Posted by Sappho on February 23rd, 2008 filed in Sexuality
Enter two studies: one, discussed on various blogs several weeks back, on the different approaches of Dutch and American parents (white middle class parents in both cases) to teen sex, and one, recently blogged about at the New York Times, about the romantic lives of teenage boys.
The message of the Dutch/American study: Dutch parents are overwhelmingly willing to allow 16-and-17-year-olds to have their boy friend or girl friend sleep over, and American parents overwhelmingly not willing, in part because Dutch parents believe, and American parents don’t believe, that teenagers can really be in love. The message of the teenage boy study: No, teenage boys aren’t purely testosterone-crazed kids who are Only Out For One Thing. Yes, they do fall in love.
All of which goes to show that Dutch parents are right, and American parents should adopt the saner and more rational Dutch approach, right? Well, actually, I want to explore the whole thing a little more than that, because, first of all, my reaction to allowing my unfortunately-forever-to-remain-hypothetical teenager to have a sleepover with a boy friend or girl friend at the age of 16 is more like that of the American parents in the survey than like that of the Dutch parents, and, second, when I look at the dichotomies described by the researchers in the Dutch/American parent study, I realize that, for some of them, I have sympathy with both sides, but for one in particular, I think the American parents are way wrong and the Dutch ones have it right.
Amy Schalet’s research involved asking American and Dutch parents (in a small sample with particular characteristics) questions about whether and when they would allow a teenager to have a boy friend or girl friend sleepover – and then carrying out lengthy interviews in which the parents got to talk about why they would make the choices they did. Nearly all of the Dutch parents would allow the sleepover – for a steady boy friend or girl friend and a 16 or 17-year-old teen. Nearly all the American parents wouldn’t.
At the risk of jeopardizing both my Christian good standing and. apparently, also my liberal good standing (for opposite reasons), FWIW, my own intuitive sense of when I’d allow the sleepover for the forever-to-be-hypothetical son or daughter is:
- Son or daughter and boy friend or girl friend are both, say, at least 18 and possessed of high school diplomas.
- Son or daughter is showing adult responsibility in general (if you’re flunking out of school, losing jobs, and taking lots of drugs, you don’t get the sleepover, no matter how old you are) and in regard to sex (if my son were spouting the kind of crap I see on the net about how it’s oh so unfair that men have to support their own kids, no, he wouldn’t be sleeping with women in my house).
- Boy friend or girl friend is an ongoing relationship about which you’re serious enough to be introducing him or her to family – I’m not a cheap motel and don’t do overnight visits from people who are strangers to me. (I can’t think why anyone would open up her own home to someone bringing in all sorts of one night stands – if nothing else, don’t you want to screen your own overnight guests somewhat? – but there was the one Pandagon commenter who argued that the Dutch parents were being too prudish or something because they wanted their teenagers’ relationships to be non-casual.)
My mother-in-law’s policy is different: when Joel and I visited her as an engaged couple in our twenties, she let us know right up front that we were going in separate bedrooms. Not in her house until you’re married, no matter how old you are. My own family allows adult unmarried couples to share a room (well, my grandparents’ generation didn’t, but my mother and stepmother do). I tend to think, you know, old enough to make all the necessary decisions without interference, and old enough that you could effectively stand by the woman, if you’re the man, in the event of pregnancy is old enough to have the world openly recognize your choice as to whether you and boy friend or girl friend are sleeping together – with the understanding that if there is a pregnancy, we also recognize that the man shares responsibility with the woman. By that point, you will be making up your own mind anyway about sex, and I don’t really see the usefulness of a not-in-my-house-I-don’t-want-to-see-it approach. But the Dutch parents allow that choice younger than I intuitively would, while some of the American parents are still forbidding sleepovers to a nineteen-year-old daughter or a son in his twenties.
Schalet describes the different attitudes that lead to the different parental policies in terms of three themes that guide parents in each country:
- American parents see Raging Hormones Out of Control, while Dutch parents see (Self) Regulating Adolescent Sexuality
- American parents see The Battle Between the Sexes, while Dutch parents see Relationship-Based Sexuality
- American parents believe in Not Under My Roof, while Dutch parents believe in Normal Sexuality.
So, taking these themes not in order, my thoughts:
Not Under My Roof vs. Normal Sexuality: OK, everyone’s going to be Not Under My Roof about something. It’s your roof, and you get to make some rules about it. But, if you’re going to do Not Under My Roof, it had better be one of two things.
A) It’s something you actually think you can likely talk the teenager out of. One reason it feels normal to me for parents to disallow the 16 and 17-year-old sleepovers is that, in fact, at that age, I believed my mother’s reasoning for why I’d be better off not having sex at that point, actually wasn’t having sex, most of my friends weren’t having sex, and those who were sounded ambivalent about it. Even waiting till your actual twenties to have sex is, from my point of view, a minority experience but not an utterly freakishly rare one.
