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.—–
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I had a conversation with my neighbours about this – they have a son and a daughter, now both grown into their twenties, so we watched them go through exactly this stage starting about ten years ago. They found there were some odd differences between their experiences with sons and daughters: they got used to their son’s girlfriends appearing in the mornings, but they felt less comfortable with their daughter’s boyfriends. And they couldn’t get used to their daughter disappearing to stay overnight with a boyfriend at all – they felt much less secure having her out of the house! This meant in turn that they worried more about their son’s girlfriends and how their parents were feeling. The good news is that now their kids are definitely adults they feel really comfortable welcoming their partners into the house, and can share conversations about their previous relationships.
I have wondered how people with both sons and daughters differ in their expectations or tolerance. Though I didn’t have any high school boyfriends sleeping over (wasn’t even an option/issue/something I considered!), my upbringing, though American, was pretty open as far as having an open dialogue about sex. I guess my parents were slightly ahead of their time. I guess you never know exactly how you are going to feel until you are in the situation. Hopefully I have a few more years to figure it out.
You’ve hit the proverbial nail on the head! But here is what I wrestle with: let’s say you are a lefty-liberal atheist family who wants to foster healthy, realistic yet committed relationships and your son brings home someone from a *gasp* religious family? How do you approach the other family? I suppose it is up to the teens, but I don’t want to be a pariah with them. Of course, just being atheist should take care of that I suppose.
Love your blog!
Considering I have the kids that look at the annual advent calendar and ask “Who is the lady with the beard” I would find it surprising if either one of my boys fell head over heels for someone uber-religious. That said, if they wanted to go the very rebellious route, that’s exactly what they would do, I suppose. Hopefully the lessons about respect that we all hope to get through their thick skulls will come flooding back to them in such a an instance. But I’m telling you, it’s those Catholic school girls you’ve got to watch out for ;-).
There was an article about this in the national (Canadian) newspaper a while back, complete with a photo of a rather punky young Scandinavian couple chatting with her mom at breakfast. I have to admit that at first I was shocked down to my little North American toes , but the more I thought about it, the better an idea it seemed to be. It seemed to take a lot of the dark qualities out of the experience, like discomfort & secrecy. It’s much like the European attitudes towards alcohol. Maybe sex becomes less likely to be something that kids would use to rebel, and more natural?
I agree. In principal! Sex is natural and we shouldn’t make it forbidden or secret or ‘dirty’. When it’s not hidden or taboo, it doesn’t hold the attraction. I didn’t have room in this piece, but I didn’t get a chance to touch on is religion and sex. Why is it that if the body is simply a vessel for the soul, that it is seen as something to be ashamed of in so many people’s eyes? I’m still thinking about the whole thing a few days later–which has been an interesting experience for me.
Oh bugger. I am so not ready to think about this one right now…A part of me veers towards the Northern European model. UK’s pretty hung up and don’t even get me started about the Indian part of the family, and what I see as a result of this is a lot of repressed behaviour, miscommunication etc. But on the other hand, it’s my babies (both the girl one and the boy one, but mainly the girl one)!!
When do we cover this in ‘Dad’ school again?…
I think the UK is right up there with the US in terms of sexual repression for sure. Though there is the whole Page 3 thing which wouldn’t fly in the US at all–boobs in the newspaper? Heaven forbid! Most of the people I’ve talked to about this have had far more trouble wrapping their heads around their daughters and sexual relationships than their sons. Maybe I’ve gotten off lightly here. But then again, my sons with be with someone else’s daughters….(or sons, but that didn’t have the same ring).
