Why do you care? Some thoughts on sex, judgment, and being a woman with children

Trigger warning for mentions of sexual abuse and incest.

It appears that the most controversial thing I’ve done is have sex in my very own bed.

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To be fair, it’s controversial because, sometimes, my child has been in the bed, sleeping, at the same time.

Or in his own bed a few feet away.

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What images fill your mind at these statements? What do you imagine takes place? Do you recall whispered secrets, second hand stories filtered through the memories of a friend? Do you imagine bright lights and loud moans of passion and wide eyed innocents? Do you remember confusion, frightening noises, something you could not talk about? Do you feel home, parents, comfort, safety? Do you smile as you picture last Wednesday? Do you raise your brows and shrug your shoulders and move on, nothing to see here?

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We have a standard in my culture that says sex must be kept completely away from children at all times — except in billboards, pop music, television, and the daily news, of course — because to expose children (pure) to sex (vulgar) is to corrupt them. We force sexualization on children, with heels and push up bras and Barbies to mimic, and deny them their own sexual agency, pathologizing the schoolyard kiss and the playing of doctor. We make sex huge and important and tell them nothing about it, except that they mustn’t have or want it.

We most definitely do not have sex anywhere near children. Except for when we do.

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Except for when we have it with them.

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Sexual abuse happens. Children’s sexual boundaries are violated, every day — from active pedophilia and incest to adults who over-share details or desires. Some people have been traumatized by their parents’ sexual activities. Some people are still confused, bothered, disturbed by sounds in the night, flashes from a hastily opened door. These are truths.

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These are questions: where and when do you imagine those who live in single-room habitations have sex? How do you think second children are conceived?

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Can something done one way be harmful, and done another, healthy? Can sex in the same room as our children be damaging in some circumstances, and in others be empowering?

The determinant, devilish thing, may be in the details.

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Sex is for adults, should be kept away from children. So, how much away is enough? Not inviting them to participate? Having the lights off? Being aware of the sound of their sleeping breath, the hints of their stirrings? Barriers of pillows and blankets and bitten lips? Beaded curtains? A wall? Closed doors? Locked doors? Three floors away? Another building?

How much risk is acceptable, how much is abuse?

Is it possible the answer to this is culturally informed?

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It must concern us as parents how our children perceive our sex life, not because sex is concerning, but because our concern keeps us sensitive, keeps us keyed in, keeps our attention on them and their experience and their processing, allows us to stay attuned, make adjustments as necessary.

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There are no guarantees in parenting.

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We allow for certain risks in my culture: we drive our children in cars going 50, 70 miles per hour; we leave them with strangers in the gym; we let them sleep away from us, in other rooms, in other people’s houses; we feed them food we didn’t grow ourselves, food in a can, sterile, dirtless food. And that’s fine. Those risks are deemed acceptable, because everyone does them.

Risking children waking up, hearing, seeing, and not being able to cope? It’s not what we do; we don’t accept it.

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I have no desire for my child to watch me engaging in sex. (Frankly, I have no desire for anyone to watch me engaging in sex, with the only-sort-of-exception of my lover.) I could describe the steps I take to keep it from happening, and be judged on those details, rather than the imaginings of prurient minds, but I would rather question why I am to be judged at all. Do we, as a community, have an obligation to be alert for child abuse? No question. Does that give us the right to make pronouncements based on a few words whose context we do not know? Does our distaste justify accusations of abuse? That sits less well with me.

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I have never tried to persuade someone else to make the choices about sex that I have made. I have never even made an effort to assert the rightness of those choices, to defend them as unassailable. I do not particularly care whether most people agree with me — except the part of my mind always aware of fear, of the risk not to my child but from my culture, the part of my mind that wonders “have I said too much? am I too exposed? how outspoken, how broken, how honest can I be before I am punished, my child harmed in the name of keeping him safe from me?”

I have abundant privileges protecting me, many shields for the worst of my vulnerabilities — but sometimes, they seem sparse indeed.

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What does it do to our children when we operate from fear? Why do so few care about the potential damage of that?

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This is what I want: If you agree, say so. If it ain’t your cup of tea, go enjoy another. If you have questions, ask them openly. If you disagree, do so civilly. If you have concerns, express them with care. If you feel the need to judge, walk away whilst asking yourself why?

Why is another person’s sex life the bar by which you judge? Why does disagreement call for condemnation? Why are we willing to judge women so harshly on this topic more than any other? Why has no one called The Man a child abuser? Why do we care so much about how we perform sexuality in front of children, and not about how we talk about sex with others? Why do we proclaim the ability of sex to harm the probably-asleep, while disregarding any harm of judgmental proclamations to the probably-not-reading?

Because tone does matter. Because how we treat each other matters.

In bed or elsewhere.

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16 Responses to Why do you care? Some thoughts on sex, judgment, and being a woman with children

  1. Excellent questions. I find it fascinating how concerned people are with the possibility of children being exposed to REAL! LIVE! SEX! as opposed to media messages or even, say, actually *talking* to their own kids about sex.

