Childhood, in most modern cultures, is defined in large part by its separation from adult sexuality. While many contemporary cultures recognize aspects of sexuality in children, such as the development of sexual curiosity or MASTURBATION practices common among young children, they draw a clear line between such forms of childhood sexuality and children's exposure to adult sexuality and sexual experience. Prepubescent children, in most modern cultures, are not legitimate objects of adult sexual desire or behavior. Paradoxically, it is this very separation of childhood and adult sexuality that so closely links childhood to sexuality in modern cultures. Societies attempt to enforce that separation through elaborate systems of laws, institutions, and ideologies. Public debates about the proper role of sex and sexual images in the mass media and public culture often turn on notions of childhood innocence. A whole constellation of social practices have been created because modern societies attempt to protect children from sex and adult sexuality.

PUBERTY, the biological process of maturation into sexual and reproductive maturity, commonly marks the end of childhood. It does not, however, always mark the entry into adulthood or adult sexuality. Most modern societies see the years following puberty as directly linked to sex, but in many ways that direct relationship is more problematic than childhood's oblique one. While childhood is defined as a period deserving–demanding–protection from adult sexuality, the proper relationship between ADOLESCENCE and sexuality is less clear. Adolescents are clearly sexual, but not clearly adult. Biological and social maturity are not always considered equivalent. How, then, should the sexuality of youth be regulated or controlled? These are not new problems in human history. Human societies have grappled with the common problems of biological and social maturation for thousands of years. But just as the meaning and experience of childhood has differed dramatically across cultures and through time, so have the social definitions of childhood, youth, and sexuality.

Ancient and Premodern Societies

Writing about the history of sexuality is always a complicated task, as it is difficult to find direct evidence about the meaning and practice of sex in history. We come to knowledge of sex indirectly, through debates about sex, regulations governing sex, representations of sex, prohibitions against sex, or demographic data (which may, for example, reveal something of the frequency of conception outside marriage but little about the acts of sexual intercourse that produced it or the meaning of such acts). The problem of access to historical information about sex and its meaning is compounded when dealing with children, who have largely been defined outside the licit realm of sex and sexuality. This problem is compounded further when writing about societies in the distant past or about premodern, nonliterate societies. Much of our knowledge, especially of ancient cultures, is drawn from codes of law, especially those concerned with INHERITANCE OF PROPERTY. In the case of nonliterate tribal cultures, it is difficult to know how accurately the practices documented by travelers and, later, anthropologists, reflect actual practices and whether those practices are longstanding traditions or relatively recent developments. However, the works of classicists, historians, and anthropologists offer some insight into the distant past. Most strikingly, they reveal something of the enormous variety of cultural definitions of childhood, and of the relation of children and youth to sex and sexuality, that have existed in human cultures.

A survey of a single continent, AFRICA, offers some sense of the great diversity of cultural practices surrounding childhood, youth, and sexuality in premodern cultures (the discussion in this section is particularly indebted to the informative synthesis provided in A. R. Colón's A History of Children). According to documentation from the late nineteenth century, about five thousand distinct tribes remained in sub-Saharan Africa at that time. The meaning and experience of childhood differed from tribe to tribe, and so did traditional attitudes toward youth and sexuality and the practices that regulated them. In many sub-Saharan tribes, though children learned gender-appropriate tasks from an early age, puberty marked a new stage of life and was marked by some sort of initiation ceremony, which might last days or even years. Here, recognition of sexual maturity often combined with entry into adult responsibilities and status. The Kpelle, a tribe in what is present-day Liberia, secluded boys for four years in a period of initiation and instruction, including ritual CIRCUMCISION. Among the Pygmy, a boy was not considered ready for marriage until he had killed an antelope or buffalo. Among the Ngoni, boys celebrated puberty with a cleansing ceremony in the river after the first nocturnal emission. The nomadic Fulani gave boys charge of cattle at age ten, at which time ritual circumcisions were performed. Bedouin boys were also ritually circumcised and, in order to gain the endurance of a camel, were expected to eat a piece of bread that had been smeared with camel dung. The Ganda, who considered children property and rarely raised their own children, did not mark puberty in any way and had no rituals for passage into sexual or social adulthood.

