Life in the house of love

His parents discussed oral sex over lunch. But being raised by two relationship counsellors had its benefits, says Alex Hooper-Hodson

" Look at this!" my schoolfriend shrieked at me, his face scarlet with embarrassment and excitement animating his voice. With curiosity we bent to see the object of his attention. There, lying open to display its blatant centrefold, was a sex magazine. The faces of the other boys reddened, too; as one they lunged for the magazine. For these boys a veil of mystery was about to be torn away from private fantasies. Not so for me. I remember wondering: "Why all the fuss? Why is this magazine such a treasure trove of forbidden knowledge? Don't they have any of their own at home?"

" Look at this!" my schoolfriend shrieked at me, his face scarlet with embarrassment and excitement animating his voice. With curiosity we bent to see the object of his attention. There, lying open to display its blatant centrefold, was a sex magazine. The faces of the other boys reddened, too; as one they lunged for the magazine. For these boys a veil of mystery was about to be torn away from private fantasies. Not so for me. I remember wondering: "Why all the fuss? Why is this magazine such a treasure trove of forbidden knowledge? Don't they have any of their own at home?"

In my parents' house we had erotic magazines stacked next to The Journal of Sexology, piled up beside books with such long-winded titles as The Essential Clitoris and The Dictionary of Unusual Sexual Practices. At the age of 11, I was quite aware of their contents, and certainly unfazed by their existence.

Why did I live in a house like this? I was born the child of two sex counsellors, Phillip Hodson and Anne Hooper, whose groundbreaking media work contributed to many of the open and frank attitudes that allow people today to feel comfortable discussing sex and sexuality. They have written dozens of books between them on the subject, and have always broken new ground in the "sexual revolution". My mum was the first woman to run pre-orgasmic groups for women in this country, and my dad one of the early male marriage counsellors (previously it had been a mainly female profession). Both became accredited psychotherapists. They'd always been completely candid about their work, and would quite happily discuss oral sex with one another over Sunday lunch. My dad would start to carve the roast chicken, his attention still upon my mother earnestly annotating diagrams of the penis in preparation for her next masterwork.

How did all this make me feel? How could I, an 11-year-old, survive the awkwardness of such a strange family unit? Let me make this clear: I probably had to listen to my parents talk about sex every day until I left home. Not just on one occasion, that strangled conversation where father and son discuss the birds and the bees, but on a daily basis. My ability to be embarrassed sort of eroded; I shuffled off my sense of shame. But only in stages.

First, I had to survive moments such as the scene involving my mum and an electrical shop in central London. This was certainly the day I grasped the importance of presenting yourself honestly. My mum had simply asked the shopkeeper in one of those specialist shops in Tottenham Court Road for an AC adapter for an American electrical appliance, but he had been technically inquisitive.

"What exactly do you want it for?" he demanded. Without shifting her assertive, but quite friendly, gaze from the man's face, my mum produced from her bag the biggest vibrator that to this day I have ever seen and waved it in the air. The shop's entire staff gasped and began to snigger.

I looked up at my mother, already feeling the crimson in my cheeks, but I saw no embarrassment in the self-confident expression on her face, not one indication of letting these men's "repressions" affect her own sense of identity. She simply waited for their answer, bought the goods, thanked them and left the shop. I learnt that day that some people may be ashamed of sex, but my mum was certainly not among them. And, I reflected, maybe I didn't need to be among them, either.

Adolescence kicked in. Now, it is one thing to accept that your parents talk and write about sexuality, publishing their interpretations of its finer points in practically every newspaper and magazine you care to mention, but it is certainly another to be completely open about your own personal life.

I certainly didn't want to talk about my sex life. In any case, like every other teenager, I constantly found my parents hugely embarrassing, not just because of their profession, but in everything they did and said. When my dad put on the baseball cap that I thought made him look an idiot, I was just as embarrassed as when he started talking about sex in a loud voice as he pushed a trolley around the supermarket. Feeling embarrassed by your parents as a teenager is part of growing up; I would have found my parents embarrassing whatever they did for a living.

Childhood was hard, though. It's difficult to rebel against liberal authority. I think some of my teenage years were spent in trying to invent new ways to unnerve them. Although they weren't modern parents straight out of the pages of Viz magazine, taken overall they probably were too understanding; their readiness to choose empathy over criticism was a superbly mixed blessing. It probably contributed to my taking up smoking (mother heartbroken) and dropping my "h"s (father mortified). Sometimes I got the impression that the Ten Commandments read: "Thou shalt not smoke, drink or have illegible handwriting..."

Don't get me wrong, I liked my parents being nice to me, and hey, I liked their general attitude. Later on, when it really mattered, they came through for me in an astounding fashion. But sometimes they played havoc with my need to fashion my own sense of identity. Teenagers need strict boundaries, and I think that my boundaries were, in some ways, so far over the horizon that I would never have been able to rebel against them, even if I lived another 100 years.

Therapists are supposed to be easy to talk to about your problems, and yet having them as parents is not so simple. These were the pros: they taught me to listen to people as well as talk to them; they taught me to contrast what people said with what they did. Having them as parents gave me a head start at learning these skills.

But there were also cons. Knowing that your parents have such a wide experience in dealing with adolescent growing pains makes it strangely difficult to go to them with these same problems. I never felt that I couldn't talk to my parents about my own problems, but there was always the fear that, if I did, I would end up falling straight into the psychiatrist's chair as their next case study.

So how did I survive school? With difficulty. Not only were my parents sex therapists, they were also media entities. Everyone at school knew my dad from children's television, and my mum from raiding their parents' secret stash of sex manuals. Both of them wrote numerous agony columns. As a young teenager, I'd come into school to find half the class had read the latest: "Your parents aren't married, are they?"

"Your parents write about sex!"

This sort of juvenile attack was almost routine. What was truly important was that I knew that my parents' relationship functioned in the way that mattered; they were a good mum and dad. So when I was accused of technically being a "bastard" because I had unmarried, ultra-modern parents, I told people where to go. What amused me most was that, among the majority of my contemporaries, I came from one of the most stable families of all. My dad reminded me that an old friend of mine once muttered, between mouthfuls of fish fingers, "You know, Anne and Phillip are the only parents of friends of mine who are still together."

Sometimes my parents roped me in for photo-shoots. I certainly had no choice about my baby pictures, which were taken by the celebrated photographer Jane Bown and appeared in a Sunday newpaper, adorning one of my mother's articles on baby-care. As a teenager, I helped out my father by giving an interview about my body piercings to The Independent. The topic was "conflict between father and son", and the article featured my views on why I had to have them, side by side with dad's biased antagonisms. I had begun getting piercings in my early teens, and still have them today. I always thought it strange that my father was so open-minded about sex, but was never quite able to accept my reasons for having piercings.

So how has all this unconventionality affected me? Well, despite all the family struggles, I have unexpectedly found myself drawn to similar fields. I've spent the last year co-administering a drug-and-alcohol counselling service in Brighton. I fill a similar part-time role at the Hove YMCA youth advice centre just down the road. I've also become the new agony uncle for Sugar magazine, replying to problems on the boys' page. It seems, despite my best efforts to the contrary, that I may end up carrying on the family business after all.

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