23 January 2023

Psychologist: Sexuality is founded in childhood


Sexuality is typically associated with sex, reproduction, and orgasm. However, sexuality is also present in childhood, where it has a different character, points out Katrine Zeuthen, psychoanalyst and Associate Professor in clinical child psychology. Here she talks about the nature and transformation of sexuality during our upbringing.

Baby feet. Photo: Abhijit- Chendvankar (Flickr)
From the beginning of life we can fantasize about a satisfaction, such as lying at the mother's breast. And it is the pleasurable aspect of imagining a satisfaction that characterizes human sexuality, psychologist Katrine Zeuthen believes.

When we talk about sexuality, we generally refer to the adult's sexuality. However, if you ask a psychoanalyst what defines sexuality, our sexuality arises in childhood – from the moment the infant finds pleasure in sucking on its thumb.

"Freud described the small child as autoerotic, meaning that the child is able to satisfy itself, independently of the object," says Katrine Zeuthen.

Psychoanalysis describes how the infant is born into a relationship with an object in the form of primary caregivers. The parents satisfy the child's hunger with breastfeeding or bottle, and the child eats to survive. But the small child may continue sucking, even when it is full.

"There is something satisfying and pleasure-giving in the feeding situation that does not serve the purpose of survival. The child can imagine the satisfaction it experiences when it is fed - also when the child is full and when the parent withdraws. This is where the development of the psyche begins," highlights Katrine Zeuthen and continues:

"In this way we can very early in the beginning of our life fantasize about something in its absence. And what is so sexual about that? It is the pleasurable aspect of imagining a satisfaction that is not about biological survival. This is what characterizes human sexuality," she believes in line with the psychoanalytic theories she studies and practices by.

Pleasure is many different things

As adults, we are aware that sexuality can have certain functions and goals. This can, for example, be reproduction or orgasm.

"Of course, the small child doesn't have this approach. Instead, the child has what Freud defines an infantile sexuality – a desire or drive that is not tied to or directed at a specific object or place on the body. The child can experience pleasure in many different ways," says Katrine Zeuthen.

The adult knows what sex is and knows what he or she wants with sex. The child knows neither. Therefore, by definition, children and adults cannot participate equally or mutually in sexual relationships.

Katrine Zeuthen, Associate Professor in clinical child psychology

Although the child and the parents have very different relationships to sexuality, there is an exchange of love and pleasure.

"For some women, breastfeeding can be very pleasurable. It can fulfill a mutual need and also develop the parent's love for the child," Katrine Zeuthen explains.

Another key psychoanalyst, Jean Laplanche, emphasizes the enormous asymmetry in relation to knowledge and capability that exists between adults and children.

"The child is born completely immature, and unlike the mammals we compare ourselves with, the child is extremely dependent on the caregivers for several years. So the child is born into a relationship where the other party can do more, knows more and has a privileged access to interpret the meanings of the world," says Katrine Zeuthen.

The road to an adult sexuality

In caring for the child, according to Jean Laplanche, there is also something that is withheld: the adult's knowledge of sexuality.

"The adult knows what sex is and knows what he or she wants with sex. The child knows neither. Therefore, by definition, children and adults cannot participate equally or mutually in sexual relationships," emphasizes Katrine Zeuthen.

With age, the child will increasingly feel that there is something in the adults' world that they do not share with the child.

"There is an exchange between the parents, of which the child is not a part. And it piques the child's curiosity, so that it develops fantasies and ideas about what is going on in the world of adults. How are children made? How do they come out of the  womb and what does the gender difference mean, explains Katrine Zeuthen and elaborates:

"With these fantasies, the child can expose an adult's knowledge of what sexuality is. The fantasies allow the child to gradually and with its own biological maturation, take up sexual life in an adult way and on its own terms.”

Only during puberty does sexuality become hormonal. However, sexuality is already founded when we reach puberty, through the close relationships we have developed in, and therefore biology grounds our sexuality retroactively, Katrine Zeuthen believes.

"We begin to understand our body as sexual in the first teenage years. It is a difficult period in our lives, and the dawning sexuality should be met in a very sensitive way," she concludes.


Katrine Zeuthen
Associate Professor
Department of Psychology
Mail: katrine.zeuthen@psy.ku.dk 
Phone: +45 35 32 49 23

Simon Knokgaard Halskov
Press and communication consultant
Faculty of Social Sciences
Mail: sih@samf.ku.dk  
Phone: +45 93 56 53 29 


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