Illsutrative historical material was collected by Flandrin (1975, 1977)[1] and by Crubellier (1979:p110-6, 328-34)[2] (see also Goulemot, 2002)[3]. In fifteenth century Avignon, “[t]here was no legal age for betrothal and parents sometimes betrothed very young children, especially when family interests were at stake” (Girard, 1953:p485)[4] . Prior to 1832, the penal code contained no provision against rape and indecent assault by adults on children (Donovan, 1994)[5]. Influenced by 18th-century reformers and by the French Revolution, the writers of the penal code did not want to put law at the service of Christian doctrines. In 1832, the government changed the law to criminalise all nonviolent sexual encounters with children younger than 11 years of age. The rate of prosecution of adults for sex crimes with children fluctuated for a variety of reasons, but by the 20th century prosecutions for sex crimes against children exceeded prosecutions for sex crimes against adults[6].


Significant is Rousseau and Tissot’s concordant colloqium (McLaren, 1974:p614)[7]. Later scientist-reformer F. V. Raspail combated masturbation among school children by having them “wear camphor-impregnated drawers” (ibid., p621-2). Kraakman (1994; also 1993, 1990)[8] examined the sexual history of French girls through intertextual analysis of works concerning sexual initiation of girls at the onset of puberty and challenges the categorisation of pornography as a male genre. The works under consideration date from the period 1750-1840 and contain various treatments of pedagogical, medical, philosophical, and moral discourses, and construct virgin girls as active agents in the search for sexual knowledge and experience. Confined in total ignorance of their sexual bodies, dedicated to virginity, under strict supervision of their mothers and the Church, young girls nonetheless obtained a real insight into sentimental matters through an edifying literature. These books aimed to discipline the romantic temperament of young girls and convert it into the proper feeling for the right man, the future husband, for the sake of social order (Houbre, 2000)[9]. The sex education of French girls during the 19th century was generally left to their mothers, some of whom confined their explanations to a few whispered words to their daughters on the eve of their wedding (Stewart, 1997)[10]. The first books on the subject were written for middle-class girls in the 1880’s and covered issues such as basic biology, hygiene, and pregnancy, with the sex act itself described as a necessary duty, and only to be practised within marriage. A limited form of sex education began in schools in the 1930’s, but had little government support, and remained underfunded well into the 1970’s.


Erotic folklore of children was collected by works (Gaignebet, 1974[11]; Bournard, 1979[12]).

Data of a study on the sexual knowledge and attitudes of French children were reported by Fijalkow et al. (1978)[13]. It appeared that 78% of boys and girls aged seven to nine admitted to having played “fathers-mothers”, 64% to having played “doctors”, and 10% in peeing contests (the sexual nature of the first two games was not explicitly addressed). 25% of the children did not know of the existence of testicles, ¾ seem to believe impregnation would result from kissing, more than half believed a baby’s exit is through the belly, and only 12 percent did not ignore the feminine cycle.

In one study[14], most respondents had discussed sexuality with their parents during childhood. Some transcripts of interviews with children are presented by Oger (1991:57-60)[15].

In contrast to in America, the masturbation of a small boy makes French mothers, “[…] and sometimes fathers, uneasy; it is actively combated”[16]. Brougere and Tobin (2000)[17] claim that “there is a radically different conception between the American and French interpretation of sexual behavior patterns expressed in games between children in nursery schools. In the US, statistics principally focus on medical interpretations and sexual abuse, and engender panic-stricken moral questions on that score. French nursery school teachers are much more willing to use hard-won teaching methods and avoid mentioning the theme of sexuality with children under their responsibility”. The authors attempt to understand the cultural ideology and reasoning for each nursery school system from his analysis of interviews of groups of children who had to perform playlets.


An epidemiological study[18] was carried out among 4,255 adolescents, aged 11-19 years, randomly selected from secondary schools in a northern urban area of France. A total of 31% had had sexual relations (43% of the boys, 20% of the girls). In an “ethnological” description[19] of a permanent French gypsy community of 691 persons, it appeared that a young child was treated permissively in all areas including eating and sleeping schedules, sex play, and toilet training. He is also ignored by adults who provide no supervision or specially adapted diet or play area.

De la Rochebrochard (1999)[20]  provides data on masturbarche. Using life tables of male and female puberty were constructed using the Analysis of Sexual Behaviour of Young People (ACSJ) survey conducted in France in 1994 on the 1975-1978 generations, at that time aged between 15 and 18, the author found a masturbarche median age of 14.2, compared to a median menarche age of 13.1.

