Early childhood exposure to parental nudity and scenes of parental sexuality
('primal scenes'): an 18-year longitudinal study of outcome


Authors: Paul Okami, Richard Olmstead, Paul R. Abramson, Laura Pendleton

Publication: Archives of Sexual Behaviour. Volume: 27. Issue: 4

(In this redaction from the source, the matter of 'primal scenes' is largely excepted as irrelevant for the present context.)


Increasing numbers of academic researchers and clinicians have suggested that behaviours 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 unrecognised.

In the present article we report results of the first longitudinal investigation of long-term correlates of exposure to parental nudity and primal scenes.

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: 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 unfavourable 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 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. It may tentatively be inferred that under such conditions large numbers of the world's population of children are exposed to parental nudity. Finally, another 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.

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. 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 behaviours is harmful, we hypothesised 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. 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 a study of adolescents ages 12-18 who were asked to recall their earliest sexual arousal and sexual feelings, the reported outcome correlates markedly congruent with evolutionary theory. 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.

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 behaviour; (v) suicidal ideation; (vi) social "problems" associated with sexual behaviour (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. 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 enrolment, 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 Collection

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 analysed.

Predictor Variables

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.

Control Variables

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 enrolment, 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. 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 emphasising 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." 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 unfavourable 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.

Criterion Variables

Self-acceptance, and relations with peers, parents, and other adults, antisocial behaviour, and substance use were all measured using subscales created for the UCLA Adolescent Growth study. 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 ... 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."

In the case of antisocial behaviour, 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 substances.


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

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 utilised.

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.

Frequencies for exposure to the main predictor variables are as follows: For exposure to parental nudity, 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.

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.


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 ... 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.

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 characterisations of childhood exposure both to nudity and incidental scenes of parental sexuality.

Additionally, while findings of beneficial outcomes are interesting, specific findings are not predicted by any theory that we know. However, given virtually no evidence in this or any other empirical study that the behaviours 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? Such notions, certainly where exposure to parental nudity is concerned, are perhaps better conceptualized as myths. Whereas any of these behaviours 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 enrolment, 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.

Findings of the current study do not resolve the moral (or legal) issue of whether the behaviours 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 characterising them globally as "abusive."