And, unlike Amanda Marcotte, I don’t regret in the least not having sex with my high school boy friend. Of course, Amanda had a high school boy friend over an extended period of time who she thinks loved her, while my high school boy friend, if it makes any sense even to call him that, was a guy I dated a few times during the very last weeks of my senior year, whom everyone else in my family has probably forgotten. He was intelligent and good looking, but I didn’t for one moment, even at the time, think that either of us was in love with the other or that we were made to last, well, any time at all. Perhaps he would have been happy for me to get more naked, but under the circumstances, why would I regret not having done so?
Anyway, if you think your kids shouldn’t be having sex yet, and can actually be talked into deferring it, then the approach of the more liberal American parents surveyed (supply birth control information in case they do have sex anyway, but don’t normalize it by actually letting them do the sleepover in your house) is rational. And, despite how people talk about teenage sex as if it’s like the tide that King Canute couldn’t turn back, teens do take some influence from their parents. (Just not enough that you can put that purity ring on your junior high school aged daughter and be sure she’ll still want it there as she approaches the tail end of high school.)
B) You have a firm moral conviction against the behavior. If you truly believe that your children should be waiting till marriage for sex, and if they’re not even adults yet, still your job to supervise them, why would you take any position other than Not In My House?
Where the American parents, as described in the study, start to sound weird is the point where some of them seem to be arguing that secret sex is actually preferable to open sex.
“There is a time and a place. And it’s not at home.”
“In a way it’s better not to have it so blatant, to do things a little secretively like I was raised. We were on the sly and in secret. It seems better that way, rather than blatant in front of your parents about it.”
The Dutch parents’ argument for normal of “gewoon” sexuality, that is discussed openly, does sound preferable to this “we expect you to do it anyway, but it’s better if it’s secret” attitude. What kind of a message about sexual responsibility does “do it in secret” send?
Raging Hormones Out of Control vs. (Self) Regulating Adolescent Sexuality: Here’s where I feel most divided, between the mindset of the American parents and the mindset of the Dutch ones. My hormones weren’t particularly stronger when I was a teenager than they are now, so I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the claim that teenagers literally have particularly raging hormones (am I that weird for having just as strong a sex drive in my 40s as I ever did in my teens?). But in fact, though I think teens are in some sense as capable of rational thought as adults, I don’t think they’re as good as adults at risk assessment. Nor do I actually believe that people always know when they’re ready for sex. Ready for sex doesn’t just mean knowing what it is and wanting to enjoy it. It doesn’t even just mean stuff like being willing to reliably use a condom. It also means having thought responsibly about what happens when the birth control fails. Because sometimes it does.
(This is why I have trouble with Mandolin’s argument last year – which goes further than even the Netherlands parents in this particular survey seem to – that parents should be OK with even twelve-year-olds having sex, as long as they’re having it with each other. OK, so the twelve-year-old girl gets pregnant. How many parents are going to sit down and talk with her about how she makes her own decision about abortion, adoption, keeping the child? I just don’t see that happening. Sufficiently pro-life parents will tell her she’s having that baby whether she likes it or not, and other parents will tell her she’s getting that abortion for her own good. But odds are the eighteen-year-old will be making that decision, however well or badly, herself; at that point you only hope you have taught her well.)
On the other hand, your teenager is in fact going to be self-regulating, for better or worse, probably well before you’re convinced he or she actually has an adult awareness of risks. So, from a practical point of view, you don’t want to address teenagers as if you think they only think with the little head. When even college students get described as kids who can’t be trusted, probably you’re going to lose the college students.
So, on this one, both the Dutch and American views have some elements of truth.
Where the American parents are dead wrong, though, IMO, is on The Battle Between the Sexes vs. Relationship-Based Sexuality.
Here are the Dutch:
The assumption that teenagers can fall in love and form strong intimate relationships is one of the reasons that Dutch parents are wiling to permit the sleepover. Nienke Otten explains, “You permit it when you see that they really care about each other, that it isn’t just a passing fancy.” In fact, many Dutch parents express strong aversions to casual sex. Hannie de Groot hopes that her daughter will not treat sex casually. She believes, “you have sex with someone when you know that person quite
well… not you meet someone in a disco, and you go to bed with him the same evening.”
Often, Dutch parents use the sleepover to distinguish between sanctioned solid relationships and more fleeting “one-night stands”, which most disapprove of. Jacquelien Starring would have serious objections if her son Hans were to “do it with that one and then that one and…. But if it is a girlfriend that he has known a bit longer … and she comes over to our house, and she sleeps over. I don’t think I would have problems with that.” Marga Fenning is not inclined to forbid much but she recently told
her 18-year-old son that a casual female friend could not spend the night with him at home. She would have responded differently if the girl in question were his girlfriend….
