Updated: Jun 11
When working with couples I have long told them to see sex not as a single momentary event, but as a way of living their lives. A couple’s sex life shouldn’t be seen as limited to direct genital contact, or even to physical contact at all, but rather it is an attitude and way of life. In the sex-positive home a low-level type of foreplay goes on all day, every day: in everyday conversation, in how you dress even when no one is home, how you interact with both your spouse and all other sexually desirable people you encounter, and is even reflected in how your arrange and decorate your home environment. Sex has been liked unto a symphony. Your relationship with your spouse/partner is the first movement, your routine daily behavior is the second movement, and overt romantic behavior is the third movement. All three are enjoyable parts of the concert that support the inexorable march to that comparatively short but powerful crescendo, which is the physical act of sex.
Many marriages begin this way; however, there seems to be a general, if unwritten, opinion that once children arrive you should desexualize your world and relegate sex to those few precious hours you have when the children are asleep and doors are closed. It is just supposed that somehow that an atmosphere devoid of sexuality will still lead to a fabulous sex life. That is nonsense. A good and full sexual way of life can and should be the normal way couples live when they have small children, with children in the middle grades, with children going through puberty and with sexually mature children.
It does children of all ages no favor to desexualize your loving and stable domestic relationship. In truth, an asexual home is harmful to your children’s development of a positive outlook on their own body and sexuality in general. A desexualized home indicates that your children's own sexuality is somehow something to repress and ignore. And be sure, someone will be teaching your children how to view their body and sexuality. Do you really want to leave that to the media, their peers and the internet?
In considering how much open sexuality is good for your children, one must understand, through most of the history of humanity family groups lived all together in one room, often in one bed. The notion that an environment that includes adult sexual behavior is harmful is a legacy of the medieval Christian church and the unfounded ideas of Sigmund Freud. Both essentially postulated that sexuality was inherently harmful and debilitating, especially for children. That view point is the antithesis of sex positive. I would contend that children growing up in a home with loving parents who are openly physically demonstrative in their love for one another (read that sexualized home environment) will grow into far healthier adults, with far healthier relationships than those who do not see such expressions of love.
But is that good for children?
The critics of an openly sexual home environment point to abusive relationships where the kids are either sexually exploited for the benefit of adults or routinely view sexual exploitation. When I was a social worker, I all too often found vulnerable mothers who out of desperation would go through a string of boyfriends who routinely used sexuality to disrespect and abuse her in front of her children. I’ve seen the serious lasting damage such a home has on children. However, these things always, and I mean always happen in a dysfunctional family system. The sexual traumatization of such children is the symptom, not the cause of these families’ problems. I would quickly agree that sexuality can be a weapon to harm children; however, the problem is not the sexually open home, the problem is the abusive relationships. I could make a much better case for condemning beer in the home than open sexuality.
That being said, the arrival of children is not the time to take down that erotic painting on the bedroom wall, or box up that sculpture in the den of a couple making love, or hide your sex toys at the back of the closet, or toss that sheer gown you so loved to wear as you sipped wine in the evenings. No! Rather those outward symbols and behaviors of your sexual life are now more important than ever. With the demands of parenthood, you need to see that erotic painting on the wall every morning, you need to see that sculpture of a couple making love to repeatedly remind you of that special joy, every time you walk in your room those sex toys on (not in) the dresser are waiting to both keep your mind on sexual pleasure, but also to provide your pleasure in that 15 minutes when the twins are both asleep. And when you wear that sheer gown, even when you two are not sipping wine in the candle light, but watching Frozen on the TV with the kids for the 20th time you and your mate need to be reminded that you are a sexual being and a mother at the same time. Yes, the kids will see the painting and the sculpture and the vibrator and dildo and yes they’ll see mom in the see through robe (and perhaps dad holding her breast underneath it). For the parents these things help you keep foreplay an all-day affair. Perhaps more importantly, you are providing your children a highly loving, stable and secure environment while at the same time teaching how loving adults treat one another with tenderness, affection, respect and sexual actions.
