The development of sexual identity involves issues related to the overall physical identity, gender identity and sexual orientation of the individual.
The integration of our sexuality into our overall identity does not occur in a vacuum. The environment that we live, learn and teach in has an extensive influence on our ability to recognise and engage with:
our feelings of intimate and sexual attraction,
our ability to make sense of these feelings and integrate them as aspects of who we are, and
how we learn to express our sexuality.
Physical, gender and sexual identity development in childhood
Our physical, gender and sexual identity play an important part in our overall development as individuals from the time we are born until we die.
When an infant is born, many assumptions are made about the identity of the child based on her/his physical body (as determined by the biological sex organs) and how she/he is to behave in society as a female/male (ie. her/his gender roles).
People often assume that the biological sex of the child determines her/his sexual orientation. In other words, it is assumed that a boy will be attracted exclusively to girls and a girl will be attracted exclusively to boys, and the boy or girl will therefore have a heterosexual sexual identity.
Many people confuse gender identity (the way the child is expected to behave because of his/her physical body) with sexual identity (who the child is attracted to sexually, physically, emotionally) based on the physical identity of the individual.
In other words, people often assume that because a boy has a penis (physical body) he will be attracted to a female (ie have a heterosexual orientation) and therefore behave like a boy is ‘suppose’ to behave (i.e. play with cars and tanks and not be interested in dress-up games)
Before we can take a closer look at how these identities work together to help develop and consolidate an overall sexual identity, we first need to understand they function on their own as separate components.
The development of biological sexual identity
Sexuality is a life-long journey beginning before birth and continuing until death.
The following three component identities contribute to developing our overall sexual identity:
Sex or biological sexual identity refers to our biological sex, as determined by chromosomes and sexual organs.
Gender identity is our identification with male or female gender roles and behaviours.
Sexual orientation is our emotional, romantic or sexual feelings of attraction to others.
Our biological origins
In the prenatal period, all human foetuses are female. During the eighth week of gestation, the presence of a Y chromosome and other genes determines if testicular (male) development will occur. If this happens, the female foetus will transform into a male one with the production of testosterone. At this point, another hormone (antimüllerian) is produced and this stops the development of female genitalia in the foetus. Without testosterone, the foetus continues its progression in the female state.
By the time the child is born, this process of biological sexual differentiation is complete to the extent that even the sexual response cycle is present. This is the physiological response cycle associated with sexual arousal.
Because of this, the child is able to experience sexual arousal and it is very common for genital self-exploration and self-stimulation (masturbation) to occur during infancy (from 0 to1). The self-stimulation that infants experience is not a response to erotic stimulation in the adult sense, but rather a very natural response to touch or friction.
Emergence of body image
During childhood (one to nine years), the infant’s body image begins to form. Children continue to display genital curiosity and often physically compare themselves to those around them. At this point, the child may be quite uninhibited in observing sexual differences in public.
By two to three years old, children are generally aware of their biological sex and demonstrate an understanding of concepts related to their biological sexual identity, for example: “He’s a boy” or “She’s a girl”.
Children develop a consistent sense of their biological sexual identity by age 5 to 7 when they are able to recognise that they are biologically male or female, and that they cannot change this. - Triangle Project
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