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The Sexual Family (Comes Naturally #78)


I’m at a party for some particularly noteworthy stage-of-life commemoration, a large and ceremonial gathering of maybe 50 or 75 people. I don’t know exactly which occasion it is. Maybe it’s my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Maybe it’s my mother’s 75th birthday. Some round number event that calls for a larger-than-usual gathering of the extended family and long-standing friends.

After several hours of toasts, testimonial speeches, and catching up on the lives of people who I only see once a year (or once a decade), I find myself separate from the party hubbub, outside the house in the quiet night air, talking with Ruth. Ruth is the wife of a relative who has been an important person in my life, but whom I don’t see or talk to very often. Despite the fact that my relative and this woman have been married for many years, I don’t really know her very well. They live far away, and none of us seems to be very good at maintaining connections over large distances. Ruth is telling me about my relative, about what a delightful person he is, about how much she enjoys their life together.

Maybe it’s because she knows that I write about sex all the time and am pretty open about my sexuality in general. Maybe it’s because she’s an unusually open person herself sexually. Maybe it’s just because it’s a nice party and a nice night and everyone’s had several glasses of wine. But all of a sudden, in addition to her other appreciations, Ruth is telling me, quite matter-of-factly, that one of the things she likes best about my relative is how sexual he is. She tells me that she likes how relaxed and easy-going he is in his body in general, and how easy and graceful he is about sex in particular. She likes the ways they are sexual with each other. She likes how important sex is to him, and that it is central to their relationship.

She says all this without the slightest dramatic impact, as if she is telling me that she likes his taste in clothes or his sense of humor. There is nothing prurient or titillating about what she is saying; it is just something that she thought I would be interested in knowing about this man.

As simply as Ruth is speaking, I know immediately that what she is saying is highly out of the ordinary. I have known this man my entire life. I have heard from my parents about the various sagas of his life in elaborate detail. But until this moment I have known absolutely nothing about his sexual existence. What’s more, I’ve never so much as wondered about his sexual existence. I’ve just never thought of him as a sexual person at all.

Now, as a result of his wife’s description, all that has changed. When I see them together I will think of them differently. When I see how he stands or moves across a room, I will think of him differently. I will think of him in the complete way I think of friends and acquaintances, not the desexualized way I have always thought of him before.

I realize, when I think about it, that I have similarly desexualized all of my relatives — not counting the few who are known to everyone as being exceptionally demonstrative sexually — in the stories they tell, the clothes they wear, or the ways they banter flirtatiously within the family group. And yet, of course, all these people have rich and complicated sexual lives, full of joy and pain, drama and boredom, fulfillment and frustration. Chances are I know a fair amount about the ups and downs of their emotional relationships and their financial well-being, about how they parent their children, about their political views, about their hobbies and recreations. I know which like the theater, which like to ski, which drink more than they should, which have kids who got into Harvard, which have kids who dropped out of school and have yet to find their way in the world. I know something about just about all the main dynamics in their lives save one: I know just about nothing about who they are sexually. (The one exception is when someone has been having an affair, gets discovered, and subsequently either gets divorced or doesn’t. That people know and talk about. Even then, though, the issue is the deception and the betrayal — the relationship issue — not the sex of the matter.)

How much do any of us know about the sexual histories of our extended families? Damn near zero, I bet. Yet all of us have great-grandparents and granduncles and great-grandaunts who were sexually outrageous in their youth, who got pregnant unintentionally, who had secret abortions that may have left them physically impaired or dead, who were gay or lesbian or bisexual (some in their fantasies, some in their actions), who sold sex for money at some point in their lives, whose sexual fantasies and practices were outside what was considered proper in their times — not to mention all the others whose sexual lives were more conventional, but were still full of rich emotional texture, drama, and meaning. Why don’t we know about these parts of their lives the same way we know about the rest of our family history and heritage? Why don’t we get to reflect on our sexuality with the same helpful perspective of family context that we bring to understanding the religious, cultural, or economic aspects of who we are?

