How to Do It

I Am Deeply Traumatized From Hearing My Parents Have Sex as a Kid

They think I’m ridiculous.

A door open a crack with neon lines indicating sound coming out.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Gudella/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions for Stoya and Rich to howtodoit@slate.com.

Dear How to Do It,

I seem to be dealing with the trauma of hearing my parents have sex when I was a child. It made me feel dirty, disgusting, disrespected, and violated. I am still dealing with these feelings decades later, and it’s still bothering me. I just want to know, is this common? Why do I feel this way? How can I get over it? The fact that my parents could have done it recently or will do it again in the future makes me so sick and angry. I have spoken to my parents, and they just denied it. They also said I was extremely selfish for feeling this way because they said it’s their right as a married couple. I, however, think that it shouldn’t matter if it is their right—they should not have made a child feel violated and punish them for it. What do you think?

—Overheard

Dear Overheard,

I think this is an extremely sensitive situation in which seemingly contradictory things may be true. Before I get into that, I want to acknowledge that your trauma is real. And it needs tending to before you can begin to heal.

I reached out to a few experts for this one just because of its potential complexity. I say potential because you didn’t quite provide enough information for us to determine exactly what was going on with your parents—whether they were completely unaware of the noise they were making, negligent about the noise they might be making, or intentionally made noise to expose you to their sex life. “There is something that we call the family sexual environment,” said Aline P. Zoldbrod, a psychologist, sex therapist, and the author of SexSmart: How Your Childhood Shaped Your Sexual Life and What to Do About It. “There’s a whole spectrum of behavior to which children can be exposed. On one end is totally sex-avoidant family: They act like people don’t even have bodies and sex doesn’t exist. On the other it’s a family with very poor sexual boundaries, in which children are often exposed to sexual activities that are inappropriate for them.”

Whether these various circumstances are abusive is another question. “Generally speaking, accidental exposure wouldn’t be considered abusive. However, if it continued after parents were aware of exposure, or it was intentional, then it might rise to that level,” said Michelle Miller, the project coordinator for mental health initiatives at the National Children’s Alliance. Regardless, you’re not alone in your experience. “Depending on the age of the child, what the exposure was, and how the child interpreted his/her experience, it can cause trauma symptoms,” she said.

Beyond what happened, the greater problem here may be your parents’ dismissal of your discomfort now, according to Sharon Lamb, a therapist and professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who wrote the Sexual Ethics for a Caring Society sex ed curriculum and co-edited The Cambridge Handbook of Sexual Development.

“While it may be traumatic for a few individuals to hear parents having sex, feeling dirty, disgusting, and violated to this day speaks to this person’s sexual development as well as the relationship this child/now-adult had/has with their parents,” she wrote to me in an email. “I am wondering why this person is absorbed with this memory. It is one of those memories that most likely means so much more about the individual stuck on it and their feelings about themselves and their own sexuality, and the overarching relationship with the parents, than about a traumatic moment.”

Still, Lamb said, viewing this as trauma may allow you to seek proper help. In my own assessment, that means that even if your parents didn’t intend for you to hear them and this doesn’t fit the technical definition of abuse, your experience could still register as traumatic. Lamb recommends therapy with an analyst, a psychotherapist, or a cognitive-behavior therapist in the event that this is an intrusive thought along the lines of obsession. For her part, Zoldbrod recommended a sex therapist for getting at the root of the issue “Generalist therapists don’t always know the questions to ask to correctly assess the situation,” she wrote. “I’ve seen situations where they define something as abuse that really didn’t turn out to be, and vice versa where they missed it.” Miller mentioned EMDR. The point is, given the complexities of the issue, you should seek a specialist to get to the root of your needs.

At the very least, your parents owe it to you to acknowledge your pain, even if it was entirely accidental on their part. If they don’t come around, at least now you have an idea of where to look for someone who actually will listen and attempt to help you solve this issue. Good luck.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a woman seeing a man who is kind, generous, hung, and currently doling out some of the best sex I have ever had. I am not the easiest person to bring to orgasm, and he’ll spend an hour between my legs if that’s what it takes—before we even get to him at all. This is to say nothing of his stamina, which—let’s just say he’s a find. The problem is that I absolutely cannot stand him when the sex stops and he opens his mouth (to do anything other than put it on me). As I said, he’s not a jerk, but there’s just something about him that grates on me terribly. Because the sex is so good, we are now essentially “dating,” but that mainly involves him cooking for us, us having sex, and then me trying not to get so irritated by something he says or does that I’m outwardly mean to him. I often fail. I have to stop seeing him, right? It’s hard to imagine giving up this sex.

