The Relationship Between Adult Sexual Adjustment and Childhood Experiences Regarding Exposure
to Nudity, Sleeping in the Parental Bed,
and Parental Attitudes Toward Sexuality
Robin J. Lewis, Ph.D. and Louis H. Janda, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia 23508
Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 17, No. 4, 1988
The relationship between adult sexual functioning and childhood experiences with exposure to nudity, sleeping in the parents’ bed, and parental attitudes toward sexuality was examined. Although a variety of experts have provided their opinion on this issue, empirical research on this topic has been lacking. In this study, male and female college students were asked to retrospectively report on the frequency of sleeping in the parental bed as a child, the frequency of seeing others nude during childhood, and parental attitudes regarding sexuality. Information on current sexual functioning and adjustment was also obtained. The results suggest that childhood experiences with exposure to nudity and sleeping in the parental bed are not adversely related to adult sexual functioning and adjustment. In fact, there is modest support that these childhood experiences are positively related to indices of adjustment. Results also suggest that a positive attitude toward sexuality can be beneficial for a child’s comfort with his/her sexuality. Finally, examination of gender differences revealed that male and female experience paternal attitudes toward sexuality differently but are similar in their perceptions of maternal attitudes.
KEY WORDS: nudity; attitudes; childhood experiences; childhood sexuality.
A frequent concern raised by parents regards the potential harm to their child of seeing parental nudity, of exposure to nudity in others, (e.g., siblings, friends), and of sleeping in bed with parents. Although these are issues often raised by parents, surprisingly little has been written that empirically addresses these questions. The available literature primarily consists of experts providing advice on these issues without an empirical basis. Higgins and Hawkins (1984) reported in a sexuality text for nursing practice:
Another concern which usually begins at the preschool age is that of parental nudity. Experts disagree as to its harm or benefit. Some believe that if parents are comfortable with being nude in the presence of their children there is no harm (Martinson 1977). Others, through the use of clinical examples show that some children become overstimulated and unable to handle. Their feelings when exposed to parental nudity (Peltz, 1977). Because of the dearth of evidence and the conflicting views of exposure this is an issue that parents will need to decide by themselves. Parents should consider how comfortable each family member is about this subject. (pp. 15-16)
In 1959, Baruch reported a classic psychoanalytic perspective in her sex education guide for parents and teachers. She stated that exposure to parental nudity is harmful in that “seeing adult bodies in the nude without any barriers can bring on fantasies that are harder to handle than any of the imaginings that arise out of seeing bodies of one’s own size” (p. 125). Baruch reported that the “bigness” of parents combines with the “bigness” of children’s feelings toward parents and this can be overpowering. Baruch indicated that exposure to parental nudity can be sexually stimulating to the child. Baruch did state, however, that occasional glimpses of parents while dressing may arouse curiosity and arouse fear-fantasies but that this is manageable. This, she reported, will not leave lasting scars, compared to the child whose parents let him continuously see them bathe, exercise in the nude, dress/undress, and sunbathe in the nude. She stated that this situation leads the child to feel invited in with the grown-ups, resulting in excessive stimulation and the child then feels powerless, endangered, and weak. She recommended, “It’s best if parents can acknowledge a child’s curiosity but maintain their own privacy” (p. 127). Baruch implied in her work that these traumatic experiences can lead to later difficulties in adult sexual functioning.
Martinson (1981) stated that un-self-conscious parental nudity has been uncommon in the United States. He cited the 1953 Kinsey finding that a high proportion of adults precisely recall the age at which they had first seen opposite sex genitalia as evidence for this lack of exposure to nudity.
Kelly (1981) also addressed the issue of parental privacy and advocated mutual child and parental respect for private areas of life. He stated that no one should feel obligated to be nude in the company of others and that this type of tense situation constitutes a negative form of sex education. Kelly seems to imply that it is coercion to participate in a nude encounter, rather than the encounter itself, that is problematic.
Garner (1975) reported that the implicit message of lack of nudity in the home is that the body is basically unacceptable or shameful which may carry over into discomfort about nudity in the context of adult sexual relationship. This anxiety may be related to sexual dysfunction.
Finch (1982) reports that a more relaxed attitude toward home nudity can help children develop more positive feelings about their sexuality and anatomy. Jones et al. (1985) suggested that covering up a body part in the intent of covering a sexual stimulus may in fact draw attention to the “forbidden” part. They also emphasized the importance of parental comfort in their decisions about nudity. If parents attempt to be nude in front of their children, but are extremely uncomfortable, this is communicated to the child. Gardner (1975) cautioned that parents who are comfortable with nudity in the home should not flaunt it in a seductive fashion nor insist on children’s nudity.