In a 1974 study, the majority of female subjects had received little or no formal sexual education prior to initiation[21].

French concept of the sexual lifecycle apparently excludes children, or noncoital debuts (Bozon, 1996)[22]. Even masturbation seems to be interesting only from age 18 onward (Béjin, same volume). Earlier, a large-scale study[23] only published data on masturbation from age 20 (p263). In this study, “sexual education” was thought to be best timed at about 11,1 years of age (median, females; p391). This figures was 9.1 for women 20-29 years, and 11.9 for women 50 years and older.

Wylie (1957 [1964:p113-8])[24] states that French villagers accept sex as a natural part of existence. However, “[p]arents do not discuss sex with their children. It seems to them ludicrous and lacking in taste and pudeur, that any parent should feel the need of explaining the “facts of life” to his children. When I asked how children were expected to learn these facts, they replied, “Why just naturally. They learn those things as they grow up. Their instincts just take care of that”. In agricultural families, this would be observing animals would help, while among the poor the family sleeps in a single room. Older children would be the most informative.


“When I talked to men in a confidential, relaxed situation they freely said they had practiced masturbation as children, although they said they did not remember at what age they began or how frequently they indulged. If a boy was caught by his parents, he would be scolded and threatened with a light punishment but the punishment was never carried out. Everyone denied that parents ever threatened a child with castration, although it was admitted that if a child were caught by someone other than his parents he might be so threatened”.


Comparing French with American situations, Wylie (1965:p265-8)[25] notes: “In learning how to cope with his sexual urge, the French child […] may be more upset than the American child by the feelings that accompany puberty, but he is better equipped to handle those feelings. From early childhood, he has been taught the necessity of controlling his impulses, of not expressing them freely. […] The American child has had less preparation. Rather he has been encouraged to express his feelings freely”.




Additional refs.:


§  Agin, Sh. (2002) “Comment se font les enfans?” Sex Education and the Preservation of Innocence in Eighteenth-Century France, MLN 117,4:722-36

§  Ansen, D. (1995)  Au revoir, l’enfance, Newsweek, 6/12/95; 125,24:65

§  Colas, D. (1975) Mensonge pédagogique et sexualité enfantine chez Kant, Ornicar? 2:73-5

§  Debreyne[26]

  • Gilbert, Jane (1997) Boys Will Be... What? Gender, Sexuality, and Childhood in "Floire et Blancheflor" and "Floris et Lyriope”, Exemplaria: A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies 9, 1:39-61

§  Hanry (1977)[27]

§  Maynes, M. J. (1992) Adolescent sexuality and social identity in French and German lower-class autobiography, J Fam Hist 17:397-418

§  The protection of children and adolescents on french television. CSA BROCHURES. Le Conseil supérieur de l'audiovisuel (CSA) May 2004. English:  [65p]

§  Schwarz, U. (2005) Sex Education in the Cinema: The Film ‘Helga’ as a Media Event in West Germany and France (1967/68). Paper to be delivered to International Conference "Sex Education of the Young in the Twentieth Century: A Cultural History", 16th to 17th April, 2005 at Collingwood College, University of Durham, UK






Janssen, D. F., Growing Up Sexually. Volume I. World Reference Atlas. 0.2 ed. 2004. Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology

Last revised: Jan 2006


[1] Flandrin, J. (1975) Les Amours Paysannes (XVI-XIXe Siècle). Paris: Gallimard, esp. p149-72; Flandrin, J. (1977) Repression and change in the sexual life of young people in medieval and early modern times, J Fam Hist 2,3:196-210

[2] Crubellier, M. (1979) L’Enfance et la Jeunesse dans la Société Française, 1800-1950. Paris: Armand Colin

[3] Goulemot, J. M. (2002) L’Enfant et l’adolescent, objets et sujets du désir amoureux dans le discours des lumières, MLN 117,4:710-21

[4] Girard, R. (1953) Marriage in Avignon in the Second Half of the Fifteenth Century, Speculum 28,3:485-98

[5] Donovan, J. M. (1994) Combating the sexual abuse of children in France, 1825-1913, Crim Just Hist 15:59-93

[6] See also a discussion on French sex laws in Reserches 37, April, La Loi de la Pudeur. Published in English in Semiotext(e) 2, Summer 1980 [New York] and in Kritzman, L. D. (Ed.) Michel Foucault: Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings. New York: Routledge, under the title “Sexuality, Morality and the Law”.

