Would you allow your teenage son or daughter spend the night with his or her steady partner in your home? A study of parents found that while 91% of American parents said no, 93% of Dutch parents said yes (Schalet, 2011). This dramatic difference in opinions is mainly due to cultural differences in attitudes about sexuality. While American parents typically avoid discussions about teen sex, Dutch parents "normalize" sexuality with their children by openly discussing. Sex education in Dutch schools is comprehensive and mandatory. American parents, on the other hand, often bury their heads in the sand and don't think about what's going on with their teens. Many want their teens to wait until marriage but rarely discuss it with them. I'd like you to take a second and think about yourself as a 16-year-old. Were you interested in sex? Were you sexually active? Once the hormones kick in during adolescence, sexual desire and interest can be a run-away train. Ignoring it or telling kids to just say no doesn't stop the train.
I have always been fascinated by cultural differences in attitudes about teen sexuality. Recently I had the chance to talk with several Dutch teens and parents about co-ed sleepovers. The Dutch parents told me they would rather their teens experience sex in the privacy of their own bedroom. Even more interesting was how parents handled their teen's "afternoon delight" sessions, when the teens came out of their bedrooms with flushed faces and messy hair. "There's nothing wrong with sex," several of the teens told me. "We know our parents do it and they know we do it. We all know we're doing it so what's the big deal?" Another 17-year-old told me that she had recently asked her mom for a double bed since it was uncomfortable to sleep with her boyfriend on her twin bed. Her mom agreed to a new double bed but only if they could find one that didn't squeak and keep the rest of the family up all night.
My interest in this topic is also personal—my teenage daughter has a pretty serious boyfriend. They can't seem to keep their hands off each other. Their intensity will certainly continue to grow and at some point they may decide to take their touching to the next level. I have been talking to my daughter about sex since she was old enough to listen—we openly discuss sexual behaviors, attitudes, risks, sexual pleasure, as well as her virginity. She is well aware that her virginity is a gift that she will one day give to someone. Is she ready to have sex now? Is this guy the "one"? These are questions only she can answer. But thinking about this made me also wonder where most American teens have sex if they aren't allowed to do it in their homes. Where do they do it?
In my preliminary research on college students and the loss of virginity, I found the majority of students loose their virginity someplace outside their home (Carroll, 2012). Common locations include backseats of cars, basement floors, the woods, movie theaters, or friends' houses. What lessons do teens learn about sex when they are forced to explore it in unsafe locations where there is a constant fear of getting caught? How can the experience be relaxed or pleasurable under such circumstances? Does this create more guilt and embarrassment for teens, making sex more forbidden?
Co-ed sleepovers may never be accepted in the U.S. but there is something for us to learn from the Dutch. Statistics show that the Netherlands has the world's lowest rates of teenage pregnancy, abortion, and childbearing (Feijoo, 2008). While co-ed sleepovers might not be the only reason for these statistics, the Dutch are certainly doing something right.
Carroll, J. (2012). Loss of virginity in college students. Unpublished manuscript.
Feijoo, A. (2008). Adolescent sexual health in Europe and the U.S. - Why the difference? Advocates for Youth. Retrieved online January 27, 2012 from http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/storage/advfy/documents/adolescent_sexu...
Schalet, A. (2011). Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, ILL.