Full Show Notes
Every parent wants their teen to find love one day. But maybe not while the teen is under their roof! For teens in American, being sexually active is considered a health risk. While sex at any age can come with risk of disease, infection, or unwanted pregnancy, many parents avoid talking about it, preferring to dismiss any relationships formed in high school as temporary–maybe even a distraction to our teens success!
But are these well-intentioned efforts doing more harm than good? Certainly the chances of high school relationships lasting into adulthood are rather slim, but the consequences of denying that our teens are experiencing love and experimenting with sex are severe. The teen pregnancy birth rate in the US is around 19 per 1000 births–compare that to a country like the Netherlands who have a teen pregnancy rate of around 4.5 per 1000 births. With similar access to contraception as well as comparable economic advantages, what is it America is doing wrong when it comes to teenage relationships?
Amy Schalet, author of Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex, offers our listeners a unique perspective this week: raised by American parents in the Netherlands, Schalet shares her personal, historical, and sociological insights from researching the two countries’ opposing approaches to teenage sexuality. Interestingly enough, this issue stems back to medicine, of all places.
In the United States, adolescent sex is viewed as a health risk. And the implications of that on American culture are incredibly strong. The fear and discomfort associated with perspective influences our culture, our upbringing, and our understanding of normalcy. And American parents use it to inform their household rules too. This often means no PDA, minimal conversations around sex, and certainly no sleepovers with adolescent partners. While such is quite normal in the United States, believe it or not, Holland approaches the matter differently altogether.
In the Netherlands, family physicians view adolescent sex and teenage sexuality as part of the developmental process. This involves open conversations about love, sex, and contraception in the doctor’s office and the classroom starting at a young age. And thus, parents follow suit. Instead of viewing teenage sexuality as uncomfortable and cringy, Dutch parents are incredibly more open to it. Culturally, adolescent relationships are acknowledged, upheld, and welcomed in Dutch households. And surprisingly, they have the lowest rates of teenage pregnancy in the Western world!
But does that mean American parents should start welcoming whoever their teen chooses over for a sleepover? Perhaps not. But it is worth considering how other cultures view teenage sexuality, and how American parents can take the lessons learned into their homes.
When I asked Amy Schalet more about the differing attitudes surrounding this topic between the two countries, she noted that the main difference has to do with parental control, and parents’ understanding of their adolescents’ ability to self-regulate.
American parents often prescribe limits for their children on things in general, ranging from candy and television time to the age they’re allowed to date, or even marry someone. Dutch parents, however, tend to view their adolescents as capable of self-regulation. Instead of approaching their teen’s partners as adversaries, Dutch parents understand teenage relationships in a more nuanced way. Since love is emphasized and expected in adolescents, parents are more inclined to include their teens’ partners in the family. And instead of imposing limits on their teen’s sexial development, they trust their teen to determine when they’re ready to have a relationship, and when they’re ready to have sex. Overall, when you expect young people to fall in love and you understand how important that is in their lives, you will approach sex differently with them.
Maybe you’re not quite ready to let your teen invite their partner for a sleepover. And maybe it’ll not ever be in the cards. Each of our upbringings and cultures shape how we raise our own, and it’s definitely hard to break our expectations and depart from established household rules. Still, there’s great wisdom in other cultures that can enhance our perspectives. Amy Schalet believes if anything, American parents should at least look at the stigmas surrounding sex for boys/girls in the United States, and how Dutch culture works to alleviate them.
In her research, Schalet found that teenage women in the United States face harsh repercussions for engaging in sex: they are slut-shamed, ostracized, and seen as lesser. And teenage women, fearing such repercussions, either abstain entirely, or isolate themselves and engage in sex anyway. This is a lose-lose situation for many teen girl/parent relationships. The same can be said about teenage boys. Reduced to their hormones, teenage boys are often shamed from expressing honest love for their partner. Instead of being acknowledged and supported in their search for love, they are only allowed to be tough, hormonal teenagers who seemingly cannot control their sexual urges. This is similarly damaging, Schalet finds. When boys and girls are only allowed to express their sexuality freely as adults, they have to unlearn decades worth of stereotypes and ingrained ideas about love. The Dutch culture, though not perfect, allows both teenage boys and girls more space and agency to develop their sexuality. And maybe American parents can integrate a thing or two to make their teens feel more comfortable with their journeys.