For girls, puberty rites were frequently tied to MENARCHE, or the onset of menstruation. Among the Ngoni in central Africa, as in many other African tribes, girls were placed in isolation huts during menstruation. After her first menstrual flow ended, a girl underwent a cleansing ceremony. With her father's sisters and other women from the village, she was led in a procession from the isolation hut to the river, where she was undressed and placed in the water, facing southeast. Afterwards, she was taken to the dwelling of her aunt and given instruction on proper behavior for her new stage of life. This new status included bimonthly vaginal examinations by elder women from the village who were charged with verifying and so maintaining the girl's virginity. Other tribes sought to guarantee girls' virginity through genital surgery. Female circumcision was a common initiation rite at puberty, though the procedure sometimes took place in infancy or during childhood. The sunna circumcision, performed by central Ethiopian tribes on infant girls, removed only the prepuce from the clitoris. Pharaonic circumcision was a major operation in which the girl's clitoris, labia minor, and parts of her labia majora were removed. The remaining portion of the labia majora were sewn together, or infibulated, and her legs bound together for up to forty days until her vulva fused closed. Infections of the urinary tract and vagina were common, as were difficulties in menstruation, and the fused vulva created pain during sexual intercourse and complicated eventual childbirth. Pharaonic circumcision or simple infibulation was practiced throughout Africa, though not by all peoples, and continues to this day in approximately twenty-six (or more than half of the total) African nations. About 90 percent of girls in the Sudan still undergo pharaonic circumcision.

As ISLAM and Christianity spread through Africa, these particular religious traditions merged with local tribal customs and influenced understandings of sexuality, childhood, and family. For example, tribes with traditional matrilineal patterns of inheritance switched to patrilineal models, thus shifting the control of property to men and increasing the importance of marriage for women's economic security and protection. Especially in areas influenced by Islam, by the eighteenth century marriages were contracted and performed at increasingly early ages, ranging from age seven in the San region to ten in Madagascar and twelve or fourteen in the Sudan and southeast Africa. Premodern Pacific Island cultures also illustrate the great range that existed in the social regulation of sexuality. Among the Tiwi, for example, girls were married before puberty while boys underwent a ten-year-long period of initiation, beginning at puberty, before they could marry. On Vanatianai, in Melanesia, sexual activity was seen as an appropriate and pleasurable activity for both boys and girls once they entered puberty at about the age of fourteen.

Through most of human history–and still today in many places–children and youth have been exposed to sex very directly. The vast majority of people lived in small dwellings. Privacy was scarce, and concepts of privacy were different from those of contemporary American and western European cultures. Children commonly slept in the same room with their parents; in many places, especially in cold climates, the entire family might share a single bed or its equivalent. In such conditions, children commonly heard and saw adults having sex. And it was not only people who lived closely together in small spaces. Animals were often a source of sexual knowledge. In rural areas and towns alike, children–often responsible for animal care–learned about sex from watching animals copulate and give birth. Just as people in pre-industrial and premodern societies were more directly exposed to the processes of birth and death, they were more directly exposed to knowledge of sex. Children shared that knowledge. They were not protected from exposure to sex. However, simply because children had knowledge of sex does not mean that they were not protected from adult sexuality and sexual contact. That protection did exist in many cultures. However, while the notion that "childhood" is an invention of modern times has been strongly refuted by many scholars, it is nonetheless important to note that children were not universally seen as deserving of society's protection, whether in the realm of sex or elsewhere, nor was there steady progress toward a protected status. Some ancient societies wrote the protection of children into law (though protections did not necessarily cover all children), while in others ABANDONMENT, infanticide, child slavery, and CHILD PROSTITUTION were common.