And here are the American parents:
As an interviewer, it was striking to hear American middle-class parents express extreme skepticism about the possibility of love during the teenage years. Parents frequently say that while teenagers, particularly girls, may think they are in love, they are not truly in love. Instead, the American parents stress the ways in which girls and boys have opposing, even antagonistic, desires
It is still quite common, especially for those Americans who live in more conservative communities, to describe girls and boys as driven by opposing drives and needs: boys want sex and girls want love. Doreen and Harold Lawton articulate a stark vision of such a difference. He believes boys want to “get laid” at any cost. She thinks girls don’t want to “get laid;” they just have sex to hold onto their boyfriends. Likewise, Helen Mast believes that if her daughter Katie decides to become sexually involved with her boyfriend, it will not be because she wants to; “she’s only doing it because he wants her to.” Having long prohibited his daughter to date, Donald Wood feels that now that she is 16, such a rule is no longer tenable. He is, however, extremely anxious about her dating debut. He regards the source of his anxiety as self-evident: “I’m a parent of a teenage cheerleader. I’m very concerned. Dirty little boys, get away, get away.”
This attitude is all kinds of wrong. Let me count the ways.
It’s wrong about the nature of teenage boys. Look, I barely dated at all in high school, but even I had enough male friends to see that some of them got attached to their girl friends. Not to mention all the seemingly in love, but at least technically still teenaged, guys I knew in college. So how is it that anyone who remembers being a teenager is surprised to learn that teenaged boys have actual feelings beyond lust? And yet, some people resist believing this. When a New York Times blogger wrote about the SUNY Oswego study of teenage boys
The boys were asked their reasons for dating and were allowed to mark more than one answer. Notably, being physically attracted to someone wasn’t the primary motivation they gave for dating. More than 80 percent of the boys noted “I really liked the person.’’ Physical attraction and wanting to get to know someone better were the second most popular answers.
Among the boys who had been sexually active, physical desire and wanting to know what sex feels like were among the top three reasons they pursued sex. However, the boys were equally likely to say they pursued sex because they loved their partner. Interestingly, only 14 percent said they sought sex because they wanted to lose their virginity, and 9 percent did so to fit in with friends.
some commenters were impressed, but others cynically skeptical
Boys are not dumb. They know how to answer theses silly questions. “Oh, baby I really do like you, now can you take off your clothes.” …
Because it’s just so improbable that boys could ever like the girls they’re sleeping with.
It’s wrong about who actually wants to use you, when you’re a teenaged girl. Look, there are teenaged boys who will want you to get their rocks off or, worse, to impress their friends. This is true. And some of them may say things to win you that they really don’t mean. This is also true. I’ve been there (though I didn’t sleep with the guy), and it does hurt, especially when the guy who does it is, you know, not the frat guy sort that you’re supposed to expect to mistrust, but the guy who cares about strangers and social injustice.
But it’s also true that the majority of the treating-me-like-a-piece-of-meat approaches, when I was in the not quite legal to barely legal age range, came not from the “dirty little boys” my age, but from the “dirty older men” who weren’t at all my age. And, too, the one guy that got outright abusive in his pursuit, when I was in college, was about ten years older than me, not a student but someone much older who was hanging around campus and, as I later found out, harrassing the young women in general, not just me.
And the thing is, some teenage girls are attracted to older men – which is OK – but some of those teenage girls pick up on all those social messages about immature teenage boys who are Just Out For One Thing, and convince themselves that the reason they’re attracted to older men is that they’re special snowflakes who are much more mature than everyone their own age, and certainly too mature for those teenage boys. And that older men will treat them much better. And, nothing against May/December in general, but in the case of May/December where May isn’t yet legal, often there’s something off about December.
It’s wrong about the relationship between sex and love. Of which, if you buy this dichotomy, you’re apparently only allowed to want one, and certainly not both with the same person.
It’s wrong about what actually goes wrong, in young love. Believe that stuff, and you’re prepared, maybe, to properly mistrust the guy who only wants you for sex. But it doesn’t really prepare you for the fact that you can make the mistake both ways – either seeing more commitment than a guy’s willing to give, or not seeing the commitment that a guy is actually willing to offer. And that making either mistake can hurt. And it doesn’t really prepare you for the fact that maybe you do both really like each other – but in ways that really don’t work over the long haul.
And it doesn’t even name properly the valid reasons that parents may worry about young sex. One of the commenters in the Alas, a Blog thread on the Dutch/American study made a comment I thought sensible, about the different meanings of the word “love”:
And I suspect other people to use the term “being in love” as a conclusory label given to any group of people whom the speaker regards to be entitled to have sex with each other. To such people, all wedded couples are presumptively “in love” all the time, without any independent evidence of emotional state. It would hardly surprise me that people who use “being in love” in this fashion might object to the idea that teenagers can “be in love.”
And this, too, is wrong. Because if you take time to think about why you’re worried about your teenagers having sex, is it really because you know their feelings so much better than they do, that you can tell them they’re not really in love when they think they are? Or is it that you think you have a better sense of the responsibilities involved than they do? If it’s the latter – and I sincerely hope it is – then what you should be talking to them about isn’t the illusory nature of young love, but the nature of responsibility, as applied to sex.