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 but did not reach significance following the Bonferonni correction indicated primarily beneficial correlates of both of these variables. 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 (Furstenberg et al., 1987; Stevens-Simon and White, 1991), and may often result more from low SES than from adolescent pregnancy itself (Trussell, 1988). 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 transmission among the women in our study need to be considered carefully. Symons (February 1995, personal communication) 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 (nonsignificant) 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 (cf. Symons, 1979; Buss, 1994). Empirical evidence is consistent with the notion of dimorphism in psychological mechanisms (cf. Buss, 1994; Ellis and Symons, 1990). Moore (1995) has suggested the possibility that these mechanisms might begin to emerge reliably in childhood. Some evidence is also consistent with this suggestion (cf. Gold and Gold, 1991; Knoth et al., 1988; Rind and Tomorovich, 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 sociocultural or socioeconomic 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 after the Bonferonni correction, 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 nonreplicable 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
A number of methodological limitations need to be addressed in interpreting results of this study. Most obviously, although the sample contains an interesting assortment of families that permitted the predictor variables to be studied in a number of contexts, these families undoubtedly differ in a number of potentially important ways from the "average" U.S. family. In addition to volunteer bias, the sample is made up entirely of European Americans residing in California at the time of enrollment, and "nonconventional" means exactly what it says - three fourths of the sample were nonrepresentative of typical American life-style by definition. However, while not representative, the current sample was dedicated and attrition virtually nonexistent. This adds considerably to the meaningfulness of the analysis. Moreover, because the nonconventional families (whose members constituted approximately 75% of the total sample) were more likely to adhere to countercultural values supportive of free sexual expression, nudity within the family, and so forth, it is precisely in a data set such as this that one ought to expect to see elevated problems if these practices are in fact deleterious of themselves.
Finally, whereas the sample is sufficiently large to detect main effects of even small magnitude, the regression design has less power to detect interactions. Therefore, some of the interaction trends that failed to reach significance might have been significant with a slightly larger sample. However, if this were the case, those results would have likely strengthened, rather than weakened, findings of beneficial effects and sex of participant interactions - presuming that the sample was comparable.
In this regard, the specific nature of the importance of random sampling has sometimes been distorted. As Brecher and Brecher (1986) pointed out, representativeness of sample is critical primarily in the case of prevalence and incidence studies and public opinion polls. "Definitive" testing with a random sample may not be the most powerful method of approaching questions such as those asked in the present study - particularly, given the lack of precision in measurement within the social sciences and the difficulty of constructing a truly representative sample in a society as heterogeneous as the United States. Data triangulation and cumulation of findings among heterogeneous groups is therefore a reasonable alternative.
Sampling issues aside, problems with measurement are also apparent. Some of the outcome measures have skewed distributions and this reduces the validity of the analyses for those variables. More important are problems of validity and reliability of the outcome measures themselves. Whereas some measures have publication histories, others, such as the FLS instruments, have less readily available reliability or validity information. Indeed, a few of these measures consisted simply of a face-valid scale based on a single item or small number of items. Additionally, the 18-year outcome data used in this analysis - unlike the early childhood predictor data - were collected entirely by questionnaire self-report (although in-depth interviews for 50% of participating adolescents were being conducted as of this writing).
However, the particular nature of the FLS sample offsets some of these problems. For example, although social desirability and demand characteristics are always a problem in studies such as the current one, the strong dedication to the project evinced both by FLS parents and children suggests that these participants may have responded as honestly as they are capable of doing. Additionally, the questionnaires in general refer to what were current, not retrospective events, so problems of recall are not as relevant as they would have been had the project been retrospective rather than longitudinal (Berk et al., 1995).
In any event, lack of reliability in the instruments used here would tend to reduce the probability of the type of findings that emerged. Lack of reliability should have produced null findings - not positive findings in a direction directly opposite that proposed by received wisdom. Moreover, the overall power for any particular analysis reported here (and thus, the probability of finding the current results) was reduced as a consequence of the Bonferroni adjustment. Had this conservative correction not been used, a number of other "beneficial effects" of the target variables would have reached significance levels. It is therefore difficult to imagine a methodological problem that could have erroneously painted such a consistent portrait of no harm.
Taking this line of reasoning further, although we have chosen to report these results using methods of significance testing that emphasize absolute limits, we have come to believe that the use of confidence intervals might be a better way to view such data in the future (Cohen, 1994; Schmidt, 1996). Of course, this alternative perspective would not have led to substantively different conclusions for the present study - as already mentioned, the effect sizes are, in general, unimpressive. However, in going beyond the arbitrariness of absolute limits, the borderline effects can stand as potential foci for future research.
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, at least within certain domains. 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."
The authors thank Dr. Thomas S. Weisner, Director of the Family Lifestyles Project, for his patience and cooperation; Dr. Maureen Bernstein for her assistance; and Dr. Helen Garnier - our "silent" fifth author - for her extensive assistance and support.
3 "Problems" is encased in quotation marks because, whereas STD transmission may with reason be considered unequivocally problematic, impregnating or becoming pregnant was seen by some participants as a positive event (see Discussion).
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