Butterflies and Wee-wees or Vulvas and Penises?

Ending the Taboo of Children’s Sexuality

feature story by Nanna Christ Kiil Johansen and Domenica Sosa

(illustration by Domenica Sosa)

Society might seem to have reached its peak of open-mindedness, but the topic of children’s sexuality is here to prove it wrong. While adults are reproducing myths and social norms of the past, ignoring the existence of children’s sexuality, the results can be feelings of shame and distorted views on sexuality among children. Yes, children’s doctor play and genital rubbing are awkward, but experts insist: let’s talk about it.

Imagine you are in a supermarket, accompanied by a child. You might be its parent, or you might be the child’s caregiver for the day. The child points at a condom package, reaches for it and asks: “what is that?” Children have a lot of questions, but this one leaves you awkwardly silent, not knowing, what to say.  While standing there, furrowing your brows and trying to find the right words, your child has already run off to the candy section.

This time, you have avoided an uncomfortable situation, but next time you might not. Children are curious little humans. As they at some point will ask you to explain where babies come from, or what a new, sensitive word they heard in the schoolyard means, they will also explore their bodies and others.

While Western society seems to be tolerant and open-minded, it is far from normalized and known that children, from birth, are already developing their sexuality. “Everything is there from the beginning,” PhD candidate in Social Science and coordinator of the MA in Childhood Studies and Children’s Rights at the Fachhochschule Potsdam, Korinna McRobert, says. After realizing that most people do not think that children of a young age have a sexuality, McRobert started working with the topic, asking the question: “if we don’t think that it is there, how can we possibly engage with it?”

On the contrary, McRobert wonders how society has somehow come to accept the fact that teenagers are overtly sexual but pre-pubescent children are not. According to a Planned Parenthood report from the United States called the 2014 Let’s Talk Survey*, examining parental communication with children aged 9 to 21, 8 out of 10 parents had talked about sexuality with their children. Out of those, nearly half reported beginning by age 10, and 80% had talked about the topic by age 13.


“When they are in puberty, there will be this one big talk, and then everything is clear,” Anna Lapp, couples & sexual counselor and sexuality educator, says wryly. “This is the idea of sexuality,” she adds. Lapp and McRobert agree with experts from all over the world in insisting that the conversations with children about sexuality should start as early as possible. And if you are looking for a rule of thumb, Lapp got it: “When is the right time? When they ask.”

However, an issue, that Lapp addresses as being in the way of this development, is how sexuality in society is perceived. “The first thing should be defining sexuality in a wider, broader way,” Lapp explains. According to the World Health Organization sexuality is experienced and expressed through thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviors, practices, roles and relationships. “Sexuality is not just penetration,” Lapp states, “It is so much more.”

Working in her clinic in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg, Lapp encounters many adults who are not comfortable talking about their own sexuality. “If they do not learn to talk about sexuality at their age, how might that be with children?” she asks. Lapp therefore argues how working on your own perception of sexuality is also preparation for parenthood. 

What is actually going on in the development of children’s sexuality?

Let’s take a look at what happens in different stages of the child’s development and how to handle it, according to the general understanding of the experts and many children’s health organizations.

Age 0 to 2

At age 0 to 2 is the initial phase of exploration and self-discovery. The baby may self-stimulate their genitals but is yet unaware of the concept of sexuality. Babies activate their five senses and communicate through them.

At this stage, babies are actively discovering the world around them. It is normal exploratory behavior. Physical contact, like cuddling, is important to develop a healthy social and emotional base. Start communicating to the baby with specific terms, for example while changing diapers, explain what you are doing and name the genitals correctly.

Age 2 to 4

The toddlers can now distinguish age differences and begin to construct their gender identity. They tend to be curious about their bodies and the bodies of others. They begin to ask questions about body parts and they may touch their genitals simply because it feels good.

