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Title: Early childhood exposure to parental nudity and scenes of parental sexuality
(‘primal scenes’): an 18-year longitudinal study of outcome
Author: Paul Okami, Richard Olmstead, Paul R. Abramson, Laura Pendleton
Publication: Archives of Sexual Behavior. Volume: 27. Issue: 4
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
(Atteberry-Bennett, 1987; Bolton, Morris and MacEachron, 1989; cf. Bottfield, 1992;
Conte, cited in Best, 1990; Haynes-Seman and Krugman, 1989; Kritsberg, 1993; Krug,
1989; Lewis and Janda, 1988; Sroufe and Fleeson, 1986). 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 (cf. Sroufe and Fleeson, 1986).
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 (Berger, 1977; Hartman et
al., 1991; Johnson and Deisher, 1973; Smith and Sparks, 1986). In general, the tone of all
of this work is antialarmist, 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 (Baruch, 1959, also
cited in Lewis and Janda, 1988, p. 350; DeCecco and Shively, 1977; Justice and Justice,
1979; Peltz, 1977; Solnit, 1977; Spock, 1945).
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 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 (cf. Finch, 1982; Goodson, 1991; Martinson, 1977; Mead, cited in Goodson,
1991). Although 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 (e.g., Barry and Paxton, 1971;
Caudill and Plath, 1966; Gardner, 1975; Lozoff et al., 1998; Morelli et al., 1992;
Stephens, 1972; Whiting, 1964; Whiting and Edwards, 1988). It may tentatively be
inferred that under such conditions large numbers of the world's population of children
are exposed to parental nudity. Finally, 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 [Mathematical
Expression Omitted]. 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 nonexposed 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
peripubertal 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
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, cf. Weisner and Garnier, 1992). 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
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 (Abramson and Pinkerton, 1995; Buss, 1994, 1995;
Symons, 1979, 1995; Tooby and Cosmides, 1992). 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 (Gold and Gold, 1991; Knoth et al., 1988;
Sorenson, cited in Kirkendall and McBride, 1990). 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, less 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
preadolescence. 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"(3) associated with sexual behavior (getting pregnant or
having gotten someone pregnant, and getting an STD); and (vii) quality of sexual
relationships, attitudes, and beliefs.
The UCLA Family Lifestyles Project (FLS) is a longitudinal investigation founded in
1973 to examine emergent family life-styles of that era (cf. Eiduson, 1983; Weisner and
Garnier, 1992; Weisner and Wilson-Mitchell, 1990). Fifty "conventional" and 154
"nonconventional" families, matched for ethnicity and socioeconomic status (SES)
according to Hollingshead's four-factor model (Hollingshead, 1975), were enrolled prior
to the birth of the target child. All parents were of European American descent and were
living in the State of California when recruited. The parents ranged in age between 18 and
32 years at the time of enrollment, and the families fell between the 20th and 90th
national percentile of SES and education status.
Conventional families were defined as those in a "married couple relationship" and were
referred by a randomly selected sample of obstetricians from the San Francisco, San
Diego, and Los Angeles areas. Nonconventional families were recruited through
physician referral, birthing office records, alternative media announcements, and referral
by already enrolled participants. Nonconventional family forms included intentional
single mothers, couples living in communes or other group-living situations, and "social
contract" couples. During the most recent wave of data collection, target children were
between the ages of 17 and 18 years. Approximately equal numbers of boys and girls
participated, although the precise number varied somewhat with each wave of data
collection. Attrition for the FLS sample has been minimal however, with data between
95-98% complete for the first 18 years.
Data were collected using multiple methods at frequent intervals during the first 6 years,
and less frequent intervals for the subsequent 6 years. Data were collected through FLS
staff home visit observation and evaluation, parent and child interviews using FLS
measures, FLS questionnaires, teacher report, independent and school psychologists'
observations and evaluations, and standard measures including objective and projective
tests administered by school psychologists and independent psychologists. No data were
collected after 12 years until the current wave of data collection at year 17-18. For the
current study, only 17-18-year outcome data were analyzed.