Regarding sleeping in bed with parents, Baruch (1959) indicated that this promotes “loverish” contacts that fuel fear-fantasies and lead to stimulation. She reported that letting children come into the parents’ bed, going to the child’s bed and lying down with him/her, are best avoided since wishes are stimulated as well as anxieties.
Gardner (1975) reported that 75% of the world’s children sleep in the same room with their parents and others report this observation of parental sexuality to be not harmful (Harrison, 1976; Myers, 1974). Yet, as Jones et al. (1985) stated, it is difficult to know how this finding may apply to the United States, where children have extreme interest in the mystery of parental sexuality. Harrison (1976) reported that seeing parents making love can be frightening and confusing, leading a child to fear that his mother is being hurt. Myers (1974) reported that Freudians place a great emphasis on the psychological damage that can occur when a child witnesses a “primal scene.” However, others reported that the parental responsibility to this lovemaking interruption is most critical in that parental anger, anxiety, or guilt or punishment can be more harmful than what the child actually sees (Myers, 1974). If there is good familial communication, there should be little harm done when a child interrupts parental lovemaking (Harrison, 1976; Hoyt, 1982).
Besides the indirect learning about sexuality that results from seeing parents interact, certainly parental attitudes toward sex as well as parental willingness to provide sexual information/education may well be related to later sexual adjustment. Mothers appear to provide most of the sex education in the homes (Thornburg, 1981) and seem to assume that sex education is their responsibility (Roberts et al., 1978).
Parental attitudes toward sexuality can be important in development of healthy adult sexuality (Carrera, 1981; Chamberlain, 1974) as wells self-ester (Chamberlain, 1974). Jones et al. (1985) reported that parental discomfort dealing with sexuality can lead to making mistakes such as putting off the question, being dishonest, or punishing the child. These mistakes can lead to a child feeling guilty, learning that sex is shameful, and then suffering a loss of self-esteem for possessing shameful interests and feelings. Jones et al. (1985) stated that good home sex education should convey a positive view of sexuality. It’s helpful if children perceive parents as being happy and comfortable with their own sexuality.
In reviewing the information available to parents’ questions about nudity, children sleeping in the bed, and the impact of their own levels of comfort and attitudes, expert opinions vary as to the answers for these questions. It is noteworthy that although the experts appear to have the answers, there is little, if any, empirical evidence available these topics. Thus, the purposes of the present study were to examine empirically (i) the relationship between retrospective reports of childhood experiences with parental nudity, as well as nudity in general, to adult sexual functioning and adjustment; (ii) the relationship between retrospective reporting of sleeping in the parental bed to adult sexual functioning and adjustment; (iii) the relationship of retrospective reports of parental attitudes/comfort dealing with sexuality to current sexual functioning and adjustment.
Seventy-seven males and 133 females were recruited from undergraduate psychology classes to serve as subjects. In exchange for their participation, subjects received extra credit in their classes.
All subjects completed a questionnaire assessing retrospective reports of (i) frequency of sleeping in bed with parents between 0-5 years and 6-11 years; (ii) frequency of seeing parents, as well as others, naked between 0-5 years and 6-11 years; (iii) parental attitudes toward sexuality; (iv) subjects’ level of comfort in discussing sexuality with parents; and (v) perceptions of parental discomfort regarding sexuality. Information on current adjustment and sexual behavior was also obtained. Items from these measures are presented in the Appendix. All items were responded to using a five-point Likert scale. Subjects completed this questionnaire in a large group setting. Given the sensitive nature of the questions, respondents were assured of confidentiality and all responses were identified by number only.
Childhood Nudity and Sexual Adjustment
An index of the frequency of parental nudity was calculated by summing responses to questions about seeing mother and father naked. A parental nudity index for ages 0-5 and 6-11 was then correlated with the 11 items about current sexual adjustment. Thus, a 2x11 correlation matrix was generated separately for males and females.
For males, the 0-5 Parental Nudity Index was inversely related to reported discomfort about physical contact/affection, r(75) = -0.23, p<0.05, indicating that increased exposure to parental nudity was related to less discomfort about physical contact/affection. Parental nudity during ages 0-5 was unrelated to any of the other sexual adjustment variables. Parental nudity during ages 6-11 was positively related only to a tendency to engage in casual sexual relationships, r(71) = 0.24, p<0.05. It is noteworthy that although a relationship between nudity and a tendency to engage in casual sex was obtained, we are not sure this really reflects respondents’ actually engaging in casual sex. For males, the mean and standard deviation for this item were 2.62 and 1.23, respectively, indicating that most males did not endorse strong agreement for a tendency to engage in casual sex.
