Early childhood exposure to parental nudity and scenes of parental sexuality and scenes of parental sexuality

Archives of Sexual Behavior

Okami, Paul, Olmstead Richard, Abramson Paul R., & Pendleton Laura
Issue4, August 1998
Type of WorkResearch report

('primal scenes')...  an 18 year longitudinal study of outcome

Qutes from this article

< okami__et_al-early_childhood_exposure_tonudity....pdf >


As part of the UCLA Family Lifestyles Project (FLS), 200 male and female children participated in an 18-year longitudinal outcome study of early childhood exposure to parental nudity and scenes of parental sexuality ("primal scenes").

At age 17-18, participants were assessed for levels of self-acceptance; relations with peers, parents, and other adults; antisocial and criminal behavior; substance use; suicidal ideation; quality of sexual relationships; and problems associated with sexual relations.

No harmful "main effect" correlates of the predictor variables were found.

A significant crossover Sex of Participant X Primal Scenes interaction was found such that

  • boys exposed to primal scenes before age 6 had reduced risk of STD transmission or having impregnated someone in adolescence.
  • In contrast, girls exposed to primal scenes before age 6 had increased risk of STD transmission or having become pregnant.

A number of main effect trends in the data (nonsignificant at p < 0.05, following the Bonferonni correction) linked exposure to nudity and exposure to primal scenes with beneficial outcomes.

However, a number of these findings were mediated by sex of participant interactions showing that the effects were attenuated or absent for girls.

All effects were independent of family stability, pathology, or child-rearing ideology; sex of participant; SES; and beliefs and attitudes toward sexuality.

Limitations of the data and of long-term regression studies in general are discussed, and the sex of participant interactions are interpreted speculatively. It is suggested that pervasive beliefs in the harmfulness of the predictor variables are exaggerated.


Increasing numbers of academic researchers and clinicians have suggested that behaviors such as exposure of a child to parental nudity or scenes of parental sexuality ("primal scenes") constitute subtle forms of sexual abuse that previously have gone unrecognized (... ... ...)

Such subtle sexual abuse - referred to as syndromes like "maternal seductiveness," "emotional incest syndrome," "emotional sexual abuse," "covert sexual abuse," and "sexualized attention" - may also include less easily defined behaviors such as parent "flirtatiousness," or inappropriate and excessive displays of physical affection (...).

As Okami (1995) suggested, however, such concern is not new. That is, although these "syndromes" have recently entered the discourse on sexual abuse, some of the behaviors that constitute them have long held positions in the pantheon of improper parenting practices.

For example, two decades ago, Esman (1973) observed that just one of these practices - exposure of the child to primal scenes - has been indicted in 75 years of psychoanalytic, psychiatric, and psychological literature as the primary etiologic agent in virtually every form of child and adult pathology. However, Esman concluded that,

  • "One is moved to wonder whether we are here confronted with one of those situations in which a theory, by explaining everything, succeeds in explaining nothing" (pp. 64-65).

In the present article we report results of the first longitudinal investigation of long-term correlates of exposure to parental nudity and primal scenes. Behaviors such as parent flirtatiousness and inappropriate displays of physical affection were not examined because at the time the study was conceived (early 1970s) few, if any, commentators considered such behaviors to be seriously problematic.

Exposure to Parental Nudity Data bearing on the question of long-term outcomes of the variables in question are exceedingly scant, although speculative hypotheses - often framed as authoritative pronouncements of fact - are easy to come by (Okami, 1995).

For example, only three empirical articles have addressed the issue of childhood exposure to parent and other adult nudity: Lewis and Janda (1988); Oleinick et al. (1966); and Story (1979). In several other cases, descriptive, self-report studies of social nudist or other groups practicing casual nudity have been conducted without comparison groups (... ... ...)

In general, the tone of all of this work is anti-alarmist, representing childhood exposure to nudity as benign. Apart from these tentative attempts to collect data, writings on this topic consist of theory-driven clinical opinion and commentaries by child-rearing specialists.