One last note on this; I use the term husband and wife, but the genitalia of the parents is irrelevant, so too are the number of “parents”. The principles are the same be it a single parent or a poly family of 3, 4, 5 or more. It is the love and stability that allows children to thrive. Children can adapt and normalize a great variety of circumstances if their home is loving and stable.
Does the Children’s Age Matter?
Often childhood is viewed as a single thing, while it is clearly a series of developmental stages, cognitively, emotionally and physically. In choosing how best to have a sexualized home environment that is conductive to the healthy development of your children, there are a great number of positive approaches that one might take. The issue is the parents should decide in advance what sexual behaviors they want to seem “normal” to their children, and by extension what behaviors they think would be good for them in their post adolescent life. Make no mistake, though teens may seem to reject their parents sexual values, they all carry them their entire life. Based on what you want the outcome to be, you provide the type and level of sexualized environment. In our case we sought to pass on a very sex positive attitude, and have had what I would consider a relatively sexually open home, though not nearly approaching the ethical limits. In part we were constrained by living in the south-east US and by our concern not to offend my wife’s very conservative family. Even still, our sexual openness would shock many.
In early childhood, children are relatively oblivious to the outside world’s sexual moral expectations. As such, parental nudity, nudity of non-family members (i.e. friends and lovers) and even explicit sexual behavior by the adults is at most something of passing curiosity. The one caveat is that they will have limited interest as long as it does not appear to be harmful to Mom, Dad or their own security. On one hand that seems to suggest that having a threesome on the floor while your kids watch TV has no downsides; but one must remember that children talk about and act out what they see at home. A three year old growing up regularly seeing mom give dad a blow job would not hesitate to give a boy in her (or his) class a blow job on the playground. I have seen this very thing while working with children as young as five years old. How long do you think it took for social services to become very involved in that child’s family? In many jurisdictions there would be immediate removal of the offending child from the home. So, while seeing loving parents have sex openly might not be bad for children in itself, the impact might be very bad indeed.
So what’s the middle ground? Our choice was to leave the door fully open when we made love until our oldest was approaching puberty, and a leaving it partially open from then on. We wanted them to know that nothing going on in our bed was bad or secret. When they came to the door or came into our bedroom, we stopped actively enjoying ourselves, but we might or might not remain in coitus while we spoke with the kids and sent them on their way. We also did not refrain from situational nudity. When they were younger we had a private pool where Mom and Dad swam nude a good portion of the time. When they were older, the family went to certain beaches Paula and I would on occasion go sans swim wear when we sunned or played with the kids in the surf. We did not encourage nor forbid them from doing the same
In the middle years (from about age 6 till the onset of puberty), in a stable home, children learn to navigate the difference between what is “home” behavior and what is “public” behavior. They are no longer likely to see Mom giving a blow job then go to school and randomly try it out on a boy at recess. They also, with help from Mom and Dad, begin to learn about appropriate time and place. In a home where Suzie (or Johnny) repeatedly sees Mom giving Dad oral sex, it might be necessary for Mom to explain that although Mom and Dad do this, it is something only big people do and Suzie (or Johnny) shouldn’t do that to their friends. Kids are used to “grown-up” things, using the table saw is grown-up, and driving a car is grown-up and drinking wine is grown-up. Telling your kids something is for grown-up’s doesn’t imply that it is wrong, but only wrong to do now.
The middle years are when children begin to build their own personal sense of control over their environment and their body. It’s important to be sensitive to and support this growing sense-of-self as they separate from their parents. They may have many sexual things in their environment, but they are still distant. Even if they imitate sex play it is still just a form of Cowboys and Indians. Don’t be confused they do not yet conceive of real sexuality any more than the conceive of really killing someone with a gun. Be sure they do understand the difference between appropriate ways to play at home and what is appropriate at their friend’s house.
Up to and during most of the middle years parent’s actions are enough moral authority for the children, no serious explanation of any changes in sexualization at home is necessary as it is when your kids reach puberty. Thus, if parents are considering adding something new, be it family nudity, leaving the bedroom door open when they have sex, or having a friend (or friends) sleep with Mom and/or Dad, the middle years are a good time to make such changes. After those middle years, it is not advisable to make more than incremental changes in the level of sexualization of the home environment. Change in this will be upsetting to your kids.
