Professor studies how cultures view teen sex

By Sarah Fonder

University of Massachusetts Associate Sociology Professor Amy Schalet has a message for the world regarding parents discussing sex with their children – just do it.

Schalet has been earning international attention for her new book, “Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex.” In the text, Schalet discusses sex with families across America and the Netherlands.

She asserts that the latter country’s liberal approach to sex education and dialogue has made it a place where only 14 out of 1,000 girls between the ages 15 and 19 became pregnant in 2006, compared to America, where in that same age range 60 out of 1,000 did.

Some of the Dutch views regarding the transparence of discussion about sex shocked some American families. The title of Schalet’s book was inspired by the response many American parents had to the idea of their child’s partner sleeping over, a concept not uncommon in the Netherlands.

Dutch-raised, American-born Schalet is quick to point out that this doesn’t happen for every teenage relationship in the Netherlands.

“The Dutch parents don’t just permit sleepovers under any condition,” said Schalet. “They permit it really typically when people are 16 or 17 or sometimes not even until they’re 18, when they’re in a steady relationship, when they’re using contraception, so it’s really under certain circumstances that it’s permitted.”

The Dutch approach to sexuality emphasizes the importance and weight of love, according to Schalet, something Dutch parents do not feel their children are incapable of feeling.

“They believe that young people can fall in love and that these relationships are to be taken seriously, when a lot of American parents question whether young people can fall in love and so then they also find it more difficult to take their relationships seriously,” Schalet said.

The desire for openness also contributes to the Dutch’s positive attitudes toward sexuality, according to Schalet.

“[Dutch parents] don’t want these things to be secret,” she explained. “[They want a relationship to be] something that young people can share with their parents, that this is part of their lives and they don’t have to hide.”

While the Dutch are more comfortable with discussing sex in a family setting, Schalet noticed they seem to be less fixated on sex itself.

“When I did interviews, the American parents are the ones who typically brought up sex before I did,” she said. “The Dutch parents didn’t bring it up. So here [in America] you have a culture in which it’s more forbidden, but it’s also much more on people’s minds.”

Schalet believes that this is partly due to American culture’s “dramatization” of sex, the term she chose to describe a simultaneous obsession with and caution against sex.

“We dramatize it by emphasizing that it’s dangerous, that it’s risky…but we also dramatize by being extremely focused on it at the same time,” Schalet said.

Other areas where Schalet sees room for improvement are America’s gendered approaches to sexuality. She believes American culture’s “virgin/whore” dichotomy can prevent women from leading healthy sex lives.

“The fact that young women can easily be called sluts…is something that makes life very difficult for them,” said Schalet. “If you can’t admit that you’re sexually active because then you’re going to be viewed in a derogatory manner, then it’s also hard for you to make good choices.”

She also noticed a different, equally damaging attitude toward males.

“We tend to see them as hormonally driven, [believing] they don’t want anything [but sex],” said Schalet. “In fact, a lot of young men are quite romantic. They have strong, very emotional feelings, but they get looked down upon [for] that in our culture, like that’s not masculine. That’s a problem.”

Schalet believes proper sex education begins with understanding the pivotal role sexuality plays in a person’s life.

“It’s part of a natural developmental process,” she said. “Sexuality [is] part of your identity and who you are and what you feel.”

Because of this, she believes families should discuss the matter openly.

“In the U.S., it’s often assumed that it’s impossible for parents and teens to have these conversations and that it has to be secretive and that teenagers have to be irresponsible,” said Schalet. “All of those things I do think can change. So while you might not need to be permitting sleepovers, I do think it’s important for parents and teens to be able to address relationships and sexuality openly.”

In the end, Professor Schalet believes that, despite the potential for awkward exchanges, when it comes to discussions about sexual health, families ought to just talk it out.

Her book has been featured on BBC, CNN and Slate.com.

Sarah Fonder can be reached at [email protected]