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Family Matters No. 34 - May 1993

Under the same roof: Young adult unmarried sexual relationships in parents' homes

Robyn Hartley

Abstract

An increasing number of families are facing the issue of young adults sleeping with their sexual partners in the parental home. In this edited version of a paper presented at the fourth Australian Family Research Conference in February 1993, the author reports on why this is happening and how families are responding. Data are drawn from the Institute's Becoming Adult Study of 23-year olds, which involved a total of 138 respondents.

Prolonged education, fewer opportunities for independence through full-time work, later marriage and earlier sexual activity of young people, together with more liberal attitudes towards sexuality in general, combine to increase the likelihood that parents and their young adult children will face the issue of young adult sexual activity in the parental home.

Extended education and continuing high rates of unemployment, or the availability of only part-time and casual employment, frustrate young people's intentions to leave home and strike out on their own. There is an increased likelihood that if parents are able and willing to have them, older adolescents and young adults will remain living at home or return after a period away. Housing costs also make it difficult to be completely independent. And while economic factors are important, so too is the rising age of first marriage, with those not leaving home until they marry, leaving home later than in the past.

Sexual behaviour and attitudes have changed with widespread use of contraception, the waning of the power of Christian churches in matters which are now considered ones of personal choice, changing roles of women, and earlier sexual maturity of young people. More adolescents are sexually active and they are probably more experienced than their parents were at the same age.

There is now quite widespread public acceptance of young people cohabiting prior to marriage, implying acceptance of sex before marriage. About half the respondents in the 1988-89 National Social Science Survey would recommend that young people live together with a steady partner and then marry (Evans 1991).

While the moral positions of young adults and their parents are undoubtedly important in deciding whether young adults sleep with partners in their parents' home, there are wider implications, and other issues involved. Sexual behaviour and sexual relationships take place within a social context and have a social meaning far beyond the physical act. They are influenced by, and reflect to a greater or lesser extent, different power relations in society, particularly those between parents and offspring, adults and children, women and men. The social context includes the transition to adulthood, and normative expectations about young couple's residence patterns in relation to their parents.

BECOMING ADULT

In the Institute's Becoming Adult Study of 23-year-olds which focused on patterns and processes of becoming adult, respondents were asked how their parents would feel about them sleeping with someone in their (the parents') house, and how they themselves would feel about it. They were also asked whether they ever had, and whether their parents knew about it. The questions were included in a series concerning partnering and sexual relationships, and it was made clear that they referred to unmarried relationships.

The group included a total of 138 respondents (77 women and 61 men); a little over one-half grew up in a family with their two biological parents, 30 per cent in a sole-parent family, and 17 per cent in a stepfamily. Males in jobs categorised as 'professional' were somewhat over-represented, although there was a good spread of occupations; respondents from non- English-speaking backgrounds were under-represented. About three-quarters of the group were partnered - either married (mostly women), living with a partner, or in a relationship and not living with their partner. A little over one-third, more men than women, were living with a parent.

PARENTS' VIEWS

A little under half (44 per cent) of the 23-year-olds said their parents would definitely not accept them having a premarital sexual relationship in their house. The strength of parents' views varied, but in each case they were clearly opposed. Most commonly, parents were simply seen as not agreeing with sex before marriage. Other explanations were that parents had conservative attitudes in general; they expected (and were entitled to) 'respect'; they had the right to set the rules in their own house.

Nearly one in four respondents (23 per cent) said their parents would accept them sleeping with a partner if they were engaged, or if the relationship was committed, or if it was someone parents knew well and had come to accept, the common thread being that acceptance was contingent on a strong indication of commitment.

A further 16 per cent of respondents said parents would probably accept their sleeping together 'under the same roof', or they knew their parents didn't really like it but had come to reluctant acceptance, or they were a bit unsure about parental attitudes. The common notion expressed in this group of responses is a belief that parent(s) would not definitely be opposed, but neither would they necessarily approve. There was a strong sense that some parents accepted the inevitable but didn't really approve.

The remaining 17 per cent of respondents thought it was, or would be, all right with their parents, although it is not always clear what restrictions, if any, operated. The common thread here was that the respondents implied acceptance was neither limited to a committed relationship, nor was it necessarily 'reluctant'.