For females, parental nudity between 0-5 was related only to an increased frequency of sex relative to others, r(l29) = 0.18, p<0.05. Parental nudity during this age range was unrelated to any of the other sexual adjustment variables. For females, parental nudity between 6-11 was positively related only to an increased tendency to engage in casual sexual relationships, r(l29) = 0.18, p<0.05. As with the male sample, examination of responses to this item indicates that most females did not endorse strong agreement with tendency to engage in casual sexual relationships, X = 1.92, SD = 1.17.
In order to get an idea of the relationship of exposure to nudity in general, to adjustment, an overall nudity index was calculated by summing responses to questions about seeing mother, father, same-sex siblings/friends, and opposite-sex siblings/friends naked. This nudity index for ages 0-5 and 6-11 was correlated with the 11 items about current adjustment and behavior. Thus, a 2 x 11 correlation matrix was generated separately for males and females.
For males, 0-5 nudity index was inversely related to reported discomfort about physical contact/affection, r(75) = -0.23, p<0.05. Nudity during ages 0-5 was unrelated to any other adjustment variables. Nudity during ages 6-11 was positively related to self-esteem, r(72) = 0.25, p<0.05, knowledge about sex, r(68) = 0.26, p<0.05, and a tendency to engage in casual sex, r(71) = 0.28, p<0.05.
For females, nudity between 0-5 was related to less discomfort about physical contact/affection, r(130) = -0.17, p<0.05, but was unrelated to any other adjustment variables. Nudity between 6-11 was positively related to increased frequency of sex relative to others, r(l29) = 0.19, p<0.05, and an increased tendency to engage in casual sexual relationships, r(l29) = 0.21, p<0.05.
Sleeping in Bed With Parents and Sexual Adjustment
In order to investigate the relationships between sleeping in the parental bed and adjustment, the two items regarding sleeping in the parental bed ages 0-5 and 6-11 were correlated with the 11 adjustment items. Thus, a 2 x 11 correlation matrix was generated separately for males and females.
For males, sleeping in bed with parents between 0-5 was related to increased self-esteem, r(72) = 0.27, p<0.05, less guilt and anxiety, r(72) = -0.31, p<0.01, greater frequency of sex, r(72) = 0.24, p<0.05, and greater tendency toward casual sexual relationships, r(70) = 0.24, p<0.05. Sleeping in bed with parents between ages 6-11 for males was related to increased self-esteem, r(72) = 0.26, p<0.05, and an increased tendency toward casual sexual relationships, r(71) = 0.27, p<0.05.
For females, sleeping in bed with parents during 0-5 years was related to less discomfort about physical contact/affection, r(131) = -0.20, p<0.05. During ages 6-11 sleeping in bed with parents was marginally related to less discomfort about physical contact/affection, r(l31) = -0.16, p<0.06 and was related to an increased tendency to engage in casual sex, r(130) = 0.18, p<0.05.
Parental Attitudes Toward Sexuality and Sexual Adjustment
In order to investigate the relationship among parental attitudes toward sexuality and adjustment, the 9 items related to parental attitudes were correlated with the 11 items regarding adjustment. Thus, a 9 x 11 correlation matrix was generated separately for males and females.
For males, a positive paternal attitude was related to increased self-esteem, r(72) = 0.24, p<0.05, an increased tendency to engage in casual sexual relationships, r(71) = 0.33, p<0.01, and increased comfort about physical contact and affection, r(75) = -0.35, p<0.01. In addition, sons who felt comfortable discussing sex with their fathers also reported an increased tendency to engage in casual sex relationships, r(71) = 0.23, p<0.05. Further, an inverse relationship occurred for males between frequency of discussion of sexuality in the family and sexual dysfunction, r(72) = -0.23, p<0.05 such that less discussion of sexuality was correlated with increased frequency of sexual problems. More discussion of sexuality was related to more comfort about physical contact and affection in the family, r(75) = -0.22, p<0.05. For males, a positive maternal attitude toward sex, r(75) = -0.28, p<0.05, perceived paternal comfort about talking about sex, r(75) = -0.38, p<0.001, perceived maternal comfort about talking about sex, r(75) = -0.22, p<0.05, and more reported knowledge about sex, r(75) = -0.58, p<0.001 were all related to respondents’ comfort regarding physical contact and affection.
