UMass prof. challenges American perceptions of teenage love...and sex.
A few years ago, gay dad Stephen Russell found out his 14-year-old son was "messing around" with an older boy in a local park. The son expected his dads to tell him that he couldn’t date the older boy. But instead, writes Russell in a recent op-ed in the Huffington Post, the two men asked their son to invite the boy to the house for dinner, and to get to know him first. Then, they said, their son could date him and even be alone in his room with him.
Russell’s approach might sound shocking to some American parents, which isn’t surprising, according to a new book that compares adult attitude toward teenage sexuality in the Netherlands and the United States. In Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex, Amy Schalet, who grew up in the Netherlands, argues that for American families, teenage sex is subject to a process of "dramatization."
Many American parents think teenagers can’t fall in love and aren’t capable of making their own decisions about sex. For these parents, teenage sexuality becomes a minefield of potential problems: pregnancy, STDs, bad reputations. The American parental attitude of "not under my roof" leads to alienation between parents and teenagers, as teenagers feel they can’t talk to their parents about these issues, said Schalet.
But in the Netherlands, in general, parents subject teenage sexuality to a process of "normalization." In this process, parents and teenagers can discuss sexuality openly. Parents understand that sexual activity can be linked to love and relationships, even for teenagers. And finally, parents understand that teenagers are autonomous enough to decide when they are ready to engage in sexual activity.
"I think that for all parents who are seeking a new way of doing things, this hopefully can help, just seeing how another country does this," said Schalet.
To write the book, Schalet, an assistant professor of sociology at UMass - Amherst, interviewed Dutch and American families, most from middle-class communities and backgrounds. These personal stories are used as case studies throughout the book.
Although the book is not written for parents of teens with any particular sexual orientation, Schalet said the issues discussed in the book apply to teenagers who may be questioning their sexuality or wondering whether to come out to their parents.
"All three of those issues [that make up the ’normalization’ process] pertain to issues of sexual orientation," she said. "If you are crediting young people with the ability to know themselves sexually, you’re going to credit them with that piece of being able to know whether they’re attracted to men or women or both."
Russell, himself a professor at the University of Arizona and an adolescent researcher, said sexual orientation is a "perfect example of something we can’t actually control." Just as American parents should realize teenage sexuality isn’t going away, society has recently moved toward accepting that homosexuality can’t be changed.
"The big social change of the past 20 years has been recognizing that sexual orientation is not really something that, if we just vanish it, fix it, we make it go away," said Russell.
Another implication of Schalet’s model for gay teenagers is what she calls "gender bifurcation." She explains in her book that although both Dutch and American parents subscribe to some gender norms, American discourse around teenage sexuality often takes them farther, assuming that girls don’t want sex, while all boys want is sex.
"If you have a very rigid idea -- girls are sluts when they want sex, and boys aren’t masculine when they want love -- then I think, this is more speculation than something that I delve into in any depth, I think it then becomes harder to accept diversity in terms of sexual orientation," said Schalet.
But Schalet added although Dutch parents might have a more flexible attitude toward teenage sexuality than American parents, it’s not easy for all Dutch kids to come out, because as anywhere, Dutch parents have a range of attitudes and opinions.
Overall, Schalet remains hopeful that Americans can and will change their attitude toward teenage sexuality. In her conclusion, she lays out four tenets she calls the ABCD’s that she thinks will help Americans shift toward a more open view on adolescent sexuality. The first is autonomy, which involves allowing teenagers to recognize their sexual feelings. The second is building relationships, or encouraging teenagers to form relationships with romantic partners outside of the bounds of heterosexual marriage. The next is connectedness, or maintaining communication between parents and teenagers. And the last are diversities, which involves respecting differences in sexual orientation and sexual values, and disparities, which involves recognizing the disparities in access to resources and education across different socioeconomic spheres.
Russell summed up what he sees as the main message of Schalet’s book: sexuality is part of being human, and parents should recognize that.
"If we understand sexuality as a part of the human condition, being a young person and an old person too, we think about it in a different way," said Russell. "If we think about it in a different way, move beyond trying to control the sexual behaviors of ours kids, and just think, given they are sexual, given that that’s an important part of their life."