If Mom and Dad routinely have always worn underwear outside the bedroom, and the parents want to visit a family friendly nudist resort, a rapid shift from no nudity to full public nudity might not be advisable. A more gradual introduction is better. Starting with introducing incidental parental nudity at home with increasing frequency. Later a trip to a deserted beach or National Forest with Mom and Dad going nude might be a good transition to public nudity.
Puberty is a difficult time for kids, and it’s imperative that parents be sensitive to their feelings about sexuality, even if those feelings change from day to day. I’d like to say parents shouldn’t offend their pubescent children’s sensibilities about sexual things, but unless you take the ‘sex is non-existent’ route, it’s not likely to be possible, particularly with girls. They may swing wildly from being offended at the least hint of parental sexuality to shocking displays of their own sexual maturity. The key is patience, and consistency. Be willing to gear back if you believe it best for the family, but don’t let them bully you. If you’re looking to have children with a sex positive attitude, give them permission to explore their own sexuality, even gently encourage them to try new things.
Be willing to let them know you enjoy things like sexual images on the net and try to guide them to look for the kind of images that conform to healthy sexual role models. I recall taking my 12 year old nephew to see Titanic. His parents are very conservative, and I was sure this was the first movie nudity and heavy sex scene he'd ever seen (this was before the internet was so accessible). As you recall it, that sex scene with Leo and Kate in the car was really hot. After the movie, as I drove home, we discussed how, while it was not morally wrong for Leonardo De Caprio to have sex with Kate Winslet, I challenged him to consider whether they had considered if it were the most responsible thing under the circumstances (OK, not a romantic approach). By both validating that it was fun to watch Kate naked and to validate that sex for fun is not wrong I gave him permission to enjoy his budding sexuality; while on the other hand I challenged him to think of morality in terms not about dicks and pussies, but about responsibility.
The biggest thing during puberty is let your children know, in no uncertain terms, that their sexuality is their own and it is good. Shame is the killer at this age, help your kids fight it. The only real change we made when our daughter hit puberty was I (dad) reduced then stopped hanging around the house naked. I only went nude at the beach with the kids once after she was a teen, though she and mom did take a walk from the clothed side of the beach to the nude side when she was about 14. Mom however, never stopped going naked. If I had to do it again, I would not have stopped either. I think by unilaterally stopping going nude with the family, I may have foreclosed both of my kids choice as to choose nudity for themselves.
Finally your children will exit puberty in their early to mid teens, fully sexually mature however; you must keep in mind that they aren't close to being adults emotionally or cognitively. While you can begin to see them as friends, you can never lose sight they still need you as a parent (even if they do not think so).
One upside is that your adolescent children will begin to realize that like them, you, their parents, have a social life. They are old enough to have their own life and understand you have yours outside of just being a parent. On the other hand, the home is now their social hub as well as yours. If you want to increase the sexualizatoin of the home environment you now have the obligation to discuss it with your teens. They are justified in demanding to have a say about the sexual things in the home, but only as far as they can see and hear. If they are uncomfortable with you and/or your friends swimming nude in the family pool they have the right to insist it not happen when they are swimming, but don’t have the right to tell Mom and Dad they can’t do so when they are not present. Thus, any new levels of sexualization in the general household life must give them the right to opt out or veto. In most cases an honest talk, treating them as adults, will be very successful. The question might be asked, how much sexualization is too much in a home with teens? Is it ethically OK, for instance, to have your best friends over and have a foursome on the deck while your 16 year old swims nearby?
I feel a need to point out here the concept of the legal age of consent and how what that means is different in every one of the states of the US. Outside the US, most nations have a national age of consent that makes things easier, but in the US, not only are the ages different, but the meaning of the term differs. In the US, the most common age of consent is sixteen. Other advanced countries have different ages of consent. My professional opinion is that with the ever earlier onset of sexual maturity fifteen would be a more appropriate age, but what I think doesn’t matter, the law does. In some states the age of consent means the teenager can have sex with other teens or adults of any age. But in other states the age of consent only give the ability to consent to have sex with people who are twp, three, or four years older or younger (depending on the state). So, a nineteen year old and his sixteen year old girlfriend might legally have sex at home, but if they go to the wrong state on a trip, he could be locked up for years as a sex-offender.