It is important to understand that self-stimulatory behavior in toddlers does not mean they have a sexual fantasy. Address their private parts with correct terminology. At this point, physical contact is continuously important between child and parent. However, respect the child’s boundaries and do not force affection.

Age 4 to 6

This is the doctor play phase. Children understand the physical differences between genders in a playful way. At this age, they are interested in where babies come from. They begin to set boundaries and follow social norms. Childhood play is normal curiosity.

It is a good time for the caregiver to create guidelines for the child about consent, and again, correct terminologies of their private parts, boundaries, and intimacy without making them feel ashamed. Create a safe environment at home, so the toddler can ask questions.

Age 6 to 8

At age 6 to 8, the latency stage is taking place, a period between childhood sexuality and the beginning of puberty. Children may feel shame and discomfort when they are naked in front of other people. They fantasize about what they have around them, e.g. in the family, at school or on television.

Provide the child with educational alternatives to sexuality, like placing informative books around the room. Children ask fewer questions about sex, but that does not mean they are less interested, so take advantage of teachable moments.

Age 8 to 10

In this phase, the child may experience the feeling of romantic love for the first time. They have a more mature understanding of sexuality, relationships and that sex can be a taboo subject. They could tell each other sexual jokes and are more conscious of their own sexual orientation.

The caregiver should listen and communicate. Don’t assume that the child wants to be sexually active if it asks, what sex is. Also, explain the meaning of sentimental relationships. If they make jokes, the caregiver or parent should explain the difference between inoffensive and offensive jokes and terms.

Age 10 to 12

This is the stage where puberty begins and the preteen’s hormones are activated. Physical and emotional changes are observed. The children are more interested in adult sexuality and tend to seek information about sex online. There may be small approaches towards a romantic relationship.

It is relevant to let them know at this stage that they can go to the parent or caregiver if they have any questions. Talk to them about sex, relationships and methods of contraception. It is also important to give them their personal space and to trust them.

The parents who come to Anna Lapp usually have a lot of questions once opening Pandora’s box. The counselor hears questions like “Is it okay to sleep in the same bed as my child?” or how they can answer when a child asks “what is this between your legs? What do you call it? Can I touch it?” These are situations that leave the parents uncomfortable and unsure, which draws a picture of something both McRobert and Lapp emphasize. “One huge problem is that adults transfer their own perspective of sexuality to the children,” the latter explains.

Many of a child’s curiosities catch the parent off guard. When they hear about the so-called doctor play in kindergartens, they might feel shocked and think that the situation must be sexual somehow. But according to Lapp, children do not plan sexuality, they simply explore. “It is always out of the moment. It is always just curiosity or a feeling of desire. They don’t need a romantic dinner at a restaurant to play doctor, so it is completely different,” Lapp argues.

Parents often do not see this difference. Therefore, it has become easier for parents and institutions to create strict rules of behavior that fit societal norms. Telling children not to touch themselves, keeping quiet about sensitive topics or such the adult thinks are sexual. “Nuance is hard,” McRobert explains.

“We just have these rules and follow them because it’s easier. We’ll be out of trouble. The problem is that we’re not out of trouble because children continue to explore and discover – and it’s normal.” – Korinna McRobert, PhD candidate in Social Science and coordinator of the MA in Childhood Studies and Children’s Rights at the Fachhochschule Potsdam

Another tendency, Lapp sees, is how parents put the responsibility onto kindergartens and schools, preferring to let institutions take care of the matter.

(illustration by Domenica Sosa)

Some boundaries, however, are necessary. “Sexuality is a lot about boundaries,” McRobert states. It is therefore encouraged for parents to establish guidelines. It is normal for children to be curious about their sexuality, but it is still something personal and intimate. “They are allowed to touch themselves and it is fine if they explore with other children, but only if they also want to. It’s private and you give permission,” McRobert explains.

