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UMass prof. Amy Schalet offers sociological reasoning for sexual culture

Posted by Alex Pearlman  March 12, 2012 06:18 PM

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amy schalet.jpgBy Tzivia Halperin

To Amy Schalet, author and assistant professor of sociology at UMass Amherst, certain parts of Dutch culture represent either Americans' “favorite fantasies or deepest fears,” she said. The United States and the Netherlands vary immensely in terms of education, health care, and governmental policies (and, let’s not forget, the ability to openly smoke pot). But at an even more elemental level, the attitudes and openness of American and Dutch parents, teenagers, media, health officials, and school professionals differ, producing distinct teenage sexual cultures, which Schalet exhaustively explores in Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex.

In writing her sociological study, Schalet also pulled from her own arsenal of experience from growing up in both the U.S. and the Netherlands during the 1980s; she spent her childhood in the former and her adolescence in the latter, and studied at Harvard and the University of California. As a result, Schalet witnessed the disparity between how American and Dutch households handle the topics of sex, reproduction, STDs, contraception, love, and relationships. Although she didn’t necessarily view Dutch culture as progressive while she lived in the Netherlands, when Schalet moved back to America, she “noticed the ways teen sexuality was problematic between parents and kids, and even politically,” she said. “It was more of a puzzle [in the U.S.]," and American discussions of teenage sexuality still curiously “draw on narratives more suited to a 1950s biography."

To illustrate this incongruity, Schalet described two contrasting scenes. While living in the Netherlands, she had a friend whose family could be deemed conservative -- "her parents were clearly Catholic, they ate dinner [as a family] at the exact same time every night, kept a clean house,” etc., Schalet said -- yet the parents never questioned her friend’s younger sister about having sleepovers with her then-boyfriend. Conversely, when she was living in the U.S., Schalet had a friend who grew up in a more progressive household (the parents were “ex-hippies,” she said) but was unable to engage her parents in conversations about contraception.

Even in a relatively conservative Dutch household, teen sexuality is “normalized” and “accepted as part of adolescent development and relationships,” Schalet writes in Not Under My Roof, while in a progressive American household, it is “dramatized;” teens are seen as hostages to their hormones, and, thus, sexuality is “undesirable and dangerous during the teenage years.” Probing these contradictions serves as the crux of the bookSchalet explores why the U.S. views sexuality with such a conservative eye, in comparison to the Netherlands, through a combination of historical, social, and developmental perspectives interwoven with interviews of Dutch and American parents and teens.

not under my roof book.pngAlthough both countries experienced a sexual revolution in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the distinction between the cultures lies in part with the Netherlands’ “moral revolution,” which involved a shift in the messages of the media, public health officials, and the public at large and occurred in tandem with their sexual revolution. Television and radio actively disseminated sexual discourse, health care policies shifted, and the Dutch Catholic Church even subscribed to the notion of birth control, rather than abstinence until marriage. Thus, sexuality for Dutch teenagers hinges on self-regulation, mutual respect, and open conversations.

In the U.S., however, teenage sexuality remains moored to “health risks,” while our individualized culture emphasizes autonomy and suggests that you should have a sense of security (i.e., marriage) before engaging in sexual behavior. This dramatization results in, among other things, no overnights for young couples, less control and pleasure during first sexual encounters, and overall higher teen birth and abortion rates.

Given the U.S.'s seemingly insurmountable and detrimental view of teenage sexuality, is it possible to alter sexual discourse in the media, schools, health care industry, and our homes in order to normalize it? Schalet believes it is, albeit through a gradual, if not complex, process. “Despite the fact that certain political groups -- obviously segments of the Republican Party,” she said, chuckling -- “are self-consciously trying to dramatize sexuality, we need to move in the opposite direction, emphasizing mastery to young people, instilling the notion that sex and condoms go together.” The other aspect involves melding relationships -- “specifically the type of relationships that a 17-year-old will form,” Schalet said -- with sexuality in our conversations.

Not Under My Roof provides insightful and comprehensive commentary, but it was the interviews peppered throughout that provided what could have been a clinical book with an intimate backbone. Particularly refreshing are the American boys' candid discussions of sexuality, which surprised even Schalet. "[In] previous research, American boys were not likely to talk about these things," Schalet said, "but generally speaking, [through the course of my research,] the American boys were interested, talked freely, even expressing relief” to speak up on this subject matter.

Schalet’s research, although thorough, focused solely on the “‘moderate middle’ among the white middle class in the two countries,” according to her book, overshadowing any distinctions “between classes, races, regions, ethnicities, and religions” she said. While, at the very least, Schalet is aware of the gaps in her research, such details prove glaring, especially in light of the media’s hypersexualization and/or desexualization of different races. Regardless, Not Under My Roof is an extremely persuasive piece and plants a seedling of hope that we might eventually engage with our children on issues of sexuality in a more open and effective manner.

Photo (top) by Food For Thought Books (Flickr)

About Tzivia -- I'm currently studying nonfiction writing at Emerson College with a double minor in photography and psychology. Coalescing them, my time is really spent thinking about humans, talking to humans, writing about humans, and rendering humans. Besides photography and writing, my interests include and are pretty much limited to mocking Kevin Bacon and pretending to be a 65-year-old smoker from Brooklyn. Find me on Twitter at @Tzivia_Halperin.

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