To summarise, over half of the group (56 per cent) said that their parents had accepted, or were likely to accept their sleeping with someone in their home, under some circumstances. Nevertheless, just over 40 per cent of the parents seen to be accepting under some circumstances are agreeable only if the relationship is committed or seen as relatively stable. In addition, it is also possible that a fair proportion of the 'probably, or reluctantly agree' category of parents, and those whose offspring say that it is acceptable, may in fact agree only under certain circumstances. So, although there is quite a high degree of parental acceptance (as seen by young people), it is clearly limited and related to specific circumstances. No-one suggested that they could bring anyone at all, at any time, home to their parent's house for the night.

YOUNG PEOPLE'S VIEWS

Turning to the views of the 23-year-olds, nearly 40 per cent said they would not, or did not, feel comfortable about premarital sex in their parent's home; 23 per cent said they would feel comfortable only if the relationship was a committed one and their parents accepted the person; and the remaining 38 per cent said they would feel all right about it and did not mention particular conditions or restrictions.

A number of other trends emerged.

  • It is more acceptable (by both young adults and their parents) for young men than young women to have sex with a partner in a parent's home.
  • Being in a relationship (compared with not being in a relationship) is related to feeling more accepting of and comfortable about sex in a parent's home.
  • Being in a close relationship and neither living with that person nor with one's parents tends to be related to the greatest degree of acceptance about having sex in a parent's home.
  • The more important religion is in a young adults life, the less likely they are to feel comfortable about premarital sex in their parent's home.
  • Any associations with growing up in an intact, sole-parent or stepfamily were not clear although there was some indication that parents in intact families were seen as being less accepting and parents in stepfamilies as more accepting. Young people growing up in stepfamilies were less likely to say they felt uncomfortable about sleeping with a partner in their parents' house.
  • Almost two-thirds had at some stage slept with a partner in their parents' home. Although almost 80 per cent said their parents knew about it, or they thought their parents knew about it, this certainly didn't imply approval. Those from stepfamilies and sole-parent families were more likely to have done so.

MORE THAN A MORAL ISSUE

For between four and five out of every ten 23-year-olds in the Becoming Adult Study, sleeping with a partner in their parent's house was not a matter for negotiation, and for a significant proportion of the others, it was surrounded by conflicting emotions. This is not surprising, considering the important social and personal issues which are touched upon, including attitudes towards sexuality, changing status and power relations between parents and children, and cultural mores and expectations about families as sites for a single sexual relationship.

Attitudes and beliefs about independence and responsibility impinge very strongly on sexual behaviour and they have particular meaning when sex takes place in a parent's home. If it is with the parent's knowledge and consent, it validates and confirms a new status for a son or daughter, and there is an implicit acceptance of greater equality between parent and child. Nevertheless, there are tensions.

There have always been married sons and daughters living with parents, particularly in times of recession and housing crisis, but also for a variety of other personal and social reasons. However, the norm for Anglo-Australian young couples has been to set up residence apart from parents, hence maintaining nuclear families and only one (or one legitimate) sexual relationship in each household.

The relationship of sexuality to independence is reflected in the unease which some parents feel about older children bringing a partner home. Their concern is not necessarily, or only, a moral one. Parents were not interviewed in the Becoming Adult Study, but anecdotal evidence suggests that some struggle with a deeply internalised belief that if a young person is adult enough to be in an ongoing relationship which involves regular sex, then they are adult enough to be out on their own. These parents are reluctant to 'support' such a relationship (by having it take place in their own home) because it contradicts their expectations about adulthood and independence. Other parents may feel 'used' and resentful if they are financially supporting adult children.

When young adults live away from their parents, it is much more likely that the sexuality of parents and their offspring is kept separate. But when they want to carry on a sexual relationship in their parent's home, issues of sexuality and parent-adult offspring power are very immediate. Not only does the sexuality of a son or daughter have to be confronted; in various ways, it may lead parents to look at their own sex life.

Despite the so-called sexual revolution and the fact that 'in the public arena, sex screams at us at every turn' (Rubin 1990), sex is a very private affair and something which parents and children are often not at ease in talking about. On the young adult's side, unconscious ambivalence or guilt about sex may be evoked when parents are present. Echoes of the past adult-child relationship may be exacerbated by being in the same house or even bed as in their childhood. In the study, quite strong feelings of taboo and/or guilt about sexual relationships in a parent's home were present, even for those who were married.

