You consider yourself a progressive parent, one who’s always talked openly about the human body with your children, priding yourself on your family’s easy communication style. Long ago, you decided you’d be a parent who respects your children, nurtures their independence and understands what they face as they develop and mature.
So you’re cool with a romantic teen sleepover, right? Intercourse under your roof?
If you’re thinking Whoa, whoa, whoa — I’m clearly not as progressive as I thought!, you probably aren’t alone.
While we know about one-third of teens say they’re sexually active, the idea of teens having their romantic interest sleepover receives a titanic assortment of responses. Some parents figure, “Heck, we found places to have sex as teens; why can’t our kids?” Others recall young adulthoods with parents who allowed casual sleepovers that they, now adults, consider too lax. Regardless, many of us feel caught off-guard by the idea — wide-eyed and open-mouthed with not-my-kid, not-yet, let’s-change-the-subject-please looks plastered on our faces.
That’s normal, say experts. It’s also nearsighted. “We are sexual, our kids are sexual and our kids are going to have sex eventually,” says Amy Lang, sexuality and parenting expert and founder of Seattle-based Birds+Bees+Kids. “They are going to have sex before we are ready. It does not matter if they are 47 when they have sex for the first time; we are still not ready.”
Experts like Lang say the decision about condoning sexual activity at home must be carefully made, and is directly tied to an ongoing conversation about healthy sexuality — particularly as it relates to teenagers.
Being able to talk about sex is the first step to normalize it, and these conversations happen before any family decides whether or not sleepovers are right for them.
Take, for example, the work of University of Massachusetts—Amherst professor Amy Schalet. Schalet interviewed 130 parents and teens in America and the Netherlands, two countries that offer a compelling contrast in healthy sex ed. On one end of the spectrum: the United States, with one of the world’s higher rates of teen pregnancy; on the other, the Netherlands, with one of the world’s lower.
What did Schalet find? The surveyed Dutch typically emphasized relationships as being important and believed a 16-year-old can remember to use birth control, while the surveyed Americans focused on hormones and the idea that sex is hard to control and can overwhelm teens.
Schalet notes that the average age of first intercourse is similar in both countries (age 17), but the teen’s level of preparedness varies. For example, at the time Schalet wrote her book on the topic, which published in 2011, 3 out of 5 young women in the Netherlands were on the pill by the time they first had sex; that number was 1 in 5 in the U.S. That number has narrowed in recent years (between 2011 and 2013, U.S. females using contraceptives by first intercourse reached 79 percent) but there’s still work to be done, says Schalet.
“In the U.S, there’s a belief that teens must break away from their family and establish themselves as independent and then maybe sex is O.K.,” she says. “In the Netherlands, people become adults in the context of relationships with their parents with no need to break away.”
Why the difference? Schalet points to a major societal shift in the 1970s in the Netherlands that helped normalize talking about sex between parents and kids, a change she hopes to encourage through her own work.
“It can be better for both parents and teens in this country,” she says “Teenagers are young people in need of our guidance [and they] want [the adults in their lives] to have real conversations about sex.”
So, how to normalize sex
Being able to talk about sex is the first step to normalize it, and these conversations happen before any family decides whether or not sleepovers are right for them, says Jo Langford, a Seattle-area therapist, sex educator and author of Spare Me ‘The Talk’!: A Guy’s Guide to Sex, Relationships and Growing Up (or if you have a daughter, check out the girl's version!).
“In other countries, it’s just part of the conversation, with condom ads on billboards and in magazines that kids read,” he says. “The more something is discussed, the less scary, mysterious, uncomfortable [and/or] interesting it becomes.”
Discussion starters include commercials, song lyrics or asking what your teen thinks about sleepovers with a partner. Focus on making sexuality a comfortable topic, or at least one that is discussed despite any awkwardness, while also providing your child the necessary tools to become a sexually and emotionally healthy adult. Schalet’s ABCDs of adolescent sexuality helps guide these talks:
- Autonomy of sexual self: Development of their individual sexual self is necessary for teenagers. This includes relating to their bodies, self-regulation, recognizing what they want and making decisions.
- Building healthy relationships: Teenagers need the opportunity to talk about what defines a healthy relationship: mutual respect, trust, care and interest.
- Connectedness: Maintaining a sense of connection with parents, guardians and other adults through conversations is vital for teens. If parents are too strict, teenagers may lose that connection.
- Diversity: Parents should emphasize differences in terms of orientation and gender identity, culture and when teenagers are developmentally ready to engage in aspects of sexuality.
Is it right for your family?
After all this, the question still remains: Is your family comfortable with allowing your child’s significant other to spend the night in your child’s bed? Seattle parent Beth Tucker* says she taught her daughter about safe sex, but when her daughter told her she was ready to visit the doctor to acquire birth control and have sex, Tucker couldn’t find any guidance about deciding where her daughter and boyfriend would actually have that safe sex. That’s why she offered her house.
“I didn’t want my kid to be having sex in cars [or] up against alley walls,” she says. “It didn’t seem right to give her relationship guidance but expect her and her partner to conduct the most private part of their relationship-building in the woods.”
While the decision was uncomfortable, Tucker says she knew she had her daughter’s best interests at heart. “I know my kid. I know me. I only need to agree with myself and my spouse, so I dug in and felt what is really right for my family,” she says. For other parents, she asks: “What is going to work for you, your kid, your family? Think about the practicalities of setting your kid up for a sexual life.”
Regardless of your family’s decision, all parents need to talk with their teens about sex, says Dr. Cora Collette Breuner. An adolescent physician at Seattle Children’s Hospital, Breuner says talking about sex should cover topics including consent, contraception and STIs. As for sleepovers: “If you allow them, set clear boundaries. Teenagers need to know how to be safe and should talk to responsible adults about proactive and responsible behavior.” And if you don’t to allow sleepovers? “Say ‘no’ and mean it!”
For her part, puberty educator Julie Metzger doesn’t love the idea of teens spending the night together but believes it’s important to keep talking.
“Aim for the gray space while avoiding shame or an open invitation,” says Metzger, co-founder of Great Conversations, which offers classes about puberty for parents and preteens. “Speak authentically, seeing your teen as a healthy, capable, curious, passionate, sexual person. Perhaps ‘What I hope for you is a sexual relationship that grows over time that is mutual, satisfying, mature and responsible.’ This invites a reciprocal response, like ‘Thanks, but here’s where I’m at.’”
That’s the advice Seattle dad Nate Swanson* keeps in mind when it comes to his 15-year-old son.
“My wife and I don’t want to see it, hear it or smell it, but yes, [he] may have sex in our home,” Swanson says of his family’s decision. “I don’t want there to be one excuse about not having a condom and I don’t want him to be at someone else’s house and have the parents flip their shit. I want my son to know sex is about communication, respect, being smart and safe.”
*Name changed for privacy