Of teen sex and suitcases

On this Shrove Tuesday, we start the new term at Pasadena City College with painful cutbacks.

One of my colleagues (who as far as I know has been unaware of the controversy surrounding me) greeted me in the office this morning and said “Good morning, Hugo! You look like you’ve aged ten years.”

But all is well regardless. I’ve got a piece up at Role/Reboot this morning: Teens, Sex, and the Suitcase Rule. Inspired by Amy Schalet’s wonderful Not Under My Roof, the post looks at different attitudes towards teen sex, including my own family’s particular approach to the issue. Excerpt:

American parents, Schalet claims, use a strategy of “connection through control.” By imposing rules (curfews, blanket prohibitions on pre-marital sex), parents seek to demonstrate love and to maintain a vigilant presence in their children’s lives. Parents in the United States pursue connection through control even when they know it won’t work; the American adults Schalet interviewed were often pessimistic about their own ability to regulate their adolescent children’s behavior. Contemporary parents often assume that their kids will have sex anyway; they describe their own efforts as “swimming against the tide.” But because American parents tend to see teenagers as fundamentally irresponsible, they often believe that they have no choice but to continue to do whatever they can to regulate their teens’ private lives, even if they doubt the efficacy of the strategy.

In the Netherlands, according to Schalet, parents also want to protect their teens. But their technique is the reverse: “control through connection.” Like American adults, Dutch mothers and fathers believe adolescent sexual experimentation is inevitable. But rather than grimly soldiering on in the effort to repress teen exploration like their American counterparts, many Dutch parents seek to integrate teen sexual discovery into family life. Teens are expected to bring their boyfriends and girlfriends home to meet the relatives and to participate in family activities. Sons and daughters are encouraged to integrate their romantic lives into communal domestic routines. In due course, typical Dutch families will permit their teenage children to invite boyfriends or girlfriends to spend the night. Unlike in my family, the luggage and the bodies all sleep in the same bedroom. Sexual discovery is private, but it’s also sanctioned. The end result is, Dutch parents hope, a safer and happier experience for their children.

2 thoughts on “Of teen sex and suitcases

  1. The debate on teen sex is always American vs. Western European, ignoring that the majority of the world’s teens would find American parents extremely liberal about sex. I think the problem is that American culture encourages teen sex (unlike Asian/Middle Eastern culture, for example, which is why I vehemently disagree that teens will have sex regardless of outside pressures), while parents are not ready to completely accept it. But I hardly see why the Dutch model is better. To assume that teens are raging libidinous creatures with no self-control, and then try to treat them as responsible adults, makes no sense either.

  2. @Rena- I think you’re mis-stating the assumption; I don’t think the Dutch assumption is that teens are libidinous and incapable of self control, I think the assumption is that teens are sexual creatures and are capable of emotionally healthy and pleasurable sexuality but that due to their age they need parental guidance and boundary setting. I think the American assumption is closer to what you described, though, hence the American approach.

    As someone who volunteers with youth in my church and has taught them sexuality education, one of the things that surprises me is the openness that many teens have around sexuality combined with a huge amount of fear. They want to get it right but have few sources for a model of getting it right. THey need parental guidance and the American tendency toward prohibition doesn’t help.

    That said, I am not a fan of the Hugo’s family’s suitcase rule. It feels well intentioned but off the mark. If you know the individuals involved are sharing a bed, why pretend otherwise by separating their luggage? If you want them separate, separate them. But if you’re acknowledging they’re sharing a bed, why the charade of separateness? This may be one of the “I’m not like other people” areas of my life, but my experience suggests that there’s going to be precious little sex under mom and dad or grandma’s roof. The bed sharing is really about intimacy and as a family maybe we can be teaching and modeling that intimacy.

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