Early written records of human civilization, reaching back to the Sumerians, specify to some extent the proper treatment of children. For example, the eighteenth-century B.CE. Code of Hammurabi forbids men to commit INCEST with their daughters or to "defile" their sons' betrothed. The Egyptian Book of the Dead gives some sense of the restrictions governing sex with children, including "sexual relations with a boy" in its list of acts that would prevent a man from entering into the next life. The ancient Hebrews also prohibited sodomy with children, considering it a form of idolatry related to the worship of the body. Sodomy with a boy under the age of nine was punished by flagellation, and by stoning if the boy were older than nine years. While these restrictions may have aimed less at the protection of children than the prohibition of certain sexual acts, they stand in significant contrast to other cultures in which children found little or no protection. Along the Mediterranean coast, the Phoenicians, who were active in the first millennium B.CE., were known for their cruelty to children. Infant and child sacrifice, in which babies and small children were burned alive, was common, and the Phoenicians maintained official "temple boys" or "sacred" prostitutes, who were sodomized by adult men.

Roman child-rearing practices combined signs of great affection for children with a striking lack of protection for them. Abandonment of children was common, and the abandoned child–if it survived–was likely to be enslaved or sold into prostitution. Abandoned male infants intended for prostitution were sometimes castrated in order to prolong their androgynous, boyish appearance. Such practices were prohibited by the emperor Nerva during his brief reign from 96 to 98 C.E. Subsequent emperors Trajan and Hadrian built upon these reforms, with Hadrian enforcing the law against castration of boys and prohibiting the sale of children for sexual purposes. Significantly, he extended these protections to slave children as well as to the freeborn. Regulations of sexuality for children and youth also developed around the issue of property. Commonly, elite families with inheritable property were much more concerned with controlling the sexual behaviors of their children. Legally recognized marriages and the production of legitimate heirs were proportionally more important to families with property, and such concerns fostered emphasis on the virginity of daughters before marriage. In ancient China, while among the lower classes young people commonly mated around the age of fif-teen, the sexual experiences of elite youth were closely monitored, indicating the greater significance of marriage to those with property. In ancient Persia, girls of elite families commonly entered into polygamous marriages at the age of fifteen. Familial control over sexuality and property here was extreme, as incest was not a taboo, and men could marry their own daughters.

In ancient Greece, a girl's virginity was closely linked to family honor, and unmarried girls were counseled to sleep on a bed of withy, or long, flexible twigs, as a way of preventing sexual desire. Marriage marked the passage to adulthood for girls; only through marriage did a girl become an adult woman. Boys, on the other hand, celebrated passage into manhood and citizenship at the age of eighteen or nineteen–a moment marked not by biological sexual maturation but by their relationship to the state. In medieval and early modern western Europe, the regulation and control of youthful sexuality was structured by the demands of economic subsistence and by the increasing power of religious authority. The highest priority, in what were primarily subsistence agricultural societies, was survival. Limiting reproduction (and thus the number of mouths to feed and the number of children among whom to divide resources) was critical, and families and communities regulated sexuality in order to limit fertility. Biology helped; puberty came relatively late, usually between fourteen and sixteen years of age for girls, because of poor nutrition. Combined with short life-spans (life expectancy in early modern England was thirty-five to forty years) and early menopause, women had a much shorter period of potential childbearing than is common today. However, young people did not commonly mate or marry at puberty. The average age at marriage in early modern western Europe was later than in most contemporary societies: approximately twenty-six years old for women and twenty-seven to twenty-nine years old for men.