Instead of forcing their teens to choose between sexual intimacy and an honest familial relationship, Dutch parents allow their teen to enjoy both. Interestingly enough, Schalet says, this allows Dutch parents more control. By welcoming the teen’s partner into the family, the parents are able to influence both the teen and their partner to engage in familial rituals. Household rules too are more observed this way. Meanwhile, in the United States, teens often have to disconnect from their parents in order to have a sexual life. Driving it underground in this way inevitably hurts the teen/parent relationship.Despite cultural differences, it’s interesting to note: which is healthier for our teen? How can respect and comfort be maintained together?
When adolescence is all about becoming your own person, teens often are faced with either severing ties with their parents, or not fully becoming their own person altogether. And without telling parents how to handle their teen’s sexual relationships, Shalet does beg the question: what kind of new relationship do teens have to have with their parents to become a new person? And what kind of negotiation needs to exist so they can still have authentic relationships with themselves, their partner, and their parents? Ultimately, whatever conversation and agreement the teen and the parents can have will be better than the shame and secrecy without one.
Another important topic Schalet and I covered was the cat-and-mouse game that American teenagers play with their parents, and how it affects their development. Engaging in these risky behaviors are seen as rites of passage for American teenages, but they’re not supposed to get caught. In effect, there is a great thrill in partaking in these rituals, but there is also great separation. It’s as if being a teenager and becoming their own person relies on disconnecting from one’s parents, and laughing about it all later. This cultural experience is not mirrored in the Netherlands. In fact, growing into adolescence pivots on the idea of gezellig: cozy-togetherness.
Schalet notes how gezellig is one of the most used words in the Dutch language, and one of the highest priorities in life. Being intimate with others and enjoying your time with them is thought to be one of the best experiences we can have to the Dutch: the reason we exist. And this is directly translated into parents’ understanding of teenage sexuality. For example, if one’s Dutch mother believes her son’s relationship is gezellig, then she will be comfortable allowing his partner to stay overnight at the house. Still, some teens don’t want gezellig to apply to their partners: like all teens, there always exists some degree of rebellion! The important thing is, the conversation is ongoing, the respect is mutual, and love is encouraged. Isn’t that what we want with our teens and for our teens?
Among these fascinating topics and thought-provoking questions, Amy Schalet and I discuss:
- Hookup culture
- Control and connection
- Teenage relationships and their aspirations
- More cultural comparisons between the U.S. and the Netherlands
Learn more about Amy Schalet’s cross-cultural insights and how they can help you build a stronger relationship with your teenager today!
Complete Interview Transcript
Andy: Orient me and our listeners here on what got you into this whole thing. What do you study? What do you write about and why did you choose that topic?
Amy: So I’ve written a book “Not Under My Roof” that looks at how parents deal with adolescent sexuality differently in the U.S. and the Netherlands and you could say I sort of got into it through two different routes. One was through my personal biography. I grew up in the Netherlands myself, but my parents were from the United States and I would visit in the summers, and one of the moments that stands out in my memory is of visiting a teenage girl who was a friend of mine at that time and asking her sort of very casually when she was complaining about not having time to spend with her boyfriend. Well, doesn’t he spend the night with you? And she, even now several decades later, we both remember that moment because it was so weird to her that I was asking that.
Amy: It was weird to me that she thought it was weird and it was weird because her father was a scientist, her mother was kind of almost like flower-powery type of hippie lady, and I was like, “Well, why is this not allowed? It’s not like they were sort of Bible thumping conservative parents.
Andy: Yeah, right, right. Sure. Close minded.
Amy: Yeah. And so that was a curiosity that started at that time, but the formal study of the topic came later when I moved back to this country and I could see that in many ways it was curious why this was so different. Not just from my own personal experience bumping up against it, but that you have two countries that are both modern countries, teenagers generally go to school, many go off to college. They have very similar experiences in that way. Both countries went through a sexual revolution in the sixties. Contraception is available.
Andy: A lot of cultural overlap.
Amy: Exactly. Why is this so different?
Andy: Both very highly educated populations and middle class.
Amy: Yeah, so why is it so different? So there was the why question, but then there was always also a motivational piece that had to do with well, this Dutch way might be able to help in some ways Americans who, as a country, individual families, there might be something there that could help make this be less difficult and experience. Just going back to that friend of mine, I noticed that they would have a hard time talking about it at home and did it have to be like that? So there was kind of the intellectual piece and then there was also the like wait, maybe there’s something that could help.
