I was fascinated to read this Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by author and sociology professor Amy Schalet, who elaborates on survey data showing fewer American teens having sex at a young age.
If I may summarize the gist of Dr. Schalet’s position, whose comparisons on Dutch versus American teens I’ve cited in my own parental musings, our American tendency is to assume that adolescent boys are all about hormones over heart, and raunch over romance.
Go figure. We may be wrong.
Citing the National Survey of Family Growth, Dr. Schalet writes:
In 1988, many more boys than girls, ages 15 to 17, told researchers that they had had heterosexual intercourse… But in the two decades since, the proportion of all American adolescents in their mid-teens claiming sexual experience has decreased, and for boys the decline has been especially steep…
The author goes on to mention fear of becoming a father, fear of AIDS, and availability of online pornography as reasons for this shift. She points out cultural differences in adolescent sexuality (she was raised in the Netherlands), noting that Dutch teens are less fearful about sexual relations.
But here’s the kicker. Apparently, sociological data suggests teenage boys are more interested in emotional connection than we once thought. And this derails the simplistic notion that girls are romantic, and boys are not.
Are we soon to see our 15-year old soccer jocks hunched over their laptops watching Sleepless in Seattle?
I’m not sure that chick flicks are good for women (though I enjoy them); I’m certainly not anticipating that our boys will be addicted to any such glossy view of relationship.
But I do give credence to the belief they care what their romantic partners think of them, and what they think in general. I have no representative sample to offer, but I have spent years watching my sons in their interactions with friends, not to mention the considerable crowds of adolescent boys and girls that gathered in my home over that same timeframe.
There were hook-ups, breakups, dry spells, and even soulful yearning. There were a few notable pairings that reflected genuine commitment and romantic love, exemplifying the sort of relationship Dr. Schalet observes among Dutch teens.
In her commentary, Dr. Schalet also addresses the double standard between the genders – a multiplicity of partners for a woman equals “slut,” while for a man, it attracts kudos and admiration. (Shades of Rush Limbaugh?)
Might this outdated approach be changing – even a little bit?
Likewise, the author sees the potential for a loosening of what she calls “rigid masculinity norms.” And I wonder if we’re seeing this broader range of behavioral standards in our own children – specifically, greater caring and attentiveness from our sons.
On the other hand, should we worry that our girls seem more careless about their sexual attachments?
I can’t say that I mind the thought of our adolescents attempting to incorporate caring into sexual activity. It’s what I encouraged as a parent – at least, I tried – while hoping to be forthright about sexuality as a natural part of our lives in a variety of ways – sex for the sake of it, sex for experimentation, eroticism (of all sorts), and sex with profound emotional investment.
When we’re honest, can’t we admit to the full menu of sensual and sexual encounters from which most adults pick and choose, whether we speak of our movable feasts or not?
Of course, the Approved Preference is to offer the Big Picture American Ideal: Sex with Love. And I’m all for it, but not if it insists we drop everyone into the same slot, i.e. Man + Woman = Traditional Marriage, much too young, much too blindly, and much too often.
Personally, I’m heartened if our teenagers are holding off on sexual exploration a little longer. But I’m also encouraged to think that signs of caring are not exclusive to one gender (I never believed they were).
My hope would be that we open our eyes and our perspectives to the many models for human connection. That includes recognizing its expression in our teenagers – in ways that are respectful, realistic, and yes, even romantic.