While children began work at early ages, and were often sent away from home to serve as apprentices in their midteens, they did not move directly from childhood to adulthood at puberty or at the beginning of their work lives. Instead, the period of "youth" lasted until the young man and woman were able to marry and set up their own household. Thus, most were in the dependent category of youth for almost half of their lives. It was in part a question of resources–the labor of the young was needed to sustain the family, and it was often only upon the death of the older generation that youth inherited sufficient resources to set up their own households. However, even among affluent, elite families in which there were ample resources, sexual maturity was not the only criterion for marriage. Marriages did occur at earlier ages among the wealthy, but, for example, when the son of the Countess of Warwick was married at nineteen to a young bride, his mother sent him abroad while his wife remained with her; she felt they were too young and inexperienced to live together. And young men who completed their APPRENTICESHIPS with sufficient means to marry sometimes delayed, for marriage and the responsibility for a household was understood not to be simply a matter of means, but of maturity. Certainly, among the poorest, such controls did not always obtain. But in much of medieval and early modern Europe, the family and the community attempted to control the behaviors of these sexually mature but not "adult" young people.

In that respect, they worked in concert with the church. Christian thought, from the High Middle Ages forward, clearly posed adolescence as a time of sexual danger, requiring spiritual control. As Guibert de Nogent wrote in his autobiography from the beginning of the twelfth century, "Thus, while my young body grew little by little, my soul was also aroused by worldly life, titillated in its own right by sexual desires and lust." Adolescence was a time of temptation for "still-naive" souls, and while theologians focused on human beings' propensity for sin, they saw the period of youth as particularly susceptible to the temptations of the flesh. The church, also, placed increasing emphasis on the virginity of girls and young women, praising virginity as a connection to the Virgin Mary, Christ's mother. Thus, religious tenets, the economic needs of communities and the related intensity of community supervision of young people, and cultural definitions of maturity combined to limit the sexual explorations of youth. Specific customs like BUNDLING, where courting couples lay together fully clad, regulated courtship sexuality, usually–although not always–successfully. Nonetheless, for poorer, rural families without dowries and significant property, premarital virginity was less important, premarital sex more common, and marriage often more an informal but long-term pairing (animus matrimonii) than the legal marriage that was important to elite families with property. Poorer rural communities accepted premarital sex with the understanding that pregnancy would yield marriage. In sixteenth-and seventeenth-century England, as many as one-fifth of brides were pregnant when they wed, but only about 3 percent of babies were born outside wedlock.

However, as towns and cities grew and more and more young people left rural areas to serve as apprentices or servants in the growing towns, community control weakened. Young women, especially, were increasingly vulnerable to sexual exploitation, often by their masters or other members of the master's household. It was not simply exploitation, however, for young men and young women alike–many of them "youth" in their early twenties–took advantage of the greater freedom they found in cities, and apprentices' masters often allowed a good deal of freedom, sexual and otherwise, to their older apprentices and servants. This freedom had its dangers. If a young woman or girl became pregnant and the man could not or would not marry her, she was likely to be dismissed from her position and prosecuted in court. Livelihood for herself and her baby was uncertain at best. Nevertheless, illegitimacy rates increased in Europe, mainly among young people, in the sixteenth century, and particularly in the eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries. With the growth of towns and cities, the varying customs of different social classes became more obvious and the church, along with members of the growing bourgeoisie who sought clearly defined marriage and familial relations to facilitate the transfer of property, pushed to foster a single standard of behavior. Premarital virginity for women was increasingly stressed, and the church no longer recognized the informal pairing typical of poor rural populations as a form of marriage.

Court records from western European cities during the High Middle Ages and Renaissance also show the prevalence of sexual "vice" and exploitation. Between about 1300 and 1700 C.E., men commonly participated in an age-structured system of sexual relations in which "beardless youths" between puberty and full sexual maturity (aged fifteen to twenty-two or so) were anally penetrated by men in their mid-to late twenties. Constrained from marrying until quite late because of economic factors, and in cultures that emphasized the virginity of girls from respectable families, men commonly had sexual relationships with boys and also with female prostitutes or with lower-class girls and young women who were vulnerable to exploitation or rape. The homosexual pairings between older and younger males were not permanent sexual relationships or roles. Once the youth's beard came in fully, he took the "active" sexual role with a younger boy, while his older partner came of age to marry and left behind the practice of sodomy with men. (Some men, of course, continued to practice sodomy beyond the appropriate age, but that was considered something quite different from the age-regulated system of sexual relations.) This age based system was illegal and not condoned by the Church, but was seemingly very common. In mid-fifteenth-century Florence at least fifteen thousand men were accused of sodomy in the courts, and–demonstrating tolerance for the practice–penalties were not severe: simply a fine, which was often not paid. This age-based system of relations between men and youths disappeared as common practice in northwestern Europe around 1700, but it persisted in other parts of Europe and the Middle East into the early twentieth century.