—Sex Toy

Dear Sex Toy,

If you’re outwardly mean to him, and he’s not a jerk ever (not even in response), I sense that you have the upper hand in the power dynamic. If I’m right, it means that you have a real shot of defining the parameters of the relationship. You could scale back to a setup that only involves the good parts of the relationship—the sex—and cuts out everything else. A real come-and-go type of scenario, if you will. Don’t do the dinners, don’t do the talking. Banging at his place will allow you to pass through at an expedited rate, as opposed to inviting him to yours and then having to kick him out when he doesn’t get moving fast enough (though I get the feeling that you wouldn’t have a problem telling him to scram, at any rate). You can do this openly and ethically by just affirming to him that you think the sex is great, but you don’t see the relationship going much beyond that, which is clearly true. Tell him you’ve moved a little too quickly into the space you’re currently occupying together, and ask if he’d be OK with making sex the main—and only—attraction of your bond.

It would be useful to know what about him grates on you so much. I’m assuming he’s not antisocial or bigoted if he’s not a jerk, though our standards may diverge and perhaps an antisocial bigot would not pose a problem for you, if you are one yourself. I’m not saying you are; I’m just saying I don’t know you. Is he just not so smart? I love the idea of a dopey, hung guy who lives to worship me, but again: different strokes. Is he annoying precisely because he is so generous? Is a jerk what you want? I don’t know—this sounds like a sweet deal, and if he’s merely annoying and not intentionally negative toward you in any way, irritation seems like a small price to pay for a great, gifted lay. No one is perfect.

All that said, when someone writes in with a declaration of what they need to do that’s rendered a question only by concluding it with a “right?,” my answer is almost always: You know what you need to do.

Dear How to Do It,

Recently, while on a dating app (I’m a cis gay male), a trans man struck up a conversation with me. He was very handsome, and the conversation was great. However, the conversation turned to sex (on a dating app, I know, gasp), and I found myself hesitating. I have never been with a trans man before, and thinking back to my own experience with closeted/curious straight guys, I didn’t want to treat this man like an experiment. Mainly because I don’t know if my orientation, for lack of a better word, “covers” trans men. Those ended up being my almost exact words to him: “I’m flattered but I’ve never been with a trans man and I don’t want to be treating you like a guinea pig in case there’s a hang-up on my end.” He seemed to take it in stride, but I felt really gross with myself afterward.

So I guess my question is twofold—first, was that an OK thing to say in that situation? And second, the more I think about it, is that a hang-up I need to get over on my end? I’ve been wracking my brain about it, but, and sorry to sound crude here, I think my sexual orientation needs dick. Is that even a thing?

—ND

Dear ND,

Framing your reservations by highlighting your shortcomings, not his, is a compassionate way to handle the situation. A lot of people don’t want to be other people’s science experiments, and it’s important to be sensitive to that, especially in the insensitive realm of dating apps. I wonder, though, how honest you were actually being with him. It seems that you were actually letting him down easy and that the primary issue is that you just don’t know whether sex with a non-penis-having partner could be enjoyable for you. Is it possible to be attracted only to men with penises and not be a raging bigot? I think so, though I know many people might disagree. Is it possible for one to assume they’re only attracted to men with penises because of their culturally indoctrinated conception of masculinity, and that further interrogation/experience could challenge this assumption? Yes, that’s also a possibility.

The thing about apps is they don’t really encourage you to interrogate, do they? You can boil down your interests to a few key phrases, find someone whose words and images match your tastes, go with whatcha know, come hard, and return to the well of familiarity when you’re horny again, over and over until your dick is sore. It’s a logical pattern to adopt, but really, I wish you’d given this guy a shot. He sounds great, and with an open mind, you could have learned something about yourself.

