Many people lose their virginity as teenagers. But it's not exactly a celebrated phenomenon, with most teens hiding their sexual activities from adults. Getting caught with a boy upstairs got a lot of my girlfriends grounded back in high school. Sneaking around seems to have become a staple of the American teenage experience (see almost any romantic comedy made in the early ‘80s).
Amy Schalet, associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has spent over a decade investigating the anxiety surrounding adolescent sexuality. Her book, Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex focuses on the United States and the Netherlands – two countries similar in wealth and education that have, respectively, had the highest and (one of) the lowest rates of teen pregnancy in the Western world.
Schalet found that, on average, teens in the Netherlands become sexually active around the same age as their American counterparts, 17 years old. But, as of 2006, American teenage girls are twice as likely to have abortions, and eight times as likely to give birth as their Dutch equivalents.
And the issue goes beyond pregnancy. Schalet found that American teenagers collectively acquire more than 3 million sexually transmitted infections a year (more than a quarter of all STIs in the country).
So how do we explain this difference? There’s no evidence to suggest that teens in the Netherlands are having less sex than teens in the United States. It is true that poverty has been linked to high birthrates among teens, and poverty rates in U.S. far exceed those of other industrialized countries. From there, we're left with just a few areas left to explore; namely birth control and sex education, and the conversations we have about them.
I reached out to Schalet and asked her to walk me through her research. She told me, “Before the sexual revolution, there was a lot of emphasis on [the negative aspects of sex]. So why did that stay in the United States? I think one piece is the fact that, for the Dutch, they applied a concept that had existed before the sexual revolution, mainly that of having a courtship through the teenage period. So even though now you’re not seeing it as ‘these people are engaged for life,’ you’re still applying a relational concept of, ‘this is a safe, steady relationship, and these days, people have sex.’”
“In the Netherlands, one of the really famous [sex education] curriculums is called ‘Long Live Love'... Or they’re called ‘relationship lessons.’ Or, for instance, a sex education curriculum that talks about sexual orientation would have a header saying, ‘Who do you want to wake up next to in the morning.’ It’s putting it in the context of an ongoing relationship.”
“In the U.S., I think because of different ideas about the individual and a certain kind of concept of individualism, there’s a lot more ambivalence about whether or not young people at 14,15,16 can form love, whether they should. And so therefore sexuality remains this sort of unanchored force; it’s not contained in some ways within the context of an established sexual relationship. So it can seem a lot more fearful, especially when you’re dealing with young people who are in that transition period.”
In the United States, 37 states require that information on abstinence be provided when sex education is taught. Twenty-five of those states require abstinence be stressed. Nineteen states require educators to highlight the importance of sex within marriage. And 13 states require the inclusion of information on the negative outcomes of teen sex and pregnancy. In instances when HIV education is taught, only 19 states require information on condoms or contraception be provided.
Given the rates of teenage pregnancy and STIs within the United States, it’s clear the abstinence-only approach isn’t the most effective one out there. But the push for these programs stems from beyond the institutions where they’re taught. Some cultural trends specific to the United States may help explain where it originates.
Schalet said, “I think it’s not just about religious factors; it’s also about how we think about the individual, and the role of love, and the role of relationships and whether or not that’s supposed to happen at that age. That’s one piece. The second piece has to do with contraception. Are contraceptives available to young people? In the Netherlands there was a huge push to make the pill available, and it brought down the teen pregnancy rate and it gave folks less reason to be fearful. You’re [less likely to] associate teen sexuality with an unwanted pregnancy or a life derailed. The availability of abortion is also, of course, really critical.”
I would say a third factor is the religious right. Even if people aren’t extremely religious themselves, they live in a country where the religious right is like ‘keep fear alive. How can we make this thing, that doesn’t have to be dangerous, that doesn’t have to ruin lives if you educate young people, [something to be feared]? It’s not per se a ‘dangerous thing.’ So ‘how can we keep that idea that this is a very dangerous part of life alive?’ I think that has had a really profound influence on our culture and society beyond people who hold those beliefs.”
