Not Under My Roof
As a teenager, if you asked your parents to have a sleepover with your significant other, what would they have said?
For the majority of American teens, the answer would be a fast and certain “no.” It’s not like that everywhere else in the world, though: Two-thirds of Dutch teenagers aged 15 to 17 who have steady relationships say their parents would allow one.
The dichotomy between “yes vs. no” is the central question author Amy Schalet explores in her book “Not Under My Roof.” She hones in on the fact that both countries experienced sexual revolutions in the 1960s, so why such diverging opinions on the matter?
According to Schalet, “parents, policymakers, and intellectuals in the two countries have mobilized different cultural templates.” Relevant and differing key factors include varying stances on individualism, as well as on sex and hormones; and health care barriers created by government officials. These are only a few of the book’s highlights, so I recommend a read if you are interested in digging below the surface! Now let’s dive in:
The first key difference lies in what Schalet defines as “adversarial individualism vs. interdependent individualism.”
Adversarial individualism is the traditional American take. It is based on the idea that American parents are wary of their kids establishing intimate bonds. As a result, parents often support teens developing themselves as independent individuals, and sometimes even brush off young romance as frivolous or puppy love.
This can often backfire, as that dismissiveness can result in teens sneaking around to experience or express themselves sexually, and that can lead to further rifts between the parental-teenager relationship. This divide also effectively blocks potential avenues for advice or assistance, leaving teens to go through their sexual experiences with less support.
On the other hand, culture in the Netherlands has a stronger focus on interdependent individualism. This harbors an ingrained belief that “it is not possible to keep young people from engaging in sex” if they decide they want to. As a result, there’s often a more open line of communication, and — unlike in most American households — it allows the parents to maintain control through connection.
Normalization vs. Dramatization
The Netherlands and United States further differ in how they view sex. That is to say, one country normalizes it, while the other often sensationalizes it.
A normalized approach — the Dutch cultural approach — treats sex as a conventional part of youth, and supports the belief that young people can self-regulate. Government-run ads for safe-sex campaigns are common; one in particular highlighted a pathway that “1, You fall in love; 2, She feels the same; 3, You kiss; 4, You use a condom.”
On the other hand, dramatization — the American cultural approach — often leaves people fearful of sexual exploration and discovery. Americans often describe adolescents as having “raging hormones,” as if those normal bodily functions are somehow outside of the teenager’s control. The idea that the youth can’t control themselves leads to what Schalet defines as “cultural ambivalences, heated political struggles, and poor health outcomes.”
Whatever your own stance on raising teens, the Netherlands does have one clear advantage to American culture, and that lies in their health care system. Back in the 1970s, the Dutch began offering free contraceptives and abortion services to residents. In contrast, Americans’ perceived health risk of sexually active teens has lead to decades of debates regarding access to services.
A double-whammy to the American sexual-health conversation was the standardization of an abstinence-only education in the 1980s; this stance was later institutionalized in 1996 through the Welfare Reform Bill. In contrast, the Dutch began to institutionalize formal sex education in school. These courses typically address what Americans would call “taboo” topics, such as masturbation, oral sex, and homosexuality, Peggy Orenstein notes in “Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity.”
Rather than goad young people on to these experiences, recent research has shown that Dutch teens become “sexually active later, have fewer partners, are more likely to use contraception and are less likely to say their encounters were driven by hormones.” They are also more likely to say
“their early sexual activity took place in loving, respectful relationships in which they communicated openly with their partners about what felt good and what didn’t, about what acts they wanted to engage in and what kind of protection they would need.”
In contrast, research suggests American youth don’t feel as entitled to sexual exploration or subjectivity. Furthermore, by the early 2000s, pregnancy rates in the US were eight times higher than in the Netherlands.
It’s undeniable that cultural norms have a huge impact on the shaping of a person’s sexual expression and experience, and while there are likely outliers in both Dutch and American cultures, it’s worth keeping these two models in mind.
There is much more work to be done outside of just fixing the system of sexual education. The good news is that each person can focus on individual change, and challenge any judgments or preconceived notions you might be passing on to friends or even kids of your own. These ripple effects can help build a society that embraces formal education and open communication in both school and in personal relationships.