Relationship Tips

The Psychological Reasons Why Watching Sex Scenes With Your Parents Is Awkward Torture

Mary Grace Garis

Photo: Stocksy/Studio Firma
So, you decided to binge Bridgerton with your folks over the holidays. Because, well, why not? Maybe the preview made you think it would be a confectionary period piece that you and mom would just love. And at the very least, watching it would beat having the same quarantine-stoked arguments that have become the soundtrack to your life. Yet by the end of the second episode, you realize that you’ve essentially signed up to watch high-quality Regency-era porn, and perhaps that would be great… if it didn’t mean watching sex scenes with your parents ad nauseam. Hi, welcome to hell.

We’re all adults here, so why can’t we get past the specific awkwardness of watching sex scenes with parents? Well, unless you have a very Cruel Intentions dynamic in your household, sex and family are two facts of life that many prefer to keep separate. Also keep in mind that during a person’s adolescent sexual awakening, it’s typically parents who try to squash (or at least regulate) the extent of their curiosity with things like curfews and required-open-door policies. So now, even if everyone around the TV is an adult, for the regressive latent teenager in all of us, watching sex scenes with parents can make for a rough cognitive disconnect.

Why watching sex scenes with parents is so awkward, anyway

“No matter how old you are, acknowledging the existence of sex with your parents can get awkward,” says clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. “Widespread sex positivity is surprisingly new, and a lot of families are still influenced by Victorian cultural norms about keeping children as pure as possible, as long as possible.”

And as psychotherapist Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT, points out, many people—as in, not just those in a parent-to-child dynamic—are tight-lipped about their sex lives in general. So when someone’s getting absolutely ravished on screen, the glare of the spotlight on sex can become just too much. “Sex feels private to many, and not something you share with others,” says Thompson. “To have it displayed in front of you on a TV with your parents [around] can feel  uncomfortable.”

“Sex feels private to many…to have it displayed in front of you on a TV with your parents [around] can feel  uncomfortable.” —Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT

Now if you don’t feel uncomfortable watching sex scenes on TV with your parents, that doesn’t have to mean anything weird or Oedipal. Dr. Daramus and Thompson agree that in addition to your cultural relationship to sex, your level of comfort or discomfort is also derived from your personal feelings and the way it was discussed (or not discussed) while you were growing up.

For example, I grew up with a relatively liberal upbringing; sex was a realistic part of life, and no one expected me to stay a virgin until marriage. My dad’s a former film teacher who celebrates an anti-censorship perspective, and I’m someone who often writes about sex for my work. As a family, we can get through R-rated content with maturity and a sense of detachment.

Still, when serious raunch fills the screen of whatever we’re watching together, I do find myself keeping my eyes firmly on my iPhone, drowning out the noise with a deep-bellied internal scream. Also, it bears mentioning that if my parents ever read my vibrator reviews, I would all but set myself on fire. All of this is to say that each of us has a personalized discomfort barometer—mine might extend longer than yours and someone else’s may extend longer than mine—and different ways to handle the awkward energy once we reach our limits.

How to deal with the awkwardness

While communication is generally recommended for issues of interpersonal discomfort, with the case of watching explicit content with your parents, you don’t have to discuss. At its core, having a conversation about sex is one of consent. That is, both parties need to readily agree to take part in order for it to be safe and effective. “Consent still applies because it’s a sexual situation, so try not to involve people in sexual discussions if you know they aren’t ready for it,” says Dr. Daramus.

If you feel uncomfortable broaching the subject of sex scenes, simply don’t. Feel free to follow my method of looking down at your phone and ignoring what’s on the screen until the scene ends. Or maybe it’s time for a bathroom break. Or it’s snack-o-clock, and you need to visit the fridge. Or maybe you can distract yourself with a few deep breaths (but no panting, don’t make it weirder). Anything works. And if your parents are the ones who spearhead a conversation you’re not ready to have, just say so and clearly set your boundaries.

But, if you’re feeling progressive and your parents are also game, you could use the awkward experience of watching sex scenes with them as an opportunity to talk openly about your perspective and views on sex. Maybe your parents are seeing things that you’re very… acquainted with, and they have follow-up questions, for instance.

However you proceed, though, know that there’s no wrong course of action; so long as everyone’s boundaries are respected, there’s no need to assume you’re decidedly repressed or exhibitionist based on how you handle the awkwardness of watching onscreen sex with your folks. Like sex itself, the cringeworthy feeling that comes from watching it together is simply a fact of life.

 

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