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In Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex, Amy T. Schalet discusses American and Dutch parental attitudes concerning permitting or not permitting their adolescent children to have sleepovers with the opposite sex. When doing so, Schalet uncovers attitudes and beliefs about parent's views concerning adolescent sexuality, individualism and gender. What Schalet does so well is to tie in these beliefs with social, cultural, political and economic changes and trends in both nations, clarifying why American parents explain teenage sexuality through dramatization and Dutch parents through normalization.
Schalet argues that Dutch parents are more likely than their American counterparts to permit teenage sleepovers. To explain the reasons why, Schalet begins by discussing the notions of dramatization and normalization. American parents refer to teenage sexuality as a period of "raging hormones" where adolescents are likely to engage in activities without proper consideration of consequences, creating a battle between sexes, where parental control is needed to prevent sexual activity. American parents are also more likely to focus on the risks of teenage sexual activity, such as pregnancy, contracting STDs or HIV/AIDS. The majority of American parents believe that their children are ready for (and entitled to) sexual activity when they are financially independent and living on their own. In comparison, Dutch parents are more likely to focus on teenage sexuality as part of the household, emerging from relationships, where attachments, desire and readiness are important components. Dutch parents state that they compromise more with their children and that they worry less about pregnancy, STDs, HIV/AIDS and their children's readiness for sex.
So where do these views come from? Schalet describes the political, social and cultural climate in both nations, which lends itself to two types of individualism, adversarial, and interdependent. As much focus is placed on autonomy and independence (both emotional, physical and financial) in America there is tension between self and society, between being dependent on others and self-sufficient. Parents often disapprove of sleepovers due to the conflict that emotional and romantic attachments can entail. These attachments may hinder a child's future, may result in pregnancy and hamper the ability to be autonomous, go off to college and earn a living. Therefore, sexual activity is viewed as problematic, disrupting and even dangerous.
In contrast, Dutch parents state that they are emotionally closer to their children and able to discuss and compromise when it comes to their children's wants, needs and sexual experiences. Dutch parents, and Dutch teens both believe that love is an integral part of sexual relationships.
As Schalet describes American parents as more authoritarian and eager to win the big, important battles, the "softer" approach of Dutch parents, who focus on compromises and discussions, is deemed more effective in terms of curbing teen pregnancy, reduce the risk of contracting STDs, and minimize feelings of anxiety about sexual experiences. Although the Dutch approach lends itself to fewer conflicts and secretive behavior, no approach is "fool proof", and teens from both nations are likely to disregard parental authority and rules. "Breaking free" is however more important to American teens facing a stricter home environment, social environment and justice system.
The use of techniques that prohibits and controls teen sexuality by American parents makes sense as the nature of the economy results in rapid changes and sudden successes, and as the political system relies less on mutual accommodations. There is a sharp division between "winners" and "losers" as economic fortunes depend on a person's ability to secure work and be financially independent. Therefore, the notion that parents would like their children to abstain from sexual activity and emotional attachment, evident in parental reluctance to sleepovers during the teenage years, is a response to the nature of the American social, economic and financial climate. At the same time, religion, marriage and a strict justice system help provide a higher authority, shared morals and reconcile contradictory cultural imperatives, while also contributing to more conservative notions of teenage sexuality.
The Dutch society, on the other hand, depends on politics of accommodation, consultation and integration, which is evident in how parents relate to their adolescent children. The "needs of the group" is taken into account through accommodations of the welfare state (which pregnancy does not threaten), public policies, and the justice system, which leads to the Dutch society being more equal and less authoritarian among family members. Schalet also refers to the "moral revolution" taking place in Dutch society over the last few decades resulting in a more liberal and relaxed view of teenage sexuality.
When discussing the experiences of the adolescent interviewed, gender becomes a unifying factor in terms of acceptable behavior and beliefs about boys and girls. Even though American girls face more stigma in terms of the sexual double standard, Dutch girls also state that acceptance of sexual behavior depends on gender to a greater extent.
No matter what approach to managing teenage sexuality one might prefer or agree with, Dutch and American parents try to make sense of and integrate cultural norms and societal expectations in ways to help their children be successful. Both approaches therefore make sense in terms of how to raise children and manage teenage sexualities in these two nations. At the same time, Schalet acknowledges that the high rates of teen pregnancy, STDs and HIV/AIDS in America when compared to other industrial nations is a problem, and she also describes ways in which we could manage these issues in her ABC-and-D's framework designed for adolescent sexuality.
What I find intriguing about this book is the how well Schalet manages to describe and integrate factors (such as culture, the political climate, penal system, religion and personal beliefs) that affect sexuality in a way that describes each nation and makes sense of parental decisions. At the same time, Schalet acknowledges the fact that she focuses on white, middle-class, secular or Christian parents and children, which excludes the lower or working class, minorities, and their views. The same is true for sexual orientation, as all parents interviewed were in heterosexual relationships, and same-sex desire or sexual orientation was rarely discussed among the youth interviewed. The notion that there is a certain target group among those interviewed does not negate the findings of the book, but is important to mention.
The intended audience is parents and teenagers who can relate to struggles, worries and discussions concerning sexual activity and sexuality. However, one does not need to be a parent or adolescence to appreciate the book, or its international comparison, as the book is relevant and applicable in the classroom in sociology, gender studies, and human sexuality. As Schalet integrates interviews into the chapters it is easy to understand her claims. The addition of personal views from parents and teenagers also makes it easier to relate to her analysis and findings.
© 2012 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss has a Master's degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.