that individuals in their 60s or older should not engage in sexual behavior because it's "gross" or unacceptable. Adults 60 years of age and older are not only dealing with a decrease in sexual function in many stages, but are also grappling with retirement, finances, and feelings of mortality. While many seniors find such changes threatening and overwhelming, many are comfortable with this adjustment.

While health problems are more common in older adults, including disabilities, the majority of older adults continue to gain just as much enjoyment from their sexual activities as they did when they were younger. Older couples are often able to achieve higher levels of marital satisfaction, emotional closeness, and companionship than couples half their age. Also, with the advent of helpful medicines and the popularity of these drugs, levels of sexual function has been increased or restored to this age group.

Many older couples enjoy maintaining a certain amount of separation in their daily environments in order to avoid "emotional crowding". There is no reason why older adults can not enjoy sexual relationships, and those who are physically healthy can enjoy sexual activities well into their 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Sexual responses and expectations will necessarily change as each of us age, but research has proven that older individuals may enjoy satisfying sexual interactions and relationships as well as an enhanced intimacy. Sexuality is part of human nature, and though it changes as we age, it doesn't ever really disappear. Knowing what to expect, understanding and preparing for such changes, as well as understanding what is considered normal or abnormal for aging allows many of us to maintain healthy and happy sexual relationships throughout every phase of our life.


As you can see, sexuality is present during every lifecycle, from birth until death. While it is generally accepted that the height of our sexual awareness occurs during late adolescence and the 20s and 30s, this in no way is meant to imply that the sex life of an individual or his/her desirability or enjoyment of sex will end at any given stage or phase of development.

Many sexual relationships are based on more than physical closeness, and incorporate concepts of sexuality that include behavior, intimacy, a great sense of identity and self-awareness, as well as the ability to reproduce. Such concepts as sexuality and sexual development will be explored in greater detail in the next lesson.

Human Sexuality > Chapter 2
Page Last Modified On: February 18, 2015, 10:36 AM