In contrast to the above-mentioned empirical work, the clinical writings typically reflect the notion that exposure to nudity may be traumatic as a result of

  • (i) premature and excessive stimulation in a manner controlled by the adult, leaving the child feeling powerless;
  • (ii) the child's unfavorable comparison between his or her own anatomy and the adult's; or
  • (iii) the intensification of Oedipal desires and consequent anxiety (... ... ...)

Given the vehemence with which clinicians and child-rearing specialists often condemn childhood exposure to parental nudity, it is paradoxical that their dire predictions are not supported by the (scant) empirical work that does exist.

Findings are at worst neutral or ambiguous as to interpretation, and there is even the implication of possible positive benefits in these studies (particularly for boys) in domains such as self-reported comfort with physical affection (Lewis and Janda, 1988) and positive "body self-concept" (Story, 1979).

Although these investigations are methodologically limited, their results are consistent with the view of [1] a smaller group of child-rearing specialists and other commentators who have stressed the potential benefits to children of exposure to nudity in the home, in areas such as later sexual functioning, and capacity for affection and intimacy (... ... ...)

Although [2] some of these writers (cf. Ellis, cited in Goodson, 1991) make reference to the cross-cultural ubiquity of childhood exposure to parental nudity - although objecting to alarmist positions taken by Western commentators who fail to provide supportive data - the cross-cultural record is not generally explicit on the question of actual exposure of children to parental nudity. It does, however, present a strong case for the universality of parent-child cosleeping or room sharing (... ... ...). It may tentatively be inferred that under such conditions large numbers of the world's population of children are exposed to parental nudity.

Finally, [3] a third group of writers stress the importance of the context in which childhood exposure to nudity takes place, insisting that outcomes are mediated by such contextual variables as gender, age of child, family climate, cultural beliefs, and so on (Okami, 1995; Okami et al., 1997).

Exposure to Scenes of Parental Sexuality (Primal Scenes)

Freud and his followers chose the term "primal scenes" to refer to visual or auditory exposure of children to parental intercourse, and subsequent fantasy elaborations on the event (Dahl, 1982). Despite the identification of such exposure by psychoanalysts and others as uniquely dangerous to the mental health of children, there are, once again, scant empirical data bearing on effects of primal scene exposure. We could locate only one prevalence study (Rosenfeld et al., 1980) and two studies of initial response and subsequent adult functioning (Hoyt, 1978, 1979).

Of course, numbers of case studies exist, including a very rich psychoanalytic literature describing putative consequences of exposure to primal scenes. These writers have explained the traumatagenic issues by referring to

  • "a) the erotically charged character of the exposure, resulting in undischarged libidinal energy and concomitant anxiety;
  • b) the sadomasochistic content of fantasy misinterpretation of the event; and
  • c) the exacerbation of oedipal desires and resultant castration anxiety or other fears of retaliation" (Okami, 1995, p. 56).

Again, however, the few attempts to validate these notions empirically do not support predictions of harm.

For example, Rosenfeld et al. (1980) concluded that the extent of psychological damage has been exaggerated. These investigators arrived at their conclusion by two routes:

  • First, exposure to primal scenes appeared to be rather prevalent, with the most conservative estimates as high as 41%. Rosenfeld et al. suggested that given this frequency of occurrence, factors other than the primal scene qua primal scene must be responsible for trauma when it occurs.
  • Second, parents reported largely neutral and noncomprehending responses from their small children [...]  On the other hand, some children appeared to respond with amusement, giggling, and clear comprehension.

Thus, the rather sinister portrait emerging from psychoanalytic literature was largely absent from these parent reports.

Hoyt (1978, 1979) queried college students about their childhood exposure to scenes of parental sexuality. He found that although these students reported that their exposure had resulted in largely negative emotional responses at the time, the exposed group did not differ from the non-exposed group on self-report ratings of "current happiness" or frequency of and satisfaction with current sexual relations. Moreover, these subjects recalled exposure primarily at prepubescent and pubertal ages.

Given that the mean ages for first exposure reported by parents in the Rosenfeld et al. (1980) studies were between 4 and 6, it is conceivable that subjects in Hoyt's investigations were not reporting their first actual exposure to scenes of parental sexuality.

