There are times in the lives of children, frequent or infrequent, when the parental bedroom door is discretely locked. Closed doors protect and evoke secret, but highly-charged activities. But as kids are often aware, the parents are not in there wrapping birthday presents or planning a surprise visit to DisneyWorld.
They are doing secret things, and the secret is not celebratory. The context of the activities behind the closed door becomes mythologized and the message is communicated to children that the locked door hides guilty indulgence in shameful activities, as attested by the trauma that unwittingly witnessing what Freud indelibly designated as “the primal scene” can often cause.
“Caught In the Act,” dramatizing just such a scene is one of Emmy-sweeping Modern Family’s top ten episodes. When the 16-year-old Haley attempts to bring Claire and Phil breakfast in bed because it is their anniversary, she catches them in flagrante interruptus. In horror she drops the tray and flees downstairs to wash out her eyes. The replacement present? A lock for the bedroom door. Unfortunately, it makes a loud noise when it is used.
Even the most worldly real-life adults may blanch at the thought of mom in the sack with dad or a swain. CNN’s Anderson Cooper made a passing 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 tales. He never actually walked in on her.
“I’d rather watch the surgery channel than think about my parents having sex!” one of my university students asserted. “I had to go to therapy after walking in on my parents doing it,” another bitterly recalled. Audibles ranging from groans, moans, and “oueeeeey!” to wretching sounds arose from my current class when I asked “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 are among what would appear to be a nearly universal queasiness, if not outright revulsion, surrounding what many readily admit is obvious: parents do have sex. In the minimalist version of one female student, “I have a brother, so I know they did it at least twice.”
People are routinely at a loss when asked to name reasons for uneasiness at what appears to be a natural and normal, if not everyday, parental event. In my admittedly unscientific poll, 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 gross.
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 stay over at friends’ houses. We knew what was going to happen, and didn’t think it was weird.”
The scathingly brilliant New Yorker cover artist Barry Blitt spoofed parental nookie on the cover of the January 29, 2007 New Yorker by showing a toddler in pajamas catching his startled parents in flagrante interruptus, perhaps, with picture cell phone blazing. A few weeks later a cartoon reposte by 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.
“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, who 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.”
Secrecy surrounding parental sex appears to be a construct of affluent cultures. Around the globe, parents, children, and often the entire extended family share one room, and even one mattress, and the noise and movements of parental couplings are as normal and natural as the sound of running water.
The silence and stealth surrounding parental sex within the family only functions to pathologized the normal pleasurable and procreative sexual activity of parents (or other adults within the household), and instills this model in children, who may have a difficult time escaping from the notion that sex in and of itself is illegitimate, if tolerated, and a compelling, but ultimately negative need.
Rebecca Chalker has a Ph.D. in Sexology, is a Certified Sex Advisor, and teaches “The Cultural History of Sexuality,” at Pace University in New York City. Her book, The Clitoral Truth, was highlighted on “Sex and the City”, September 7, 2004. Her website is www.clitoraltruth.com.