The “purity movement,” as it exists in the U.S., revolves around teaching young people the importance of abstaining from sex until marriage. Often times, the brunt of the message falls on young girls.
Last year, Officer Regina Coward, president of the Nevada Black Police Association, was approached by her church to create a community event about the importance of abstaining from sex until marriage. Coward maintains there are four outcomes of premarital sex: sexual assault, gangs, drugs and prostitution. The “Choose Purity” event took place last May in North Las Vegas. One hundred-twenty-five parents and children were shown recorded interviews with pimps and prostitutes, learned about the modern-day slave trade, and saw explicit images of people gripped by drug addiction. There were also reenactments of girls who had entered into prostitution and died from the STIs they contracted while working in the field. As the Las Vegas Sun reported, “The monologues concluded with each girl getting on a gurney and into a body bag.”
Not all events related to the purity movement are so dramatic. Many “Purity Balls” resemble the traditional father-daughter dance. The only difference is that purity balls end with an exchange of vows between father and daughter (the daughters pledge their purity to the fathers, and promise to remain chaste until marriage). In some cases, girls as young as five are encouraged to attend. This community often gravitates toward the idea that fathers must protect their daughters from the dirty, horny boys who surround them. That’s how we land at the idea that sex is a mistake teens will make, and an act parents must fear.
Schalet explained, “There’s a real gender component there, and that’s also where the Dutch, I think, do things differently. They leave room for boys to think of themselves as romantic, of having feelings. And it’s not that American boys aren’t romantic, it’s that everything in their culture tells them that they shouldn’t be. So then they have this sort of duality if they have those feelings, like ‘am I a man? Or does this make me not a man? A boy becoming a man?’”
“For girls, I think the Dutch put a lot more emphasis on the fact that women can make choices. It’s not like it’s perfect, but there’s at least a conversation about, ‘what do you want? What do you feel?’ You can also see it in the fact that the Dutch are one of the few countries that really openly talk about masturbation for both sexes [during sex education]. It’s often thought that that’s one way that women can really become empowered about their sexuality, when they know about sexual pleasure and their own bodies. That’s not usually part of American sex education.”
In her article Must We Fear Adolescent Sexuality? Schalet explains that Dutch parents have a term to describe their children’s capacity for self-regulating sexual activity: er aan toe zijn. The phrase translates to “being ready” in English. She also notes that over the past three decades the Dutch community has worked to promote acceptance of adolescent sexuality and easy access to contraceptives. Conversations about sex often take place at home, and many Dutch teens experience their first sexual encounters there as well.
She noted, “I’m continuously struck by TV shows – even ones I love – by the portrayal of girls, especially in the eyes of parents… One show that comes to my mind is Friday Night Lights. The parents in that show are portrayed as really, really good parents... But they way they give their daughter sex education is appalling… it’s all about how boys are going to use her. They make the daughter, who’s in a very loving relationship, feel so bad about [sex]. It’s really interesting, because... if some sort of sex happens, the girl is put in the position of disappointing the parents. And I guess I just always ask myself when I’m watching these shows, ‘When do you want it to happen? How do you want it to happen? What is actually wrong about this situation?’”
She added, “What’s really problematic [about abstinence-only education] is that people are actually being taught to be afraid of their sexual impulses, that they can’t regulate them and gender stereotypes. So there are a lot of [negative] things that people are being taught that are not helpful. And certainly, that needs to stop.”
“There’s also research to show that when young people have gender-stereotypical ideas, they’re much less likely to be sexually healthy. So I think there is some very harmful material in abstinence-only education, asides from the fact that young people don’t get taught about contraception. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. What young people really need is a very comprehensive form of sex education that approaches sexuality as a positive part of life that they can relate to in a positive way.”
The Dutch experience provides us with many insights. One is that perhaps educating teens on STIs, HIV and unwanted pregnancies can go a lot further than threatening them with that information.