[7] McLaren, A. (1974) Some Secular Attitudes toward Sexual Behavior in France: 1760-1860, French Hist Stud 8,4:604-25

[8] Kraakman, D. (1994) Reading pornography anew: a critical history of sexual knowledge for girls in French erotic fiction, 1750-1840, J Hist Sex 4,4:517-48; Kraakman, D. (1993) Kermis in de hel. Deugd en ondeugd van meisjes in Franse “ars erotica” 1750-1840, Jaarboek v Vrouwengeschiedenis [Holland] 13:13-37; Kraakman, D. (1990) Tussen lust en onlust. Scientia sexualis, seksuele initiatie en transformaties in de lustbeleving van meisjes in libertijnse erotica, in Hekma, G. & Kraakman, D. (Eds.) Grensgeschillen in de Seks. Amsterdam [etc.]: Rodopi, p29-42

[9] Houbre, G. (2000) Como a literatura chega as jovens: França, primeira metade do seculo XIX [How literature is imparted to youth: France, first half of the 19th century], Tempo [Brazil] 5,9:11-27

[10] Stewart, M. L. (1997) Science is always chaste: sex education and sexual initiation in France, 1880s-1930s, J Contemp Hist 32,3:381-94

[11] Gaignebet, C. (1974) Le Folklore Obscène des Enfants. Collection L’Érotisme Populaire 3. Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose

[12] Boumard, P. (1979) Les Gros Mots des Enfants. Paris: Stock

[13]Fijalkow, E., Deldebat, R. et al. (1978) Qu’en savent-ils? Enquête de sexologie infantile, Enfance […] 2-3:85-105. See also Fijalkow, E. L. & Fijalkow, A. (1980) Élèves de 5e et de 3e a l’éducation sexuelle, Bull Psychol 34:29-34

[14] ACSF, Bajos, N., Ducot, B., Spencer, B. & Spira, A. (1997) Sexual risk-taking, socio-sexual biographies and sexual interaction: elements of the French national survey on sexual behaviour, Soc Sci & Med 44,1:25-40

[15] Oger, A. (1991) Enquête sur la Vie très Privée des Français. Paris: Éditions R. Laffont. See further Karlin, D. (1989) L’Amour en France. Paris: B. Grasset; Stagnaraa, D. & Stagnaraa, P. (1988) Amour Fidèle. Fayard

[16] Dolto, F. (1955) French and American children seen by a French child analyst, in Mead, M. & Wolfenstein, M. (Eds.) Childhood in Contemporary Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p408-23, at p418, 419

[17] Brougere, G. & Tobin, J. (2000) Culture et sexualité enfantine a l’école maternelle: Étude comparée entre les États-Unis et la France, Éducation & Societés 2,6:167-85

[18] Choquet, M. & Manfredi, R. (1992) Sexual intercourse, contraception, and risk-taking behavior among unselected French adolescents aged 11-20 years, J Adolesc Health 13,7:623-30

[19] Flavigny, H. (1972) Les relations interpersonelles dans une communauté tsigane de la région Parisienne, Rev Neuropsychia Infant & d’Hyg Ment Enfance 20,1:63-80, see p72-4

[20] Rochebrochard, É. de la (1999) Les âges à la puberté des filles et des garçons en France: mesures à partir d’une enquête sur la sexualité des adolescents, Population [Paris] 54,6:933-62

[21] Nicole, R. M. (1974) [Initiation of the young girl to sexual life], Vie Med Canad Franç 3,9:874-89

[22] Bozon, M. (1996) Reaching adult sexuality: first intercourse and its implications. From calendar to attitudes, in Bozon, M. & Heridon, H. (Eds.) Sexuality and the Social Sciences: A French Survey on Sexual Behavior. Hants: Darthmouth, p143-75

[23] Simon, P. et al. (1972) Rapport sur le Comportement Sexuel des Français. Julliard & Charron

[24] Wylie, L. (1957) Village in the Vaucluse. Rev. Ed. New York: Harper & Row

[25] Wylie, L. (1965) Youth in France and the United States, in Erikson, E. H. (Ed.) The Challenge of Youth. New York: Doubleday Anchor, p291-311

[26] Debreyne, Maechialogie, p64. Cited by Havelock Ellis ([1925:p207])

[27] Hanry, P. (1977) Les Enfants, le Sexe et Nous: l’Adulte & l’Excédante Enfance de la Sexualité. Toulouse: Privat