These circumstances are perfectly healthy. However, one should keep in mind that if the age difference between the children is greater than 18 months, it could be problematic. Likewise, if the child seems to frequently and publicly masturbate, perhaps while knowing how others may feel uncomfortable in the situation, it could be a sign of emotional distress. In this case, some tend to think the child just needs attention, but McRobert explains: “it usually goes deeper than that. Why do they want attention?” she asks.

Boundaries, on the other hand, are not only for the parent to implement. “Many of us are raised with not respecting our own boundaries,” Lapp explains, referring to how children are sometimes pushed by adults to show bodily affection. “Give a little kiss to your granddad or aunt,” she exemplifies, stating that adults excuse their authority over children by thinking “it’s only a child.” The counselor suggests instead that the child itself can decide what is okay or not and that the adults should respect these boundaries.

A crucial encouragement from both McRobert and Lapp, is to talk to a child with proper terminologies. Often, adults will refer to the child’s intimate body parts as a flower, butterfly or willy, most likely because it is uncomfortable to say their right names. But when parents use these euphemisms, it is actually not helpful and will provoke a feeling of shame in naming their genitals properly, reproducing shame into their later adulthood. And another important issue that an incorrect terminology could provoke, is misunderstandings. “A child could say ‘someone touched my butterfly’ which can be misinterpreted, because one may not know these euphemisms,” McRobert mentions. “This can make them more vulnerable to abuse because they can’t express it,” she adds.

(illustration by Domenica Sosa)

Clear, transparent communication is therefore – yes, you might have already guessed it – key. The goal should be to create a safe environment for children to ask questions. Lapp mentions an example from a client, who’s child heard a new word in school: Schwanzlutscher, which translates to the offensive word cocksucker. This is a difficult term to explain to a child, and dependent on the child’s age and understanding, the parent must adjust the explanation. Therefore, Lapp emphasizes that it is also okay for adults to step back and take their time to find the right words: “But then it is super important that you really get back to them”, she states.

The fact that children ask, is a healthy sign: “It is really good that they ask what it is,” Lapp explains, referring to the former term. Because what happens when they don’t or when parents tell them off? They will probably turn to other sources of information, because the curiosity is still there. “Imagine, he would go to Google and put in Schwanzlutscher,” the counselor says.

As sexual knowledge and behavior are influenced by children’s experiences and environment, let us take a look at the media culture they are exposed to. According to a U.S. report called ‘The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens 2021’*, tweens, who are children about the age of 8 to 12 years, spend an average of over five hours online every day. And this number does not include screen time for schoolwork. Lapp argues that there is a lot of good information on sexuality to extract from the internet, but there are just as many, if not more, “bad examples” as she says.

According to recent research from 2022 by Rachel de Souza, Children’s Commissioner for England, one out of ten children has seen pornography by the age of 9. The report awoke headlines and comments on several news media and social media platforms, portraying a growing concern. “It might be – depending on the age – disturbing,” Lapp admits, referring to when a child is exposed to pornography. The counselor is concerned that it can form the image of their own sexuality: “They might think ‘oh, a man needs an erection for two hours. And the woman needs to be taken for two hours. And at the same moment, they’ll have the orgasm,” she says, painting the picture of mainstream pornography.

McRobert, on the other hand, thinks that adults, once again, are projecting their reaction on the children when they hear of exposure to pornography. “I don’t know whether it’s as traumatic as people think,” she says, arguing that children, whether it is pornography or not, are somehow used to being exposed to sex. “It might also just confuse,” McRobert says and adds: “We don’t know, because we don’t ask.”

Exposure seems to be unavoidable in a digital world. “You could protect them more,” McRobert says and adds: “but you can’t protect them from everything.” What she sees as more important, also as a mother of three children herself, is trust. “I trust them a lot when it comes to their own self-exploration and relations with other people,” McRobert explains and adds how she thinks there is a lot for adults to learn from children along the way. “You can be there and accompany them through it. A do-it-together kind of thing”, she says and ends with the note: “And the only way you can do it is to communicate.”

*The studies used in this article are based on data from the U.S. and might not be representative of children from Germany.