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Should parents allow their teens to have sex in their homes?

By Deborah Kotz
November 23, 2011
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It’s an unwritten rule in America that teens don’t discuss their sex lives with their parents -- except, perhaps, to obtain contraception -- and that they don’t invite their boyfriends or girlfriends to sleep over in their rooms, at least when mom and dad are at home. Yet in Holland, two-thirds of Dutch teenagers ages 15 to 17 in committed relationships reported in a national survey that their parents allow their significant other to spend the night in their bedrooms, and girls were just as likely as boys to gain this permission.

“American parents may feel like it’s just wrong to have these sleepovers, that they’re condoning sex,” said Amy Schalet, an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “But there’s a benefit to creating an environment in which teens can truly feel comfortable in admitting to their parents that they’re experiencing sexuality” and for parents to provide them a safe place to engage in it.

As Schalet explained, “If it doesn’t happen at home, it will probably happen in a public place that’s unsafe.”

In her new book Not Under My Roof, Schalet calls attention to what she considers to be an antiquated American view of teen sexuality: a don’t ask, don’t tell approach that doesn’t stray too far beyond providing teens with an abstinence lecture or grudgingly a visit to the doctor to get a pill prescription.

After interviewing nearly 150 white, middle-class Dutch and American teens and their parents, Schalet, who was raised in Holland, came to the conclusion that the Dutch have a better approach towards dealing with teenage sex. “Teens there benefit from having an environment in which they can truly feel comfortable admitting to their parents that they’re beginning to experience sexuality,” she explained.

And to the Dutch, sexuality isn’t just defined as intercourse but kissing in middle school, as well as fondling and oral sex at older ages. The emphasis, she added, is on pleasure and getting teens to understand their own desires.

That’s a concept rarely explored in American sexual education classes. It’s so rare, in fact, that the New York Times magazine ran a cover story last Sunday on one sex-ed teacher’s efforts to teach teens at a private Philadelphia prep school about orgasms, masturbation, and why sex acts shouldn’t be compared to a baseball game. “If you’re playing baseball, you can’t just say, ‘I’m really happy at second base,’” said the teacher Al Vernacchio, in a quote from the piece.

Dutch parents have been educating their teens on these concepts since the sexual revolution, according to Schalet, though they emphasize that sex should only spring from committed, loving relationships -- not hookups. “It’s never just pure sex, but sex within a relationship.”

And there’s no worry that young teens in passionate love will leap into early marriages before they’re ready -- a notion that propels American parents to urge their teens not to have serious relationships in high school and college. “Very few Dutch parents think that teens will marry the first person they fall in love with,” she said.

They’re comfortable with the idea that their kids may be ready to have sex but not start a family. As a result, they make sure their teens adequately protect themselves from pregnancy.

The statistics speak for themselves: American teenage girls have more than four times the pregnancy rate of their Dutch counterparts: 61 per 1,000 in the US compared to 14 per 1,000 in Holland. They also have a higher rate of abortions and a higher rate of sexually transmitted diseases -- all tied to their lower rate of condom and oral contraceptive use.

“A lot of American girls were willing to admit that sex was a big part of their lives but that they feared being a big disappointment to their parents if they told them that,” said Schalet. “They may be quite close to their parents but this can’t be part of the closeness and that puts them at a disadvantage.”

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.

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