Andy: I just think that’s so interesting and it’s such a huge difference. This came up actually when I was interviewing Peggy Orenstein and she specifically mentioned your work and we talked about this same issue, and that’s what inspired me to want to talk to you about it and go straight to the source because it’s so fascinating and it’s such a big difference, and when you actually start to look at it, the American view kind of breaks down in certain ways.
Andy: Something in your book that was really interesting to me, you talk about the fact that the U.S. medical establishment views teenage sexual intercourse as a health risk. I guess it makes sense because there’s lots of potentially negative side effects that can occur as a result of it, but what are the implications of that?
Amy: Well, I think that’s a good question because I think when we look at parents and sort of where do they get their ideas in both countries, one of the places where parents get their ideas of how should they approach this part of their children’s lives, it comes from how do doctors react and how does the research frame it when you see it in the newspaper?
Amy: So what happened in Holland, I think fairly early on in the 1970s, was that the doctors, especially the ones who provide routine care, family physicians, decided to make contraceptive counseling a routine part of what happens for adolescents. And as a result the teen pregnancy rate went down radically and so it’s one of the lowest now in the Western world. And it is an important piece. I’ll get to the Americans in a moment, but the reason that’s so important is that if you associate teen sexuality, teen sexual intercourse with pregnancy, that is going to be part of it, then of course, you’re going to be a lot more afraid.
Amy: Whereas if you associate it with well, this is part of the developmental process and when teens are ready … When I grew up there several decades ago, we thought of teen pregnancy as something from the past, like that’s not really there anymore. In the U.S. things went differently and for all kinds of reasons, not just having to do with the medical establishment, it also had strong political reasons that it didn’t go that way, but it didn’t and as a consequence, when you think of teen sexuality as per definition, a risk, ironically you’re less able to deal with the risks that you’re confronting.
Amy: And one of the arguments I’ve made and I’m not alone, but in interfacing with doctors is that sexuality is a developmental process, it’s part of what people learn about it within themselves. What is my sexuality? What do I want? What do I not want? How do I learn to relate to those feelings in a way that I feel good about myself?
Amy: If you kind of understand teen sexual development, or as a developmental process, then having clinicians help young people understand that process and then prepare so that their actions don’t have unnecessary consequences, then you have a completely different experience of that. And you’re actually ironically more able to prevent the risks that do exist.
Andy: You talked briefly about how you notice these differences in attitudes in America, and that’s kind of what first made you get interested in this topic. So then I guess once you started looking into it and researching it, did you discover statistically or scientifically that there were big differences and what did those look like?
Amy: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, no. So I did, of course not just go on my personal experiences, I [inaudible 00:07:28] and then I actually interviewed people and I tried to understand like how is this possible? How is this possible that as you said, sort of in the U.S. and as I also found, there’s a kind of gut reaction of like no, this is not a good idea, not under my roof.
Amy: Whereas in the Netherlands, the parents tend to respond, not necessarily like, “Oh, this is great. Let’s have the boyfriend spend the night tomorrow.” But that it’s a more nuanced process of have they had a relationship for a while? Does that look like a positive relationship? Does the son or daughter feel ready? Are they ready? Are they able to kind of protect themselves? So it’s kind of much more of a nuanced decision making process where the parents often will decide if there’s been a relationship that they’ve gotten to know the partner and feel good about it, that a sleepover is possible.
Amy: So you do have these cultural differences, I found that in my research and then well, why? And part of the answer I found is that parents understand teenage sexuality differently. They have different ideas about what it is, and in the U.S. there’s a tendency to interpret teen sexuality as this hormonal process. Your raging hormones is a very common term that I heard in the interviews and that teenagers can’t control that process. So therefore then, they need their parents basically to say no, because someone needs to control it.
Andy: Yeah, right.
Amy: There’s also a tendency in the U.S. for the parents to really look at relationships in adolescence as a battle where …
Andy: Antagonistic. The boys versus girls kind of a mentality.
Amy: Totally, and you see that everywhere. You see it on TV too. I mean, do you know Friday Night Lights?
Amy: So I love Friday Night Lights, as most people do. It’s one of the best shows ever and the parents are so fantastic, but the scene that I really just like, and if I had been in charge of that I would have written it differently, but just basically where the father sits down with his daughter and says, “Oh, look out for boys. They’re out to get you. Boys this, boys that.” Scaring her about boys. In fact, her first boyfriend is like one of the sweetest, most sensitive guys ever.