To determine extent of exposure to nudity and primal scenes, parents were asked two
questions in a face-to-face interview at child's age 3: "Does mother (father) go nude in
front of child?" and "Does mother (father) bathe or shower with the child?" The questions
were followed by 4- and 5-point Likert scales anchored by 1 (never) and 4 (regularly) or 1
(never) and 5 (daily). At child's age 6, parents were asked whether they (i) discouraged
family nudity, (it) felt OK about nudity within the family but not with others, or (iii)
encouraged nudity within the family and with others.
Exposure to primal scenes was measured by two items. At child's age 3, parents were
asked whether their child had ever seen them "have sex." They were offered a 4-point
Likert response format anchored by 1 (never) and 4 (regularly). At child's age 6, parents
were again asked if their child had observed them having intercourse, and again offered a
4-point scale anchored by 1 (no) and 4 (regularly). Because of shifts in the identity of
mothers' male partners for some of the families over the first 6 years, and the greater
frequency of fathers working outside of the home and being unavailable for interview,
missing data for fathers approach unacceptable levels. Therefore, only mothers' data were
used for these analyses. However, whenever data for fathers existed, correlation with
mothers' data was typically high (e.g., n = 69, r = .80).
Scores for individual variables were standardized [Mathematical Expression Omitted]
and combined so that the two time points (age 3 and age 6) were given equal weight.
Control variables included participant child's sex, family SES, and family climate
(troubled/nontroubled status, pronaturalism, sexual liberalism/conservatism). Families
participating in the FLS project differed as to domestic arrangements, stability, values and
beliefs, and degrees of commitment to those values and beliefs. On the basis of intensive
case-by-case examination of family life-style, a typology of family types was developed
and subjected to discriminant analysis. This analysis assigned 83% of families to the
same type identified qualitatively (Weisner and Wilson-Mitchell, 1990). One of these
types was termed "changeable/troubled" in the original FLS reports, and simply
"troubled" in the current study for use as a control variable. Thirty-one families (16.4%)
were assigned to this category qualitatively. This type was characterized by unstable
family composition (defined as frequent changes of mothers' male partners and/or
frequent residential changes); low commitment to whatever were the stated family values;
and typically disturbed parent relations or alcohol/substance abuse and other pathologies.
At the time of enrollment, parents were assessed as to shared family values. A number of
items were initially generated regarding child-rearing, the environment, and human
relationships. The construct addressed by these items was termed "pronaturalism" by FLS
investigators (cf. Weisner et al., 1983). Varimax rotation was used to derive three factors
with high loadings and good commonalities (Weisner, 1986). These factors described
belief in the use of natural materials, medicines, and food; a de-emphasis on materialism
and possessions; a "warm and emotionally expressive" style emphasizing honesty,
intimacy, emotionality, and physical warmth and closeness; belief in "natural"
child-rearing practices such as breastfeeding and close parent-infant contact; a loose,
laid-back family style emphasizing low conflict, little punishment and aggression,
conforming parenting style to the temperament of the child, and belief in the
wholesomeness of perceived styles of pre-industrial peoples who are assumed to be more
"naturally human." (For an interesting discussion of the fallacy of the "naturally human"
assumption, see Buss, 1994, p. 17.) The construct "pronaturalism" was measured at
child's age 3, 6, and 17-18 years and then averaged.
"Sexual liberalism/conservatism" was measured through aggregate rating by FLS staff
interviewer of mother's responses to a series of items related to attitudes toward sexuality.
This measure was administered at child's age 3. "Conservative" attitudes included low
tolerance for childhood masturbation and sex play, restrictive attitudes toward nudity in
the home (independent of actual presence of nudity in the home), highly unfavorable
attitudes about children viewing parental intercourse (independent of children actually
viewing intercourse), an unwillingness to acquaint children with the "facts of life," and
"traditional" beliefs about the notion of gender equality. "Liberal" attitudes included
tolerance for masturbation, sex play, and family nudity; more permissive attitudes about
children viewing intercourse; a willingness to impart sex education; and "progressive"
attitudes about gender equality.
