Sexuality through the lifespan

Each person’s understanding and definitions of and experience with sexuality is unique and will evolve as we move through different ages and stages throughout life. Often sexuality is defined as the way(s) a person expresses themselves as a sexual being.

It is essential to know that the definition of sexuality is complex and unique for each person and it involves a lot more than just sexual activity. For some, it will never involve sexual activity. A person’s personal definition of sexuality includes:

  • our gender identity and orientation
  • feelings of attraction
  • the way(s) we may choose to be intimate with others
  • our personal body image
  • our values (personal, family, cultural, spiritual, and societal) and how this influences our behaviour(s)

Early childhood sexuality (birth – 3 years)

  • Learns about love and trust through touching and holding
  • Sucking (need for oral satisfaction)
  • Spontaneous reflexive responses
    • erections
    • vaginal lubrication
  • Gender Identity develops (child knows their gender identity regardless of their assigned sex at birth)
  • Gender role conditioning (boys and girls are treated differently)
  • Exploration of own body (hands, feet, tummy, genitals)
  • May enjoy nudity
  • Toilet training
  • Curiosity about differences between bodies
  • Curiosity about sibling’s and/or parent’s bodies

Late childhood sexuality (4 – 8 years)

  • Childhood sexual play (e.g. Doctor or I’ll show you mine)
  • Gender role learning: how to behave like a girl or boy
  • Learns sex words: “bathroom vocabulary”
  • Asks question about pregnancy and birth (how are babies made? how are babies born?)
  • Begins to distinguish acceptable and unacceptable behaviour
  • Possibility of masturbation/self stimulation
  • May become more modest about own body
  • Media influences understanding about gender through societal and family roles and messaging

Early adolescent sexuality (9 – 11 years)

  • Puberty begins (growth of genitals, breast development, mood changes, etc.)
  • Menstruation or sperm production may begin soon for some bodies
  • Possibility of masturbation
  • Closeness of same/similar gender identifying friendships
  • Possibility of body exploration with others

Adolescent sexuality (12 – 18 years)

  • Puberty changes (physical and emotional) occur
  • Menstruation or sperm production begins
  • Possibility of masturbation
  • Pleasure from kissing and touching
  • Greater awareness of their own sexual identity and that of others around them
  • Possibility of sexual activity
  • Possibility of pregnancy if having type of sex that could cause pregnancy
  • Possibility of need for contraception and/or  sex safety decisions
  • Strong need for independence

Youth sexuality (19 – 30 years)

  • Possibility of sexual activity with partner
  • Possibility of masturbation
  • Decision making about partnerships, marriage, family life, and careers
  • Possibility of pregnancy, childbirth, and/or parenting
  • Possibility of contraception and /or sex safety decisions
  • Possibility of ending a relationship

Adult sexuality (31 – 45 years)

  • Possibility of partner selection
  • Maintaining of relationships (sexual and non-sexual)
  • Possibility of masturbation
  • Possibility of parenting responsibilities (sex education of own children)
  • Possibility of pregnancy and childbirth
  • Decision-making about contraception and sex safetydecisions
  • Possibility of grand-parenting
  • Possibility of ending a relationship

Adult sexuality (46 – 64 years)

  • Menopause/Andropause
  • Possibility of grand parenting
  • Possibility of sexual activity
  • Possibility of partner-selection
  • Possibility of masturbation
  • Possibility of contraception and sex safety decisions
  • Possibility of divorce or death of a partner/spouse

Adult sexuality (65 years onward)

  • Body responds sexually, but more slowly
  • Possibility of grand parenting
  • Need for physical affection
  • Possibility of masturbation
  • Possibility of sexual activity
  • Possibility of sex safety decisions
  • Possibility of other health issues affecting sexual activity
  • Possibility of death of a partner/spouse

Adapted from Beyond the Basics: A Sourcebook on Sexuality and Reproductive Health Education published by Canadian Federation for Sexual Health (formerly Planned Parenthood Federation of Canada)