Ever since I heard about Amy Schalet’s research and her forthcoming book, Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex (University of Chicago Press, 2011), I’ve been eagerly waiting to get my hands on a copy. Thus, when Not Under My Roof came out earlier this winter, I had ordered it from Amazon and read it before the month of February was out.
And I’ve been waiting ever since then for inspiration to strike vis a vis how to review the book. I’m not exactly sure why. It’s got a whole host of things that usually cause an explosion of thoughts and words in my head: human sexuality, cross-cultural analysis, discussion of cross-generational family relationships, overall encouragement to re-examine our historical-cultural assumptions that a particular set of events or circumstances (in this case coming of age and emerging adult sexuality) just is a certain way. If you want me to experience the scholarly equivalent of an orgasm, throw an articulate article or book in my direction that suggests some naturalized assumptions about sex or gender are actually historically contingent. Not Under My Roof has all the above covered, in spades.
But mostly, it made me incredibly sad. Sad because the mainstream culture of the United States — as well as the institutions and state apparatus that support/are supported by that culture — is failing us abysmally when it comes to parent-child relationships and the incorporation of sexuality into family life and society. This isn’t news, but it’s still kinda hard to have a book-length reminder of how badly we fail at this. Schalet’s research looks at the negotiations between parents and teenage children over sexual activity and relationships in the United States and the Netherlands. My marginalia, particularly in the U.S. sections, consisted of a lot of “so sad!” and “key disconnect” and sad faced emoticons.
Schalet, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, conducted her research in the U.S. and the Netherlands (where she had spent part of her childhood) during the mid-to-late 1990s. She conducted qualitative interviews parents and their adolescent children in a number of different suburban and urban locations in both countries, focusing on white, middle-class families as her research sample. While she acknowledges the limitations of her research population, she argues that these middle-class families are also a key demographic in the development and maintenance of cultural norms.
What she discovered is that, in the Netherlands, adolescent sexuality — particularly in serious relationships — is normalized by both parents and the wider society (culturally and institutionally). As a result, even when conflicts or anxieties around teenage sexual behavior emerge, families negotiate solutions that tend to integrate the children’s sexual relationships and emerging adult life into the fabric of the family and society as a whole. In the United States, by contrast, adolescent sexuality is dramatized as a dangerously out-of-control physical and emotional experience that will signify a break from the family of origin. It is simultaneously a facet of independent adulthood and an activity which threatens a teenager’s ability to reach successful middle-class adult independence.
Schalet broadens her examination of adolescent sexuality to look at how these differing concepts of teenage sexual desires and behaviors both reflect and inform our divergent understandings of adolescent development and adulthood cross-culturally. In the Netherlands, Schalet argues, adulthood — particularly young adulthood — is not understood to constitute economic self-sufficiency or emotional distance from one’s family of origin. Dutch teenagers are expected to develop a self-determination within emotionally close family and social circles, rather than in opposition to them. While American teenagers are expected to be rebellious, incommunicative, out of control, hormone-driven beings, Dutch teenagers are assumed to be self-regulating individuals who will gradually assume responsibility over their social and sexual lives as they are able.
The Dutch framework is not without its troubling aspects, as Schalet points out, specifically the lack of language with which to articulate and grapple with unequal power within relationships (parent-child, a couple of differing ages or class standing, sexism within dating relationships). However, overall health indicators suggest that the Netherlands is modeling a much more successful way of supporting teenagers’ development than is the United States. One of the most fascinating aspects of Schalet’s interviews, I thought, was the widespread helplessness expressed by American parents and children when it came to cultural views of adolescent sexuality and parent-child relationships. Parents and children alike often expressed unhappiness with the status quo, yet were equally at a loss when it came to effecting meaningful change in their own family lives or in society at large. By conceptualizing American teenagers as hormone-crazed beings incapable of rational thought, parents either threw up their hands or resorted to an authoritarian rules-based approach which they acknowledged their child would likely evade or otherwise thwart. Children, in turn, expressed a desperate desire for adult support, but could not picture integrating their sexual selves into family life either through conversation about sexuality or by bringing a partner to their parents’ house.