Am I right thinking there was a Prince vibe running through this piece? The reference to Trojans and Corvettes brought to mind Little Red Corvette, well, it did for me anyway. The reason I ask is because the idea of Prince having sex always made me feel icky. Maybe that makes me a prude. But the fact he always looked like a kind of 13-year-old hermaphrodite didn’t help matters. You see, you didn’t think I could steer my comment back to teenage sex, once I went off on some weird tangent about Prince. Aha, but I have! What’s more, a-ha that redoubtable pop band of the 80s hail from Norway, which is clearly (along with Denmark) part of Scandinavia. And I would argue a-ha put me off the whole idea of Scandinavian teenagers having sex, at the very time I myself was discovering the implications of possessing testes. Hmm, I wonder what ever happened to Prince? Or a-ha for that matter? As a final thought, might I just add you could always pray your boys develop the kind of unsightly acne that ruined much of my teenage dating prospects?! It’s just a thought…
Prince just started twittering, apparently. And I agree with your assertion that he (still) looks like a teenage hermaphrodite. Ironically I find his music exceedingly sensual. A-Ha, well, I’m not sure whatever happened to A-Ha, though I think their song was sampled in some recent pop hit. Testes I can’t help you with, sorry. ;-).
There was a great article on this in the NY Times last weekend. I have looked and looked and looked for it, and for some reason I cannot find it. What stuck with me was the last line. The parents left their co-ed sleepover kids in a room for the night with the following advice: Whatever you’re doing in here, your dad/mom and I are in the other room, doing it, too. Remember that.
That is an excellent line. And I shall have to write it down so I don’t forget it in the next few years (yikes!!) when this sort of thing becomes an issue.
I am very liberal, but I am still of the not in my house opinion. I just think it is asking for trouble. I know they are going to do it, but I wouldn’t make it easy for them.
I go back and forth. Which is never a good parenting philosophy ;-).
Hi Dina! Came across this post of yours, three and a half years after you’ve posted it. I’ll offer you my perspective, as a dad of three (now) young women. When the girls were very young, my wife and I very deliberately did not hide ourselves from them. Which is to say, we hugged and kissed, cuddled, dressed and undressed, went to the bathroom, etc. For them to see us in our skin was an unremarkable and not particularly noteworthy thing. As they grew older and experienced their first period, it was just another thing that happened naturally, and was an opportunity to talk about why it happened, what it meant in terms of the body’s development, and what could be expected. Our school system was (and is) covering various aspects of sex education starting in elementary school, so the information they were getting from school and at home was pretty consistent. Despite the trials and tribulations of the teenage years, each daughter was pretty open about what she was doing (or not doing), and we had a good idea of who the friends were. When each decided that they were ready for sexual activity, they had already a pretty good grounding in safety, and they told us what they were doing. Interestingly, each held off until they were comfortable with what they were going to do, and who their partner was. Our “parenting” philosophy was that our job was to prepare them as much as possible to make good decisions, which meant that we gave them the information, explained the consequences of possible actions, and gave them the responsibility to make their own decisions. We knew that our “control” over them was limited, and our influence was linked to how comfortable they were in sharing the details of their life with us.
When it came to having sleepovers, they were an extension of the same basic approach.
I don’t believe that our attitudes about these things are particularly novel. When I just started going out with my wife (forty years ago or so) , we made a trip to visit her grandmother, a very prim and proper lady living still in my wife’s parent’s hometown. Shortly after we arrived, she walked us to the guest bedroom, which had a double bed, gave us our guest towels, and that was that. That she was allowing a young man to sleep with her grand-daughter didn’t seem to faze her in the least.
And let’s also remember that some of us weren’t exactly shrinking violets when it came to sex. So for us to expect our “kids” to be different is hypocritical. There is also the “little” matter of equality – if men and women are equal, this is true in the sexual area as well. Preventing unwanted pregnancy is a responsibility of both. Ensuring sexual health and safe sex practices are the responsibility of both. Ensuring the mental health aspect is also the responsibility of both.
When our “kids” know that they are in full control of their bodies, of the relationships, and of their own mental well-being, they are much less likely to be manipulated or pressured into something they will regret. All three have chosen good men as their partners, with “good” meaning men who are respectful, supportive, and at the same time independent enough (ie, not controlling, or clinging, or needy). One is now a son-in-law, and I would be very happy to have the other two as son-in-laws as well, if and when they decide to marry.
As we get older, our sexuality changes somewhat, and that too should not be a secret. It’s part of intimacy, it’s part of a warm, supportive and healthy relationship. It’s part of learning, and internalizing that this is part of what partners do, and that it is a good thing. Why would we deny that to our kids?