The sleepover dilemma

Sociologist Amy Schalet on why it’s time to start having a new conversation with our kids

The sleepover dilemma

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Seven years ago Veronica Redgrave made a decision that many parents wouldn’t even consider. The Montreal-based publicist permitted her 17-year-old daughter to have her steady boyfriend sleep over occasionally. “Our communication was always very open,” says Redgrave, who was raised in a strict British family where sex was not discussed. “She had her own space in the basement. And I respected it.” Her daughter is now 24, a graduate of the London School of Economics and living in Amsterdam. She’s still involved with the same boyfriend.

At the time Redgrave knew her permissiveness was unconventional by North American standards. But now, with the November publication of Amy Schalet’s Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and the Culture of Sex, it turns out she was “being Dutch.” As Schalet, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, reports, nine out of 10 Dutch parents sanction such arrangements, versus the “not under my roof” directive maintained by nine out of 10 American parents.

Schalet interviewed 130 parents and teenagers in both countries to explore the cultural gulf. Dutch parents “normalize” teenage sexuality, Schalet concludes, as a way of maintaining a connection with and continuing to exert an influence over their teenagers. It’s an extension of a Dutch matter-of-fact attitude toward sex ushered in since the ’70s: sex education begins at age four and contraception is readily available. Yet it’s far from an “anything goes” attitude, Schalet writes: Dutch parents have to feel comfortable that their child, generally 16 or 17, is old enough to be sexually active, is using reliable contraception, and is in a stable relationship with someone who will fit into the family unit. Dutch parents also expect teenagers to abstain from sex until they’re ready.

American parents, on the other hand, “dramatize” teen sex by focusing on the risks and dangers. One need only look to the cultural hand-wringing on the topic that serves up equal measure of concern and titillation—from Dr. Oz’s recent show on “The Teenage Sex Crisis” to Kerry Cohen’s new book Dirty Little Secrets: Breaking the Silence on Teenage Girls and Promiscuity. It’s a template that reduces teenage desire to uncontrollable “raging hormones” and the imperative that “boys want only one thing,” Schalet writes—a theme that animates movies from American Pie to Superbad. Unlike Dutch parents, American parents uphold sexual freedom as a rite of adulthood, defined by economic and emotional autonomy, hence the “you can have sex when you’re paying your own rent” edict. That makes sex an inevitable point of conflict—and disconnect—between teenagers and parents, Schalet writes, which in turn leads to inevitable sneaking around and dire health consequences: compared with the Netherlands, the unwanted pregnancy rate in the U.S. is four times higher, the abortion rate is more than two times higher, as are rates of sexually transmitted diseases.

Schalet’s research also exposes the sexual double standard toward North American girls, evident in movies like Easy A and TV shows like Gossip Girl. Where boys are tacitly encouraged to be sexually adventurous, particularly by fathers, female desire is unacknowledged. One American mother she interviewed had a 17-year-old daughter who was on the pill and sexually active, but wasn’t allowed in her room alone with her boyfriend without the door open. “She said, ‘It’s a very scary idea that our little girl is having sex,’ ” Schalet says. “And girls talk about being their parents’ ‘little girl,’ which means being not sexual.” As a result, girls are forced to bifurcate their relationships with parents—even when they’re close—as they move into adolescence, even before they are sexually active. This is problematic, says Schalet. “Girls face more sexualization in the culture. They’re also often at a disadvantage in negotiating their wishes and boundaries with boys. So it’s important for them to be recognized as sexual beings by the adults they respect so they are more resilient and able to negotiate what they do and do not want.”

Schalet, who is American-born but lived in the Netherlands from age two to 21, doesn’t uphold the Dutch model as a utopian ideal (Dutch kids also lie to their parents, she writes, and a double standard exists for girls). But it provides a context that “not only allows young people to develop their emergent sexuality and selves within a larger social fabric but it also gives parents the opportunity to provide guidance and exercise oversight.” The American approach, on the other hand, she writes, lacks “a unified narrative about the positive place of sexuality for teens and parents’ place in it,” and can alienate parents from an important part of their children’s development.

“Connectedness between parents and teens is key for thriving not just around sexuality and relationships, but around health, and school outcomes,” Schalet told Maclean’s in an interview. “On this the data is unambiguous.” She’s not proposing the sleepover as a “be-all solution,” she says. “But the Dutch approach is an indicator of the capacity for parents and teens to keep the conversation open around issues of sexuality. A lot of progress can be made, even if parents never allow a sleepover.”

Expect “the sleepover question” to be a hot-button topic, if the fervid reaction to Schalet’s July op-ed column in the New York Times is any measure. Parenting blogs and the media hashed out her book’s summary: some parents lauded Dutch parents’ pragmatic attitude while others sniped that the cultural norms of a nation that gave us Amsterdam’s infamous Needle Park and storefront red-light district shouldn’t be emulated.