This is why when your kids get old enough to have an active interest in sex, it is imperative to go from the word “grown-up” to the specific age in your location. The legal consequences in some US states of sex before sixteen, especially if the parent gives consent, can be severe. When our daughter had sex at fifteen, we had a sit-down and told her that we did not personally think it was wrong that she had decided to have sex, but she must wait till her next birthday to do it again. We told her that "If you want her to, Mom will take you out to buy sexy lingerie for your birthday so you and your boyfriend can celebrate." Then to make the point we told her "If you wait until your birthday, you and your boyfriend can have sex right on the living room floor if you want. It is the law, not us, that says you have to wait another few months till you are sixteen."
Because we had a good and positive relationship with her, she did as we asked. And though she never chose to have sex on the living room floor, during her junior year of high school, when she wanted her boyfriend to spend the night in her room, she brought up that promise to let us know she remembered what we'd said about her sexual freedom.
Before I continue, I think it’s good to consider what teen sexuality is all about.
First we must again remember, emotionally and intellectually your girl is way behind her “C” cup boobs and your son is even further behind his six inches of ever-hard penis. Teenager's judgment about risks and benefits is far behind their ability to take risks. I’ve told parents of young children for years that they will spend the first dozen or so years filling up their cup of influence with their children so that they can use it up when they are in high school. These sexually potent young people need not judgment but guidance; not rules, but support.
The parents of adolescents hopefully have already been modeling respect for years; both giving and expecting. However, Suzie might not have the skills to know if she’s being used when deciding if she’ll let Bill feel her up. If sexual issues have been normal conversation since she was a toddler, it should be only natural to ask mom about it. Consider another example, if you have been a single parent or perhaps you have an open marriage, you will have had opportunity to role model safe sex. If they have seen that you have condoms on the dresser and take them every time you go on a date, they will think it the “adult” thing to do likewise. In our case our daughter knew mom kept condoms for her dating, even though she'd had a hysterectomy and did not need them for birth control. So throughout her teen years she routinely took condoms from mom's supply when she ran out of her own.
Your teenage kid will follow your example if you give them one. Sexualization of the home environment comes part and parcel with providing a good role model.
I reject the notion that teen pre-sexual behavior and/or teen sex is bad or harmful. All the research I’ve seen shows that kids who have emotional troubles have more sex. The common but wrong conclusion is that the sex causes the emotional problems. The evidence does not even begin to show that. What the evidence shows is that teens who already have problems use sex to make them feel better. Yes, the evidence shows that teens who are grow up in a positive and sexually open home have sex sooner and more often. However, they also have a much lower teen pregnancy and STD rate than other teens. So, one must ask, is teen sex bad even when the teens are making responsible choices? I suggest not, but it is up to the parent who chooses to have a sexualized household to also provide both support and training to help their kids make good choices.
Each child has their own biological clock, and when that clock says it’s time, it’s time. There is a normal and positive progression in sexual self-exploration. Pre-sexual activities are those that do not cross the line into the realm of sex requiring age of consent (if with an age mate). These things are perfectly normal and appropriate for those teens who have physically developed to the point of wanting to do them (as opposed to others pushing the teen to do them). Pre-sexual activity might be something an early developing 13 year old might do or a late developing 17 year old each developing body is different. Pre-sexual behaviors include sex talk, masturbation, erotic photos and/or video, making out, feeling up and getting felt up, showing off ones new body and even full nude contact including digital penetration and manual stimulation to orgasm. Sexing is now a normal part of this process. I wrote a good piece on it some time ago. All of these things are normal, but each child will seek out only the things he or she feels is right for them. You as parent need to empower your kids to both say yes and say no based on their own wants and needs.
The sex-positive home should have, from the very beginning, been one marked by adults who are fully autonomous, choosing for themselves what they wish to do. By making it clear that you support your child’s pre-sexual activity you have significant influence over how they go about it. Give them the power to choose and the power to choose not to. Be there to help them make that choice and to resist others from pushing them to do something they do not want to do.