Ruth is right: I am happy to know about my relative’s sexuality, and I feel closer to her because she has chosen to let me see this part of him and of her. I think, further, that she too is happy to be able to talk about sex with someone in the family, to break the weird feeling of isolation that sexual silence imposes. If it feels so confirming to know about relatives in this way, why do we so emphatically desexualize the people close to us in our families? Why do we refuse to see close relatives as sexual people, and refuse to be seen as sexual people by them as well?

* * * * *

My partner Helen and I have had a lovely Thanksgiving weekend. Helen’s teenage sons have been with their dad (they live half the time with him, half with us), and we’ve enjoyed having the long weekend to ourselves. Lots of time to talk, to take it easy, to get things done. And lots of time for sex, too. Now it’s Monday morning and the kids will be coming back later in the day. I look around the bedroom and smile. The room still has the distinct air of sex. Candles are everywhere, wine glasses are on the bedside tables, clothes lie where they fell, and the bed is particularly disheveled. I start to clean up, partly just to restore order to the room, but partly too, I realize, to desexualize the room before the kids see it in its sexually tousled state.

“Why am I doing that?” I ask, laughing at myself. Why shouldn’t the kids get to see not only that we are sexual (which of course they know), but also what it is like when we are sexual? When I think about it, it actually seems important for the kids to see this rumpled room, or something equivalent — some regular, at-home images to help them develop a realistic understanding of what it’s like when people are unapologetically and joyously sexual. If there is nothing apparent, no sexual evidence in their day-to-day lives, all they will have to go on is what they see on television, in the movies, and in the pornography they will inevitably discover — none of which is really the kind of sexual modeling I would wish for them. But to allow them the opportunity to see how sex really happens in people’s lives (in our lives, that is) means allowing, even encouraging, them to see and think of us — the adults of their immediate family — quite concretely as sexual beings.

* * * * *

There was a period of my life when I was single and living with my son in a small, one-bedroom apartment. When the woman I was seeing spent the night, I was aware that he might hear us being sexual if he was awake — in the evening when he was going to sleep, in the morning, in the middle of the night for that matter. Of course, this made both me and my partner rather self-conscious about making noise during sex. We accepted the cultural assumption that listening to people making love might be traumatic for a child and, for the most part, we tried to keep our sex quiet. But even without loud noises, there were inevitably sounds of movement and contact that could be heard in the next room. It just wasn’t possible to be entirely inconspicuous and so we made some seemingly reasonable compromises between total spontaneity and total caution.

Yet why do we accept the somewhat archaic Freudian assumption that it is detrimental to children if they are aware of when their parents are being sexual? Isn’t this just another example of this culture’s fearful attitude about sex? Half the people in the world are lucky to have a single room for a family to share as living quarters. When children and parents sleep in the same room, there is no way for the children not to know, and to some extent witness, when the parents have sex. Are all of these children traumatized or unduly eroticized by their parents’ sexuality? Do they all have uncontrollable Oedipal urges and jealousies? Somehow it just doesn’t seem very likely. More probably, in cultures that are decidedly less erotophobic than our own, the kids simply take their parents’ sexuality in stride, recognizing sex as just one more aspect of being alive and being human. Indeed, you might say that these close circumstances simply don’t permit erotophobia of the sort we know so well.

One morning I asked my son, who was then about ten years old, if he could hear us being sexual.

“Sometimes,” he said with a shrug. I went over the tone of his voice with a mental Geiger counter, looking for signs of discomfort, but he seemed totally nonchalant.

“Does it bother you?” I asked in a way that I hoped would make it ok for him to admit if it did.

“Only when I’m trying to fall asleep,” he answered.

“What about in the mornings?” I pursued.

“No, I don’t mind in the mornings.”


“Really,” he shrugged, as if to say, “Why would I mind?”

“But you’d like it if we were quieter when you were going to sleep?”