For females, a positive maternal attitude toward sex was related to increased self-esteem, r(129) = 0.19, p<0.05. In addition, daughters who felt comfortable discussing sex with their mothers reported better feelings about themselves, r(129) = 0.21, p<0.05. For females, happiness with sex life was positively related to increased comfort talking about sex with fathers, r(129) = 0.17, p<0.05 and positive paternal attitudes toward sex, r(l29) = 0.17, p<0.05. Females reported an increased tendency to engage in casual sex when there was more discussion of sexuality in the home, r(l30) = 0.20, p<0.05, and with increased comfort talking about sex with fathers, r(129) = 0.24, p<0.01. Further, positive paternal attitudes toward sex were related to increased knowledge about sex, r(130) = 0.18, p<0.05.
For females, comfort about physical contact/affection was related to more reported physical contact/affection, r(l31) = -0.36,p<0.001, comfort talking about sex with mother, r(130) = -0.29, p<0.001, comfort talking about sex with father r(132) = -0.22, p<0.01, and more knowledge about sex, r(131) = -0.25, p<0.01.
Based on the apparent gender differences that occurred regarding respondents reports of parental attitudes toward sex, perceived parental discomfort about discussing sex, and subjects’ comfort discussing sex with mother and father, a series of chi-square analyses were conducted to examine these differences. For these analyses, responses were classified into three levels based on the subjects’ 5-point Likert scale responses where responses 1 and 2 were classified as low, response 3 was left as medium, and responses 4 and 5 were classified as high. Chi-square analyses were done for the following items: (1 and 2) “Rate the degree of comfort you felt in talking about sex with your mother (father)”; (3 and 4) “Rate the degree of comfort you think your mother (father) felt in talking about sex”; (5 and 6) “How would you characterize your mother’s (father’s) attitude toward sex”?
No gender differences occurred for any of the items related to mother. However, a significant difference between men and women occurred on all the items related to father. Regarding comfort discussing sexuality with father, sons tended to be more comfortable discussing sex with their fathers than were daughters (see Table I). It is noteworthy that 77% of females and 52% of males felt uncomfortable talking about sex with their fathers.
Another gender difference occurred when respondents were asked to indicate their perception of father’s discomfort level talking about sex (see Table II). Again, more females compared to males perceived their fathers as uncomfortable in talking about sex.
Finally, a third gender difference occurred in respondents’ indications of paternal attitude toward sex (see Table III). Although about half of males and females perceived a neutral paternal attitude toward sex, of the remaining subjects, males tended to report a more positive paternal attitude toward sex than did females.
The results suggest that childhood exposure to nudity and sleeping in the parental bed are not related to poor sexual adjustment. In fact, for boys, exposure to nudity in early childhood appears to be modestly related to greater comfort levels with regard to physical contact/affection.
Exposure to nudity between ages 6 and 11 appears to be modestly related to increased sexual activity for both boys and girls. While some might interpret this as support for the harmful effects of nudity in the family, we suggest an alternative explanation. It is possible that the nudity experiences are related to increased comfort with sexuality and one’s body, and this enables one to feel more comfortable pursuing sexual relationships. Although our question regarding casual sex has negative connotations, it is possible that respondents considered having sex outside of marriage or a love relationship to be “casual.” Thus, a kind of sexual freedom/openness may be a more appropriate explanation of these findings. At any rate, the mean scores on this item suggest that while there was a difference in a tendency to engage in casual sex between respondents who reported differing childhood experiences, neither group saw themselves as having a strong tendency to engage in casual sex. It is noteworthy that late childhood (6-11) nudity exposure was modestly related to increased self-esteem and sexual knowledge for males, but not for females, suggesting that there may be a positive side effect of seeing others nude during childhood.
Examination of parental nudity in particular revealed a modest relationship with increased sexual activity. Again, some may interpret these data as supporting their position on the harmful effects of parental nudity, since increased sexual activity may be seen as problematic. However, increased sexual activity in the absence of guilt, anxiety, sexual dysfunction, and other adjustment problems also lends itself to the interpretation we favor, namely, that increased exposure to nudity in the family fosters an atmosphere of acceptance of sexuality, one’s body, and increased comfort in this arena. Certainly additional investigation of this issue is warranted before either of these positions is completely accepted.
