Children and the primal scene

Dear Dr. Milrod:

I read about a mother and her boyfriend who would, on occasion, engage in sex in front of the mother’s 9-year-old daughter. The daughter mentioned this in school and now the mother and the boyfriend are charged with child abuse or similar charge. Are you aware of any studies that would support or undermine the assertions of child abuse?

Bedtime Story

Dear Bedtime Story:

There are studies on this issue, particularly an 18-year longitudinal UCLA study on parental co-sleeping and witnessing “primal scenes,” i.e. parents having sex in front of children. The study showed that children did not sustain any post-traumatic stress or symptoms of abuse. However, I would never advise my clients to have sexual relations on purpose in front of their nine-year-old daughter. It’s one thing to practice parental co-sleeping with infants or toddlers and have sex in the belief that the little one is asleep. But one has to examine what values this sets for the daughter who is not only walking and talking, but also thinking and analyzing at age nine. I don’t think witnessing the act itself will create “severe psychological problems.” Her problems will come when she attempts to integrate her value system with others. There are all sorts of customs and cultures in this world. We have cultures where mothers fellate sons at a certain age, purely for ritual purposes. We have ritual circumcision in people’s living rooms, we have scarrification ceremonies, and we do have very public sex acts among certain tribes, all in the name of some ritualistic beliefs. How you practice sex is very much part of your culture and your values. Most parents who live in our Western society would have very little intellectual or emotional justification for having intercourse in front of their pre-teen or “tweener” daughter. In fact, in our culture, it seems agreed upon that while females mature early physically, they mature much slower mentally, and the trend seems to be to hold children back from TMI.

Whenever you do something with, for, in front of, or to children, you have to ask yourself, how will this benefit my child? If you can provide a sound rationale for why it’s beneficial for a child to watch parents have sex, not by accident, but by purpose, then by all means, let us hear it and let us all take these valid points into consideration prior to making judgments. But I would venture to say that there’s a lot more “unconventional behavior” going on in that family, aside from exposing the child repeatedly to “primal scenes.”

Christine Milrod, Ph.D.

Comments are closed.