Parents' acceptance may involve more than just saying 'yes' and more than just providing a bed. It could mean anything from having an occasional visitor for breakfast to having a full- time extra member of the household. There is much to negotiate about monetary and non-monetary contributions to the household in such circumstances.

Financial considerations are sometimes overtly part of negotiations about sons' and daughters' sexual relationships, and again, this appears to be related to parents' views about independence and adulthood. Contrary to the situation outlined above, if a son or daughter is contributing financially and is independent in most respects, parents may feel that their offspring have the right to a place to conduct a regular sex life.

Physical privacy is very important in most sexual relationships. When sons or daughters have a sexual relationship in the parental home, cultural expectations and social norms about the private nature of sexual relationships are put in jeopardy. Many houses don't provide the privacy which young couples (and their parents) feel is necessary. The issue is not only one of possible embarrassment for either the parents or the young couple. Restraints on privacy which make sexual intercourse less than satisfactory may affect the relationship in general.

CONCLUSION

It is difficult to estimate how great a shift in parents' attitudes over the past 20 or so years the findings represent because, unlike many other aspects of the 'sexual revolution', little has been written specifically on this topic. It is likely to be quite a major shift, but not, however, an unexpected one, given the other changes which have taken place, particularly in regard to cohabitation. More people now live together without marrying, but what is more relevant for the present discussion is the increased public acceptance of cohabitation before marriage.

The findings indicate that for some parents, acceptance of premarital cohabitation extends to sexual relationships carried out in a parent's home, and the conditions of acceptance are similar - that is, if there is an intention to marry, or if the relationship is long-term and appears committed. If those elements are not there, parents (and many young adults) feel less certain. There may well be differences, too, in how parents and young adults define 'commitment' or a 'long-term' relationship (one year, two years, three years?).

The majority of young adults in the study were of Anglo- Australian background. Census data and ethnographic studies indicate that young Australians from non-Anglo backgrounds don't cohabit to the same extent as Anglo- Australians, and in general, adults born overseas are less likely than the Australian- born to approve of living together without planning marriage (Khoo 1985). Therefore, attitudes towards premarital sex in the parental home are very likely to be much less accepting for non- Anglo parents and their young adult offspring, particularly those who come from strongly religious backgrounds. Nevertheless, cultural values and social attitudes do not remain static. Several studies suggest that in older established cultural groups, changes are occurring in young people's attitudes towards cohabitation (Callan and Gallois 1985) and premarital sex (Gucciardo 1988), even if they are not being translated into behaviour.

This paper has suggested that although considerations of 'morality' are very important, they are not necessarily the only considerations of parents and young adults. At present, social conditions and high unemployment rates for 20-24-year-olds have combined to make it increasingly difficult for some young adults to live separately from parents and to pay their way completely. The tendency for more young people in this age group to live with parents means that more families will be faced with the issues discussed in this paper.

If the trend continues, it will perhaps become more commonly accepted for young adults to have a sexual relationship in their parent's home, particularly if they return home after having already lived independently for a period. Perhaps also, there will increasingly be a 'trade-off' whereby greater sexual freedom is accepted in the family home because young people are unable to leave home and live independently. Nevertheless, there is always likely to be a strong expectation that young couples will ultimately move out and carry on their sexual relationships away from parents. The tensions created by unconscious psychological factors, social and cultural expectations, and some quite strongly held moral positions are likely to persist.

REFERENCES

  • Callan, V. and Gallois, C. (1985), 'Sex-role attitudes and attitudes to marriage among urban Greek-Australian and Anglo-Greek Australian youth', Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Vol.16, No.3, Autumn.
  • Evans, M. (1991), 'Alternative to marriage', National Social Science Survey Report, Vol.2 no.5
  • Gucciardo, T. (1988), 'The best of both worlds: a study of second generation Italo-Australians', Youth Studies, Vol.7, No.1.
  • Khoo, S. (1985), Family Formation and Ethnicity, Working Paper No.9, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Rubin, L. (1990), Erotic Wars: What Happened to the Sexual Revolution? Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York.