Stephen Grcevich, a psychiatrist in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, wrote a letter to the Times criticizing the column’s “acceptance” of teen sex, noting that he routinely treats teenagers suffering from anxiety or depression who weren’t prepared for the complexity of sexual relationships. In an interview with Maclean’s, Grcevich uses a drinking and driving analogy. “As a society, we don’t ‘accept’ a person’s choice to drink significant amounts of alcohol and get behind the wheel of a car, even though there are presumably times when people have driven while under the influence without doing harm to themselves or others. Given what we know about the potential consequences of sexual behaviour for teenagers, why would we have an ‘accepting attitude’ about that behaviour?” For a generation of helicopter parents, the sleepover question represents the first no-fly zone, one more freighted than whether to allow teenagers to drink alcohol at home. The fact they’re the first generation of parents born after the sexual revolution blurs the issue further. Some American parents told Schalet they’re strict with their kids because they regret becoming sexually involved so early. There’s also the fear of coming off like a hypocrite, Grcevich says. “Parents who engaged in early sexual behaviour may feel they lack the moral authority to raise the issue with their own kids.” They also fear losing control, he says: “The hardest thing for many parents to accept is the reality that once their child reaches an age when they can no longer control them physically, it’s very difficult to prevent them from engaging in activities they’re determined to pursue.” But being too strict can also create problems. “Excessively authoritarian parenting has been associated with increased rates of sexual activity and pregnancy among teens.”

Canada stands between the U.S. and the Netherlands in terms of sexual mores, says Karen Rayne, a psychologist and sex educator in Austin, Texas, who has done consulting work in Canada. “It leads the U.S. in terms of openness but is closer to the U.S. in terms of intergenerational communications.”

The mother of an 18-year-old daughter in Toronto expresses the conflict many parents voice. “There’s this leftover ‘boomer-ish’ residue of how hypocritical it would be to make such strict rules. But I was born in the ’50s and there’s part of me that thinks I don’t want to be ‘so Dutch’ about this.” She’s adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach: “I avert my gaze,” she says. Her daughter’s boyfriend is allowed to stay over on the guest mattress or guest couch. “That’s where he sleeps, as far as I know,” she says. “I have no official knowledge that anything happened.” She knows she has little control, and if her daughter is “going to do it, she’s going to do it.” She has made it clear she doesn’t want details, yet says her daughter knows she can count on her. “Of course if she was ever in trouble, she knows I would talk to her about pregnancy and abortion and all of that.” The father of an 18-year-old son and 21-year-old daughter puts it another way. “No parent wants anyone to think of their children as sexual beings,” he says, a comment oblivious to the fact that 43 per cent of teenagers between 15 and 19 are sexually active, according to Statistics Canada.

Dr. Patricia Rockman, a Toronto physician with a practice focused on mental health, believes such wilful blindness is naive. “Parents think there’s a causal relationship—that if you talk about it, that makes it happen. Or if you don’t talk about it, you don’t make it happen. It’s nonsense.” The mother of three grew up in a liberal household and fostered open communication with her three children. When her son, now 26, went away to work as a camp counsellor at age 16, she armed him with condoms and nonoxynol-9 spermicide wafers for his female partners. She admits a double standard prevailed for her daughter: she allowed her boyfriend to sleep over, but never in the same room until she was in university. Her position was, “Don’t get pregnant; don’t get an STD.” The subject was a source of ongoing discussion with her husband, also a medical doctor, who is more conservative. “He was always concerned about it being about physical commodification,” she says. “He was always stressing the importance of emotions and consideration in relationships.”

It’s a complex, muddy issue for parents, Rockman says: “Parenthood is a continual process of letting go and sex is a real marker: this person is now his or her own person. And there’s this tension between independence and dependence, which is heightened because adolescence goes on for so long, unfortunately too long. That’s a problem.” Sexuality is also indicative of a child’s individuation, she says. “But they’re only individuating so far,” she laughs, “not far enough that we don’t still pay for everything financially.”

Rockman’s daughter, Casey Fulford, says she’s fortunate to have had open rapport about sex with her parents. “I loved that I could tell my mom anything,” the 20-year-old, third-year Queen’s University student says. “I’m meeting people now, some of them never have talked about sex with their parents—that they’re even having sex. Which is weird because it means they can’t go to them with questions.” The big lesson her mother imparted was, “You can always say no,” Fulford says. “And that was even before I started having sex. And that really benefited me. I know a lot of girls have gotten into situations they wished they hadn’t, but I’ve never done anything I’ve regretted.”

Toronto realtor Trish Drynan also believes she benefited from her parents’ progressive attitude toward sex when she was growing up in the 1970s. “My parents maintained an open-door policy for our friends,” she says. “They always said they’d rather know where we were and that we were safe.” That extended to allowing her steady boyfriend to sleep over when she was 17. Her close relationship with her mother is her model for raising her two daughters, 13 and 15. Sexual activity is not on their radar yet, she says, but she and her husband will deal with it openly when it is. “Right now we talk to them about not getting into situations involving alcohol and knowing they can talk to us about anything.”

