Teens, Sex, And The Suitcase Rule

When I was 17, I brought my first serious girlfriend to spend the weekend at my grandmother’s ranch in the country. Before we left, my mother took me aside to remind me of her mother’s rule: our luggage would be placed in separate rooms. “Nocturnal traffic,” as she put it, between my room and my girlfriend’s would be ignored, provided that we were quiet. The message was clear: Pre-marital teen sex was acceptable, but those who were having it needed to be discreet.

The family diktat is a famous one; we call it the “suitcase rule” and it remains in place today. It is egalitarian in application: My female cousins who brought male beau for overnight visits got the same instruction. The rule doesn’t change based on the age of the people involved; some 20 years later, when I brought the woman who is now my wife for her first visit, our bags were placed in different rooms. As it was explained to me at the time, the rule reflects my extended family’s core belief that marriage merits public recognition; separating the suitcases of the not-yet wed highlights the unique privileges of wedlock.   

On the other hand, the rule displays some considerable realism about sexuality. My late grandmother, a supporter of Planned Parenthood since its earlier incarnation as the Birth Control League, was utterly unsentimental about pre-marital chastity. She assumed that her children and grandchildren would want to have sex before marriage; she wanted to make sure we waited until we were emotionally and physically prepared. As far as she was concerned, her high-school age grandchildren might well be ready for sex, and she wanted them to have it safely and responsibly. But she (and the rest of the family) drew a clear distinction between tacit approval and public sanction. The suitcase rule balances the competing claims of pleasure and propriety.

I thought often of the suitcase rule as I read Amy Schalet’s wonderful Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and the Culture of Sex. Schalet, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, conducted a fascinating study comparing Dutch and American views on adolescent sexuality. In particular, Schalet examined the disparity between how parents in the United States and the Netherlands approach the issue of teens having sleepovers with their boyfriends or girlfriends. She found, not surprisingly, that Dutch families were much more accepting of the practice. What is revelatory about Schalet’s study is what lies at the root of this disparity: two radically different approaches for helping teens reach maturity.

American parents, Schalet claims, use a strategy of “connection through control.” By imposing rules (curfews, blanket prohibitions on pre-marital sex), parents seek to demonstrate love and to maintain a vigilant presence in their children’s lives. Parents in the United States pursue connection through control even when they know it won’t work; the American adults Schalet interviewed were often pessimistic about their own ability to regulate their adolescent children’s behavior. Contemporary parents often assume that their kids will have sex anyway; they describe their own efforts as “swimming against the tide.” But because American parents tend to see teenagers as fundamentally irresponsible, they often believe that they have no choice but to continue to do whatever they can to regulate their teens’ private lives, even if they doubt the efficacy of the strategy.

In the Netherlands, according to Schalet, parents also want to protect their teens. But their technique is the reverse: “control through connection.” Like American adults, Dutch mothers and fathers believe adolescent sexual experimentation is inevitable. But rather than grimly soldiering on in the effort to repress teen exploration like their American counterparts, many Dutch parents seek to integrate teen sexual discovery into family life. Teens are expected to bring their boyfriends and girlfriends home to meet the relatives and to participate in family activities. Sons and daughters are encouraged to integrate their romantic lives into communal domestic routines. In due course, typical Dutch families will permit their teenage children to invite boyfriends or girlfriends to spend the night. Unlike in my family, the luggage and the bodies all sleep in the same bedroom. Sexual discovery is private, but it’s also sanctioned. The end result is, Dutch parents hope, a safer and happier experience for their children.

Schalet cautions against over-idealizing the Dutch example. Parents in the Netherlands also want to control their teenage children; they’ve just settled on a different strategy for achieving that goal. At the same time, the hard data makes clear just how much more effective the Dutch strategy has been. Sexually active teens in the Netherlands are, as Schalet shows, much more likely to use contraception than their American counterparts. Rates of teenage pregnancy and abortion are also substantially lower. With the sudden re-emergence of birth control and sexual mores as campaign issues in the 2012 election cycle, Not Under My Roof serves as an indispensable reminder that proscriptions of carnal behavior invariably end in failure.

I read Schalet’s book as a long-time youth leader, as a gender studies professor, and also as a father. As a dad to a preschool-age daughter, I know she’s less than a decade from adolescence. I know I’ll someday have the look I’ve seen so often in the eyes of the parents of the teens I’ve worked with—the look of bewilderment that says “this is all happening too soon, I’m not ready!” When a perhaps 16 or 17 year-old Heloise asks to have a romantic partner spend the night, I’ll embrace, however awkwardly, the Dutch model. The timing will depend on her level of maturity, but there’s no doubt in my mind about the greater efficacy of the “control through connection” approach. 

Knowing my extended family, I’m quite confident that when my daughter asks to bring a beau to the ranch, he will be welcomed. (As will a “she,” if Heloise falls in love with a girl.) But though the sweethearts may sleep in one bed, their bags will spend the night in chaste separation, each in its own room. The suitcase rule—with its decorously equal nods to both tradition and tolerance—is destined to survive.

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.

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