Imagine two rowboats, both adrift at sea. The first rowboat has no oars. They can see an island in the distance. Somebody calculates the distance to it, and the rate at which they're drifting, and concludes that they have only half the food and water they'll need for everybody to reach the island. The conclusion is obvious*: at least half of them have to be thrown overboard. And the sooner it happens, the fewer of them will have to die.
Now imagine the other rowboat. It has plenty of food and water, and it has oars, but it has a different problem: it's leaking, and fast. Somebody does the math, and they conclude that they can all make it to the island in the distance. But they can only make it if everybody who can row, rows, and if everybody else bails water as fast as they can, and if they cooperate in sharing the rowing, bailing, and resting cycles; if anybody is selfish, if anybody doesn't cooperate, nobody will make it.
Call the first rowboat "America." Call the second rowboat "the Netherlands."
That's the metaphor that came to my mind after spending a couple of days deciding how to explain Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex, by Amy Schalet (University of Chicago Press, 2011). Even though the book has nothing to do with rowboats, and only indirectly to do with the overall differences between Americans and the Dutch. What the book is really about is the regulation of teenage sex by their parents. You see, as someone who grew up in both the Netherlands and the US, baffled by the differences between the two, and who went on to do her Ph.D. research in the sociology of adolescent/parent relationships, Schalet has dedicated an entire book to trying to explain a major difference between two different cultures that were substantially identical as late as the late 1950s: democratic capitalist republics who won their independence from colonial imperial masters around the same era, dominated by conservative Protestants, who went through the same Great Depression and two World Wars, and the same sexual revolution when contraception and antibiotics were made widely available, and the same economic shock after the OPEC crisis. But in the years after that, huge social differences appear, and Schalet concentrates, as her academic speciality, on one of them.
It's a glaring difference, and it has to do with what American and Dutch parents and teens "know for a fact" about teenage sexual development and maturity during puberty. American parents and their teenagers both "know for a fact" that adolescent male sexuality is dominated by hormones that completely obliviate any capacity developed, up to that point, for sexual and emotional self-regulation. The parents also "know for a fact" that teenage boys are incapable of actually loving their partners; the sons all know that they have genuine romantic emotional feelings, but all feel freakishly abnormal and different from their peers because of this, because they "know" it's true of all the other teenage boys around them. All of them, parents and teen boys and teen girls alike, also "know for a fact" that there are two kinds of teenage girls: the "good girl" majority who desperately want someone to love them but who think that sex is icky and unpleasant, and the "slut" minority who want sex just as much as the teenage boys do, and who have no more self-control. As a result, parents and teens participate in a process of dramatization, intended to exaggerate the expected consequences of any teenage sex or romance, and that also relies on control and punishment by the parents in an attempt to prevent their teenagers from succumbing to those out-of-control hormones, punishment starting at loss of privileges and potentially (or at least threatened) to go as far as parental abandonment, as far as expulsion from the home and imposition of homelessness. Teenage girls are taught to fear rape, infection with STDs, and unwanted pregnancy by out-of-control boys; boys are taught to fear infection with STDs and the imposition of crushing child-support burdens that will drop them out of the middle class for all eternity, stranding them irretrievably among the poor. Despite this, at around age 15, teenage boys and girls assert their independence, and exercise the emotional and physical drives that will push them towards eventual independence from their parents, by "sneaking around," occasionally re-establishing emotional contact with their parents by "getting caught," until they are either married or "can put their own roof over their heads," because officially, those are the mnimum preconditions before any American can legally and morally be allowed to have officially sanctioned sex.
