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Review: Amy Schalet, Not Under My Roof

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?

Posted via LiveJournal app for Android.



( 30 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 3rd, 2012 05:11 pm (UTC)
Further proof that I'm weird - my first thought on the rowboats was 'that's stupid, if you don't have oars just take turns swimming and pushing the boat'.
Jan. 3rd, 2012 06:11 pm (UTC)
I'm watching Star Trek: The Original Series on Netflix lately, and one of the earliest episodes is "The Conscience of the King:" an actor in a traveling Shakespeare troupe is suspected of being the notorious criminal Kodos the Executioner. What was Kodos's crime, for which he's still being hunted 18 years later? The colony he was on had a sudden disaster that left them with only half the food they would need until their next food shipment, so he assumed control of the colony by force and executed the least-worthy half of the population, over 4,000 people. He is quite peeved that nobody think this was a good idea, since he had no way of knowing that, only a couple of days later, an unscheduled food shipment would arrive in time to save everybody.

Of course, this episode was aired back in 1966. Back in 1966, leaving the least worthy of us to die in order to save the rest of us would have been looked down upon.
(no subject) - bradhicks - Jan. 3rd, 2012 06:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - skull_bearer - Jan. 3rd, 2012 08:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - simulated_knave - Jan. 7th, 2012 02:46 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - skull_bearer - Jan. 7th, 2012 01:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - simulated_knave - Jan. 11th, 2012 04:16 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - pope_guilty - Jan. 7th, 2012 11:36 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - skull_bearer - Jan. 7th, 2012 01:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
- pope_guilty - Jan. 7th, 2012 02:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: - nancylebov - Jan. 9th, 2012 05:24 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 3rd, 2012 06:20 pm (UTC)
I liked this read. Though each description is a generalisation, the one regarding the USA does seem in line with a lot of first-hand accounts I read. I don't know the same about the Dutch, having only a few contacts there, though the idea of "social" being an alternate word for "normal" is a particularly worrying thought.

I would say for all our close physical location to Europe, the culture of the UK is very largely (as far as public perceptions go) on the American side of things. The only major exception really being the kicking out of home issue, probably as a result of our affordable housing shortage which is perpetually in the public eye. To kick a child with child out on the streets here is doing exactly that; making them homeless, not pushing them to stand on their own.
Maybe it's just the people I hang around with though, but I still have hope and suspect the actual actions and accepted behaviour differs radically from what people admit. People here may talk like they're following that American model, but out of the public eye they're a lot more accepting. Mob dynamics at work.
Jan. 3rd, 2012 07:20 pm (UTC)
In (most of) the US, we're actually having the same sort of problem with housing and entry-level job shortages... but it's still new enough (less than a decade) so that "moving back in with your parents" is still generally looked down upon - even though nearly every person I know under 24 lives with their parents. Nearly every parent-of-twenty-somethings I know is trying to figure out how to get their kids to move out, without pushing them out onto the streets.
(no subject) - ff00ff - Jan. 3rd, 2012 08:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bradhicks - Jan. 4th, 2012 12:38 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sci - Jan. 4th, 2012 01:56 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 3rd, 2012 06:24 pm (UTC)
The summary you've given makes it sound like a lot of our modern society is messed up because our sexual politics is very much messed up thanks to things "everyone knows". And, possibly, the toxic mess that results by combining the myth s above about sexuality and the myth of rugged individualism and bootstraps.
Jan. 3rd, 2012 08:07 pm (UTC)
Proper Families vs Incremental Hedonism
It's easy for me to see that the concept of a 'proper family' is what's guiding parents. Speaking as an American with three teens living at home, my answer has been to stress abstinence before adulthood. I do not see any benefit whatsoever in allowing people who are not consenting adults to act as if they were. In other words, I use the term 'statutory rape'. In the same way, I don't particularly expect that the experience of a babysitting job adequately prepares anyone for being in the workforce. In short, my attitude about teen sex is that more people are talking about it than are actually doing it, and those who are doing it are doing it all wrong. The idea that taking all of the risk out of the consequences that might lead to a shotgun wedding or herpes via a safety net sounds Orwellian to me. I like the idea that sex is complicated and dirty - that getting naked is not easy and casual.

I expect at long last that the results of the sexual revolution in the West will turn out to show a skew in our societies as much as the One Child policy in China. It is inconceivable to me that the historical norm has been so out of touch with reality and that the benefits of feminism are simple but have been overweighted. In short, I don't believe in social liberation through sexual freedom, but rather through the evolution of property rights. Women and children are not property and freeing them from those traditional constraints were necessary and sufficient to greater liberty - however to assert the additional demands of radical feminism (ie to properly have men 'deal with their female side', or question the roles of men & women in family life) was a gross error with significant detrimental consequences for the concept of family. And I think it is becoming more clear that having women think of sex outside of marriage as a liberating thing has worked primarily to the advantage of polygamous men.

So the very idea that this is a lifeboat kind of situation begs the question of the centrality of sexuality in our humanity and exactly what sort of benefits we have gained by focusing on upending our attitudes and trying new practices. It is my opinion that focus on sexuality tends to be dysfunctionally individualistic, and so it is not surprising that it brings into question those sacrifices necessary for family stability. Why is teen sex so important? I think it has to do with the improper way many Westerners conceive of freedom.