Shannon Boodram, a 25-year-old educator, activist and the author of Laid: Young People’s Experiences with Sex in an Easy-Access Culture, believes her traditional parents’ resistance to her having boyfriends contributed to her youthful promiscuity. “I knew anyone I brought over would be given the side eye,” she says. “So my parents were left out of the conversation of the choice or number of guys that I was choosing to be involved with—and I think that’s the mistake they made. The first sentence of Laid is, ‘The basement smelled like sex.’ That was my parents’ basement, even though it wasn’t allowed.”

Rayne often sees parents blinded by irrational fears, she says. Parents come to her and say, “I want you to teach me how to make sure my son doesn’t have sex until he’s out of high school,” she says. “Often they can’t even say what they’re afraid of—it comes down to pregnancy, diseases, lives ruined, heartbreak that ends in suicide.” Much of it stems from sensationalistic coverage of teenage sex by the media.

Boodram, who often speaks to parents, believes these depictions of teenage sex—multiple hookups, kids going crazy when they go to college, sexting, and the teenage girls sexually objectifying themselves on sites like Tumblr or Facebook—are causing parents to rethink rigid attitudes. “Obviously they don’t want that for their kids. So there’s more of a push for monogamous relationships. As a result, some parents are more lenient with the whole sleepover thing,” she says. “I think if I were a parent, I’d prefer to know what’s going on than pretending it doesn’t.”

Yet many parents express discomfort at the notion of “normalizing” teenage sex. One mother of two daughters recalls “freaking out” two years ago after her husband arrived home from work early to find their 16-year-old daughter having sex with her boyfriend. “She’d said they were just friends, but we assumed they were romantically involved,” she says. Sexually involved was another matter. “They were too young, and too stupid.” Her husband was calmer, saying he’d rather she was at home than in a park. The four of them sat down together to talk and the daughter was sent to a doctor for birth control. Even after that, the mother forbade sexual activity in the house. “I didn’t want to make it easy for her,” she says. “I didn’t want her to think we condoned that behaviour.” She regretted her daughter’s “loss of innocence,” she says. “I mean more than virginity. Kids grow up so fast these days you hope they can squeeze out every last second of just being a kid. But having sex means taking on grown-up responsibilities: birth control, relationships, changing friendships, all of those complications.” Not that her objections stopped her daughter from sneaking around. A few months later, her husband caught them again. Both of her daughters are away at university now; she still wouldn’t be comfortable with either bringing a boyfriend to sleep over. “Intimacy should be private,” she says.

The idea that they were normalizing or abetting a quasi-living-together situation was a concern even for Dutch parents, says Schalet, while the American model allows the teenager to carve out space socially and psychologically free of adult intervention. Many American teenagers spoke of an “ick” factor around bringing a boyfriend or girlfriend over. “For teenagers, the idea of being sexual around their parents is so horrific that the thought it could be something supportive won’t cross their minds,” Rayne says.

Her book is as much about intimacy as it is about sex, Schalet says, citing that Dutch surveys find that by age 14, 90 per cent of Dutch boys say they have been in love. “Clearly it’s not the kind of love a 25-year-old feels,” she says. “But that is how they describe their feelings.” Even in the U.S., many boys say they don’t want to have sex until they’re in a relationship, she says. “But they feel that makes them different than what boys are supposed to feel. So they feel isolated.” Isolation is a theme surrounding teen sex and relationships, Schalet observes. “And that’s very sad.”

She’d like to see the end of the myths that girls are only supposed to love and are never given any legitimacy for their sexual desires and that boys are vessels for biological impulses and aren’t credited with any emotional desires. Dutch teens said they enjoyed togetherness as much as sex, she notes.

Rayne doesn’t believe the divide between parents and children is as big as it appears. “Parents all say that they want their children to have a healthy sex life, to be sexually balanced—not now, but in the future,” she says. “But it’s not like children get this magical knowledge at age 18.”

Adolescents, like all human beings, have “skin hunger,” the need to be touched and to touch, Rayne says. “But many teenagers have only one model for this: intercourse. So having conversations about sensuality rather than sex can go a long way.” And parents want to forge close bonds with their teenagers, and to have influence over them, she believes. “But they do all of these controlling things that put them at odds with their teenager rather than drawing them in closer.”

That’s what motivated Redgrave seven years ago. Allowing her daughter’s boyfriend to sleep over wasn’t simply about condoning sex, she says, it was about helping her to make an important transition to adulthood. “It’s about respecting intimacy, developing it at an early age and learning to appreciate it.” And that requires communication, as Schalet observes, which begins with starting a conversation many parents don’t want to have.

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