So, how much sexualizion and sexual behavior in the home of teenagers is too much? I put it this way: do your teens feel empowered to tell you the sexuality around them is too much, and will you back down if they say so. If not, you risk coercing them into something they do not want to do. Now, so far we’ve only been talking about the kids, now teens as passive participants. As some point, once they become sexually aware, just being there makes them more than a passive participant. A six year old playing on the floor while Mom gives Dad a hand job is not a participant. A 16 year old in the room while Mom gives Dad the same hand job is a participant, even if a passive one. In this case it is likely the law is skirted as there is not direct contact, but what are the ethics?
For this I’ll suggest an extension of the question; how much sexualization that passively involves the teenagers who live in the home is too much. The answer to that is another question; would the teenagers choose this level of involvement on their own? That is easy to resolve. Give them choice that makes passive non-involvement the default position, and passive involvement being the active position that they must act upon to implement.
For instance, suppose a couple with two teenagers have friends who invite the whole family over to their pool party. The parents know that their friend's pool parties are clothing optional and at least some skinny dipping and even some sex-play can be expected. I would say it is fine to invite the teenage children, as long as it comes with a full explanation as to the nature of the pool party, including if Mom and/or Dad plan to skinny dip. To ensure a free, un-coerced choice, the teens need to be told they are not required or even expected to come, only that they are free to attend if they wish. Further they should be told if they go to the pool party they will not be expected to skinny dip. That’s it. The easiest thing would be for them to skip the pool party, thus they have not been coerced. If they choose to go it will only be because they freely made the active decision to do so. This meets the ethical standard of choice for involving the teens. Such is my answer.
One last note regarding this scenario and the age of consent. Laws governing the age of consent in the US vary and they are changing all the time. So suppose two teens went to the pool party. And supposed the sixteen year old son caught the eye of the thirty year old hostess. And suppose as the day went on she let him touch her all over under the water, and this progress until the two of them went into the house and had sex. In some states the whole thing would be perfectly legal for both teen and adults; while in other states the adults could be sent to prison and labeled sex offenders for life for even the most casual non-penetrative sex play with the sixteen year old boy. Of course morality doesn't change with state lines, but the age of consent does.
The week I first began working on this essay, there was a news story of a Minnesota State Representative caught giving a seventeen year old a blow job at a highway rest area. The police were called, but their report stated that as the age of consent is sixteen, there was no crime and thus no police action was taken. If that had happened in my state he would have been looking at a lengthy prison sentence and life-long labeling as a sex offender. Another example is that a few years ago in Georgia two teenage boys were sentenced to twenty years in prison because at a party when they were seventeen, a fifteen year old girl gave them both blow jobs. It was only after some outcry that the law was amended to move the age of consent from seventeen to sixteen with a two year close age exception, meaning sex between a seventeen year old and a fifteen year old was no longer criminal. The boys were released after three years in prison.
Families are systems; any change to any part changes the entire system and everyone in it. Thus, it is imperative that one consider the larger ramifications of all actions, or inactions. Sometimes those actions or inactions seem to have the opposite effect that the parents intend. For my conclusion, I’ll use the example of the very popular approach to sexual training in which the parents take a firm stand that teen sex is bad and they make a concerted effort to desexualize their home and thus sex is not something that is discussed in any but a negative manner. Because the family is a system, such an approach desexualizes the parental relationship along with the household. Thus negatively impacting the parental relationship and undermining the all-important atmosphere of love and stability. As the children become adolescents, the effect of such an approach not only often leads to reckless but even binge type sexual behavior when the children find that sex feels really good and their parents lied to them about it. At the same time they very often are overwhelmed with guilt that leads to both more reckless sexual behavior and other emotional problems. Many studies suggest that the best way to raise kids to be sexually responsible is to take sexuality out of the home closet and to normalize it. Why do you think the Scandinavian countries have both a casual attitude to nudity and sex, yet a very low teen pregnancy rate that is one quarter of the US (yes, the US teens get pregnant four times more often than those permissive Nordics)
Thus, in concert, parents must consider the long and short term impact on both their own relationship as well as the children. What is good for the parental relationship is inherently good for the children. This has an equally true corollary; what is good for the children is good for the parental relationship. Conversely, nothing destroys kids like a hostile parental relationship and nothing destroys a parental relationship like angry, self-destructive teenagers. In my view, a sexualized home environment helps build a passionate and loving parental bond and models positive sexual values; which, in a dozen short years, helps produce healthy, emotionally & sexually well-adjusted teenagers. This in turn, leads to better parental bonding and more happiness for the parents as they prepare to live in their empty nest.