Jan. 4th, 2012 12:11 am (UTC)
Re: Proper Families vs Incremental Hedonism
The "proper families" model you describe assumes that teens will start dating at 16 but will abstain from sex until at least a couple of years after they graduate from college, a gap of nearly ten years. How's that working out for you?

Don't bother to answer that, the answer is in the book: American and Dutch teens have sex at equally early ages. The Dutch kids average fewer sexual partners, far fewer pregnancies, almost no sexually transmitted diseases; they also drink approximately equal amounts of alcohol, and the Dutch kids use marijuana and other drugs at a fraction of the rate Americans' kids do, smoke far, far less tobacco, and stay in school longer.

Americans have spent the 40 years since the sexual revolution trying to stop kids from having sex, from smoking, from drinking, and from doing drugs until they have a house or apartment of their own. All they really achieve is guaranteeing that the kids do it by sneaking around, and without even minimal health care or other preparation.
Re: Proper Families vs Incremental Hedonism - naath - Jan. 4th, 2012 03:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 3rd, 2012 10:13 pm (UTC)
The paragraph on how our (America's) approach to teen sex affects men made me wonder how it affects women. Did Schalet only speculate on how it affects men? If so, what the hell?

(Also, the "everyone knows" bits for America are extremely gender-essentialist, which the Dutch ones are not; way to make me hate you, America.)
Jan. 4th, 2012 12:06 am (UTC)
There's stuff all through the book about it. (The basic structure of each chapter: a chunk of sociology jargon, an explanation of the sociology jargon, two anecdotes about American parents, two anecdotes about Norwegian parents, one anecdote each about an American and a Norwegian teen boy and a girl, summary that shows the commonalities by using the sociology jargon.)

One thing that really, really stuck with me was that there is a long, and very good, section in there about the differences in "slut shaming" between the Netherlands and the USA. Dutch girls never brought the subject up on their own, and when asked about it said that the only way to be labeled a slut was to be having a romantic relationship with more than one new person every two weeks or more than one at once; American girls brought up the subject immediately, and said that any girl who was known or suspected to have had sex before she moved out of her parents' house was widely labeled a slut and her life was basically permanently ruined.

In the bit about how the different models maybe prepare people for the two different economic and political cultures, she does say outright that while the Dutch model is in theory compatible with teaching Dutch children of both genders how to get along in society, in practice, it isn't either: there are tremendous pressures on women to stay out of the workforce or only work part time, they're supposed to use their compromise and negotiation skills, and their learned cultural preference for cozy togetherness, to control their kids, not in public. And the American model is just flat bizarre unless you assume that only sluts work outside the home, which just isn't even vaguely true.

Nevertheless, you're not wrong; all the way through the book, it does paint the American version as far more gender essentialist, in that Americans' concept of how sexuality works treats it as primarily a problem of containing and controlling nearly-unstoppable male sexual appetite for novelty, and protecting basically sexless girls from being tricked or bullied into getting labeled as sluts for falling victim to it.
(no subject) - tzaddi_93 - Jan. 5th, 2012 06:13 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 4th, 2012 02:59 am (UTC)
A country full of superstitious, primitive, blood-thirsty savages

Schalet was on the Thinking Allowed podcast recently. Interesting to get the British perspective, which is closer to the Dutch than to ours.
Jan. 4th, 2012 05:39 pm (UTC)

I am Dutch.

If you want to understand the Netherlands a bit better, a very important fact is that is very densely populated, about equally dense to the state of New Jersey. This, I think, pretty much forces people to be social. This is also why New York City reminds me of home in a good way.

As Brad mentions, 'gewoon' and 'gezellig' are very core concepts to the Dutch, and they can't be directly translated into English.

To explain 'gewoon' a bit better, a well-known Dutch saying is 'doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg': there's a strong social pressure to act normal because there's simply not enough room in the country for you to be an asocial loner, to the point that 'social' and 'normal' are two possible meanings of that one word.

The best translation I can come up with for 'gezellig' is 'having a good time', but with the caveat that it's always with other people. It can be having tea with grandma, but also hanging out with friends at that new hip restaurant.

Brad and anybody else, if you'd like to know more about Dutch culture (and lack thereof), I can heartily recommends The Undutchables. It picks apart the peculiarities of the Dutch culture in a very humorous way.

Jan. 5th, 2012 06:16 am (UTC)
That makes a lot of sense, especially when you contrast it with the varying population density of the US. If you are uncomfortable with a highly dense population in this country, there are all sorts of places you can go where there are fewer people.
Jan. 7th, 2012 04:57 am (UTC)
Have you read...?
Brad -- Have you read The Culture Code by Clotaire Rapaille? It's about what makes different cultures different -- what the individual attitudes are that make a culture (and how to manipulate it for advertising or campaigning). I think you would get a lot out of it.
Jan. 8th, 2012 08:17 pm (UTC)
Review: Amy Schalet, Not Under My Roof
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