The title, Not Under My Roof, refers to the scenario Schalet presented to each of her interviewees: “Would you (or your parents) allow your child’s significant other to sleep over?” Across the board, Dutch parents answered in the affirmative, though with some qualifications concerning age and nature of the relationship — older teenagers and “steady” boyfriends/girlfriends were much more acceptable than were sleepovers requested by younger adolescents and relationships deemed more casual. Dutch boys were also more likely to report being comfortable with bringing a significant other to stay overnight than were Dutch girls (who generally preferred going to the house of their partner).* However, every single American parent rejected the idea of “the sleepover,” conceptualizing the economic dependency of adolescence as mutually exclusive of (acknowledged) sexual activity — even as they articulated a certain fatalism that their children were likely engaging in sexual activity elsewhere. Teenagers in the States were, likewise, unable to imagine being openly sexually active or to communicate with parents about their lives as sexual beings.
I feel like I should put some of my personal cards on the table here and acknowledge that my upbringing was much more like that of the Dutch teenagers than the American ones. I never brought a partner home to stay overnight as a teenager quite simply because I wasn’t sexually active at that point in my life. My siblings romantic and sexual relationships were integrated into our family life in various ways, and my parents were always vocal about the fact that if any of us were to need a private space for sexual exploration, our bedrooms were available — and preferable — to more public, clandestine locales. Unlike many of the American parents Schalet interviewed, my siblings and I are welcome to bring our partners home and to share a bedroom with them. In contrast, Schalet’s interviewees often persisted in rejecting their children’s sexual selfhood up to the point of marriage and/or simply believing that a child’s sexual relationships, even as adults, belonged outside of the family home. This seems to mirror the reflexive disgust many adolescent and adult children express when asked to contemplate the sexual lives of their parents — something I find at best puzzling and at worst disturbing (surely we should be invested in supporting our parents’ sexual well-being just as we ask them to support ours?).
Which is where the sadness of this book comes in for me: The entrenched helplessness of Americans across the generations when it comes to communicating more effectively and positively about our sexual hopes and fears, about the quality of our relationships, about what we need to foster health and well-being in our sexual lives. The Dutch families don’t have it all worked out, certainly, but through Schalet’s eyes they certainly seem to be light-years ahead of our dysfunction. I really wish Americans would start to take the lessons of other Western nations to heart and do better by our youth. Instead, as a society, we seem determined to move by inches into ever-increasing moral panic, non-communication, and policing.
I very much hope that Schalet’s book will make its way into the hands of policymakers, parents, and sexual health professionals and that it will encourage us collectively to re-examine our assumptions about adolescence, sexual well-being, family relationships, and our conception of successful adult development. I can’t say I’m very hopeful about large-scale change, but perhaps Not Under My Roof will — if nothing else — encourage individual parents and their children to assert their independence from normative cultural pressures and create more functional, integrative, patterns of family communication and togetherness.
*As a side-note, this book was frustratingly heterocentric, though that seems to have been the “fault” of the families interviewed rather than Schalet’s process. She deliberately asked all questions in a way that left the sex/gender of the child’s partner undetermined — and virtually all parents, with the exception of a couple of Dutch parents, presumed straightness in their children. Virtually all of the youths Schalet interviewed, likewise, were either paired with an other-sex partner or identified future partners in other-sex language.
I’d love to see a follow-up study that deliberately sought out families with youth of wide-ranging sex and gender identities and experiences. I’d be really interested to see how or if parent-child interactions change when queer sexuality enters the picture. How do parents conceptualize their queer childrens’ sexual lives? How do parental fears about youth sexuality shift when pregnancy prevention is no longer a concern? Are young people more or less likely to bring same-sex partners home? We may think we know the answers to these questions … but I’d be really interested in the results of a deliberate cross-cultural study.