Therefore, findings of exposure at peri-pubertal ages are of limited value in assessing outcome of exposure to primal scenes generally, because with a few exceptions, primal scenes have been defined in the literature as events of early childhood. That is, responses such as "castration anxiety" and "Oedipal desires" are said to be of most critical importance in the lives of very young children.

The Present Study

Despite the lack of empirical support, psychoanalytic and family systems theorists continue to stress the potential for harm in exposure to parental nudity and primal scenes. Therefore, longitudinal outcome data are important in beginning to resolve this question.

In the present exploratory study, 204 families were enlisted during the mid-1970s as part of a multidisciplinary investigation of emergent family life-styles (UCLA Family Life-styles Project ...). Children were followed from birth to the current wave of data collection at age 17-18.

Because there was no indication in the literature that either of the target behaviors is harmful, we hypothesized no deleterious main effects of early childhood exposure either to nudity or primal scenes. We reasoned instead that if harm was associated with exposure to these events, such harm would result from interactions with specific ecological variables. One such variable might be the sex of the child.

Theories based in evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and ethology predict sex differences in psychological mechanisms mediating sexual behavior in humans (... ... ...).  Although most evolutionary theorizing about human sex differences in sexuality has focused on reproductively mature individuals, sex differences in sexuality-related psychological response also have been found among children and early adolescents (... ... ...).

In their study of adolescents ages 12-18 who were asked to recall their earliest sexual arousal and sexual feelings, Knoth et al. (1988) reported outcome correlates markedly congruent with evolutionary theory. Specifically, these investigators found that girls, as compared with boys, reported

  • later onset of arousal,
  • ess frequency of arousal,
  • less intense arousal,
  • less distracting arousal, and were
  • less likely to have experienced first arousal in response to visual cues.

In the study by Gold and Gold (1991), men, relative to women, reported that their boyhood fantasies were

  • more explicit and focused on the sexual acts themselves,
  • more likely to have resulted from visual cues,
  • more likely to have resulted in positive rather than negative affect,
  • and that they were first experienced at an earlier age.

Thus, sex differences in sexuality-related psychological responses appear to be present at least from pre-adolescence. They may also be present far earlier than previously supposed.

We explored this possibility in the present study. Outcome measures were chosen to reflect long-term adjustment in a number of areas of concern to clinicians. These areas included:

  • (i) self-acceptance;
  • (ii) relations with parents, peers, and other adults;
  • (iii) drug use;
  • (iv) antisocial and criminal behavior;
  • (v) suicidal ideation;
  • (vi) social problems associated with sexual behavior (getting pregnant or having gotten someone pregnant, and getting an STD); and
  • (vii) quality of sexual relationships, attitudes, and beliefs.

[.... Method ... ... ... ... ...]


[... ... ... A long explanation of the used statistical techniques ... ... ... with tables nd figures that are not given in the PDF version, the source of this file ...]

... To reduce the overall number and redundancy of the analyses, the drug use (excluding alcohol and tobacco) and "antisocial behavior" items were subjected to separate principal components analyses ... ....

... The principal components analyses yielded

  • five drug-use factors (72% explained variance) and
  • four antisocial behavior factors (58% explained variance).

The drug-use factors are hence referred to as Hard Drugs - highest loading items:

  • (i) Sedatives, minor tranquilizers,
  • (ii) Marijuana, hashish, psychedelic mushrooms, LSD, "Ecstasy";
  • (iii) PCP, major tranquilizers, other psychedelics, inhalants;
  • (iv) Amyl nitrate, amphetamines, other narcotics; and
  • (v) Heroin, barbiturates, cocaine, inhalants.

The antisocial behavior variables are hence labeled Antisocial behavior:

  • theft,
  • vandalism,
  • felonies, and
  • fighting.

Due to the extremely low dropout rate nearly all subjects provided outcome data. As such, the ns for each analysis range only from 181 to 189.

.... .... ....