In this paper, I have not listed any “rules” because the level of sexualization of the home environment is (should be) a reflection of the goals parents have for themselves and for their children. The practical boundaries on what specifically should constitute any one home’s sexualized environment is quite expansive, with only the bright lines of criminal law clearly defined.
A Few Suggestions for a Positively Sexualized Home Environment
1) Sexualize your language: I don’t mean talk dirty (necessarily), I mean make talk about sex as normal as talk about your work. Sex talk might be to bring up over dinner what you thought of a sex scene in a TV show or an article you read that day about a teacher having sex with her students. In this way you not only can “teach” your values, but it can allow you to bring up something erotic, like contrasting a scene from Game of Thrones that showed loving sex, with another scene from a brothel. Of course this also means sex talk. Find what works for you and your family. Can you casually tell your spouse about how your workmate has been talking all week about how great the sex with her new lover is when the kids are in earshot? Or closer to home, can you talk about how great the sex with your own new lover has been in the same circumstance. There is no right answer. Only what works for you. But, in all circumstances, honesty about your lifestyle is good. In our home, we were open enough with our lifestyle that our daughter, when she was 13, directly asked Mom if she were bisexual. Mom didn't even blush when she said yes. We made no effort to hide from the kids when they were in high school that we frequented a nude swingers resort and I was the staff photographer.
2) Sexualize your dress: nothing desexualizes a home like looking sloppy all day. When our kids were teens, Mom routinely wore very short shorts, semi-sheer and even sheer tops out in public as well as at home. On vacation’s she never wore a bra under her very thin summer dresses and tops. At the beach she usually wore the smallest bikini the location would allow, and if allowed she went topless. Sexualized clothing was not limited to Mom. At home, I commonly wore my short satin robe with nothing on underneath. It was meant to be sexual, especially when Mom slipped a hand in to make my penis lift the hem.
3) Sexualize your environment: Your bedroom at least should be a place dedicated to Eros. Your sex toys are not something to hide, but should be left out. I don’t think there has been a time when since the kids were very small that mom’s vibrator wasn’t beside the bed. Sure the kids have known for years what it’s for, that is why it sets the tone in the room. On the dresser is a bottle of lube, scented oils and mom’s condoms. On the walls are an erotic painting, and lots of pictures of mom from partially nude to fully nude. This is not limited to our bedroom. In the main hallway for years were two large prints of mom, one in a chainmail thong bikini and another where she has an open cup bra and her nipples are barely covered by a wrap and there are more topless photos in my study and a bra and thong panty photo in the den. Additionally we have nude bronze sculptures in the living room and vintage prints of silent movie stars some in sheer outfits. And, for the entire time the kids were in high school. there was a stripper pole right in the living room. I go through all that to say a home can set the tone for the parents, the kids and for visitors (kids friends) saying to all that the parents here are sexual.
4) Sexualize your behavior: A hot deep kiss in the living room sends a message to everyone. A hand quietly up mom’s shirt or down the back of dad’s pants sets a tone. As a part-time glamour photographer, we’ve used our home for a studio a number of times shooting nudes of clients. Our daughter began helping with the shoots, including nude shoots when she was 16. Our willingness to not only be open about shooting nudes but including her in the process, made it clear that we were serious about openness and a lack of shame. As mentioned earlier, leaving your bedroom door open while you make love, or at the least leaving it ajar sends the clear message to your kids that sex is completely normal and you see no shame in it. If you have sex in rooms other than the bedroom, you’ll surely get caught. That is not a bad thing, in fact it is part of the point. What does it say when our kids told their friends that they walked in on Mom and Dad having sex on the living room couch or in the kitchen? It said a lot, all of it good. We wanted our marriage to be a model not only for our kids but for their friends as well. Now they are adults, I can assure you it worked.