Skip to main content

Children’s Rights, Well-Being, and Sexual Agency

Part of the Children’s Well-Being: Indicators and Research book series (CHIR,volume 9)


In this paper we review some of the literature surrounding childhood sexuality and point to a lack of discussion of the possibility that children may be sexual agents. It is likely, we suggest, that children have some degree of sexual agency that ought to be supported in order to cultivate their present, and not simply their future, well-being. To make this argument we provide support for the claims that sexuality may be a good of childhood, and that a self-chosen and explored sexuality can be an aspect of children’s well-being. We are also aware that not all forms of sexual experience are good for children. We therefore suggest directions for future research that would clarify, among other things: ways in which sexuality may be a good of childhood; the nature of childhood sexual agency; the degree to which it should be respected; and connections between encouraging agency and preventing harm. This kind of discussion is necessary both so that we do not misrepresent the lives of children, and so that we may enable childhood flourishing.


  • Sexual Pleasure
  • Childhood Sexuality
  • Sexual Agency
  • Romantic Child
  • Sexual Choice

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Available as PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
USD   84.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Available as EPUB and PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
Hardcover Book
USD   109.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Durable hardcover edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info

Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout

Purchases are for personal use only

Learn about institutional subscriptions


  1. 1.

    A reaction dubbed “visceral clutch” by Masters and Johnson (Stainton Rogers and Stainton Rogers 1992: 162).

  2. 2.

    For a defense of this position, not universally held, see Brennan and Noggle (1997).

  3. 3.

    See Brennan (forthcoming), and Brennan (2002).

  4. 4.

    As we discuss below, a person is autonomous when she has and uses the capacity to understand, deliberate between and endorse (or identify with) her desires, values, actions and so on, with the possibility of making significant choices between them. We would argue that she does not need to be self-transparent, perfectly informed, or uninfluenced by others, though she cannot be coerced in order to be autonomous. To be an autonomous agent, rather than simply an agent, is to be able to choose relatively freely rather than simply to chose. See John Christman’s article on “Autonomy in Moral and Political Philosophy” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  5. 5.

    This suggestion resonates with Rousseau’s prescriptions for Emile.

  6. 6.

    This image of the child in danger and in need of protection, and of the threat posed to childhood by sexuality, is explicit in Postman (1982).

  7. 7.

    Daniel Monk concurs writing that “the traditional construction of the child as a non-sexual innocent” is often protected by “excluding the sexual child from the category of childhood itself” this time in using a medical model of childhood (Monk 2000: 187).

  8. 8.

    The knowing child was a figure that was popular during the eighteenth century and which proved especially useful to social reformers who aimed to keep children off the streets, out of the factories and back in homes and schools. The purity movement of the time in fact used such images to strictly control female sexuality and to deny female pleasure (Piper 2000). The knowing child image resurfaced again during the depression in the 1930s and circulates today in discussions aimed at curbing abuse and youth pregnancy, restricting child pornography and international sex tourism, and even in discussions that advocate for abstinence-only sex education. Our point, and Piper’s, is that this definition of children desexes them so that, while it is crucial in many of these circumstances, protection comes at a price. Though in many cases protection is absolutely necessary the knowing child figure helps to solidify an image of children as victims and as passive non-agents who cannot be sexually autonomous—this is an image that can greatly limit the rights they are accorded regarding sexuality.

  9. 9.

    Fox News gives an overview of the situation online (see Fox News 2011) while Krepel (2011) gives an overview of outraged responses which, it claims, “boil down to a demand that information about sexual health not be discussed by public health officials,” especially in regards to children.

  10. 10.

    See Collins (1999) and government information available at,, and

  11. 11.

    See Brown (2011).

  12. 12.

    See The Guardian (2011).

  13. 13.

    See BBC News Online (2005).

  14. 14.

    This empty understanding of childhood, writes Ellis Hanson, allows us to project our fantasies of innocence and corruption onto children “to construct, watch, enjoy the erotic child without taking any responsibility for our actions” (Hanson 2004: 134).

  15. 15.

    For further information on teenage sexual behaviour in a Canadian context see McKay and Bissell (2010).

  16. 16.

    For a discussion of adolescent sexuality and sex education that explicitly rejects this focus on danger see Moore and Rosenthal (1998).

  17. 17.

    See The Oprah Winfrey Show (2002).

  18. 18.

    Meeker (2004).

  19. 19.

    The public response to the BBC article on teen pregnancy again illustrates this point. Respondents cite children’s mothers, schools and, though rarely, the older fathers of the girl’s babies as responsible, rarely examining the choices girls themselves make. One person writes, for example, “This mother is entirely to blame and her children should have their children taken away to be adopted by adults ready and willing to take on the responsibility of children” (BBC News Online 2005). Of course there is still a question of whether or not these girls could be expected to choose differently given their circumstances and lack of education, but that does not mean that children of this age are naturally incapable of responsible choice.

  20. 20.