Frequencies for exposure to the main predictor variables are as follows:

  • For exposure to primal scenes,
    • 63 (32%) children were exposed (boys n = 34, girls n = 29), whereas
    • 133 (68%) children were not exposed.
  • For exposure to parental nudity, exposure was more normally distributed so a 4-point continuous measure was used. Collapsing points 2 and 3,
    • 49 (25%) children were not exposed to any parental nudity,
    • 86 (44%) (boys n = 41, girls n = 46) were exposed with moderate frequency, and
    • 61 (31%) children (boys n = 34, girls n = 27) were exposed frequently.

Data for 7 children were not included in the analyses to follow due to unacceptable levels of missing data.

[... ... Tables that are not given in the PDF version ... ...]

There were no significant main effects of the predictor variables. A significant crossover interaction indicated that

  • for boys, exposure to primal scenes predicted reduced likelihood of having gotten an STD, or having gotten someone pregnant.
  • The reverse was the case for girls, who were significantly more likely to have gotten an STD or to have become pregnant
    [Figure omitted]

This finding was independent of the extent of sexual behavior engaged in. [... Tabular date omitted ...]

A number of trends were found that were significant [... Tabular data omitted...].

  • Exposure to parental nudity predicted
    • lower likelihood of sexual activity in  adolescence, but
    • more positive sexual experiences among that group of participants who were sexually active.
  • Exposure to parental nudity also predicted reduced instances of petty theft and shoplifting, but this was mediated by a sex of participant interaction indicating that this effect was attenuated or absent for women.
  • Similarly, exposure to parental nudity was associated at the level of trend with reduced use of drugs such as marijuana, LSD, Ecstasy, and psychedelic mushrooms, but again, this effect was mediated by a significant sex of participant interaction suggesting that this effect was experienced primarily by men. Indeed, exposed women were very slightly more likely to have used these drugs.
  • At the level of trend, exposure to primal scenes was associated with
    • higher levels of self-acceptance and
    • improved relations with adults other than parents.
  • There was also a trend for women exposed to primal scenes to have been less likely to use drugs such as PCP, major tranquilizers, inhalants, and psychedelics other than LSD or mushrooms.

Although a number of nonsignificant trends emerged for control variables, the only significant finding was that family sexual liberalism was associated with sexual liberalism at adolescence.

[... Tables, figures, omitted in the PDF version ...]


This study, using a longitudinal design, is the first to examine long-term correlates of early childhood exposure to parental nudity and primal scenes. Consistent with the cross-sectional retrospective literature (and with our expectations), no harmful main effects of these experiences were found at age 17-18.

Indeed, trends in the data that were significant at p [less than] 0.05 [... ...] Exposure to parental nudity was associated with positive, rather than negative, sexual experiences in adolescence, but with reduced sexual experience overall.

Boys exposed to parental nudity were

  • less likely to have engaged in theft in adolescence or
  • to have used various psychedelic drugs and marijuana. 

In the case of primal scenes, exposure was associated with

  • improved relations with adults outside of the family and with
  • higher levels of self-acceptance.

Girls exposed to primal scenes were also less likely to have used drugs such as PCP, inhalants, or various psychedelics in adolescence. The one note of caution was sounded by a significant sex of participant interaction indicating that

  • males' exposure to primal scenes was associated with reduced risk of social "problems" associated with sexuality, while the opposite was the case for females.
  • Women in our study who had been exposed to primal scenes reported increased instances of STD transmission and pregnancy.

All findings were independent of the effects of

  • SES,
  • sex of participant,
  • family stability,
  • pathology,
  • "pronaturalism," and
  • beliefs and attitudes toward sexuality.

Taken as a whole then, effects are few, but generally beneficial in nature.

Thus, results of this study add weight to the views of those who have opposed alarmist characterizations of childhood exposure both to nudity and incidental scenes of parental sexuality.

Moreover, although the association of higher instance of sexually transmitted diseases and adolescent pregnancy among young women exposed to primal scenes might appear at first glance to represent harm unequivocally, more careful examination renders these findings somewhat ambiguous.