Imagine how often he has similar interactions that end with him coming out, which doesn’t get that much easier when you’re acutely aware that it could very well shut down the conversation. Actually, you don’t have to imagine that, because I asked my friend Riley MacLeod, a gay trans man, about this experience. He confirmed that it sucks. “I eventually just had to shift it from feeling like I sucked to deciding dudes who were jerks are jerks. Some asshole at the Eagle can’t make me less of a man or whatever. I’ve definitely put up with a lot of crap just to get laid in the past, and being someone’s first time over and over can suck. I try not to do that anymore,” he said.

Riley says that it’s conceivable for him to be rejected by cis gay guys for reasons that have nothing to do with transphobia, but it doesn’t usually play out that way. “A lot of cis gay guys I’ve talked to have internalized this ‘I hate vaginas’ attitude, and it messes all that up when they’re into me, a man with a vagina,” he explained. “In my perfect world, someone would reject me by saying something like, ‘You know, I’m really looking to suck a flesh-and-blood dick tonight, and you don’t have that, so I don’t think we should sleep together,’ but that has never happened. Usually it’s, ‘Sorry you aren’t actually a guy,’ or something. Are you sure you’re not into trans guys, or are you intimidated or nervous or just haven’t ever slept with one before? At the end of the day, I can’t make someone be into me, and I don’t think, like, ‘It’s transphobic that you won’t sleep with me,’ but it can stem from transphobia for sure.”

You are not obligated to have sex with anyone at any time, but I bet you if you did get over this and nudged out of your comfort zone ever so slightly, you’d feel better inside as well as in your genital region. It’s worth a try.

Dear How to Do It,

I am a doctoral student in his late 20s who’s never had an intimate relationship before. A confluence of circumstances (an abusive upbringing and a stint in a hyperconservative cult from which I thankfully escaped) led to a fear of intimacy. Only in the last year and a half have I begun to engage my sexuality and shed that fear, thanks to some good counseling and my research. My problem is twofold: I’m behind in my peer group, and I struggle to start relationships. I’d like to have a relationship with a woman that involves a sexual component, but I have no sexual experience and worry about how this will land with potential partners. I also worry about how to go about the process of having sex. I feel like those awkward young adult moves I was supposed to shake off as a young adult will put off a potential partner. The whole thing feels daunting, since I’m so late to the game. I guess my questions are these: How do I go about starting a sexual relationship with someone, and how do I approach the topic with the right person, should they come along? Any advice or resources would be appreciated.

—Young Adult

Dear Young Adult,

I had a conversation recently with someone who told me that in his youth, his father gave him two pieces of advice about sex that had stuck with him even decades later: Always make sure your partner is satisfied, and nothing that you want to do consensually with your partner(s) is bad or dirty. I think these are two basic fundamentals to keep in mind as you embark on your sexual journey.

There is no one-stop shop for a sex partner. You could use an app, you could go to a bar, you could have a friend set you up. I recommend fostering some sort of relationship (even if it’s just a friendship that precedes a friendship with benefits) with a potential partner before proceeding to sex. You could try a fake-it-till-you-make-it approach and not mention your lack of experience, but I think it will serve you much better to be honest about that, and someone who already knows and likes you as a person may be more considerate of your specific needs. Your inexperience will not automatically be interpreted as a negative by every potential partner (you have undue anxiety about that), and it’s less likely to be considered so by someone with whom you already have some semblance of a bond. There are, naturally, larger issues attached to securing a partner: taking initiative and basic social skills. I wonder if these are difficult for you generally, beyond how they relate to sex, and if so, whether you have worked on them with a therapist. It might be a good idea.

Understand that you are not alone. You didn’t use the word virgin in your letter, so it may not strictly apply to you, but you will probably relate to stories of late-in-life virgins nonetheless given that you’ve never had an intimate relationship. Try reading articles like this and this.
There’s also a related subreddit that may be useful for support. And for a more comprehensive resource, you could consult the Lifehacker piece “The Adult’s Guide to Losing Your Virginity,” written by psychotherapist Vanessa Marin, who specializes in sex.

Good luck. You can do this. With patience and anxiety management, you could be making up for lost time in the sack in no time flat.

More How to Do It

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