Solving America’s teen sex problem

The Dutch have dramatically reduced adolescent pregnancies, abortions and STDs. What do they know that we don't?

Topics: Sex, Sex Education, Parenting,

Solving America's teen sex problemA detail from the cover of "Not Under My Roof"

When 16-year-old Natalie first started dating her boyfriend, her mother did something that would mortify most American parents: She took her to the doctor’s office to get her contraceptives. Her mother wasn’t weirded out by the fact that her teen daughter was about to have sex — in fact, she fully supported it. She merely wanted to make sure that she was doing it safely, and responsibly. A couple of months later, when it finally happened, her parents were totally accepting. As her father put it, “sixteen is a beautiful age” to lose your virginity.

If that seems like an unfamiliar attitude toward sex and parenting, it might have something to do with the fact that Natalie’s parents aren’t American — they’re Dutch. They are one of dozens of Dutch families interviewed by Amy T. Schalet, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, in her new book, “Not Under My Roof.” Schalet’s book compares the sexual attitudes of American and Dutch parents and her findings are nothing short of staggering: Whereas most American parents panic about the idea of allowing their kids to have sex with other kids under their roof, for many Dutch parents, it’s not only fine — it’s responsible parenting.

As Schalet’s extensively researched, fascinating work shows, the Netherlands’ radically different approach to sex and child-rearing has managed to radically decrease levels of teen pregnancy, abortion and sexual infections. It has fostered closer relationships between teenagers and their parents, and helped make teenagers’ first times far more pleasurable. “Not Under My Roof” is a startling wake-up call about America’s largely misguided attitudes toward sex and growing up.

Salon spoke to Schalet over the phone about the sexual revolution, America’s “slut” problem and how the new generation is changing our attitudes toward sex.

As you point out in the book, the statistical differences between American and Dutch teens when it comes to sex is pretty staggering.

Yes. The pregnancy rate is about four times higher in the U.S. than in the Netherlands and abortion rates are about twice as high. HIV rates are about three times higher. Growing up in the Netherlands, I didn’t actually know of any teenagers who became pregnant as teens. Whenever I say that to Americans they’re always very surprised.



But as you point out in the book, it’s not because American adolescents are having way more sex — it’s because the culture around sex is so different, and it’s especially ironic because people think America was so utterly transformed by the sexual revolution. Why didn’t those cultural changes filter down to the way we think about teens and sex?

That’s the million-dollar question. When the sexual revolution did happen [in the Netherlands], contraception was made very widely and easily available, including to teenagers so the teenage pregnancy rate really dropped. In the Netherlands, there’s the belief that young people are capable of recognizing when they’re ready and self-regulating as opposed to the notion that they have raging hormones that are out of control. There’s the belief that young people can fall in love and that their sexuality is anchored in relationships so it becomes easier to accept and normalize relationships from about 16 to 17 onwards. And finally there’s been an attempt on the part of Dutch parents and the authorities to say, “This is happening, and we need to keep it from being secretive. We need to be able to keep control and be able to recommend that young people use contraception and see who they’re becoming involved with.”

That seems counterintuitive to many Americans because they associate “sexual freedom” with things going totally awry. In the U.S., there was a strong counterreaction to the changes of the 1960s and ’70s. The religious right organized, and sexuality, especially teen sexuality, became a political issue. But regular people also feel the same way and think that teen sexuality is out of control. In the U.S. there’s a belief that, when it comes to sex, girls and boys are engaged in a battle instead of a relationship and there’s resistance to the idea that boys and girls can both feel both love and lust. It’s partly the result of the American emphasis on individualism that suggests that to become an adult, you have to first separate from your family and become completely self-reliant before you’ve earned the right to engage in sex. That makes it harder for parents to then integrate it into the family in the way Dutch parents have.

As you mention in the book, in America we tend to separate sex and love — and don’t believe that teenagers are able to associate the two. Why do you think that is?

To me that’s always very fascinating. When I did interviews in the U.S., I was really struck when parents would say, “Well, teenagers think they’re in love” and they would hold up their hands with quotation marks. The U.S. is very strongly tied to the model of marriage. We don’t want 15- or 16- or 17-year-olds to marry but we don’t think a relationship is love unless it’s the one and only, the person you’re going to marry forever. It’s also tied to individualism, because if you believe that intimate relationships are threatening to young people’s developments, and that you have to do things on your own first and then settle down, then everything you do before settling down is not going to be about love. And yet, young people do form relationships that are very important to them. They look different from adult relationships but they’re real relationships a lot of the time.

As you point out in the book, there’s an emphasis in the Netherlands on making sure that a teenager’s first time isn’t just safe — but actually fun and pleasurable. That seems too alien to the way we learn about losing your virginity.