    See Center for Genetics and Society (2012) and Johnson (2013).

  21. 21.

    Collins (1999).

  22. 22.

    See Christman (2009).

  23. 23.

    On this point, Corrine Packer adds “any young individual seeking information on sex and human reproduction demonstrates ipso facto a certain degree of maturity and competency to deal with the subject matter” so that children ought to be given the information they seek (Packer 2000: 169). The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child agrees, saying in article 13.1 “The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice.” See also article 17.

  24. 24.

    We do not address her ability to consent to sexual health care, though perhaps there are similarities between this and the case of sexual activity.

  25. 25.

    Note the similarity here to the Gillick test to determine a child’s competence to give medical consent (Downs and Whittle 2000: 202–203).

  26. 26.

    See Rees et al. (1998).

  27. 27.

    See McCreery (2004) for a review of work by three such authors, including Judith Levine.

  28. 28.

    Her book resulted in what some have called “a culture-war” and threats of action against her publisher. See Bronski (2002).

  29. 29.

    See, for example, Anca Ghaeus, “The intrinsic goods of childhood and the good society,” in this volume. Also Brennan (forthcoming).

  30. 30.

    At the 9th International Conference on Bisexuality held in Toronto in June 2006 the Focus on Youth Issues panel was presented by a group of older teenagers and young adults from a group called “Fluid.” All members of the panel had felt pressure to identify as gay/lesbian/transgendered and reported wishing they had more scope for exploring these identities earlier and reported wanting more information about the range of possibilities at a much earlier age.


  • Archard, D. (1998). Sexual consent. Boulder: Westview Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • BBC News Online. (2005). Is sex education good enough in schools? In Have your say stories. Accessed 30 July 2013.

  • Brennan, S. (2002). Children’s choices or children’s interests: Which do their rights protect? In C. Macleod & D. Archard (Eds.), The moral and political status of children: New essays (pp. 53–69). New York: Oxford University Press.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Brennan, S. (forthcoming). The goods of childhood, children’s rights, and the role of parents as advocates and interpreters. In F. Baylis & C. McLeod (Eds.), Family-making: Contemporary ethical challenges. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brennan, S., & Noggle, R. (1997). The moral status of children: Children’s rights, parent’s rights, and family justice. Social Theory Practice, 23(1), 1–26.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Bronski, M. (2002). Review of harmful to minors. Z Magazine 15(6).

  • Brown, M. (2011). Sex-ed classes and the rape of our children’s innocence. In Townhall columnists. Accessed 31 July 2013.

  • Center for Genetics and Society. (2012). Eugenics in California: A legacy of the past? In Berkeley Law School panel presentation. Accessed 2 Aug 2013.

  • Christman, J. (2009). Autonomy in moral and political philosophy. In Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Accessed 31 July 2013.

  • Coleman, J., & Roker, D. (1998). Introduction. In J. Coleman & D. Roker (Eds.), Teenage sexuality: Health, risk, and education (pp. 1–20). Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  • Collins, P. H. (1999). Mammies, matriarchs, and other controlling images. In J. Sterba Kourany & R. Tong (Eds.), Feminist philosophies. NJ: Upper Saddle River.

    Google Scholar 

  • Corrina, H. (2003). 10 of the best things you can do for your sexual self (at any age). Accessed 26 July 2013.

  • Coyle, A. (1998). Developing lesbian and gay identity in adolescence. In J. Coleman & D. Roker (Eds.), Teenage sexuality: Health, risk, and education (pp. 163–188). Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  • Downs, C., & Whittle, S. (2000). Seeking a gendered adolescence: Legal and ethical problems of puberty suppression among adolescents with gender dysphoria. In E. Heinze (Ed.), Of innocence and autonomy (pp. 195–224). London: Ashgate Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ekman Ladd, R. (1996). Children’s rights re-visioned: Philosophical readings. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ferguson, F. (2003). The afterlife of the romantic child. South Atlantic Quarterly, 102(1), 215–234.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Fields, J. (2005). Children having children: Race, innocence, and sexuality education. Social Problems, 52(4), 549–571.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Fox News. (2011). Parenting tips linked by federal site describe children as “sexual beings.” In Politics home. Accessed 31 July 2013.

  • Friedrich, W. N. (2003). Studies of sexuality of nonabused children. In J. Bancroft (Ed.), Sexual development in childhood (pp. 107–120). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hanson, E. (2004). Knowing children: Desire and interpretation in the exorcist. In S. Bruhm & N. Hurley (Eds.), Curiouser: On the queerness of children (pp. 107–138). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Heinze, E. (2000). The universal child? In E. Heinze (Ed.), Of innocence and autonomy (pp. 3–25). London: Ashgate Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  • Holland, J., & Thomson, R. (1998). Sexual relationships, negotiation and decision making. In J. Coleman & D. Roker (Eds.), Teenage sexuality: Health, risk, and education (pp. 59–80). Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ince, J. (2004). The politics of lust. Vancouver: Pivotal Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Irvine, J. M. (2002). Talk about sex: The battles over sex education in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ives, R. (1986). Children’s sexual rights. In B. Franklin (Ed.), The rights of children. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  • Johnson, C. G. (2013). Female inmates sterilized in California prisons without approval. In Center for investigative reporting. Accessed 2 Aug 2013.

