Solving America's teen sex problem

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

Published October 30, 2011 4:00PM (EDT)

A detail from the cover of "Not Under My Roof"
A 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.

By 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.

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