Industrializing Societies

The growth of industrial societies and the concomitant development of a larger middle class or bourgeoisie shaped the sexual lives of children and youth in almost diametrically opposite directions. The rise of factories and migration of the rural poor to urban areas led to enormous exploitation and suffering of children and youth. In western Europe, children as young as three years old were put to work in factories. Few protections existed for such children, who worked long and difficult hours and often lacked sufficient food, clothing, or shelter. These children and youths were increasingly vulnerable to forms of sexual abuse and exploitation. With large numbers of children living on the streets, many turned to prostitution or other forms of sexual activity for survival. In the United States, where slavery was not ended until 1865, enslaved African-American girls and women frequently were sexually exploited or raped.

At the same time, middle-class children in North America and western Europe were treasured and protected in new ways. Nineteenth-century religious beliefs and social philosophy defined childhood as a time of innocence, and art and literature from the time portrays children with great sentimentality, often as symbols of purity, innocence, and unspoiled religious sentiment. As children became more of an economic liability than an asset, families intentionally had fewer children. The FERTILITY RATE dropped by almost half during the nineteenth century in the United States. The change was most dramatic in urban middle-class and professional families, who devoted more attention to nurturing and educating each individual child. Children were also seen as malleable in their innocence, and mothers increasingly were held responsible for shaping the moral development of their children. In these new urban-industrial societies, that meant fostering self-control, DISCIPLINE, and education as means to economic success–or at least stability. Girls were also inculcated with the virtues of self-control and industry, but with great emphasis on moral purity, which was seen as fundamental to their future roles as wives and mothers. Expectations about sexual behavior, however, differed by race, class, and region. Premarital sex, and even "outside" children that resulted, were much more acceptable to the rural southern poor, both black and white.

Middle-class notions of purity and self-control, not surprisingly, often centered upon sexuality. A growing advice literature combined medical and moral messages to warn about the dangers of masturbation. While such concerns may be traced back to a series of publications in the eighteenth century, including the anonymous Onania and S. A. Tissot's Onanism, middle-class North Americans and western Europeans encountered a flood of writing on the subject. This secret vice, it was claimed, could lead to sterility, insanity, idiocy, or a range of lesser effects. Health reformers such as Sylvester Graham offered dietary regimens designed to inhibit masturbation and nocturnal emissions, while others developed mechanical devices. One such device, intended to discourage sexual arousal in young men, encircled the penis with a ring of spikes; another restrained the hands and covered the genital area with a girdle of cold, wet cloths. Fears about masturbatory practices focused on boys and young men. A smaller and more discreet literature was devoted to girls. Mothers were warned to watch for evidence of masturbation, especially lassitude, in their daughters. But compared to their male peers, young women and girls largely escaped this form of sexual surveillance, in part because girls and women were not believed to be as sexual by nature as were men: purity and passionlessness were held up as female ideals. However, young women were much more closely chaperoned and supervised than young men of the same social class, for sexual virtue and a reputation for sexual modesty was critically important to the marriage ability of young middle-class and elite women, and for working-class women of many U.S. immigrant groups who held to their traditional cultures. Paradoxically, assumptions that women were less fully sexual than men would allow for greater sexual freedom in one sphere: relations between women or girls. "Romantic friendships" between young women were relatively common and quite acceptable into the early years of the twentieth century. Crushes, or "smashing," as it was sometimes called, were a major part of social life at WOMEN'S COLLEGES into the early twentieth century. The sexual content of such relationships varied, but young women did find relative freedom to pursue same-sex relationships during this era.