  • Kincaid, J. R. (1998). Erotic innocence: The culture of child molesting. Durham: Duke University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Knowles, J. (2002). Masturbation – From stigma to sexual health. Katharine Dexter McCormick Library for Planned Parenthood Federation of America Inc.

  • Krepel, T. (2011). Right-wing noise machine repeats misguided attack on Obama admin. over sex ed. In Media matters for America blog. Accessed 31 July 2013.

  • Larsson, I. (2001). Children and sexuality: “Normal” sexual behaviour and experiences in childhood. Doctoral thesis, Linköping University Department of Molecular and Clinical Medicine, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

    Google Scholar 

  • Levine, J. (2002). Harmful to minors: The perils of protecting children from sex. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Loizidou, E. (2000). Lolita at the interface of obscenity: Children and the right to free expression. In E. Heinze (Ed.), Of innocence and autonomy (pp. 124–139). London: Ashgate Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  • McCreery, P. (2004). Innocent pleasures? Children and sexual politics. GLQ: Journal of Lesbian Gay Studies, 10(4), 617–630.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • McKay, A., & Bissell, M. (2010). Sexual health education in the schools: Questions & answers, 3rd edition. In Sex information and education council of Canada. Accessed 31 July 2013.

  • Meeker, M. (2004). Epidemic: How teen sex is killing our kids. Washington, DC: LifeLine Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Meeker, M. (2005). Doctor addresses sex risks for teens: Excerpt from “Epidemic: Raising great teens in a toxic sexual culture.” MSNBC News Online Accessed 30 July 2013.

  • Monk, D. (2000). Health and education: Conflicting programmes for sex education. In E. Heinze (Ed.), Of innocence and autonomy (pp. 179–194). London: Ashgate Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  • Moore, S., & Rosenthal, D. (1998). Adolescent sexual behaviour. In J. Coleman & D. Roker (Eds.), Teenage sexuality: Health, risk, and education (pp. 35–58). Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ohi, K. (2004). Narrating the child’s queerness in what Maisie knew. In S. Bruhm & N. Hurley (Eds.), Curiouser: On the queerness of children (pp. 81–106). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Packer, C. (2000). Sex education: Children’s right, parent’s choice or state obligation? In E. Heinze (Ed.), Of innocence and autonomy (pp. 163–178). London: Ashgate Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  • Piper, C. (2000). Historical constructions of childhood innocence: Removing sexuality. In E. Heinze (Ed.), Of innocence and autonomy (pp. 26–46). London: Ashgate Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  • Postman, N. (1982). The disappearance of childhood. New York: Delacorte Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Potter, R. H., & Potter, L. A. (2001). The internet, cyberporn, and sexual exploitation of children: Media moral panics and urban myths for middle-class parents? Sexuality Culture, 5(3), 31–48.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Princeton Survey Research Associates International. (2004). NBC/People: National survey of young teens sexual attitudes and behaviors. Accessed 30 July 2013.

  • Rees, J., Mellanby, A., & Tripp, J. (1998). Peer led sex education in the classroom. In J. Coleman & D. Roker (Eds.), Teenage sexuality: Health, risk, and education (pp. 137–162). Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rendel, M. (2000). Sexuality and the united nations convention on the rights of the child. In E. Heinze (Ed.), Of innocence and autonomy (pp. 49–63). London: Ashgate Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rodman, H., Lewis, S. H., & Griffith, S. B. (1984). The sexual rights of adolescents: Parental competence, vulnerability, and parental control. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ross, T. (2013). Fears over 11-year-olds sending sex texts. In The telegraph. Published 14 February 2013.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rotermann, M. (2008). Trends in teen sexual behaviour and condom use. Component of Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 82-003-X Health Reports. Accessed 30 July 2013.

  • Stainton Rogers, R., & Stainton Rogers, W. (1992). Stories of childhood: Shifting agendas of child concern. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • The Guardian. (2011). A child’s innocence is precious. That’s why it must be protected. In The observer. Accessed 31 July 2013.

  • The Oprah Winfrey Show. (2002). Dr. Phil on alarming sexual behavior among children. Accessed 31 July 2013.

  • Tolman, D. L. (2002). Dilemmas of desire: Teenage girls talk about sexuality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Samantha Brennan .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2015 Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht

About this chapter

Cite this chapter

Brennan, S., Epp, J. (2015). Children’s Rights, Well-Being, and Sexual Agency. In: Bagattini, A., Macleod, C. (eds) The Nature of Children's Well-Being. Children’s Well-Being: Indicators and Research, vol 9. Springer, Dordrecht.

Download citation