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Teen sex researcher contrasts Dutch, U.S. attitudes

| Monday, Oct. 10, 2011

A researcher speaking in Pittsburgh this week has some new ideas about how parents can talk with their teenagers about sex.

Amy Schalet, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, is the author of "Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and the Culture of Sex," which details her nearly decade-long research into differing parental perceptions of adolescent sex in the Netherlands and America.

"Parents in the U.S. feel the need to emphasize danger," said Schalet. "In the Netherlands, they largely talk about (sex) in relation to relationships."

Schalet will speak at the 32nd annual Healthy Teen Network Conference from Tuesday through Friday at the Wyndham Grand hotel Downtown.

In the book, Schalet shows "that the Dutch require self-control from teens and parents, while Americans guide their children toward autonomous adulthood at the expense of the family bond," according to a statement from her publisher.

Embarrassment often causes parents in the United States to limit conversations about sex, Schalet said.

"Dutch parents really work at normalizing it," she said.

Because of cultural and economic factors, Dutch teens are four times less likely to get pregnant and two times less likely to have an abortion, Schalet's research shows.

Kelly Eckert, 42, of the North Side and the mother of Camille, 17, and Sophia, 15, said she talks to her daughters about sex "as openly as we all feel comfortable with ... acknowledging all along that they will end up doing what they want but giving reasons for my preferences."

One of the most startling statistics in Schalet's book is that nine of 10 Dutch parents are OK with the idea of their teenage children having sleepovers with their boy/girlfriends. The same number of American parents found the idea "ludicrous."

"In the U.S., when we hear that, we generally think the parents don't care or don't have control over their kids," Schalet said. "But it isn't just everything goes. It's once the youth is 16 or 17, they are in a good relationship, the parents know the person."

Schalet is not suggesting all American parents permit sleepovers. Instead, she wants parents to create an environment in which teens don't have to hide or be afraid of their sexuality.

"The sleepover is indicative of the parent/teen connection," she said.

Organizers of this week's conference are "thrilled" to have Schalet involved, said Pat Paluzzi, CEO of the Healthy Teen Network, a national nonprofit based in Baltimore with a focus on teen pregnancy issues.

"I think what Amy is doing in her book is very relevant to the national conversation we should be having in this country," said Paluzzi. "We have a very schizophrenic view of sex. ... It's everywhere, yet we don't like to talk about it, especially if it's involving kids."

Nikki Navta, 44, of the North Side and the mother of two teen boys, said she would be inclined to embrace the Dutch attitudes toward sexuality.

"So many attitudes in the U.S. draw lines without understanding the reasons why or looking deeper at what the relationships are," Navta said.

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