Nineteenth century middle-class ideology emphasized the difference between male and female, not only in adult roles but in prescriptions for childhood activities as well. Nineteenth-century understandings of puberty drew the line between male and female very clearly. By the nineteenth century, Western medical science portrayed menstruation as a debilitating monthly event, suggesting that it posed such a physical crisis, especially during puberty, that any strenuous physical or intellectual activity might ruin a girl's health, possibly rendering her a sterile, sexless being. Thus puberty led to the curtailing of girls' freedom of activity. This happened, on the whole, ever earlier. In the nineteenth century, the average age at first menstruation had dropped to fourteen years for European-American girls and eleven for African-American. While it is important to understand how the medicalization of normal menstruation worked to limit girls' lives, it is also worth pointing out that the process of menstruation was poorly understood, and doctors lacked the ability to accurately diagnose and treat painful disorders such as endometriosis or ovarian cysts. Ideology played the greatest role in limiting women's activities because of the "frailty" of their bodies, but modern medicine and products such as disposable sanitary napkins and tampons also helped to free women from limits imposed by menstruation itself.

Limitation of girls' activities at menarche was not confined to industrial, Western societies. In China, also, the onset of menstruation was treated as a sign of female weakness and of uncleanliness. Classical writings on health remained influential in the nineteenth century, including those of sixteenth-century medical writer Li Shizhen, who wrote of the menstruating woman: "Her evil juices are full of stench and filth, hence the gentleman should keep his distance; as they are not clean, they will harm his male essence and invite disease." Puberty, in late imperial China, was defined more broadly than in Western cultures. It was not simply the biological process that signaled physical reproductive maturity, but rather activation of the "true qi of heaven bestowed at conception" by the individual's parents. While the period of adolescence was not defined through specific rituals, classical works such as the Book of Ritual did provide for a period of youth, prescribing the appropriate age of marriage as twenty years for women and thirty years for men. These prescriptions for delayed marriage correspond with the belief that it took many years for the yin and yang of the young people to become "replete." However, age at marriage or mating varied greatly by social class and social circumstance; poor young men might experience greatly prolonged bachelorhood because they lacked resources to marry or maintain a family, while such families also might arrange the marriage of a prepubescent boy in order to gain a daughter-in-law needed for household work.

In Western societies, the problem posed by sexually mature but not "adult" youths was exacerbated by industrialization and urbanization. While middle-class Americans and western Europeans attempted to foster the development of self-control in their own sons, they feared the unsupervised and uncontrolled sexual energies of working-class youth in the growing cities, many of whom lived apart from family or effective community supervision. Some scholars have suggested that the actual physical growth of adolescents–in North America, on average, young men had gained two inches in height and fifteen pounds in weight between 1880 and 1920, due to better nutrition–made them more intimidating. No matter the cause, a great deal of effort was devoted to controlling the sexual energies and impulses of youth, especially of young working-class men. And as rates of pre-marital pregnancy in the United States rose from about 10 percent in the mid-nineteenth century to 23 percent between about 1880 and 1910, reformers sought to protect young working women from sexual exploitation. Building upon a campaign begun in England with an expose of child prostitution, America's largest women's organization, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), launched a drive to raise the AGE OF CONSENT, the age at which girls could legally consent to sexual intercourse. Reformers meant to offer girls and young women legal protection against seduction and sexual exploitation: age of consent laws rendered underage girls legally innocent, no matter their behavior, and placed responsibility for illegitimate sexual conduct on men. Under such laws, a man or boy who had sexual intercourse with an underage girl was guilty of rape, whether or not she had freely participated and whether or not he used force or threats.

