The XX Factor

What’s the Deal With That New York Times Piece on Brothers and Sisters Sharing a Bedroom?

It’s totally normal for brothers and sisters to share a room

The New York Times devoted more than 2,400 words Thursday to the issue of opposite sex siblings sharing a room. Along the way, they hinted darkly at the downsides to this arrangement. “There’s a euphemism for this kind of anxiety: ick,” wrote Michael Tortorello in what are probably the two most explicit lines in the piece. “To spell it out just a bit, does the mixed-sex bedroom represent an inherent risk to children’s social and sexual development?” And then, the ick vanished, or at least went underground. We meet co-bunking siblings who entertain and reassure each other, who tolerate each other’s jazz piano practicing, who store their toys on one side of the barrier meant to separate their beds, and sleep on the other. Tortorello points out that, according to the 2011 New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey, almost a third of households with two children under the age of 18 have siblings sharing a bedroom. And “throughout history, most of the world’s population”—including in the United States—“has subsisted in a common room,” presumably without brothers and sisters falling prey to some sort of Freudian nightmare.

That’s great. It’s not that I find the idea of opposite-sex bedrooms so alarming (I don’t). But what the story hints at but is too cowardly to come out and say is that these scenarios ick us out for a reason—incest, which affects an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the population. (While some of those cases involve parents and children, the most common scenario implicates a pair of siblings.) So, 2400 words about the potential ick of brothers and sisters sharing a room, and incest wasn’t one of them.

Granted, the piece ran in the Home and Garden section—not exactly the place for hard truths about sexual abuse. But what was the point of publishing it, and alluding to the scenario’s danger, if not to shine a light on this underreported crime? Already the subtext, it might as well have been treated in a useful and informative way. But Tortorello wafts intimations about “inherent risk” instead of mentioning risk factors. (“Sibling incest offenders are more likely to witness marital discord, experience parental rejection, physical discipline and dissatisfaction with family relationships and have a history of sexual victimization,” according to a 2003 study.) He alludes ominously to Freud and notes that joint bedrooms aren’t an endless “slumber party,” but maybe he should have detailed some warning signs for sexual abuse, such as OCD behavior and social withdrawal.

Of course, ginning up a bit of anxiety without getting too bleak taps into the everyday dread that is the modern parent’s burden and badge of honor. This way, the New York Times can seduce neurotic moms and dads into clicking and sharing, fretting over one more kiddie detail. (Will buying my girl a Bratz doll make her insecure? Should I do baby-led weaning with my son? Will Leslie’s co-ed bedroom experience compromise her socially?) In terms of seriousness and harm, these issues pale in comparison to incest—which, yes, makes them much less harrowing to read about. But if your objective is to not fray any nerves, then why write the article at all?