Human sexual development, i.e. the sexualization process, begins in earliest childhood and lasts into old-age. It proceeds similarly to the development of motor action, affectivity, intelligence or language via a multitude of personal learning steps. In this process, both brain maturation and interaction with the environment play significant roles.
The sexualization process begins with the arousal reflex which is already present before birth. Throughout development this reflex combines with a growing number of motor, sensory, symbolic, cognitive and communicative skills that allow for variable sensations and perceptions and enable us to inhabit our genitals and to refine our sexual activities. These acquisitions are consolidated through repetition and are prerequisite for the experience of sexual pleasure.
Through the exploration of their own genitals and by playing genital games with the same and the opposite sex, children develop a perception of gender difference and gender identity. Concurrent socialization provides cultural concepts of “public” and “private”, that is – of sexuality as intimacy with oneself and others. In role-playing games, games with rules, and initiation games, children connect sexual arousal with the socialization process, with communicative abilities and with emotional intensities.
Like every form of development, sexual development proceeds like a wave throughout our lifetime via new discoveries and the consolidation of acquired abilities through repetition or regression to earlier developmental stages. Physical changes in different life phases – for example, the “hormonal storm” that ushers in puberty –, illness, and disabilities require new sexual learning processes alone and with others.
No other human ability is so little supported, accompanied, and understood in its development by parents and society as that of sexuality. While our first walking attempts are intensely promoted and accompanied with great emotionality and acclaim, our first investigations on the genital level – to this day – cause ambivalent feelings, uncertainty or disapproval. Parents quickly become disturbed about delays in motor or language development because they are well-informed about these processes. However, most feel rather relieved if the child does not deal very much with his or her genitality.