America’s battle over sex education could be boiled down to one question: Would you let your teenager spend the night with his or her sweetheart in your home?
When 32 American parents were asked this question, 29 said no, including one mother who blurted out, “No way, Jose!” said Amy Schalet, author of the new book “Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and the Culture of Sex.”
But in the Netherlands, where rates of teen pregnancy, birth and abortion are low, 24 out of 26 parents said that yes, under the right circumstances, they would let their teenager spend the night with their steady boyfriend or girlfriend.
“If you are ready … say it honestly, and use the pill,” one Dutch mother told her teenage daughter, who now regularly sleeps with her boyfriend in the family home.
Is it time for the U.S. to “go Dutch”?
No, “I do not think Americans should emulate the Dutch. I don’t think that’s possible, even if it were desirable,” said Ms. Schalet, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
But she quickly added: Americans should seriously question many of their assumptions about teens and sex.
Dutch parents have learned to “normalize” sexual development with their children, but American parents are still “dramatizing” it, she explained.
Ms. Schalet’s book was released this month as the Obama administration and Congress continue to struggle with the issue of sex education.
A Senate-passed appropriations bill for fiscal 2012 would spend $113 million to maintain the administration’s fledgling grant program aimed at replicated specific teen pregnancy prevention programs. Many of these “proven” programs discuss sexual abstinence as well as birth control and condoms.
However, a draft bill from the House Appropriations Committee slashes the funding to $40 million, and splits it between teen pregnancy prevention and abstinence education programs.
Abstinence supporters are cheered by the House bill, but those who support the Obama administration’s approach are aghast. A decision about the funding has been postponed again. At the end of last week, Congress passed a bill to extend funding for Health and Human Services programs, as is, through Dec. 16, and the president signed it.
This kind of tug of war is easily seen when Dutch and U.S. sex-education approaches are compared, Ms. Schalet said.
Dutch parents talk openly with their children about “waiting until ready” to have sex; healthy relationships; and responsible behavior, such as contraception use, when sexual activity begins, Ms. Schalet said.
The “sleepover” comes up when a son or daughter turns 16 or 17 and finds a serious romantic partner.
Dutch youths know they can ask permission to have their partners spend the night in their bedrooms, and most parents will say yes, said Ms. Schalet, adding that this kind of “vigilant leniency” allows teens to explore adult behaviors within distinct parameters.
American parents, however, tend to worry about “raging hormones” that, left uncontrolled, will wreak havoc in a young person’s life, she said. Teen sleepovers in the U.S. family home are virtually taboo, even though this leads to teens sneaking around to have sex, “getting caught” and causing conflict in the parent-child relationship.
Ms. Schalet’s book, which offers recommendations about a new “framework for adolescent sexuality” for America, arrives at a good time, said Debra Hauser, executive vice president of Advocates for Youth, which often has brought together U.S. and European sex educators to exchange ideas.
“Europeans look at sexuality as a normal, healthy part of being human … [while] we, unfortunately, view sexuality as sort of an oppositional force that has to be fought or grappled with, and has to be overcome,” Ms. Hauser said.
Statistics tell the tale, she said: An Advocates for Youth report, updated in March, shows that the Netherlands has far fewer teen pregnancies, births and abortions than the U.S., and sexually active Dutch teens are far more likely than American teens to use condoms or oral contraceptives.
Ms. Schalet’s book “gives us all, and parents in particular, food for thought” about how to support young people so they can have “happy and fulfilling adult lives, romantically and sexually,” said Monica Rodriguez, president and chief executive of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.
Parents have a lot of influence over their children, and if conversations about sex were a normal, natural part of day-to-day life, when it’s appropriate and when it’s needed, “I think that would have a tremendous impact,” she added.
Other observers do not see European-style sex education - or parent-approved teen sleepovers - flourishing in the U.S.
The mantra is that “if only” the U.S. would adopt Europe’s sex-education model, “all of our problems would be solved. But the model really falls flat,” said Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association.
European parents are not really that permissive, said Heritage Foundation senior research fellow Robert Rector, who also has visited Europe to talk about sex-education models.
What is significantly different in Europe is a strong cultural message against teen pregnancy, he said. Many U.S. teens are ambivalent about having a baby, while in most European nations, the attitude toward teen pregnancy is “absolutely not.”
As for the parent-approved sleepover? “It’s more of a myth, like ‘The Blue Lagoon’ for lefties,” said Mr. Rector. “They really pitch this ideal of a romantic, deeply committed, serious, sexual relationship between 16-year-olds, and how that’s what’s going on” in Europe, he said. But the European parents with whom we talked said, “No, we don’t actually do that.”