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J Sex Res. 2011 Mar;48(2-3):118-29. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2011.555929.

The psychological measurement of childhood sexual development in Western societies: methodological challenges.

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  • 1Rutgers WPF, Dutch Expert Center on Sexuality, P.O. Box 9022,3506 GA, Utrecht, The Netherlands.


Children can display sexual behavior or have sexual experiences. Different psychological research methods are available for studying these kinds of behaviors and feelings, such as interviewing or observing children (direct methods), asking adolescents or adults to retrospectively report their childhood memories or using intermediaries to observe children (indirect methods). Each of these methods has its own advantages and limitations. Based on a review of the literature, this work answers three questions: (a) What research methods are generally used to study childhood sexual development? (b) What insight do these methods give into the sexual behaviors or feelings of children? and (c) What are the advantages and limitations of each of these research methods in this research domain? Almost all studies on childhood sexual behavior and feelings use either observational or retrospective methods. In both types of studies, only behavior that is considered to be sexual from an adult perspective is reported. To gain insight into the child's perspective, one has to rely on methods other than observations or retrospective research, such as interviews with children that match their developmental limitations and competencies.

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