Book Review: Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex

I just finished reading Amy T. Schalet’s 2011 book Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex (University of Chicago Press), winner of the Healthy Teen Network’s Carol Mendez Cassell Award for Excellence in Sexuality Education and the American Sociological Association’s Children and Youth Section’s 2012 Distinguished Scholarly Research Award. It’s a fascinating comparative analysis of the norms of teenage sexuality in Dutch families and US families. Although Schalet intentionally selected 130 families with similar characteristics — “white, middle class, and secular or moderately Christian” — she is careful to note the limitations of her subject pool. She also acknowledges that the majority of the parents are heterosexual, as are the majority of the teenagers.

Schalet begins her exploration by noting the different answers to the question of whether the teenagers can have “a sleepover” (2) with their romantic partner in the family home. The Dutch families are much more willing to permit this; the US families are almost uniformly not. Schalet attributes this difference to competing norms around adolescent sexuality which, in the Dutch context, she frames as “normalization” (32). Additionally, she identifies “three powerful frames [Dutch] parents use to understand adolescent sexuality . . . normal sexuality, relationship-based sexuality, and self-regulated sexuality (32, emphasis in original). Dutch parents believe that expressing sexuality is a normal part of adolescent development and strive to help their teenagers understand how to decide when they are ready for sex and how to integrate sex into their relationships and lives. Schalet notes that Dutch parents are not always comfortable with the idea of the sleepover, but they see it as their responsibility to manage their own emotional reactions so that their teenagers can develop a healthy sexuality.

In contrast, the US family attitudes are best described as “dramatization” (57), with the three interpretive frames being “hormone-based adolescent sexuality . . . battle between the sexes . . . and . . . parent-regulated adolescent sexuality” (56, emphasis in the original). Uncontrollable raging hormones are seen to place teenage girls and boys in antagonistic relationships where the boys are supposed to have lots of sex and the girls are supposed to be much more cautious. Another distinguishing factor is that US parents articulated that their children should not be engaging in sexual activity until they are self-sufficient adults. This belief puts the parents and teens at odds since many teens are, in fact, engaged in some kind of sexual activity.

Schalet writes:

In the Netherlands, as in many countries of northwestern Continental Europe, adolescent sexuality has been what one might call normalized—treated as a normal part of individual and relational development and discussible with adults in families, schools, and health care clinics. But in the United States, teenage sex has been dramatized—fraught with cultural ambivalences, heated political struggles, and poor health outcomes, generating concern among the public, policymakers, and scholars (3).

These differences in approaches to adolescent sexuality result in startling outcomes: US teens have significantly higher rates of STIs and higher rates of unintended pregnancy, among others.

Schalet suggests that these varied ways of understanding adolescent sexuality are also influenced by cultural norms, which she categorizes as “American adversarial individualism” and “Dutch interdependent individualism” (83) and which arise from different expectations about the relationship between “autonomy and social relationships of dependency” (82). In the US context, the emphasis is on attaining independence and autonomy. In the Dutch context, this is important, but is impacted by social norms which allow “adolescents to attain autonomy in concert with their ongoing relationships with others” (206). Schalet extends this comparison by arguing that these attitudes are also reflective of differing practices in the exertion of state power. In the Netherlands, there are “politics of accommodation and integration” which draw on “consultation” (191), negotiation, and attempts to build agreement. The US relies on an oppositional stance with a clear difference between winners and losers (193) and a “culture of control” (194) and surveillance, which Schalet sees replicated in her conversations with the US parents when they emphasized the dangers and risks associated with sex and described their strategies for limiting their teen’s sexual behavior.

In the US, according to Schalet, we generally lack “a conception of adolescent sexuality as a normal and potentially positive part of adolescent development,” and this interrupts our ability to provide “ongoing practical, emotional, critical, and ethical guidance” to help adolescents develop a healthy sexuality (209). Schalet argues that “[t]he cultural frames that they [parents] have available to discuss teenage sexuality give American parents only limited tools with which to help their adolescent children navigate their entry into sexual exploration.” As a result, Schalet recommends that the US consider what she calls the “ABC-and-Ds framework for adolescent sexuality” which includes “the development of the autonomy of the sexual self,” attention to “[b]uilding relationships,” “connectedness with parents and other care providers” and “Diversities and Disparities” (210-211). We must acknowledge the diversity in how adolescents develop and the range of sexualities and gender identifications that are produced, but we must also attend to disparities in access to resources and services.

Schalet conducted her research from 1991-2000, and ends the book by acknowledging that the changing political climate in the Netherlands, particularly cutbacks in the social welfare system, may adversely impact the positive outcomes she sees in the Dutch approach to adolescent sexuality.

The book offers an important opportunity to think about and learn from different approaches to adolescent sexuality, which is relevant to all of us who work with young people.

Written by Donna M. Bickford, Ph.D., Director, Women’s and Gender Resource Center

Note: Here is a March 2016 Yes! Magazine article by Schalet about her research findings.