Feminist Conversation is a regular series here at Feminists for Choice. Today we are talking with Amy T. Schalet, Associate Professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Professor Schalet is an expert on adolescent sexuality and the author of ‘Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex’. After reading the book, I just had to ask her a few questions.
1. You have written extensively about adolescent sexuality. How did you become interested in that particular area of Sociology?
I was an American-born immigrant to the Netherlands, where my family moved in the 1970s. Growing up there I saw a particular way in which teenage sexuality was handled in the media, schools, and homes, and when I would visit family and friends in the US, I noticed a very different way of handling young people and their romantic relationships and sexuality. And it was not just sexuality; adolescence generally seemed to be approached very differently in the two countries. It seemed to me that teenagers were generally more isolated from adults in the US — partly because the “stuff” of adolescence was forbidden and therefore hidden — and this isolation from adults was not always good for them. When I was living in the US for college, in the early 1990s, I was shocked to discover that teenage pregnancy was still a big problem — in the Netherlands, I had learned that unwanted pregnancies were a problem of the past, due to modern contraception. I became intrigued with the question of why something that was viewed as a normal part of life–young people becoming romantically involved and engaging in sexual relations–in one country, was, in so many respects, viewed and experienced as a social problem in another country.
2. What was your motivation behind Not Under My Roof?
I would say my motivation was three-fold. I was intrigued intellectually: here are two western countries with, at least theoretically, similar levels of development and access to reproductive health choices, that had very different approaches to teenagers and their sexuality: How can it be that something as universal as the sexual maturation of teens would be handled viewed and handled so differently? The title of the book refers to one of those key differences — namely that high-school aged teens in the Netherlands who are serious couples are generally allowed to sleep together in the same room, while the response of most parents in the US is “Not under my roof.” I wanted to figure out why. At the same time, I also wanted to bring to the US an example of how it might be different, and in some ways better, if parents and teenagers could stay more connected during adolescence. It is not that “the Dutch way” is perfect, and in the book I discuss some of the downsides, but I do think that it shows how teenage sexuality, and other aspects of the adolescent phase, can be handled in ways that are more open and more supportive of young people, and ultimately more helpful to their parents as well. Finally, I thought the book might make a contribution to the political debates on issues of sex, teens, education, and health. These debates in the US are often limited and mired in stereotypes about young people, gender relations, and I hoped that a more realistic and humane look at the issues could help contribute to more useful public policies.
3. In Not Under My Roof you discuss spending much of your adolescent years in the Netherlands, and the book is a comparative study between America and the Netherlands. What do you think we can learn in general from such studies, and particularly from Not Under My Roof?
I think it can be very helpful to look across cultures. It helps us understand ourselves better — see things we may have taken for granted and ask ourselves if we want to keep on doing them that way. And it can show us different ways of doing things that we might not have even imagined possible. With regard to teenage sexuality and reproductive health, the comparison with the Netherlands is constructive because it shows that many problems we think of as inevitable — teen pregnancy, conflict between teens and parents, gender pressures on boys and girls — are not inevitable, or at least not as prevalent as they tend to be in the US. And because Not Under My Roof contains so many personal stories of parents and teens, you are able to see, concretely, how the problems in the US are created, and also how it is possible to have a more positive parent-teen interaction around issues of sex and intimacy. For US parents, I think it is useful to see that the Dutch parents do not miraculously “normalize” teen sexuality. For them sex is also not an easy thing to deal with but they have cultural tools that help them do so. Finally, the learning is not a one-way street. Certain aspects of what I call the dramatization of teenage sexuality in the US — the emphasis on conflict, for instance — are not just negative; this emphasis on conflicts of interests that can occur between boys and girls in romantic relationships is important, and I think that Dutch sex educators can also gain from paying more attention to power differences within relationships.
4. In the book you discuss the ABC-D’s- model or framework of teenage sexuality and health. Could you explain this further?
A is autonomy. A lot of times people do realize that adolescents are supposed to develop autonomy during that phase of life, but that doesn’t get applied to sex, or it is interpreted narrowly as ‘Just say no’ or in adversarial terms. Autonomy is the ability to discern inside what one feels in relation to sexuality to make choices, to exert what sociologists call agency in response to sexuality. Sexuality is a spectrum of behavior; it’s not just one act. To use that sense of self-knowledge, and to develop that capacity for self-regulation and planning, and to be able to prepare for sex acts that require protection — for that you need a certain degree of autonomy.
B is build good, positive relationships. We need more emphasis on healthy teen relationships: what does respect look and feel like, how do you build intimacy so it doesn’t become this huge unrealistic fantasy that’s very difficult to overcome if it doesn’t work out? Research does show that when young people have more intimate positive relationships, they tend to have better first sexual experiences.
C is connectedness. It’s possible to really challenge the assumption that teens and parents have to be at loggerheads. Connectedness between parents and teens is critical for teen well-being, not just sexually. In the US, parents are often advised to teach their children their values around sex, but I like to emphasize, that parents should tell their teens, “the most important thing to me is our relationships and that you feel you can talk to me,” because it is.
D is diversity. A lot of sex education doesn’t recognize diversity around sex. I don’t just mean differences in orientation, but differences in the pace at which young people develop and also the diversity in cultural values. It needs to be part of sex education that people have different values around sex and those are to be respected.
D is also disparities. I try to emphasize that sexual health problems are very much correlated with lack of resources and lack of good education and lack of access to health care. One of the reasons that the Netherlands has done so much better in terms of adolescent reproductive health outcomes is that the poverty rate is a lot lower. The Dutch have scored highest on equity in access to health care, and they do lot better in providing social services. If we want to promote adolescent sex health, we need to provide society with level resources.
5. When you are not busy lecturing, researching and writing, what do you like to do on your spare-time?
I love to dance, and have recently had the opportunity to take several modern dance classes a week, which I really enjoy. I like to cook and have groups of friends over for dinner in the evening. And I live in a beautiful part of the country, where especially now with the leaves turning, it is great to go for hikes and bike rides.
Permission to upload and share this photo was given by Amy T. Schalet.