Have an upfront talk about teen sex

Posted Nov. 24, 2011, at 5:50 a.m.

How to curtail teen pregnancy? Stop denying they’re having sex.

That’s one of the messages in a book by Amy Schalet, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, that’s getting much attention.

“Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex,” (University of Chicago Press, November 2011) compares American and Dutch teen pregnancy rates and concludes that the more open — and perhaps, realistic — attitudes Dutch parents have toward teen-age sex might have much to do with the difference.

Schalet shared her research last week in Washington with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. We asked her to share a bit with us.

Q: Tell me more about your presentation.

A: The U.S. has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates and the Netherlands one of the lowest in the industrial world.

One important cause for the difference is that U.S. teens are much more likely to grow up in poverty than Dutch teens, and when young people grow up without access to quality education, jobs and health care, they are more likely to become pregnant at young ages. But poverty is not the whole story. In the Netherlands, six out of 10 teen girls are on the pill at first intercourse (vs. only about 1 in 5 in the United States).

So the question is, what makes it possible for young women to know in advance when they are going to have their first intercourse, talk to a trusted adult, make an appointment with a doctor and start the pill before first sex?

I show how in many Dutch families and in the educational and health care system, there is a process of “normalization” around teen-age sexual development: Young people are encouraged to “self-regulate,” that is not have sex before they are ready (most Dutch parents agree this should not be before 16) and use precautions.

There is the expectation that sex should take place in steady relationships in which both teens are in love. Finally, parents don’t want teen-age sex to be a secret. They want to stay connected (with their teens) and be able to exercise influence and provide support.

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