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Almost from the beginning of life, we are sexual beings. Several years ago an OB-GYN physician told the author that his son held on to his penis in utero and did not let go of it for two years. While this is an amusing story, it illustrates what has been observed on pregnancy ultrasounds on numerous occasions—male fetuses holding their penises in utero. In 1996 researchers published the first account of an ultrasound recording of a female fetus in utero who appeared to be stimulating herself and actually experiencing an orgasm. (Giorgi & Sicardi, 1996).

The idea of sexual self-stimulation in utero actually occurring is very difficult for many people, particularly parents, to believe or even to grasp. While parents are pleased and proud when their infants touch their noses and toes and belly buttons, they often become concerned when the babies touch their genitals. Parents may move the baby’s hand, try to distract him or her, or quickly put on a snug fitting diaper.

What is this about? Often parents do not know how to respond to this type of touching in their child. Should they smile and show approval? Should they frown and give a disapproving message about touching this part of the body? Will their reactions have a permanent impact on the child? Might their children become hypersexual or perhaps grow up averse to sex and with shame and guilt about their bodies and their sexuality? What’s a parent to do? And what will parents do as their children grow up and begin to ask questions and have changing bodies?

Sol Gordon, a noted expert on childhood and adolescent sexuality, advises parents to start talking with children about sexuality-related issues when they are infants in diapers—before there is the conscious embarrassment of speaking with each other about sexual topics. When parents begin saying aloud words like “penis, penis, penis” or “vulva, vulva, vulva” when they are changing diapers, the names for body parts become easier and more acceptable to speak. Parents become more comfortable, and the words become a part of the family’s accepted vocabulary.

Perhaps as a response to discomfort with verbalizing correct anatomical names, families frequently develop their own words for body parts. What words did your family use?

A schoolteacher once told the author that he grew up calling his own penis, “yourself.” When he became an adult, his dad asked him one day, “Why do you call your penis ‘yourself?’” The teacher replied, “Because when I was growing up, you always said to me, “Don’t play with yourself in public.” Older women will sometimes refer to their genitals as their “pocketbook.” When they were growing up, they were told by their mothers to, “Keep your pocketbook closed.”

Often, parents have difficulty talking with their children about sex, possibly because no one talked with them, and they have no model for how to do this. Although this seems to be changing somewhat and more of today’s parents are having sexuality discussions with their children, there are still many young adults whose parents never talked with them about sex.

Research has shown that if sex education is done in the home, it is typically done by mothers talking with daughters. Sons often receive little to no parental information and what they do receive frequently comes from mothers and not from fathers (Lehr et al., 2005).

A recently published study found four predictors of fathers talking with their sons about sexuality: son’s age (the older the son, the more likely the father is to talk with him), whether or not the father’s own father had talked with him when he was growing up, the father’s outcome expectations of talking with his son (the father believes something positive will result), and general father-son communication (Lehr et al., 2005).

Sexuality Factoid

Only 16% of teens have had sex by age 15, compared with one-third of those aged 16, nearly half (48%) of those aged 17, 61% of 18-year-olds and 71% of 19-year-olds.[1] There is little difference by gender in the timing of first sex.

Source: The Guttmacher Institute May 2014 Fact Sheet

Communication between parents and children/teens can be facilitated and more comfortable when parents become aware of and use “teachable moments”, i.e., those times when something is heard on the radio or on a CD or seen on TV that has sexuality/relationship related content. Discussing scenes from movies or content from books and magazines can provide opportunities as children mature to help them gain knowledge, develop empathy skills and make distinctions about consent, equality, respect, appropriateness, long term consequences, exploitation, and other issues of sexuality and relationships.

The next page is a printable handout for clients with children...

Resources for Children and Teens


- Blake, J. (2004). Words Can Work: When Talking With Kids About Sexual Health.

- Gordon, S. (1975). Let’s Make Sex a Household Word: A Guide for Parents and Children. (A classic in the field).

- Hafner, D. (2004). From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children—From Infancy to Middle School.

- Harris, R., & Emberley, M. (2006). It’s Not the Stork: A Book About Girls, Boys, Bodies, Babies, and Families. (Kindergarten-3rd Grade)

- Harris, R., & Emberley, M. (2004). It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health. (4th-8th Grade)

- Harris, R. & Emberley, M. (1999). It’s So Amazing! A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families. (Kindergarten–4th Grade)

- Kirby, D., Lepore, G., & Ryan, J. (2005). Sexual Risk and Protective Factors: Factors Affecting Teen Sexual Behavior, Pregnancy, Childbearing, and Sexually Transmitted Disease.

Materials from Planned Parenthood

To purchase hard copies:

To read online:

Talking About Sex: A Guide for Families (Item #2770).
Human Sexuality: What Children Need to Know and When They Need to Know It (Item #1700).
How to Talk with Your Child About Sexuality (Item #1692).
The Facts of Life: A Guide for Teens and their Families (Item #14)

Teen Websites

Teens can read and write to the websites and have an opportunity to learn about healthy sexuality and also develop a healthy sense of openness about sexuality with peers without having to experiment or reveal their own lack of knowledge or experience.