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The teen sex sleepover: Why so squeamish, mom and dad?

Kim Martyn's daughters grew up talking about contraception, with books about the birds and bees spilled all over the house. When the girls were small, Ms. Martyn, a Toronto-based sex educator and author of All the Way: Sex for the First Time, told them stories about "how ducks reproduce." As they grew up, there were condoms in the treat jar in the kitchen – expired prophylactics the girls merrily crafted into water balloons.

The laissez-faire bubble burst the night Ms. Martyn's daughter, age 14, called to say she'd be sleeping over at a boyfriend's house; his parents had okayed it. The response was not what the teen had in mind, given her upbringing.

"I said, 'Not okay with us,'" says Ms. Martyn, recalling her maternal meltdown: "I'm going to drive down there and I will sit outside the house on my horn until you come out." The sleepover is a head-scratcher for even the most liberal parents: While many clamour for comprehensive adolescent sex ed, consenting to have the deed go down in their homes is another story.

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"A lot of parents feel like it condones something that they sort of wish wasn't happening," says Ms. Martyn, who eventually let her daughters sleep over with boyfriends once they were 17 and 18, but not without angst.

While the sex educator was well aware that her daughters would eventually engage in intercourse, one part of her wished they'd waited till they were 25: "It's a difficulty we have letting our children grow up."

The treacherous terrain of the teen sleepover is revealed in the forthcoming book, Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and the Culture of Sex. Here, researcher Amy Schalet interviewed 130 Dutch and American parents and teenagers aged 15 through 17 on a wide variety of topics, including the sleepover question, and found a deep cultural rift.

While nine out of 10 Dutch parents had allowed or would consider sleepovers once the child was 16 or 17, nine out of 10 American parents were adamant: "not under my roof."

The researcher argues that as Americans "dramatize" teen sexuality into an opera of raging hormones and dueling sexes – boys who want to "get laid" and emotionally vulnerable girls – their kids are forced to sneak around. Dutch parents, meanwhile, have "normalized" the issue: They accept that their kids are having sex and might actually be doing it in loving relationships.

Ms. Schalet contends that this kind of permissiveness rewards Dutch parents with less deception, stronger familial bonds and fewer one-night stands for the teens. She also claims the polarity in Dutch and American attitudes is writ large in teen sex statistics: Dutch teenagers are far less likely to become pregnant or contract an STD, and far more likely to use contraception than their American counterparts.

In Canada, parents seem more perturbed than the Dutch but less rigid than Americans in enforcing the rules.

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Brenda, a former child welfare worker and mother of three in Calgary, says that the sleepover question remains "cloudy." "We made it clear that we weren't cool with it, with them having sex in their bedroom while we're at home," says Brenda, who asked that her full name not be used to spare her kids the embarrassment.

Her older son "pushed the envelope" at age 19 when he came back from college in the summer and snuck a girl over, twice.

"It wasn't so much that he was sleeping with her, it was the fact that they had no relationship. They were having a thing with strings. We've always got the excuse, we've got younger kids in the house and we don't want to show that casual sex is okay around here."

At the same time, she let a younger son, age 18, and a long-term girlfriend spend "lots and lots" of time at the house unsupervised, "but we never said it was okay to sleep together."

"It's not straightforward," Brenda allows. "You're trying to convey that you trust them and allow them to grow up and make mistakes, and at the same time you're parenting them."

Tracey Comeau, a Charlottetown mother, doesn't let her 20-year-old daughter have sleepovers with her boyfriend at the house, but sex isn't the issue.

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"While our daughter lives with us and does not pay rent, the boyfriend sleeps in another area," says Ms. Comeau.

"Our reasoning is simple: If you can have your own bedroom, bathroom, parties, food in the fridge and cupboard, and the boyfriend sleeping over, what incentive is left to get out on your own?"

Ms. Comeau's logic echoes that of the Americans Ms. Schalet surveyed: "Beyond causing emotional discomfort, permitting a sleepover under their roof would violate a deeply held belief that children must first prove themselves independent and fully separate from their parents, before parents sanction their sexual relationships."

Still, there are cracks in Ms. Comeau's rules: she routinely left notes that announced when she'd be home from work, this to avoid any awkward afternoon run-ins with her daughter, who is also allowed to sleep at her boyfriend's rental apartment.

Ms. Martyn says the sleepover question hinges on many issues: family dynamics (the presence of younger siblings; what both teens' parents – biological and stepparents – permit), the maturity of the teen in question, "whether you like or know" their sleepover buddy, not to mention the court of public opinion.

"[Parents are]worried about what other people will think, what other relatives, friends, neighbours and so forth will think if they allow that."

"It may be parents' squeamishness more than anything else," says Lyba Spring, a sexual health educator with Toronto Public Health, who maintains teens are more likely to use protection when an encounter is planned and they aren't sneaking around.

"The point isn't to convince parents that [the sleepover]is okay," says Laura Wershler, or former executive director of Sexual Health Access Alberta, which in 2009 distributed 250,000 parent brochures promoting Ms. Schalet's brand of normalizing teen sexuality.

"The point is to get parents to think about what messages you're sending when you categorically say, 'Absolutely not, that's just not right, that's just ridiculous.'"

And although it may seem naive to some, Ms. Martyn offers this small consolation: "Sometimes youth sleep together or sleep in the same house and they don't have sex."

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