    Recently at playgroup I had a great conversation with the other parents about what we’d discussed with our pre-K, K, and 1st grade age kids. It was good to know other parents were answering the questions, talking, and not being ashamed/uncomfortable about it but treating the topic exactly as it was- a natural learning process about life.

    I can’t believe any child was scarred for life simply by stumbling upon their parents in flagro- but it’s quite likely they were traumatized at how the parents handled it. I don’t buy that exposing kids to the natural cycle of life and human needs qualifies as “abuse”.

    And I can’t be the only one who ever wondered how Laura Ingalls’ parents managed to conceive Carrie in that one room house.

  2. Im really glad i found this article! Great questions, if only i had time to go thru each one i would! I remember as a kid walking in on my mum having sex several times, and yes, it has stuck in my mind – particularly the time i found my mum recieving oral (!!!) which totally threw me as a child! It did kind of horrify me – but not as much as it horrified my mum LOL!
    Now i have a 5mth old baby, who bedshares with me n hubby. Pre-baby, we had lots of great sex… and as seems to be the case for most new parents, we have hardly had any since! We have twice had sex in the bed with bub there at the other end sleeping – but it makes me feel weird. Mainly because its not very erotic for me, not even being able to escape bubs for a few minutes its hard to get my mind into a sexy space. I dont think there is anything actually wrong with it, and i certainly dont believe i will damage my baby in any way. However, i am not activly pursuing more of the same – i would much rather go to the couch and relax into my usual sexual self. I guess i could say that even though i dont think its wrong to have sex with a baby in the room, its not much fun for me!
    As far as exposure goes, i would rather my kids see me having sex with my hubby, which rolemodels intimacy in a loving relationship, rather than have them exposed to pornography or the highly sexualised media.
    I was also exposed to pornography as a child, at my dads house, as he left his magazines around and his videos in the video player and i had accidently hit play. That disturbed me a great deal, and probably helped to shape more of the unrealistic expectations i have around sex.

  3. WOW..you raise these questions and make me think and write. In the country that I live in, this is not such a huge deal..making out when you kid is asleep in the same room..probably happens in every household and here there is no concept other than co-sleeping ..so we dont feel the guilt or the confusion that you feel.

  4. Your original post made me feel a bit weird. As I was reading it I felt these lights going off in my head saying – ‘she does what? Ew!’ – but did my best to dismiss them as the opinions put into my head by society. Thinking about it more, and reading through the comments, I realised that part of my being uncomfortable with it is because it’s not what I would choose to do – I suspect that the ‘Ew!’ came from society’s simultaneous closeting and exhibition of sex, though. As it happens I don’t have children yet, and who knows – I might one day find myself having fantastic sex with them in the room and not care.

    I find the idea that someone would accuse you of abuse abhorrent, and indicative of the way society is at once ashamed of sex and liable to see it in every single bloody thing. The thing that keeps me coming back here (aside from your wonderful way of putting things) is the fact that no matter how much of this stupidity you come up against, nothing stops you from continuing to hold the opinions you do. Even more than that, I can tell that you’re not going too far that way and having an opinion that would never change ever. It feels like you want to hear differing opinions – put politely and objectively – so that you can continue to evolve your own.

    The thing with sex as a topic is that it’s all about how it’s approached and introduced to children/young adults/people in general…I just feel like as a society, we’re less likely to teach future generations about it in a healthy way when we can’t even look at it healthily ourselves. In the meantime, massive props to you and others who continue to live in a future I wish everyone else did!

  5. Thank you for this. We have such a dysfunctional relationship with the idea of sex in the US…killing people on TV is ok, but not sex between two consenting adults….infants in high heels, “teen mom” reality shows, Hugh Hefner and his many girlfriends (if you can call them that)…

    sigh. maybe I’ll go crawl back under my rock again. It’s quieter here.

  6. I’ll share that the thought of breastfeeding while having sex makes me think, “Oh, hell no!” But, that’s not because of what I think it will do to the child, I know how a toddler can be on auto-pilot, nursing while sleeping. It’s my own inability to be both mother and sex partner at the same time. I seem to need some a fair amount of time to transition. Frankly, I’m in awe that so many women can multi-task like that!

  7. My three children all sleep in the same room as my husband and I. Very often we all end up sharing the “big” bed. It would be impossible for me to have any kind of sex life if I waited until there were no children in the room. Once they’re all asleep, the sky’s the limit. Now that they are all at the toddler stage or above we do move them to their own beds first, but that’s more to keep from waking them than from any real problem with having a sleeping child in the bed during sex. I have even paused during sex to nurse a baby back to sleep so that we could keep going.

    Really, I don’t see how a sleeping child is going to be in any way traumatized by what my husband and I are doing. Even if one of them did happen to wake up I really don’t think it would be the end of the world. We would simply explain as needed (or not) based on the age of the child that woke up.

    My 5 year old knows what sex is (at least she knows that sex is how baby’s are made and that it involves the man’s penis and the woman’s vagina). We try to answer her questions honestly and at a level she can understand.

  8. I agree. I can’t remember seeing my parents have actual intercourse, but I certainly saw them be physically affectionate with each other, and I saw the nightie on in the evening and off in the morning. If anything, I think this added to my sense of security.

