The XX Factor

Sex Before Curfew

Photo by LEX VAN LIESHOUT/AFP/Getty Images

The “sleepover question.” I hadn’t even realized this was a thing. Is your teenager allowed to bring his or her significant other home for the night, with all that you might expect such a date to entail? If your answer is no—and in spite of having what I would have said were relatively progressive attitudes towards teens and sex, made easier by the fact that I still only deal with teenagers in the abstract, I can see that it rationally might be—I’m sorry. According to Amy Schalet, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, you are, especially as compared to the modern Dutch parent, a backwards, squeamish type. You’ve condemned your child to a life of sneaking around, hiding important parts of their lives and growth. There you have it, in stark terms: make up the bed for them, or lies and disconnection will surely follow.

Are you, like me, suspecting that the presence of a happy medium that has escaped the probing gaze of the writer? (Or, more likely, the provocative and polemic prose view necessary to gain opinion space in the New York Times?) Schalet appears to have done some really interesting research into Dutch social mores and found that teens in that country are more likely to talk to their parents about pregnancy and contraception, and more likely to behave in traditionally desirable ways—plus sex. “[T]hey bring up their partners in conversation, introduce them to their parents and help them make favorable impressions.” Dutch parents, too, are better models: They “regard teenagers, girls and boys, as capable of falling in love, and of reasonably assessing their own readiness for sex. … [They] talk to their children about sex and its unintended consequences and urge them to use contraceptives and practice safe sex.”

Those do seem like goals any family might aspire to, keeping in mind that whether a teenager is truly capable of judging his or her readiness should probably be considered on a case-by-case basis. But when packaged with the usual “Americans are less sophisticated about sex than Europeans” message and an affirmative answer to the “sleepover question,” it’s hard to imagine Schalet’s conclusions will persuade many parents to open their minds any further.

And that’s a shame. Because I can see plenty of reasons for answering that “sleepover” question in the negative. Parent-permitted sleepovers can encourage relationships to become more committed than teens might be ready for, even after intercourse. They send a distinct message to younger siblings. They rush another part of the growing up process. But more openness about sex, including conversations intended to help “teenagers prepare, responsibly, for active sex lives,” and even an acceptance of sex as a part of your teenager’s life, wouldn’t necessarily entail granting your 14-year-old’s desire to “wake up next to the person you love.” Schalet might help more families if, while encouraging parents to be more open about teen sex lives, she was a little less narrowly focused on what that “openness” should mean.