Recently, I read an article about someone whose parents would purposely have sex in front of him when he was a young child. Many of the comments left in response to the article remarked that this amounts to child abuse. (For a less extreme example, it's commonly held that exposing young children to porn or graphic sex scenes is similarly inappropriate.) I agree that this sort of thing is egregious, but I don't know how to explain why. When the child is watching his parents have sex, what exactly is happening that harms him?

Like you, my instinct is that this would be wrong. Your question is: assuming it harms a child to watch its parents have sex, what exactly is the harm?

Of course, the assumption might be wrong. It's an empirical question. But if it's harmful, what's the nature of the harm?

The obvious first point is that the harm would be psychological, not physical. The perhaps less obvious second point is that if it is harmful, this isn't inevitable, but has a great deal to do with context, expectations, cultural norms and the like.

Imagine a society in which people live in close quarters and privacy is a luxury. It's nor hard to imagine that for purely practical reasons, people would end up being seen by others when they have sex, including by their own children. If the norm in the society was that this was not a big deal, and the normal pattern of behavior was simply to ignore the couple, it's easy to imagine that seeing one's parents have sex wouldn't make for any psychological trauma.

Our society is a different matter. In our society, parents don't have sex in front of their children. The child has no context for the behavior, no way of forming expectations, no one to talk with about it or compare experiences. The child might find it frightening: why is mommy/daddy making those noises? Are mommy and daddy hurting one another? Why am I not supposed to tell anyone about this? Why are mommy and daddy making me watch? What are these funny feelings I'm having?

And so on. Given the norms, expectations, taboos and so on of our society, forcing a child to watch its parents have sex could very well be disturbing to the child and amount to a kind of abuse. This is perfectly consistent with their being other societies where that wouldn't be true. And in fact, there's an example that's relevant to your question.

The anthropologist Gilbert Herdt documented ritual practices among the Sambia people of New Guinea in which young boys performed fellatio on older males. The belief was that semen contains a substance that young boys need in order to mature; the ritual performs a "coming of age" function.

In our culture, forcing a boy to fellate someone would be sexual abuse. But do we want to say the same thing about Sambian culture? In particular, do we think that young Sambian boys are psychologically scarred by the ritual? Once again, it's an empirical question, but in this case, the answer may very well be no. For one thing, it's an accepted regular practice with no shame attached to it, and in fact with a positive value in the culture. According to Herdt, the boys go on to lead normal family lives. A description of the practice that ignores the cultural setting will leave out crucial information.

That said: even if Sambian boys aren't harmed, that doesn't mean it would be harmless in our own society. And if a father tried to excuse forcing his son to have oral sex with him by claiming that he was inspired by respect and admiration for Sambian culture, this would be no defense at all.

Someone might read me as saying that if we'd all just get over ourselves and let go over our prudish conventions, the harm of such practices would go away. But this strikes me as far too simple. First, there's not the slightest reason to believe that there ever will be a culture without what are ultimately conventional norms and taboos. Second and related, arbitrary conventions can give us things that we value for reasons that aren't just conventional. Our ways of expressing respect, regret, even affection are laden with conventions that would look arbitrary to a Martian. But few of us would want to be deprived of the possibility of expressing those things.

No doubt some of our cultural taboos need to be challenged and overthrown. But cultures are complicated and their parts fit together in complicated ways. In the unlikely event that a couple asked me if it would be okay to make their child watch while they had sex, I'd say no without a second of hesitation, even if I can imagine a different world where I'd say yes.

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