    On the other hand, the way we use sex and the ideas promoted about the ideal sexual partner (a woman should be a barely pubescent girl, no hair anywhere except on her head, unhealthily skinny) really does damage children and our society.

  9. I’m so glad you wrote this, this is so great, and you are an amazing writer. I was wondering about this because I only mostly “got it” when you’ve mentioned it before. And I AGREE. Like about the mixed messages. But I don’t think I’d like to have sex with my hypothetical child in the room. I think I’d have a door with a lock. But I don’t think it would traumatize a child to accidentally see their two parents loving each other and as a teen/ young adult on the rare occasion I overheard my parents it was simply annoying or funny. I’ve talked to female friends and family members about it and they said the same, and it seems unlikely that it would scare a kid because instinctively they know nothing bad is happening, why would it seem bad or scary unless it was abusive sex or something weird? But I really think it might be different if I woke up to it, knowing my parents had allowed the possibility to occur, but that’s my context. my context as a kid was a LITTLE bit that sex was scary/ bad, so yeah. but not too much at all, thankfully

  10. We’ve had sex with our son in the same bed with us. Not recently -he wakes up too easily now. It’s easier to sneak off to another room if we feel so inclined. I can remember at least a few instances when he was very small when we did actually have sex while he was breastfeeding. Gentle, lazy, loving, spooning sex. It felt… maybe a bit odd, but good too. The kid knew nothing but the milk he was drinking, so what of it? Right now he’s two and we don’t feel comfortable having sex while he’s in the room. That’s us. But he can see it when my husband comes up to me and sticks his hand up under my skirt. Or when he grabs my ass and tells me he thinks I’m hot. Is that bad too? Not for us.

    And we only have the one so far. Who knows what desperation we’ll get to when we have two or three?

  11. What do I think of when you talk about having sex with your kid in your bed? The times I’ve done the exact same thing. We have never been habitual bed-sharers, but there have been a few times that it was necessary, and we didn’t feel the need to protect our infant from the loving movings of his parents.

    We are very open about things around here. Doors are rarely closed unless to shelter from noise (someone’s sleeping while others are up, for example), and we don’t feel the need to hide nudity. Now that my oldest is six, we make an effort to not flaunt the sex in front of him, but it’s not unheard of for him to walk by the room while it’s happening.

    Keep writing what you write Arwyn. People need to realize that not everyone is as prudish as they are.

  12. I was wondering how many negative comments you were going to get when you wrote that you had had sex with your child in the room. It’s very sad that we live in a world in which children are exposed to so many negative and confusing sexual messages every day and the simple, loving act of sex between their parents is taboo. I would hazard a guess that throughout most of human history, children were exposed to adults around them having sex simply through living together. Our history as a species doesn’t include a lot of doors, after all. It seems to me that privacy during sex is more of a benefit to the parents who won’t be interrupted than it is for protecting the child from anything.

    • Yes, the advantage of having sex while the child is sleeping is that it’s more fun without worries of being interrupted. My child learned to crawl at an early age. One day he woke up early from his nap in a safe space on the floor, saw his toys on the other side of us, and decided the quickest path was to crawl directly over us while we were having sex. If that’s not motivation to become more clever at avoiding possible interference, I don’t know what is.

  13. I never heard my parents as a kid, but then I was a particularly oblivious kid and wouldn’t have “recognized” those sounds if I did hear them. But if I had, I would only have been embarrassed. I was happy that they kissed each other in front of me.

    And now I have a kid. We tried cosleeping, he hated it much to our sadness, but then we put him in a crib next to the bed. And yes, had sex while he was sleeping, because we were living with my husband’s folks at the time and there was nowhere else it was possible to have sex. Later at our own place he did wake up and walk in on use once, but he was maybe 3 and half-asleep and had no idea what was going on. But even if it happened now, we’d just walk him back to his room. He’s seen us naked (I think this is part of what freaks people out too, the nudity) so that would not traumatize him.

  14. Pingback: I’m alive! To prove it, have some links! | Raising My Boychick

  15. TopHat linked to this post from The bee in your bonnet. I agree with all you said and many of the comments. The view of sex is off here in the US. It’s made to be more than it is and at either extreme many times.

    I was taught about sex at a very young age, before kindergarten, not through abuse or anything, but by diligent parents who believe in giving complete and honest answers. As I child did I have concerns in regard to it? Yes. For years I thought I knew too much about sex because I had random nightmares that some neighbor we walked past on the way to school kept women in his basement as sex slaves. I knew there were good forms of sex and bad. I walked in on my parents a time or two, awkward? yes, but I was pleased and have always been pleased to know my parents are still interested in each other physically.

    As a parent now, I have not explained sex to any of my three daughters yet, though one is in kindergarten. I have talked to her about acceptable touching, but not about how babies are made. She hasn’t asked, if she asks I will tell her just the same as was explained to me, but it’s not a topic I’m going to bring up myself.

    I think keeping sex secret is similar to making it shameful. And by keeping sex secret I mean like telling kids that babies come from hospitals or the stork. But I don’t think having sex infront of a wakeful child is appropriate.

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