I think that’s right. It is so difficult in the American context to say that a first sexual experience should be positive and pleasurable and one that one feels ready for personally, physically and emotionally. In the chapter about the Dutch parents, a father tells his daughter that she should never do it unless she has the desire for it. He acknowledges that his daughter might actually want it, and that is a very difficult thing in the U.S. context for a lot of parents to do, especially for girls.

It’s fascinating that the “slut” label, as you point out in the book, doesn’t exist in the same way in the Netherlands as it does here. Here a lot of girls get called a slut simply for having a desire for sex.

It exists, but even in the way it exists it’s much milder, and it’s really not about sex per se, it’s about the number of partners and especially the frequency or speed with which one would go from one to another. So if a young woman is in a relationship and she wants it and she enjoys it, that’s fine. I find this to be one of the most fascinating aspects of American culture that that remains so unspeakable.

In pop culture, being a slut is considered either despicable or something to aggressively celebrate (i.e., the recent SlutWalks). But there isn’t much in between, especially for adolescent women, that just treats female sexuality as normal and healthy.

I didn’t see the first episode of [the new TV show] “Suburgatory,” but the premise is that the father finds condoms in the drawer of his daughter and so they move to the suburbs to avoid sex. The girl is 16 or 17, and so there’s this  idea that a father fulfills his parental duty by removing sex altogether. Of course he doesn’t succeed, and she ends up making out in the locker room or wherever. But I agree there are very few pop cultural models of young women having positive sexual experiences that are not in some way a cause of drama.

Many of the American parents in the book have a kind of hilarious double standard. They are fine with their kids having sex outside of their home, but as soon as it happens inside their house they freak out.

I don’t want to spoof it too much even though it does look silly. There’s really no narrative for American parents to draw on to understand a positive sexual development on the part of their children and how they’re supposed to relate to it. So the not-under-my-roof idea is the dominant understanding of what you do when you’re a responsible adult. So you do get situations where the mother knows her 17-year-old daughter’s boyfriend and that she’s on the pill but even though the mom knows she has sex with her boyfriend, the daughter is not allowed to be home with the door closed when the boyfriend is in her room.

What do you think can be done to American sexual education to change this?

I support comprehensive sex education. [laughs] I’m laughing because that’s the line everybody says, but I think that it’s important both in and of itself that young people learn about sexuality, contraception, relationships. I think there’s an absence of language about relationships  [in sex ed] and that it should be integrated more into schools.  Sex education, when done well, can help parents open up the conversation at home. In the U.S. this narrative gets created of “sex ed vs. the parents” as opposed to those two working in complementary fashion. Only half of  American girls have had a conversation about contraception with their parents. In the Dutch case, one of the girls learns about the pill at school during what is called “relationship lessons” — yes, that’s really what it’s called — and she comes home and her mother explains that she also uses the pill.

In a lot of public health campaigns and even with clinicians there’s such an emphasis on the risk, risk, risk, risk, without an emphasis on this is what you can do, this is how you can exert agency. Where exactly do you go to get contraception, and condoms? But I do see a lot of parents who want to be doing things differently. I speak mainly to professionals but they also respond as parents, and they’re really looking for a better way of recognizing that young people have real emotions, and to stay connected to teenagers during their adolescent developmental phase.

It’s really hard not to think that things are so much better in the Netherlands after reading the book. It almost seems utopian.

It’s not utopian. There is such an emphasis on relationships that sometimes the differences in power between girls and boys do not get as much attention as they perhaps deserve. Part of what goes on in the Dutch families is a system of control. It can be cozy, but it also can be a little claustrophobic. I think some of the American models of being able to deal with cultural difference within a society are a  good thing, and I like to think that cultures can learn from each other.

American culture does seem to be changing, though, in its attitudes toward marriage. Gay marriage is becoming more common and accepted, and straight people are staying single longer.

I definitely think that the acceptance of gay marriage is a very positive development. I also see a shift among youth, away from the kind of narrow definitions of what is intimacy or acceptable intimacy. I think there’s a whole new generation of people that’s not saddled with the old antagonisms that came out of the 1960s. When I teach classes at the University of Massachussetts, students say, “We are the generation that will change things in the U.S. just like they changed in the Netherlands.” There’s a real interest among young parents in handling sexuality better than it was in their family. We need to figure out how to stop falling back on the marriage-only model and we need a model for a good relationship that isn’t necessarily for life but that still involves mutual respect, and honesty, and mutual obligation as well as enjoyment and pleasure.

Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is Salon's former Arts Editor. He has written for the Globe & Mail, the Village Voice and other publications. He can be reached at @thomasmaxrogers.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>