That’s one of the messages in a new book getting much attention by Amy Schalet, an assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts.
“Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex,” (University of Chicago Press, November 2011) compares American and Dutch teen pregnancy rates and concludes that the more open – and perhaps, realistic — attitudes Dutch parents have toward teenage sex might have much to do with the difference.
“In the US, we’ve tended to focus exclusively on the dangers of sex. Parents, educators and health care providers warn young people against the risks of sex and heartbreak, but unfortunately that does not give them the tools to navigate the territory of sexuality and relationships in a healthy way,” Schalet wrote to me in an e-mail exchange.
“This process of what I call dramatization of teenage sexuality tends to drive the conversation about sex and relationships outside of the home ... where, ironically, parents can have less influence.”
Schalet will be sharing her research today in Washington with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. I asked her to also share a bit of her presentation with On Parenting. Her response is below:
OP: Tell me more about your presentation today.
Schalet: I will be presenting some highlights from my book starting with some of the startling differences in adolescent sexual health between the U.S. and the Netherlands. The U.S. has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates and the Netherlands one of the lowest in the industrial world (notably, we still see very large differences between the countries if only comparing white teens, whose rates are lower in both countries).
One important cause for the difference between the two countries is that U.S. teens are much more likely to grow up in poverty than Dutch teens, and when young people grow up without access to quality education, jobs, and health care, they are more likely to become pregnant at young ages. But poverty is not the whole story.
One of the statistics that I point out is that in the Netherlands, 6 out of 10 teenage girls are on the pill at first intercourse (versus only about 1 in 5 in the U.S.).
So the question is, what makes it possible for young women to know in advance when they are going to have their first intercourse, talk to a trusted adult -- in the Dutch case, usually a mother – make an appointment with a doctor and start the pill before first sex?
I show how in many Dutch families and in the educational and health care system, there is a process of “normalization” around teenage sexual development: Young people are encouraged to “self-regulate,” that is not have sex before they are ready (most Dutch parents agree this should not be before age 16) and use precautions.
There is the expectation that sex should take place in steady relationships in which both teens are in love. Finally, parents don’t want teenage sex to be a secret. They want to stay connected [with their teens] and be able to exercise influence and provide support.
OP: What do you want parents to take away from your findings?
Schalet: I think that many parents want to be available as resources for their children, and want to create open relationships, but they may be unaware that by only expressing concerns and warning against dangers, they are making it difficult for their teens to confide in them when they start exploring sexuality, by which I do not just mean intercourse, but the continuum of sexual feelings and experiences.
Especially among girls I interviewed in the U.S., [teens] often feel that were they to confide in their parents about having sex or thinking about it, their parents would be very disappointed. This creates a kind of “sneaking around” and a psychic burden for girls, a sense of being split between being a “good” daughter and a sexual being, which I don’t think is good for them. Adolescents still need their parents as support, to help sort out what are healthy relationships, to take precautions against the risks of sex, and deal with experiences of first love.
OP: What would you say to a parent who says “If I broach the subject of sex with my teen, I may give the impression that I condone it or worse, put the idea in their head in the first place.”
Schalet: We know that most young people in America make sex part of their lives before leaving their teenage years behind, the majority by age seventeen or eighteen.
Many experts agree that talking about sexuality does not increase the likelihood of sexual activity. Addressing sexuality frequently and with regard to different aspects, including relationships, helps young people make more empowered and responsible choices. In addition, I would emphasize the risk of not talking or not making oneself available as a “talkable” parent is that young people will turn elsewhere for role models — the media, the peer group. When parents, and other trusted adults, are able to provide guidance around questions of what does it mean to be ready, to give and receive respect in a relationship, then youth will be less likely to rely on unrealistic and unhealthy media portrayals to help them understand how they should behave with regard to this part of their life.
What do you think about Schalet’s argument? Should we American parents change our approach to teen sex?