“That would be nice,” he smiled, a little self-consciously. We both laughed.

“That’s fine,” I reassured him. “It’s not like we have to make noise.”

“Great,” he said.

I believed him then and I believe now, many years later, that he was pretty much saying what he genuinely felt. I certainly believe that whatever Oedipal conflicts might be stimulated by listening to the sounds of sex, or by knowing that the adults in the bedroom are being sexual, or by glimpsing them accidentally at one time or another, are minor when compared to the importance of normalizing sex to children as a regular part of life. Of course, this requires basic sensitivity toward what really would be intrusive to children. Forcing children to witness sex that they don’t want to see would be outrageous. But it’s another thing, for example, to get turned on in the middle of an afternoon and not being secretive about the fact that mom and dad are going into the bedroom because they want to be sexual — see you in an hour.

When push comes to shove, if we want our children to think of sex as a normal part of everyday life, we cannot have our sexual existence be completely invisible, inaudible, and otherwise imperceptible. If this idea makes us uncomfortable, is it really because we are concerned about the effect on the children, or is it rather an expression of our own difficulty in embracing, without shame or apology, the real breadth and strength of our sexual feelings and natures?

* * * * *

A friend of mine is a single mother whose son is now nine years old. She has been single ever since he was born, having made a conscious decision to have a child even though she was not in an ongoing relationship. She is relatively comfortable not having a primary partner, but she definitely wishes there was more sex in her life. At the same time, she feels guilty about leaving her son with a sitter just so she can go out to find someone to be sexual with, and she feels even more uncomfortable bringing a man home to spend the night when she has no intention of becoming involved with him in a continuing way.

“Why don’t you just explain to Michael that you miss being sexual and want to have sex in your life, even though you’re not married or involved with anyone?” I ask her.

She seems surprised, but intrigued with the idea. “I suppose I could do that,” she admits, almost rakishly. “On the other hand, I wouldn’t want him to think I’m some kind of slut.”

“A slut for being a woman who wants sex outside a committed relationship?” I ask, raising my feminist eyebrows. “You’d rather have him think of you as being totally asexual?”

“Well, I definitely wouldn’t want him to think that.”

“Maybe you can show him that it’s normal for single women, including his mother, to have sexual needs just like everyone else,” I suggest.

* * * * *

Because my nuclear family was fairly open about sex to begin with, and because I have made a conscious point in my adult life to break sexual silence in many ways, I have in recent years learned some bits and pieces about the sexuality of my extended family. I have heard the story of my grand aunt who married one of two brothers but lived with both for most of her adult life in an apparently happy, if scandalous, three-way sexual relationship. I have heard about the cousin who came on to my mother whenever the two of them were together at family gatherings — much to her amusement, though she seems never to have responded to his desire to be sexual with her. I have heard about the relative in my parents’ generation who, with his wife, got involved in swinging during the 60s, eventually going so far as to move to another city to put an end to things when that scene turned sour for him but not for his wife. I’m sure there are dozens of other stories that I know nothing about, or that have already gone with their participants into the grave.

I like having this information. It reminds me that my generation did not invent sexual appetite, sexual experimentation, or sexual conflict. It provides perspective on my personal sexual feelings and dilemmas, and those of my immediate friends. It breaks some sense of sexual isolation. It enriches the connection I feel toward my relatives. And it extends to the issues of sexuality all the validation, stability, tradition, and groundedness that are so much a part of the concept of family itself.

Isn’t it time to acknowledge that the family is, in part, a sexual entity — even as it is an emotional entity, a relational entity, a political entity, a legal entity? If we would stop desexualizing the family — if we would let sex into shared family culture through the front door instead of forcing it to seep in through the basement and the garage — I dare say we’d all be happier, richer, less conflicted, more fulfilled — not only as sexual people, but as mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandsons, and great grandmothers as well.


December 18, 1998

Copyright © 1998 David Steinberg

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