In the mid-1880s, the median legal age of consent in the United States was ten. Over the following decade, the median legal age of consent rose to fourteen; by 1885 it was sixteen or older in twenty-two states. Resistance to raising the age of consent was strongest in the South, where opponents argued that such laws might "enable negro girls to sue white men" and sought to exempt girls who were not of "previously chaste character," with the understanding that few black women or girls would be presumed "previously chaste" by white male juries. Georgia did not raise the age of consent from ten to fourteen until 1918. The federal government, on the other hand, in 1899 raised the age of consent in places of federal jurisdiction to twenty-one. The age of consent campaign had mixed consequences. These laws did offer protection to young girls. But the laws were not limited to children. The WCTU waged the campaign in a language of childhood innocence, calling for the protection of "baby girls," "girl children," and "infants," but reformers sought to raise the age of consent to the late teens. By legislating "innocence," states denied young women (even up to the age of eighteen or twenty-one) the right of consent. Court records reveal that some parents used these laws to constrain rebellious daughters by charging their boyfriends with statutory rape in court.

Twentieth Century

The twentieth century was a period of dramatic and rapid change in North American and western European social definitions and experiences of childhood, youth, and sexuality. Fundamental to changing understandings of childhood and sexuality in the twentieth century were SIGMUND FREUD's writings on infant and childhood sexuality. Published first in 1905 as Three Contributions to the Sexual Theory, Freud's theoretical models were sometimes changed beyond recognition as they passed into public circulation, but were enormously influential. Freud argued that sexuality did not first appear at puberty, but instead defined the stages of development from infancy to the age of six, at which point the child passed into a period of latency that lasted until puberty. According to Freud, the ways in which the child passed through the childhood stages of sexuality (oral, anal, and phallic) would determine in large part their experiences as adults. Acceptance of Freudian theories of child and INFANT SEXUALITY did not undermine the widespread belief that young children should be protected from adult sexuality. Instead, well into the 1960s, explanations for sexual and personal problems in adulthood were sought in the family dynamics of early childhood, and well-educated parents often paid great attention to managing familial relations and childhood sexual development because they understood it to have great consequences for their child's life course and future sexual adjustment.

The early years of the twentieth century were a time of struggle over youth and sexuality, especially in the United States. Increasingly, young people claimed the right to sexuality, if not to sex itself. Working-class girls and young men enjoyed the new commercial amusements of the city–dance halls, amusement parks, nickelodeons. Often without money to pay their own way, "charity girls" traded their favors (ranging from flirting to sexual intercourse) for entertainment. By the 1920s, appearances reflected a new sexualized culture. The FLAPPERS of the 1920s shed yards of fabric from their clothing, including most of the undergarments worn by their mothers' generation. With rouge and lipstick, rolled stockings and bobbed hair, they were frankly sexual. College men copied the sexualized image of movie star Rudolph Valentino. Popular music and dance styles were also more frankly sexual. U.S. college students were mad for jazz, which the Ladies Home Journal condemned for its "voodoo rhythms." In cities throughout the nation, young whites adopted (and adapted) physically expressive dances from working-class black culture, such as the shimmy and the turkey trot.

Over the course of the twentieth century, children and youth in the United States and western Europe spent more time together in age-segregated peer cultures. By the early 1940s in the United States, four out of five boys and five out of six girls attended HIGH SCHOOL. In the peer-oriented confines of high schools and colleges, young people developed elaborate social and sexual practices. DATING emerged as the new style of courtship in that era, especially in the United States, and young people "went out" on dates, thus partially escaping the supervision of parents and community. "Necking" and "petting" (which one mid-twentieth century sociologist described as "includ[ing] literally every caress known to married couples but … [not] complete sexual inter-course") became expected parts of dating, one of the ways in which young people demonstrated their belonging in an emerging YOUTH CULTURE. Not all young women found such freedom: Mexican-American girls, for example, were often closely chaperoned by parents to whom these new "American" customs were unacceptable.

