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The Case For Permitting Teen Sex at Home

Recently, my son and my husband were looking at a photo of our family before our youngest was born. "She was still in mommy's belly," my husband said.

"But how did she get out," my son asked. "And, how did she get in?"

My husband, a 56-year old Irish man, avoided the question, not quite ready to talk about sex with a 4-year-old.

But here in the Netherlands, it's really not too soon to start. The Dutch approach to sex education is quite holistic and begins as young as 4. It deals not only with biology, and disease and pregnancy prevention, but with self-responsibility, with knowing and accepting your body, asserting boundaries, understanding sexual diversity and gender differences, forming relationships, expressing connectedness—and even pleasure.

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Rutgers WPF is a Dutch organization that develops sex and relationship curricula for primary and secondary schools across the country, beginning with preschool. According to Ineke van der Vlugt, program coordinator for Rutgers WPF, the goal is for children to develop a vocabulary for talking about sex as they would any other part of their life.

Van der Vlugt says they don't only teach children how to say no, they also teach them how to say yes. "We have positive discussions about sex," she says. "How to say when you want a kiss, a caress. To understand what you are feeling and to know how to communicate it."

In contrast, last week Irish people took to Twitter to share their sex ed memories. Among the gems:

"We had a single sex ed class run by a nun who showed a video of another nun in a studio from the '70s saying never have sex."

And today in the U.S., according to the Guttmacher Institute, close to 90 percent of high schools teach abstinence as the most effective method of preventing pregnancy, HIV and other STDs.

I've always felt that educating children about sex by telling them to avoid it is just, well, avoidance. Like protecting them from car accidents by not teaching them to drive. I'm definitely more in favor of the Dutch approach.

I support the logic behind it. But I'm not sure I could handle a co-ed sleepover.

And, so far, I've been pretty direct with my children when they have questions. Whereas my husband is likely to use innocuous terms such as "bits" with them, I'm more direct: a penis is a penis, a vagina is just that.

As children grow and develop here, sex ed expands to include conversations about masturbation, sexting and online dating. As they become teenagers, the conversation turns more toward the act of sex and practicalities such as birth control, but also about homosexuality and transgender persons.

Current. Progressive. I like it.

The desired result is that children grow to see sex as an extension of a relationship, one they take responsibility for and one they feel in control of. All good stuff.

Parents in the Netherlands, generally speaking, also strive for an open dialog about sex with their children, and—wait for it—it is fairly common for parents to permit their older teenage children to spend the night with their boyfriend or girlfriend in their home, as long as it's a serious relationship.

Whoa, Nelly.

I understand completely—and have myself made in my lifetime—the argument that if a teenager in a long-term relationship wants to have protected sex with their partner, it is safer to do so in the home environment than, say, in a car somewhere.

But here's the thing: every position you've ever taken—every rational, logical argument you've ever made and firmly believed—is up for reevaluation once you are a parent.

I support the logic behind it. But I'm not sure I could handle a co-ed sleepover.

So while I go on patting myself on the back for saying things like penis without cringing, I'm aware that there are bigger challenges and greater conflicts ahead.

Amy Schalet, associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is an American who grew up in the Netherlands. In her book, "Not Under My Roof," she describes three cultural frames that give the practice of the sleepover "cognitive, emotional and moral sense."

The first is normal sexuality. Talking about sex should inspire no more turmoil than "as to talk about what and when to eat." Second, the idea of relationship-based sexuality, the notion that "sexual desire and sexual acts grow out of a teenager's feelings for, and relationship with, another person." And finally, self-regulated sexuality, when "emotional and physical desires are united" and protective measures are taken.

This thinking gives a lot more credence to teenagers' capacity to genuinely love and want to express that feeling physically and to understand how to do so safely.

In contrast, American parents, according to Schalet, often talk about "raging hormones," which chalks teen sexual feelings up to underdeveloped, misinformed, reckless urges that should not be pursued.

Dutch parents aren't always completely comfortable with it either, writes Schalet, but "they feel obliged to accept the changes and to stay connected as relationships and sex become part of their children's lives."

Although I want to be the parent who can do just that, and I don't want my discomfort to interfere with or denigrate their natural development, I'm pretty sure I won't be able to make the leap to the sleepover.

So while I go on patting myself on the back for saying things like penis without cringing, I'm aware that there are bigger challenges and greater conflicts ahead. Nonetheless, I'm happy my children will be educated here.

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Statistically, the Dutch are doing something right: the teen pregnancy rate in the U.S. is almost six times that of the Netherlands. The U.S. rate is the highest rate in the developed world. American teenage girls are three times as likely to have an abortion and 8 times as likely to give birth, as their Dutch counterparts.

That's hard to dismiss.

Photo by Rhys Asplundh

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