Why Is It So Disconcerting To
Think About Parents Having Sex?
by Rebecca Chalker, Ph.D. ©2013
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There are times in the lives of many people, frequent or infrequent, when the parental bedroom door is discretely closed and perhaps locked. But kids often suspect that parents are not behind the door wrapping birthday presents or planning a surprise visit to DisneyWorld. They are doing secret things, and those things are not celebratory in the way that a child might envision. The closed door may be interpreted as hiding some sort of illicit activity.
Many savvy adolescents and teens recognize, of course, the guilty pleasure for what it is: sex. Yet many retain that childhood sense of discomfort if not revulsion at the specter of the forbidden.
Audibles ranging from moans, groans and “oueeeey!” to gagging sounds, can be heard when I ask my university students “Why is it so uncomfortable to think about parents having sex?” I’ve gotten similar responses from numerous friends in the over-30 cohort as well. Such concerns reveal a nearly universal queasiness, if not outright revulsion, surrounding what many readily admit is obvious: parents do have sex. “I know they had it at least twice,” one student mordantly observed, “because I have a brother.”
Even sex researchers, who have no compunction about delving into every nook and cranny of our sexual interests and peccadilloes have shied away from the topic. Searches of multiple psychosocial databases turned up only a handful of aging articles on children’s reactions to stumbling upon what Freud indelibly dubbed “the primal scene.”
In a number of instances, however, the subject of discomfort with this quotidian reality has been broached in the popular media.
Most recently, “Caught In the Act,” one of the Emmy-sweeping Modern Family's top ten episodes, dramatized the event. When 16-year-old Haley attempts to bring her parents breakfast in bed because it is their anniversary, she catches them in flagrante delicto. In horror she drops the tray and flees downstairs to wash the brutal image from her eyes. The replacement present? A lock for the bedroom door. Unfortunately, it makes a loud noise when it is used.
The writer John Irving evoked an even more horrifying fictional version in his novel, Last Night at Twisted River. Upon hearing “violent creeks and moans” from his father’s bedroom, and thinking that dad is being attacked by a bear, twelve-year-old Danny rushes in and in a split second of misapprehension, fatally brains his father's mistress, an Indian woman who has a great mane of dark hair, with an iron frying pan, limiting this scene in the no-good-deed-goes-unpunished category.
Even the most worldly real-life adults may blanch at the thought of a parent in the sack with dad or a swain. CNN’s Anderson Cooper made a game stab at addressing the issue in an article for Details magazine after his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, asked him to read a draft of her memoir d’amour It Seemed Important at the Time. “No matter how much my cerebrum says ‘Okay,’ my gut still sort of shudders at the thought of her, you know, touching the monkey,” Cooper confessed. “If it had been written by anyone else, I wouldn’t have blinked….But it’s not anyone else; it’s my mom, and reading her description of her current boyfriend as the ‘Nijinsky of cunnilingus’ was kind of shocking….” But Cooper only read about his mom’s boudoir adventures. He never actually walked in on her.
“I had to go to therapy after walking in on my parents doing it,” one of my students bitterly recalled.
Even hearing about parental sex can be unsettling to some. In Bonk, a book exploring both serious and quirky sex research, author Mary Roach acknowledges deep discomfort in discussing sex with her mother. “I would rather have disclosed…the events of a certain summer spent sleeping my way through the backpacker hotels of South America than to have heard [my own mother] at the age of 79, say to me, ‘Your father had some trouble keeping an erection.’ I had it coming,” Roach acknowledges. “I’d asked about the six-year gap between my brother’s birth and mine.”
The scathingly brilliant New Yorker cover artist Barry Blitt spoofed parent/child coitus interruptus on the cover of the January 29, 2007 New Yorker showing a toddler in pajamas, picture cell phone blazing, catching his startled parents who may or may not have been having sex, although their startled expression speaks volumes. A few weeks later a cartoon reposte by John O’Brien depicted two teen age boys passing a door with a sign parodying the longstanding Television Code: “R: Caution: Adult Language. Brief nudity. Some violence.” “That’s my parents room,” one laconically explains.
My students are routinely at a loss when asked to name reasons for queasiness at what is a natural and normal, if not everyday, parental event. Default answers include: “We look up to them as role models.” “They’re there to protect us, not to gross us out.” Most draw a blank on why, but just know it’s yucky.
After repeated prodding one of my more prescient students finally volunteered the correct answer. “Because in most households it’s a secret. And not a particularly nice one.” He said that his divorced mother never tried to hide her sexual activity from her three sons. “If she was having a date over, she would encourage us to sleep over at friends’ houses. We knew what was going to happen, so we didn’t think it was weird.”
“I think there's a great conspiracy,” the Reverend Debra Haffner says. “Children don't want to think about their parents having sex, and parents don't want to think about their children having it.” Haffner was the President of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS), for a dozen years and has written several books of age-appropriate sex information for children. She suggests that this common freak-out may be related to the incest taboo, at least in American culture. “Most people just don't want to go there.”
I asked a friend who is a German psychoanalyst if Europeans, who generally have a more relaxed views about sex than Americans, are as squeamish over the idea of parents having sex? “Oh yes,” she said. “If patients express horror at this prospect, we think that they are quite normal.”
Existential crises aside, negative reactions to observing or contemplating the parental roll in the hay is limited to those who can afford a private space for sex. In less affluent cultures people don’t necessarily have separate spaces for sex or even sleeping. Parents, children, and often the entire extended family may share one room, and sometimes the same mattress, so the noise and movements of parental couplings are as normal and familiar as the sound of running water. Little Jimmie Dickens’ song “A-Sleepin’ at the Foot of the Bed” affords the honky-tonk version: “…cold toenails a scratchin' your back/And the footboard scrubbin' your head/I'll tell the world you ain't lost a thing/Never sleepin' at the foot of the bed.”
This is not to suggest that parents should leave the bedroom door open for private moments of bliss. But when a walk-in does happen, a plan to deal with it can be useful.
Dr. Ellen Rome, head of General Pediatrics at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, observes, “How parents approach this episode can make the difference between a teaching moment for a child: it can open a door to building a healthy sexuality, or it can be a door closer.”
Today many young children know how babies are conceived, but pleasure, which is most often—though not always—the purpose of sexual activity, is difficult to explain to young children who know only self-pleasure. Yet masturbation is seldom discussed except to establish guidelines for public behavior. Pleasure, Dr. Rome notes, is the hard one.
“A healthy sexuality is a lifetime process, from baby’s first self-pleasuring to the geriatric equivalent,” Dr. Rome notes and emphasizes age- appropriate concepts. “In childhood, we teach kids to be aware of ‘stranger danger,” and that the genitals are private parts. In adolescence, families can reinforce messages of a healthy sexuality without resorting to ‘do as I say, not as I do.’” Silence, she notes, lets children down.
Dr. Rome suggests using humor to diffuse fear. Or logic: “Daddy is helping Mommy, not hurting her.” If affectionate hugs are common in the home, the child can be assured that hugs in bed are similar. In any event, she notes, it’s important for parents to fully validate the event, and not portray sex as a guilty pleasure.
“Parents should take their cues from their children,” says Dr. Elaine Levy Cooper, a child psychologist in private practice in Westport, Connecticut. Reassurance, she notes is crucial. “Denial of what children may observe violates their trust.”
As the squeamishness of my students and even older respondents reveal, perhaps it would seem useful to begin realistic discussion about pleasure at younger ages than “the talk” is typically broached. This could promote understanding and acceptance instead of frantic eye-washing or visits to a therapist.