In the years following World War II, the average age at marriage in the United States dropped dramatically. By 1959, fully 47 percent of all brides married before they turned nineteen, and the percentage of girls between the ages of fourteen and seventeen who were married increased one-third between 1940 and 1959. TEENAGERS were having babies: 27 percent of first births were to married teenage girls in 1950; by 1965, that figure had risen to 39 percent. (In 1960, only 16 percent of births to teens were outside marriage; in 1996, 76 percent of births to teens were non-marital.) As American teens married in large numbers, their younger siblings moved toward marriage more quickly. Dating, by the late 1940s, had evolved into a system of "going steady," monogamous and frequently intense (though usually short term) relationships that almost mimicked the marriages of the steadies' slightly older peers. Pressure to enter the world of heterosexual dating intensified, as eleven year olds commonly went steady and thirteen year olds who were not yet paired off might be described as developmentally slow, or "late-daters." Not unreasonably, parents and other adults charged with monitoring the sexual behavior of youth worried that going steady increased the desire and opportunity for sexual exploration. Girls, especially, found themselves in a difficult position: "reputations" were easily lost, but necking and petting were an expected part of going steady.

The "sexual revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s brought about major changes in the sexual behaviors of young people in North America and western Europe. In France, for example, the average age at first intercourse dropped five years for women and six years for men between 1968 and 1989; by 1989, 90 percent of French teenage girls had sexual inter-course by the age of eighteen. Average age at marriage also increased sharply, so that few married during their teenage years. In the United States one trend is toward a "single standard" for sexual experience: in 1995, almost equivalent percentages of male and female high school seniors reported having had sexual intercourse (67 percent for males; 66 percent for females). Racial differences in sexual experience remained pronounced, however: in 1995, black high school students were more likely to have had sexual intercourse (73 percent) than their Hispanic (58 percent) or non-Hispanic white peers (49 percent). Teen pregnancy rates decreased 17 percent during the 1990s in the United States, but remained at least four times that of France or Japan.

Gay and lesbian youth also found greater acceptance at the end of the twentieth century, compared to the years before 1973 when homosexuality was classified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. Many schools and colleges have active lesbian-gay-bisexualtransgendered-queer organizations. However, some studies suggest that gay and lesbian teenagers are at relatively high risk for SUICIDE (representing almost 30 percent of teen suicides), and the 1998 murder of twenty-one-year-old college student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, is an example of the homophobic violence gay and lesbian teens may confront.

Concerns about the control and regulation of adolescent sexuality in North America and western Europe continue, despite greater acceptance of adolescent sexual experience. Abstinence campaigns have been highly visible in the United States since the 1980s Reagan administration, and conservative groups have argued for premarital chastity on moral grounds. However, concern about the spread of sexually transmitted disease, high rates of unintentional pregnancy, and the social and economic costs of unwed teenage parenthood also motivates debates among governmental agencies, scholars, parents, and social critics.

The liberalizing trajectory of change in North American and western Europe should not obscure the continuing differences among cultures. Arranged marriages remain common in India, and to a lesser extent in Japan. In Nepal, 7 percent of girls are married before the age of ten, and 40 percent by the age of fifteen. Premarital sex and homosexuality are strictly outlawed by Islamic law. In 2000, a teenage girl in Nigeria was sentenced to 180 lashes for having premarital sex (one hundred lashes were administered); and into the 1990s in Turkey, young women were legally subject to forcible "virginity control" exams. The average age at first sexual intercourse for boys in Jamaica is 12.7, while fewer than 12 percent of female Chinese college students surveyed in 1990 admitted that they had had sexual intercourse. Such differences, often embedded in strong religious or cultural traditions, pose both practical and philosophical difficulties for child advocacy and human rights groups who seek to improve the conditions for young people worldwide.

In the early twenty-first century, the belief that children deserve protection from adult sexuality, and from sexual exploitation and violence, is widespread if not universal. Article 34 of the UN CONVENTION ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD calls upon all nations to protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse. In a globalizing world, social definitions of childhood have become more homogenous, as has the experience of youth. However, enormous variety remains in the sexual experiences of youth, and in understandings of the proper relationship between children and youth and sexuality.

See also: Child Abuse; Female Genital Mutilation; Gendering; Homosexuality and Sexual Orientation; Infant Sexuality; Pedophilia; Teen Pregnancy; Theories of Childhood.


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