In the case of increased instances of pregnancy among these women, for example, it should be noted that over half of those who reported having become pregnant (and almost half of the men who reported impregnating someone) rated their experience as "good" rather than "bad."

Although it is true that problems - sometimes serious problems - may attend such pregnancies in U.S. society, some data also suggest that these problems have been exaggerated (... ....), and may often result more from low SES [Social Economic Status?] than from adolescent pregnancy itself (...). Current treatment of adolescent pregnancy as intrinsically pathological may in part have generalized from an overall tendency to view adolescent sexual behavior as problematic (see Willis, 1986, for a sharply satirical characterization of this tendency).

Even findings of increased instances of STD [Sexual Transmissable Deseases?] transmission among the women in our study need to be considered carefully. Symons (...) pointed out that increased instances of STDs and pregnancy among women exposed to primal scenes might be more parsimoniously understood as decreased use of condoms among these women. Regardless of problematic outcome, decreased use of condoms may be motivated by heightened desire (and capacity) for intimacy or higher levels of trust in partners - as well as by simple lack of sexual responsibility or self-destructive tendencies. In this respect it should be recalled that there was a (non-significant) trend toward higher levels of self-acceptance and improved relations with adults among these women.

Interactions by sex of participant were found for several outcome measures in the direction of beneficial correlates for boys, and neutral or problematic correlates for girls. These interactions may be interpreted in a number of ways.

One interpretation would be that human males and females process sexuality-related events differently as the result of sexually dimorphic psychological mechanisms that have evolved through natural and sexual selection  (...).  Empirical evidence is consistent with the notion of dimorphism in psychological mechanisms (...). Moore (1995) has suggested the possibility that these mechanisms might begin to emerge reliably in childhood. Some evidence is also consistent with this suggestion (... ... Rind and Tromovich, 1997).

Other explanations of the gender interactions are also possible. For example, boys and girls are socialized differently throughout the world where sexuality is concerned, with girls being socialized more restrictively (Mead, 1967). Although these socialization procedures may also represent expressions of sexually dimorphic psychological adaptation by natural and sexual selection, it could be argued that they instead represent temporally specific but worldwide socio-cultural or socio-economic forces related to patriarchal control of female sexuality.

A third explanation of our results is more prosaic. These interactions by sex may be entirely artifactual statistical noise. Indeed, the effect sizes are small, and although interactions by sex in the same general direction were noted for a number of the outcome measures, only one of these interactions reached significance (...)  and one of them was reversed in direction - with women, but not men, exposed to primal scenes reporting less use of certain drugs.

Additionally, while findings of beneficial outcomes are interesting, specific findings are not predicted by any theory that we know. Thus, one is perhaps left with what may turn out to be non-replicable beneficial correlates of the predictors. As Scarr et al. (1990) observed, nonreplicable results is the typical fate for long-term regression studies, particularly when proximate, rather than distal, predictors are being examined.

In our view, then, the importance of the present investigation, apart from the suggestion of interactions by sex, lies not so much in positive findings as in the negative findings for harm - findings that converge on all of the available empirical data. Admittedly, any one set of negative results is not particularly informative.

However, given virtually no evidence in this or any other empirical study that the behaviors examined in the current study are unambiguously harmful, the interesting question becomes:

  • Why is it so widely believed in the United States and certain European nations that these practices are uniformly detrimental to the mental health of children? (See Okami, 1995, for review of professional and public opinion.)

Such notions, certainly where exposure to parental nudity is concerned, are perhaps better conceptualized as myths. Whereas any of these behaviors of course may be experienced in an abusive context - and may also occasion harm under certain circumstances for certain individuals - their appearance per se does not appear to constitute cause for alarm.

Limitations of the Data

[... Statistical considerations ...]

Findings of the current study do not resolve the moral (or legal) issue of whether the
behaviors we have examined represent "subtle sexual abuse." However, they do address the empirical question of whether these occurrences are harmful (...), Although evidence gathered for the present study is far from conclusive, at this
point it is difficult to see the utility of referring to these events a priori as harmful, and even more difficult to see the utility of characterizing them globally as "abusive."