Originally published on Van Winkle's (September 2015)

How to Talk to Your Kid About Privacy, In an Age of Sex Tapes and Open Doors

My late brother Billy was a heroin addict and a felon. He forged checks and prescriptions and served time in Lexington and Danbury Federal Prisons, among others. In his spare time, he raised pit bulls. The last years of his life were spent shacking up with a prostitute with a gimpy left arm.

Laconic and droll, Billy seemed, for the most part, unflappable. This is, until he caught me, his goody-goody baby sister, in flagrante delicto.

There’s no good reason why my boyfriend and I decided to get down in an unlocked bedroom in my parents’ home. We weren’t exhibitionists, and we never thrilled to the risk of getting caught. It was just one of those gotta-do-it urges where caution evaporates in the heat of lust.

It’s one of the few times I ever pitied my brother.

Privacy Ain’t What it Used to Be

Our assumptions about sex being a private affair have changed over the years. No doubt the release of sex tapes by Paris Hilton, Pamela Anderson, Kim Kardashian, et al., has sent a subliminal message to the collective unconscious — “Hey, watch this!” From their perspective, getting caught is not only beside the point, it’s the first step on the road to fame.

No doubt, many of us may find these frisky forays offensive (or maybe just annoying), but some experts claim they serve a purpose. Clinical analyst Shane Warren, for one, thinks the public consumption of celebrity coitus might benefit us all.

“The leaking of sex tapes has helped to give permission for people to open up more and talk more freely about this sort of thing – I’m not so sure if I would call it a lowering of standards, but perhaps more of an opening up of discussions that people have always had (or wanted to have).”

The very notion of privacy seems antiquated in an age where sex in dressing rooms, coat check closets, roller coasters and between parked cars not only occurs, but is recorded and passed along the digital thoroughfare like so many cats in cowboy hats.

According to Shane, “We are living in a world very different from 20 or 30 years ago. We have moved along on our perceptions (and acceptance) of boundaries regarding privacy and sexual chatter. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing.”

Shame aside, let’s not be quite so cavalier. Getting caught has lead to bodily harm throughout history. In ancient Rome, for example, a woman caught in the act of adultery could be killed by her husband on the spot. And until it was repealed in 1974, a Texas statute rendered homicide justifiable when committed by the husband “upon one taken in the act of adultery with the wife, provided the killing took place before the parties to the act had separated.”

It’s worth noting that the Lone Star law did not grant the same right to cuckolded wives.

That’s not news to Jean Harris, the infamous upper-echelon headmistress who was tried, convicted and spent years in prison for murdering her man after merely seeing another woman’s lingerie on the premises.

But for run-of-the-mill red-blooded American, intimate acts aren’t generally shared with outsiders. To borrow from Charlie Rich’s 1974 classic, no one should know what goes on behind closed doors.


Many thinkers have tried to understand our reticence on the subject of sex. The late American philosopher James Rachels asked, Why do we so eagerly and publicly spout information about our medical conditions, drug use and political views, but refrain from describing our sex lives?

His fellow philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote:

“When sexually engaged, (we) do not wish to be seen by anyone but our partners; full sexual expression and release leave us entirely vulnerable and without a publicly presentable ‘face.’ Sex transgresses these protective boundaries, breaks us open, and exposes the uncontrolled and unpresentable creature underneath. We need privacy in order not to have to integrate our sexuality in its fullest expression with the controlled surface we present to the world.”

Humans, unlike other animals, Nagel opines, have rich inner lives that cannot be exposed completely — or “civilization would be impossible.”

I’m not sure I buy into Nagel’s apocalyptic premise, but I can at least appreciate why Scout, my Pomeranian, can fully express his sexuality. He has absolutely no shame when humping pillows in plain view of dinner guests.

The Inevitable Primal Scream

Sigmund Freud coined the phrase “Primal Scene” to describe the first experience of a child accidentally catching his parents engaged in sexual relations. Variously described as “indelible,” “horrifying” and “very confusing” by its viewers, it has been studied by the psychiatric community for more than a century.

There’s a whole complicated subset of pseudo-primal scenarios dreamed up by the good doctor involving nannies, bloody sheets, farm animals and smashed window panes; we won’t dwell on them right now. Suffice to say, that Freud believed that once we see mom and dad doing that, no amount of brain bleach could burn the memory from our mind.

I can attest to this. On a sunny Saturday, at the tender age of eight, I climbed the stairs to my parents’ bedroom floor and foolishly peeked through the keyhole to see what was keeping those two so busy. I will spare you the details, but let’s say they weren’t even on the bed. I spent the weekend avoiding my parents — and desperately trying to imagine an exotic exercise routine that involved rug burns.

Modern day experts tell us that, when caught, parents are obliged to explain things and not sweep it under the carpet. “Best to build it around a perspective of a game that 'grown-ups' play with someone special to them,” advises analyst Warren.

Additionally, avoid taking the easy way out.

“Do not ignore the situation, as we risk creating a belief that sex is something ‘secret’ and maybe ‘naughty’ or to be ashamed of,” Warren says. As horrifying as it may sound for parents, they ultimately want their child to grown into “a confident sexual being in adult life.”

And anyway, according to relationship expert Patricia Johnson. Freud went overboard when he described the permanent psychic injury caused by the Primal Scene.

“Your child will probably not be severely traumatized by catching you in flagrante delicto, especially if you don’t freak out and behave as if you’ve been caught doing something bad,” she said. “If your child asks questions…explain it honestly, succinctly and in an age-appropriate manner. To do otherwise is to send a sex-negative message, something that is more likely to be traumatic than merely witnessing the Primal Scene.”

Advice for Active Parents

Many parents are resigned to eventually getting caught in the act by their kids. But experts remind us that the bedroom door swings both ways. It’s important that children develop an understanding of boundaries and personal privacy — for their own safety and so they learn to respect others. Establishing house rules ahead of time may reduce the risk of psychic sexual scarring.

Johnson suggests a few commandments to keep everyone from dying of embarrassment:

  • Closed doors are a sign that people want to be left alone.
  • Sometimes, parents need alone time.
  • In an emergency, you are always available. They just need to knock on the door.
  • Even when the bedroom door is open, children should ask permission to enter. This is not only good manners, but it teaches respect and consideration for others.
  • Children can have alone time, too. Allow them to close (but perhaps not lock) their own door. You, in turn, will knock if they’re needed.

“Establishing this kind of boundary and making it clear that your children have a right to have boundaries of their own is a great way to educate them about what they are entitled to as a people,” Johnson adds.

Now that we know all the rules, let’s revisit the situation where I broke every one.

To recap — an unlocked door, broad daylight, no sheets, completely nude. In walks brother Billy. Suffice to say, the scene unfolded in slow motion. I scrambled for cover when I met Billy’s blazing eyes as he took in the horror show. As the door slammed close, shame coursed through my veins like acid. The tiny disheveled room came into razor sharp focus. I fought the urge to kick myself (and my boyfriend) when I realized how absolutely asinine the whole “let’s do it now” idea had been. My endorphins plummeted.

Still, a morsel of devilish mirth found its way into my fast beating heart. I had actually shocked my bad-ass brother.

Once I took stock of the situation, I searched the house. Billy was gone. According to his wife, he ran two miles at light speed to the safety of his own home where, breathless and freaked out, he reported what he saw.

And, just as the experts advise against, we never spoke about it again.