A friend recently sent me a Salon article about Danish teens and sex. I missed the whole lead up to the article, which was itself written in response to an entire conversation revolving around teens and sex. Not so much the fact that teens are having sex, (duh), but how much European (the Danes and the Dutch were singled out) and American attitudes toward teenagers, sex, and accepting that it’s happening, if not under your nose, then under your roof, differ.
Most of the brouhaha seems to be centered around the notion of “Not Under My Roof.” It’s common for teens in Denmark and other parts of Northern Europe to have co-ed sleepovers. Substitute “shagging their little hormone riddled brains out” for the sleeping part and you get the jist. It’s common for a young couple to spend the night together, the morning after, the whole next day and the next night as well. It’s common practice to greet Pretty Petra the next morning coming down the stairs in your son’s football jersey with her bed head and politely inquire what she’d like for breakfast.
I think of myself as pretty liberal. Bleeding heart, socialist, we should pay more taxes, feed the children kind of liberal. Gay marriage, pro-choice, anti-death penalty, welfare state—-my agenda and resume of social reform reads exactly as you think it would read. Yet this one stumped me.
This isn’t about teens and sex. Not really. It’s about cultural norms and expectations. I’m not going to surprise my sons on their 16th birthdays with a pack of Trojans and a trip to the red light district, but I am also not going to forbid them to have sex, scare them out of having sex, or penalize them emotionally if they do. I have already had conversations with my kids about bodies and sex (at their asking) and hope that by having an ongoing dialogue and avoiding one, big “Let’s Sit Down And Talk About Testes” talk (true story), we will be able to have a living, breathing conversation. Forbidding teens to have sex is delusional. Scaring them into chastity with religious rhetoric is likely going to cause repression and quite possibly wanton-ness down the road; just think of all those stories about Catholic girls. Abstinence and chastity vows and those creepy ring ceremonies when fathers give their daughters symbolic jewelery when she signs a virginity contract–they are mostly scare tactics. I will admit the “if- you- have- sex- and- get- pregnant- you- won’t- be- able- to- go- to- college- and- you- will- end- up- pumping- gas- at- Mobil” line worked pretty well for me, as it would on a certain segment of the population. The point is, we are fooling ourselves if we think withholding information, forbidding behavior, monitoring movements and relying on empty threats are going to have any real effect on biology, hormones, and the driving desire to do the exact opposite of what your parents want. Sure, the bible thumping lecture about hellfire and brimstone and apples and snakes will stop a few Corvette penetrations from occurring, but probably not many. Isn’t it better to acknowledge the desires, the responsibilities, the 600,000 potential consequences of playing grown up? I’m on board with all that. Can I take it to the next level and let Johnny Teenager invite Pretty Petra over for dinner, board games and a night of sixteen year old passion?
I don’t know. And that surprises the hell out of me. Me: liberal, no big deal if my kids are gay, I’ll buy them condoms if they need them, Mom. But here’s what I do know: letting kids have sexy sleepovers is not enabling teen sex. They are going to do that anyway. And I understand, intellectually, the reasoning behind if they are going to do it anyway they may as well do it in the safety of the home rather than the back-end of the bleachers, risking STDS, frostbite and coitus interruptus courtesy of Mr. Jones they gym teacher. I don’t think the more European “Sure Under My Roof Is Fine” policy condones teenage sex. And it would seem from evidence presented, both in written form and from anecdotal evidence provided by Danish friends with teens or American friends with American kids dating Danish teens, that what is going on is not casual, one night stand, back-seat of the car watch out for the gear shift sex, but consensual sex within a relationship. Perhaps the one night stands only get the standard coffee/tea option whereas the girlfriend gets the whole pancake/waffle buffet. But getting to know your child’s partner, encouraging relationships, whatever sexual boundaries that relationship encompasses, is a good thing.
So why do I have a problem with it? To be honest, the whole thing makes me feel kind of icky. I want my children to have a healthy attitude toward sex. I want them to have good sex, and meaningful sex and safe sex and responsible, caring sex. I’m just not sure I want to know it’s going on while my husband and I are watching the next season of Game of Thrones. I feel about my boys having sex the same way I do about my parents having had sex. Icky.
Burying my head in the sand, much like trying the methods above to stop teens having sex, isn’t going to do anyone any good. I want to write here that Yes, the Danes are right. The Dutch are right. Northern Europe with their open and honest policy toward nudity and sex is right. And they are. To a degree. But it is difficult to untangle and tease out the things you intellectually know to be right and the cultural norms you’ve swum in your whole life, the ones you’re born into, stewed and marinated in. And while Scandinavians surely look upon Americans as prudish and puritanical and Americans surely look up on Europeans as promiscuous and slatternly, who is right to call the other wrong? I don’t particularly like that fact that Danes think I’m Susie Fake-y Sunshine because I smile and ask “How are you?” as part of my normal greeting, but it’s not part of their culture. They simply don’t get it. But I’m not going to stop doing it because, well, it is part of my culture. Of course, it’s easy when it’s an example of something innocuous and innocent. Neither word applies when you are talking about your kids and sex.
I want to have an open, honest relationship with my kids. Not only about sex, but about relationships and love and all the confusing emotions that get carried around with the Capital Letter stuff. Does that include opening my sons’ bedroom doors to their partners? Maybe.
Hopefully I have a few more years to figure it out. But if we’re still in Denmark, it’s probably fewer than I think.
—–The two black and white photos are from The Passion of Former Days, a lovely website I stumbled across.—–