Teen Sex and the Sleepover Debate

Cristen Conger

© Imaginechina/Corbis

Even though my boyfriend and I are fast approaching 30 and live under the same roof, there isn't a question of whether we'd sleep in the same bed should we visit our parents' homes. As long as we're unmarried, it's separate sleeping arrangements for us. Even though we both realize it's kind of a silly standard, we're fine offering that form of symbolic respect, especially since it only affects a couple long weekends out of the year at most. And frankly, it's just not worth the argument.

A recent New York Times column "Sex in a Teenager's Room?" got me thinking about whether I'll take a more liberal approach if/when I'm a parent. My knee-jerk response is that I doubt I'll be comfortable with the thought of them possibly procreating with teenage boyfriends and/or girlfriends at home. Granted, I would want my hypothetical children to be able to talk to me openly and honestly about sex, but there's a certain "too close for comfort" factor of giving them the go-ahead to have most-likely-sexy sleepovers once they're older. However, that only raises the other most-likely scenario that they'll just find another place to do it, since sex is one of the humans' travel-friendliest activities. In which case, maybe it's not such a bad idea to let hormonal, love-struck teens be teens and enjoy, at least, the peace of mind of knowing they're in a safe space.

Compared to many of the parents cited in The New York Times, I'm already a stick in the mud. Columnist Henry Alford shared the tale of a young man who moved in with his 17-year-old girlfriend's family for a year after he finished high school. Apparently, one mom bought her daughter a new, bigger bed to accommodate her boyfriend who had begun spending the night. And if I were raising my hypothetical kids in Europe, that kind of parental permissiveness would be far more of the norm.

Sociologist Amy Schalet, for example, interviewed American and Dutch teenagers to glean insights into at-home sex education and how the domestic stance on sex interacted with teen pregnancy rates (4x higher in the U.S.), birth control use and general attitudes toward sex. In the Netherlands, Schalet found, teen boyfriends and girlfriends sleeping over with parents' OK isn't out of the ordinary. In a 2011 New York Times article, She describes the stark difference between 16-year-olds Kimberly and Natalie who live in the U.S. and the Netherlands, respectively:

Respecting what she understood as her family's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, Kimberly only slept with her boyfriend at his house, when no one was home. She enjoyed being close to her boyfriend but did not like having to keep an important part of her life secret from her parents. In contrast, Natalie and her boyfriend enjoyed time and a new closeness with her family; the fact that her parents knew and approved of her boyfriend seemed a source of pleasure.

Based on her research, Schalet concluded that the Dutch parents were doing it right, not necessarily because of the sleepover factor, but with their more straightforward approach to educating their kids about sex. I suspect that the key variable isn't the sleepover, but the parental relationship; are parents educating their kids and fostering an open, non-judgmental dialogue about sex that acknowledges and respects that teens will probably get curious about it at some point? Although "to sleepover, or not to sleepover" is a comment-sparking question to ask, keeping it framed within a context of comprehensive sex education instead of rigid do's and don'ts rules will probably make the issue more manageable for everyone.

I hope I remember this when I have those hypothetical children.