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.