Dutch parents and teenagers, on the other hand, "know for a fact" that only an infinitessimally small number of teenagers, insultingly called "pubers," have out-of-control hormones that they have to grow out of; every parent and most kids have at least heard, second or third hand, of somebody who once knew somebody who knew somebody who might have been a puber once, but nobody interviewed could name one. They "know for a fact" that around age 13 or 14, boys and girls both start thinking about wanting romantic and family relationships of their own like the ones that their parents have. They "know for a fact" that by age 15 to 17, all but a few really abnormally immature children just normally and naturally find a partner they genuinely love, and with who they just naturally want to be cozily together with. They "know for a fact" that through consultation and proper education, parents and society have taught them that this is perfectly okay, as long as it's someone who's also willing to be cozily together with, comfortable with and acceptable to, the parents. They also "know for a fact" that any normal child, having been raised since early childhood to eroticize condoms, and any normal girl, having probably gone on hormonal birth control (for free) as soon as she started menstruating, isn't going to hurt anybody or disrupt the all-important family bond if they bring their romantic partner over to sleep with them a couple of nights a week. They "know for a fact" that children that young will make the occasional mistake, and get gently humiliated by their parents and peers for immaturity, for having shown that they weren't really ready or that they did a bad job of accomodating eveybody in the family's needs, and that they'll learn from that how to self-regulate their behavior in harmony with the cozy, comfortable family that they "know for a fact" everybody, including teenagers, wants. (Parents do, however, worry about their children forming relationships with people who "don't fit in with the family," by which they mean "poor people or immigrants." But they express confidence, for the most part, in their ability to steer their children towards someone more comfortable for the family. There's also a grating confidence that none of their children are "asocial" enough to be homosexual or polyamorous.) And, after all, since everybody in the Netherlands has free universal comprehensive health care, incuding birth control, STD treatment, and abortion, and nobody over the age of 16 needs so much as a parent's permission to use it, and since everybody gets a guaranteed stipend to pay for their own living expenses any time they want to move out, as long as they're still in school, everybody, parent and child alike, "knows for a fact" that the worst thing that can happen if somebody makes a mistake is temporary discomfort and embarrassment. The most important thing, then, is to make sure that nobody feels any need to be "sneaky" or "secretive" about any part of their life, because that might disrupt cozy togetherness.
I am, for the second time in two years**, convinced that I live in a country full of superstitious, primitive, blood-thirsty savages.
So, what's this got to do with rowboats?
In interviews about this book, Schalet got asked a lot about what her opinion was, what did her research show, about why we're so different? Why did we go in opposite directions after our sexual revolutions? That's not her speciality, although she does speculate about it, some. She points out that hierarchical domination and winner-take all are also normal paradigms for American businesses and in American politics, whereas Dutch politics and Dutch businesses are a lot more collaborative; on some level, the difference in parenting styles do a pretty good job of preparing American teenage boys to appear to submit to those above them while sneakily seeking to form their own dominance hierarchies in which they can earn the privilege of dominating others, a pretty good job of preparing Dutch boys to go along to get along, to make and expect concessions, as part of collaborative structures in the rest of their adult life. But it's a unsatisfying explanation; both cultures changed more that way in their politics and business around the same time as they changed in their attitudes towards adolescent sexuality and child-raising, so there's more likely a common cause.
She speculates, at one point in the book, that the defining difference is this: around the time of our respective sexual revolutions, the two countries experienced radically different disasters. The Americans experienced Vietnam, which set the young against the old and corporations and their defenders against poor conscripts, in a struggle for life and death, and normalized the language of intergenerational conflict. The Dutch, who mostly stayed out of Indochina, instead experienced a series of catastrophic nationwide floods, which taught every single person in the Netherlands that unless they all cooperate, unless they all give as much as they can, unless they all move out of their comfort zone a little, they'll all drown. Or, in my metaphor: two different lifeboats.
* The lifeboat that's out of food is an imperfect metaphor, but I knew it would be vivid for any of you who haven't studied extreme survival. It turns out that a lifeboat at sea, after about three days, accumulates a thriving ecosystem on the bottom of the boat, making it relatively easy to fish for turtles and other sea life for food, and their spinal fluid for water. Survive the first three days, and there's no reason to sacrifice anybody. How many Americans do you think would actually think of that? Or, not knowing that, be willing to risk it, in hopes that "something will come along" to make it possible for everybody to survive? I think maybe a few of us, but the rest of us have been conditioned to be quick to try human sacrifice, throwing some people overboard, as the first thing to try in any disaster.
** See Thomas Geoghan, Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?
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