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Doing It Decent – Hearing Your Parents Having Sex

The Ethics of Sex in Everyday Life

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Updated November 04, 2009

Every other week Doing It Decent considers the ethics of a sexual situation from our readers. Grappling with a touchy sexual ethics issue? Here's how to send in a question to Doing It Decent. Send me an email and be sure to put DID in the subject line. All questions will be posted anonymously with identifying information removed.

Hearing Your Parents Having Sex
This question is in response to a previous column about a mother hearing her son having sex. Our reader writes:

My question is actually OPPOSITE of this lady with her son. I am 26 years old and a single mother of a 4 and a half-year-old son. Because of special circumstances my parents asked me to move back home to help them out with their mortgage. So as the good daughter that I consider myself to be, I agreed. My parents are not that old, both in their late forties, but regardless what their age...they are my parents! What I am getting to is that me and my sister hear them having sex and we have been since we were younger! Now I know that sex is good, natural, and that no matter what age you are everyone is entitled to enjoy it...but these are MY parents!! What can I do? Is it ok if I tell my parents that we can hear them? Luckily my son has not been awake to hear them but what am I going to say to him the day he does? To make matters worse my grandmother is visiting! If we can hear my mother I am absolutely sure she can hear them! I feel embarrassed for my mother and I don't know if this is normal! PLEASE help!

I’m not sure this is, strictly speaking, an ethical dilemma, but it’s a dilemma nonetheless, and I think it exemplifies how ethics can make thinking about sex so exciting (you know, except for the part where you’re not that excited to be hearing your parents have sex…but I’ll get to that, promise).

First, let me address the "normal" question. I should say that I don’t find normal to be a word that has any use when we talk about sex. If by normal you mean do couples in their late forties have loud sex, or is it a healthy thing to do, my answer is a resounding yes. It sounds to me like part of you would like to hear that this is weird or gross, but it’s likely neither. If anyone (blood relatives or no) is intentionally imposing their sexual activity on you, that’s unethical and possibly dangerous.

But it sounds like they don’t know you can hear them, in which case there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with what they are doing. But, this isn’t to say that it might not be inconsiderate, and that you don’t have good grounds to say something about it. But let’s take one giant ethical step back for a minute.

Acting ethically requires that we consider a situation from many perspectives; that we try to put ourselves in other shoes. Sexual ethics are often complicated by our inability to do just this (putting on other people’s sex shoes can feel sometimes too intimate). For your situation, try to put yourself in your parents’ shoes. Do you think they would want to know? Do you think they would behave differently if they knew you could hear them having sex?

And here’s a slightly more complex question; if you think they would change their behavior, do you think in the end they would be happier for it? It’s possible that they are blissfully unaware of the noise they are making. It’s also possible that they are completely aware of it, but as you say, feel that sex is healthy and there’s nothing wrong with making noise in response to passion and joy.

While this should by no means be your final measure, I’d ask you to compare the displeasure you feel at hearing your parents have sex with the pleasure their sex life seems to be bringing them. Does considering this change your next move?

These are difficult questions even when we aren’t talking about our own parents. And the fact that sex is so segregated from the rest of our lives means that we don’t engage in as much creative sexual thinking as we probably should, or as we need to in order to navigate sexual ethics.

But to offer one answer to your question, I do think you have at least one concretely ethical issue to deal with: You moved into their house upon their request, as a favor to them. Doing so does establish some responsibility on their part to make sure that your life is unduly burdened by the move. Asking them, for example, to time their sex so you don’t have to hear it, could be a completely reasonable request. If the situation is causing you serious stress then I think it’s entirely appropriate to ask. Simply bringing it to your mother’s attention may have the desired effect.

In closing, I’m glad you included in your letter that you know sex is healthy and everyone is entitled to sexual pleasure on their own terms. I think it would be a nice thing to say to your parents as well, to make it clear that you don’t actually want to put a damper on their sex life, you’d just rather not be involved in it, and currently you feel more involved than you want to. Let us know how it turns out.

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