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The Primal Scene Phenomenon: Witnessing Parental Sexual Activity and Sociosexual Orientation


Sigmund Freud coined the term urszene—or “primal scene”—to describe the experience of children witnessing their parents engaging in sexual activity. We examined the historical context in which the primal scene emerged, considered contemporary views of the primal scene, and conducted two empirical studies (N = 961, 1390) to investigate Freud’s proposition that children who witness the primal scene would later be prone to “attacks of falling physically in love,” which we operationalized as sociosexual orientation. In both studies, individuals who witnessed the primal scene as children had a more unrestricted sociosexual orientation than those who did not. Additionally, men had a more unrestricted sociosexual orientation than women. Altogether, these results suggest a possible link between primal scene exposure and sociosexual orientation. In contrast to psychoanalytic theories, we offer psychodynamic and normative social explanations of the primal scene phenomenon.

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Correspondence to Michael D. Barnett.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Barnett, M.D., Berry, K.E., Maciel, I.V. et al. The Primal Scene Phenomenon: Witnessing Parental Sexual Activity and Sociosexual Orientation. Sexuality & Culture 22, 162–175 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-017-9458-2

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  • Sexual behavior
  • Sociosexuality
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Sexual development
  • Privacy