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Young love

UMass professor Amy Schalet noticed some stark differences between American and Dutch teens when it comes to sex. Then she started talking to their parents.

Amy Schalet (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe) Schalet, the author of "Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex," photographed at UMass on Dec. 15.
By Kate Tuttle
Globe Correspondent / December 22, 2011
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Amy Schalet was born in America but raised in the Netherlands. When she returned to the US for college in the early ’90s, she noticed some big differences between her two countries.

“One was that the teen pregnancy rates were still very high here,’’ Schalet says. “Growing up in Holland I had never heard of that - of a teenager getting pregnant.’’

The statistics continue to bear out the cultural differences: In 2006, only 14 out of 1,000 Dutch girls age 15-19 became pregnant, compared with over 60 American girls per 1,000 in the same year.

Schalet, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, says a key reason for the disparity is that American and Dutch parents approach the issue of teen sexuality in radically different ways, the most obvious and tangible of which is that most Dutch parents are willing, under specific circumstances (a relationship they approve of, the proven use of birth control), to allow their teenagers to have sleepovers with their romantic partners.

For most American parents, the very idea elicits an exclamation Schalet took for the title of her new book, “Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex.’’ For many families, the tension surrounding the issue is perhaps most acute at this time of year, when students come home for the holidays with a new college boyfriend or girlfriend.

Schalet’s book, which draws on extensive interviews with more than 100 teenagers and their parents in both countries, highlights stark distinctions between the information Dutch teenagers get about sex, where schools and families promote a positive narrative of sexuality within the context of a loving relationship and normal development, and the mixed messages American teenagers receive.

“The culture as a whole, whether we’re talking about sex education or the media, really has a schizophrenic relationship with teen sexuality,’’ says Schalet. “There’s a lot of sexualization in the media, but at the same time a huge cultural emphasis on all the risks and the danger.’’

This is, after all, a culture where a teenager can start the evening watching “Gossip Girl’’ or “Teen Mom,’’ then dash off to a chastity ball, where girls promise their fathers they’ll remain a virgin until marriage.

Add to that a national political debate over abortion, birth control, and sex education, and it’s not surprising that, as Schalet writes, in this country “teen sex has been dramatized - fraught with cultural ambivalences, heated political struggles, and poor health outcomes.’’

Still, for most American parents - even those who would consider themselves liberal or progressive on social issues - the idea of a parentally approved romantic sleepover is not on the table.

“My rule in the house is not under my roof,’’ says Carmen Torres, 56, of Roxbury, whose children are now young adults. “After you’re a certain age you can make certain decisions,’’ she goes on, “but I expect that you will do that when you have your own place, somewhere else.’’

As co-headmaster of the Boston Arts Academy, Torres is a veteran educator and strong advocate for accurate sex education. Still, she says, “it’s complicated. There are many layers, both generational and cultural.’’

Linda Nathan, also 56, of Cambridge, works alongside Torres as co-headmaster at BAA. “We know it’s there,’’ she says of teen sexuality. “I realized pretty early that I’d better give my daughter a chance to talk about birth control with experts. I made sure she had the opportunity to do that.’’

Most parents, of course, arrive at their policies regarding teen sexuality either by repeating, or reacting against, how they themselves grew up. Elizabeth Hansen, 32, of Somerville, has two preschoolers; she’s years away from having to deal with sexually active teens. Still, she remembers appreciating her own parents’ relative openness: unlike many of her peers in the relatively conservative town where she was raised, she wasn’t subject to a “no-kissing’’ policy.

“I agree with my parents’ strategy,’’ Hansen says. In essence, they told her, “we’ve always raised you kids to make your own choices in life. We have faith that you’ll make good choices.’’

When Hansen’s daughter hits adolescence, she hopes she and her husband “can have an open conversation about that, and if she feels good about herself in other ways, you know - we’ll get through it.’’ Part of her fears for her daughter, Hansen says, come from witnessing the steep price girls can pay in terms of reputation, especially in communities where a sexual double standard stubbornly persists.

It’s a price Schalet notes in her book.

“The slander of being called a slut,’’ Schalet writes, “looms much greater for American girls than it does for their Dutch counterparts.’’ One reason for the double standard is how each culture views gender roles within sexuality. Dutch teens tend to see boys and girls as equally capable of both sexual desire and romantic feelings. Here in the US, what Schalet calls a “battle of the sexes’’ mentality lives on, where boys are assumed to seek sex, not love, and girls the reverse.

The impact of these attitudes isn’t simply emotional, she says: “Studies show that when girls feel more comfortable with their sexuality and in charge of their sexual decision making, they’re more resilient in negotiating condom use.’’ And once again, the numbers tell the story: at first intercourse, 6 of 10 Dutch girls are on the pill, but just 1 in 5 American girls are on any form of hormonal birth control at that point.

Schalet writes that “when the prospect of sexual activity is openly discussed, rather than engaged in furtively and suddenly, it becomes easier for teenagers to plan and take precautions against dangers.’’

But just as most reject the idea of the sleepover, many of the American parents quoted in Schalet’s book refuse to help their teenagers obtain birth control. This doesn’t make them any less likely to have sex, of course.

There are those parents, of course, who take a different tack. “My 16-year-old daughter feels beautiful and she feels loved,’’ says Corey Steinman, 43, of Cambridge. “That’s a real blessing.’’

Steinman’s daughter, 16, is gay and has been in a relationship for 18 months. Her girlfriend is allowed to spend the night. As with the Dutch parents in Schalet’s research, this family’s decision doesn’t reflect permissiveness so much as connectedness; Steinman takes pains to point out that he and his wife enforce curfews and a no-cursing rule. Both families approve of the relationship, Steinman says, adding that “it really all stems from not necessarily what your rules are, but whether you’ve managed to develop a relationship where you can actually talk about things when they come up.’’

“Teenagers would like to talk with their parents about their relationships,’’ says Dr. Atsuko Koyama, a pediatric fellow at Boston Medical Center who has researched adolescents. The teenagers she studied said while they liked being able to get accurate medical information from their doctors and other healthcare providers, they also valued “getting to know their parents on a more adult level, talking about feelings and about family values.’’

“Just the same way we help babies learn how to walk and we clear the way, we baby-proof our home,’’ says Koyama, “in the same way, parents and trusted adults need to help pave the way and make it safe for adolescents.’’

As difficult as it can be for parents and teens to talk openly about sex - not just rules, but feelings - such communication is enormously beneficial. Whether or not to allow sleepovers, Schalet says, “is a very personal choice, very dependent on the child and the parents. Creating an environment in which young people truly feel that they’re able to share what they’re feeling - including who they’re dating - is really important.’’

And if your ultimate goal is for your teenager to be the latest bloomer on the block, you may still want to take a hint from the Dutch. “Parents can communicate clearly what they want for their children,’’ Schalet says. “And at the same time say, ‘I want you to feel that you can confide in me and I want to stay connected to you.’ ’’

Kate Tuttle can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.

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