Self-acceptance, and relations with peers, parents, and other adults, antisocial behavior,
and substance use were all measured using subscales created for the UCLA Adolescent
Growth study (cf. Huba and Bentler, 1982; Newcomb et al., 1983). In the case of
self-acceptance and relations with peers, parents, and other adults, the participants were
given two columns of statements, one affirmative and the other negative, and a 5-point
Likert scale anchored by 1 (the answer on the left is true for sure) and 5 (the answer on
the right is true for sure). The varied direction of response choices was counterbalanced.
Participants were asked to circle the number that best described "the way you are most of
the time." Each subscale consisted of four items.
In the case of antisocial behavior, participants were asked how many times over the
previous 6 months they had engaged in various specific instances of petty or felony theft,
fighting, assaults, and vandalism. In the case of substance use, participants were first
asked how many times over the previous 6 months they had used a wide variety of
nonprescription, prescription, and illicit substances. They were also asked how many
times over the previous 6 months they had been involved in accidents while using these
Quality of sexual relationships, experiences of pregnancy and STD, and suicidal ideation
were addressed using face-valid, FLS self-report measures. Suicidal ideation was
measured in binary fashion by a single item asking whether or not the participant had
contemplated suicide during the previous 6 months. Regarding STD transmission and
pregnancy, the participants were asked whether the event happened in the past 6 months,
and, if it occurred, whether it was experienced as positive or negative. Participants were
also asked to rate the effect that the event had on their life using a four-column format (no
effect, some effect, moderate effect, and great effect). Quality of sexual relationships was
addressed by items asking whether the adolescent had fallen deeply in love, begun dating
a new boyfriend/girlfriend, or broken up with a boyfriend/girlfriend.
The correlations among the predictor variables appear in Table I. 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
with varimax rotation. The number of factors was determined by the eigenvalue [greater
than] 1.0 rule and examination of the Scree plots. As the goal of the procedure was data
reduction, the issue of whether the resulting factors were substantively interpretable was
secondary. The generated factor scores were then used as outcome measures representing
drug use and antisocial behavior.
Each of the continuous outcome measures was subjected to a standard multiple regression
analysis. The model included the predictors indicated above and interaction terms for
Primal Scene Exposure x Sex and Nudity x Sex. For binary outcome measures (been
sexually active, been suicidal, been in an accident involving alcohol or drugs) logistic
regression was utilized.
Because this study involved the examination of a large number of outcomes, we decided
that some attempt to control Type I error rate was [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE I
OMITTED] necessary. The Bonferroni method (using the number of regressions)
specified a critical p value of .0017. However, it was decided that this was perhaps too
conservative as the outcomes are not for the most part independent. Thus, we selected p =
.0025 as the critical value. Coefficients significant at 0.0025 [less than] p [less than] 0.05
were considered as trends only.
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. In general, we deemed the data
appropriate for multiple regression; no major violations of the assumption of the method
were apparent. The inclusion of the interaction terms did reduce tolerance but not to an
unacceptable level. Descriptive statistics for continuous predictor and outcome variables
appear in Table II and the distribution of binary predictor and outcome variables appears
in Table III.
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.
Table IV displays the results for continuous outcome measures in the 18-year follow-up,
and Table V displays results for the binary variables.
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 [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. This finding was independent
of the extent of sexual behavior engaged in.
[TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE II OMITTED]
A number of trends were found that were significant at p [less than] 0.05, which was
above the cutoff point for significance after the Bonferonni correction. Exposure to
parental nudity predicted lower likelihood of sexual activity in [TABULAR DATA FOR
TABLE III OMITTED] [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE IV OMITTED] [TABULAR
DATA FOR TABLE V OMITTED] 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. Squared semipartial correlations for the predictor variables are
displayed in Table VI. In no [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE VI OMITTED] case was
explained variance greater than 5.7% and for most variables the figure was less than 1%.
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
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
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