Although some experts have suggested that sleeping in the parental bed is stimulating and results in negative effects on later adjustment, our results do not support this position. Rather, for boys, sleeping in bed with the parents was related to increased self-esteem and less guilt and anxiety. Sleeping in bed with the parents also was modestly related to increased sexuality, again suggesting a possibility that these individuals are more comfortable with their bodies and their own sexuality permitting more freedom with regard to sexual encounters. For girls, sleeping in bed with parents was modestly related to increased comfort with physical contact and affection as well as increased sexuality.
The role of parents in good sex education has been accurately emphasized in previous literature (cf. Carrera, 1981; Chamberlin, 1974). In providing sex education for their children certainly what the parent says is important. Our data suggest that how the parents say it and their attitudes as perceived by their children are important as well. For males, a positive paternal attitude toward sex was modestly related to higher self-esteem, increased sexual activity, and more comfort about physical contact and affection. Sons who felt comfortable talking about sex with their fathers did report more sexual activity. Discussion of sexuality in the home was modestly related to less sexual dysfunction and more comfort about physical contact and affection. Males’ comfort level about physical contact and affection was related to positive parental attitudes toward sex and perceived parental comfort dealing with sexuality issues. Taken together, these findings suggest a positive attitude toward sexuality expressed in the family can be beneficial for a child’s comfort with his sexuality.
For females, daughters who felt comfortable talking about sex with their mothers and who perceived a positive maternal attitude toward sex tended to feel better about themselves. Paternal attitudes and comfort talking about sex with fathers were modestly related to a happier sex life. Discussion of sexuality in the home was also modestly related to increase sexual activity for girls. These findings also suggest that a positive attitude toward.sexuality in the family is beneficial for a girl’s comfort with her sexuality.
Regarding gender differences in perception of parental attitudes and comfort discussing sexual issues, it is interesting that men and women did not differ in their perceptions regarding maternal attitudes, mother’s comfort level dealing with sexuality, or their own comfort discussing sex with mother. This may be interpreted as being consistent with the finding that mothers do most of the sexual education for children (Thornburg, 1981; Roberts et al., 1978) and implying that mothers deal with their sons and daughters similarly around issues of sexuality. Gender differences did emerge, however, when reports of paternal attitudes and comfort regarding sexuality were examined. Seventy-seven percent of females, compared to 52% of the males, were uncomfortable discussing sex with their father, whereas 21% of males and only 8% of the females were comfortable discussing sex with their fathers. More males tended to perceive their fathers as comfortable talking about sex compared to females (25 vs. 11%) and 69% of the females compared to 42% of the males indicated their fathers were extremely or moderately uncomfortable talking about sex with their fathers. Finally, males tended to perceive a more positive paternal attitude toward sex than did females (39 vs. 18%).
In addition to responding to specific questions, subjects were also invited to comment on their reactions to family practices regarding nudity and sleeping in the parental bed, and without exception such comments reflected a positive attitude toward such experiences. A representative comment for both men and women was “It always gave me a feeling of security to know that if I had a bad dream I could crawl into bed with my mom and dad.” Although it might be argued from a psychoanalytic perspective that one would have repressed any memories of ill effects of such experiences, it does seem significant that not one man or women reported any negative experiences from such family practices.
Although a number of significant relationships between recollected childhood experiences and adult sexual adjustment were found to exist, these relationships were quite modest. It was rare when as much as 10% of the variability of the sexual adjustment items was accounted for by the items pertaining to childhood experiences. Perhaps one of the most important findings of this research, however, is the absence of any relationships between retrospective reports of parental nudity, exposure to nudity in general, sleeping in the parental bed, and sexual adjustment problems. Further, the correlations between perceived parental attitudes toward sex and sexual adjustment were generally larger than those between specific family practices and sexual adjustment. It seems that the attitudes toward sex that the parents convey to their children may be more important to their subsequent sexual adjustment than any particular family practice.
This study represents a first attempt to provide some empirical basis for the advice any number of experts have provided to parents regarding the issues of childhood exposure to nudity and children sleeping in the parental bed. Certainly the limitations of this study due to its retrospective design and college student subject population need to be acknowledged. Data from retrospective reports present potential problems with its accuracy and ability to be verified. Further, results from college student samples are not necessarily generalizable to the population at large without additional empirical investigation. Thus, any conclusions drawn from this research must be tentative until the results are replicated with prospective studies and extended using other subject populations. It is clear, however, that there is no basis for the warning of the Cassandras of parental permissiveness regarding sexual issues. Indeed, it appears that parents who have a casual attitude toward family nudity and who permit their children to sleep in their bed may have children with better self-esteem and who feel more comfortable with their sexuality.
The authors thank Lisa Caputo for her help with the data collection process and Ann Powell for her capable typing assistance.
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