Amy: But you see it in popular culture too, where there’s a real emphasis on the battle and to be afraid of one another. So the Dutch parents do this differently. Well, they first of all, tend to emphasize young people’s capacity to have self knowledge and have self-regulation when it comes to sexuality. So one father says, “If she were ready, I’d let her be ready.” This is a Dutch father of a 17 year old daughter and what he means is when she feels that she’s ready, but he also relates that to being in a relationship, feeling comfortable, and then also again, having those kind of preparatory steps to have reliable contraception.
Amy: So there’s a way that Dutch parents expect young people to be able to know themselves, regulate themselves, so that they can not just be overrun by hormones, but the second really big difference, and this is just as important, is a different concept of adolescent love. So the Dutch very much expect young people to fall in love. One of the biggest sex education curriculum in the Netherlands is called Long Live Love, and one of the clips I use to illustrate that is … I should give that to you so you can distribute it to the parents, is this teacher poking with a group of 11 year olds talking about how does it feel to be in love?
Amy: Well, if you actually expect that your adolescence … Now, the Dutch don’t allow sleepovers for 11 year olds, by the way. The idea is that you progress in your relationship and that you have …
Andy: Right, there’s stages to it.
Amy: … sex in the later teens, not in the early teens. But that if you expect young people to be able to fall in love, but their relationships mean something important to them and to the society, then you’re going to have a very different approach about whether or not sex happens, because if love has been an important part of life, then you’re going to think that physical expressions of intimacy are part of that. So that’s a very big difference.
Andy: You pointed out a parent regulated versus child regulated or teen regulated, that in America parents really feel like it’s their job to set the limits and set the boundaries. Whereas Dutch parents feel a lot more like their child is in charge of their own.
Amy: Yes, yes.
Andy: I was just interested in, I guess, does that mean that Dutch parents feel like they just are supposed to step out of the way and let the kids do whatever they want or what’s the alternative?
Amy: No, no. Well, one of the concepts you may remember that I introduced is the concept of control through connection. When you look at it from the outside, sometimes Dutch culture, people might think from the outside, but it’s an everything goes culture.
Amy: It really isn’t. So I think there is on the one hand the idea that when given the right environment, young people can self regulate, but the key thing is regulate, not do everything they want. And so ironically, I actually think that Dutch parents often get to have more influence on their children’s sexual lives than American parents because there’s more of a conversation about contraception, about is this relationship a positive one for you, and when you bring it in the home and that is part of Dutch approach, is if you bring it into the home then you can have more influence.
Amy: You can also sort of check out whether you like the partner, whether you think the relationship is positive. You can also ask young people to kind of take into account the rules of the house. It’s not like you just get to do anything. The Dutch very strong rituals, for instance, about having dinner together, about celebrating birthdays together. There’s all these ways that young people are expected to show up and be part of a family.
Amy: So it’s not that there’s no control, but that there’s a different way of controlling and it is through connection. And I think that’s the irony of what happens in the U.S. is that when there is the not under my roof approach, young people, both girls and boys, often have to disconnect from their parents around their sexual life.
Andy: Right, because it doesn’t mean that they’re going to just stop and turn off that part of themselves, it just means they’re going to do it, but just not under your roof. So that means they’re going to be doing it out somewhere else and keeping it secret from you and you’re not going to be able to talk about it and they’re not going to share when things don’t go well and there’s stuff that they’re not sure about and they need help with. You’re just going to drive it underground.
Amy: Yeah. I mean, in fact, that is also really, as I said, coming back to that motivational force is partly intellectual, partly kind of wanting to offer something that could be of help knowing that a lot of times teenagers in America, not only around sexuality, but also around alcohol and so forth are kind of off on their own, doing their own thing without adult’s help.
About Amy Schalet
Amy is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a specialist on adolescent sexuality and culture in comparative perspective. She is the author of the award-winning book, Not Under My Roof. Amy has written opinion pieces for The New York Times and The Washington Post, and her research has been featured in such online publications as Slate and Salon. Schalet has been awarded grants and fellowships from, among others, the Ford Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.
Schalet has worked closely with physicians and others on new approaches to sexual health promotion for adolescents. She has served on the boards of national and local health organizations, consulted with community groups and the media, and collaborated on clinical and educational materials. Schalet has delivered plenary addresses and trainings at the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the Michigan Departments of Public Health and Education, the STD-prevention branch of the Centers for Disease Control, among many others. Schalet was awarded the American Sociological Association Children and Youth Section’s 2012 Distinguished Scholarly Research Award for Not Under My Roof, and the 2012 Carol Mendez Cassell Award for Excellence in Sexuality Education from the Healthy Teen Network.