Teenagers and SleepoversWhat will you do when your teenage daughter or son asks you if they are allowed to have their boyfriend or girlfriend stay the night? Many parents have asked for my opinion over the years as most of them find it really difficult to talk to their children about sex.
Attitudes can vary widely depending on nationality. I grew up in the Netherlands, a country that has a very relaxed attitude. Two-thirds of Dutch parents allow their 16 and 17 year-old children to sleep with their partners in their homes. Dutch parents’ stance on teen sex was compared with that of American parents in a survey, Sex, Love and Autonomy in the Teen-age Sleepover, conducted in 2003 by Amy Schalet, who was born in the US but grew up in the Netherlands.
Schalet is now associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the author of Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and the Culture of Sex. The book offers an “intimate account of the different ways that boys and girls in two different countries negotiate sex, love and growing up”.
The differences between the cultures, and between the parenting styles in each country, are many, but one of the most important is the attitude towards sex. Dutch parents tend to downplay the dangerous and difficult sides of teenage sexuality; they normalise it. They believe in a process of becoming physically and emotionally ready for sex and that young people can self-regulate if they are encouraged to pace themselves and prepare adequately.
Unlike American parents, who are often sceptical about teenagers’ capacities to fall in love, Dutch parents assume that teenagers can. They permit sleepovers, even if that requires an adjustment period to overcome their feelings of discomfort, because they feel obliged to stay connected and accepting as sex becomes part of their children’s lives.
Teenagers in the Netherlands tend to wait longer before having sex, have fewer partners and use easily-acquired birth control consistently and correctly, resulting in much lower rates of teen pregnancy and abortions.
The main reason for this is that the country has a liberal attitude towards sex, and teen sex education is based on an assumption that young people are curious about sexuality and have a right to accurate and comprehensive information. Unlike in Australia, sex education is compulsory. The Dutch philosophy is a simple one: young people have the right to adequate sex education so that they can make well-informed choices in sexuality and relationships. The leading message is this: If you are going to have sex, do it safely.
In Australia, school sex education is lagging very much behind. Unfortunately religious and conservative groups believe that talking about puberty and sex is “best done by family”.
It would be great if parents could sit down with their children and discuss sex-related issues, but most parents are ill-equipped to do that; they feel uncomfortable and embarrassed and they don’t really have the knowledge, either. Things have changed a lot since they were young.
Maybe it’s time Australia rethought its position on sex education. It is 2018, after all.