Monday, October 31, 2011

Berkeley Sociology of Gender Reviews Not Under My Roof by Amy Schalet

Amy Schalet’s new book, Not Under My Roof: Parent, Teens and the Culture of Sex, compares cultural attitudes toward adolescent sexuality across the U.S. and the Netherlands. Schalet begins her story with a puzzle: both countries experienced a sexual revolution in the 1960s that led to important changes in societal beliefs about sexuality. In the Netherlands, these changes resulted in a widespread normalization of adolescent sexuality, leading to greater openness in the sexual education curriculum and greater parental acceptance of teenagers’ sexual relationships. However, in the U.S., Schalet shows that adolescent sexuality has become dramatized, with parents and teachers viewing it as a site of danger, antagonism and conflict. In place of the Dutch discourses of young love, personal responsibility, and trust in children’s judgment, American ways of speaking about teenage sex emphasize hormonal upheavals, lust, and lack of control.

Schalet explains these differences by way of two distinct types of individualism: adversarial individualism, which characterizes the U.S., and interdependent individualism, which characterizes the Netherlands. Provocatively, she notes that these two strains of individualism pose distinct gender problems: under adversarial individualism, gender conflicts become exacerbated, while under interdependent individualism, gender conflicts are obscured, leaving girls with limited cultural resources to navigate their own experiences of vulnerability. Nevertheless, while Schalet cautions that the Dutch system is not without its drawbacks, she concludes that American sex education and health care are not adequately supporting and protecting teenagers, and the Dutch case offers an important contrast for imagining how different teenage sexuality could be.

Drawing on rich interview data she conducted throughout the 1990s and 2000, Schalet’s work highlights the areas of clearest distinction between the two countries as well as moments of contradiction within countries (and even within parents’ accounts of their own beliefs and practices). Not Under My Roof moves between micro- and macro-levels of investigation to understand both the history and the present-day reproduction of each country’s discourses about adolescent sexuality. Some chapters focus on within-family values and negotiations over adolescent sexuality, as in the case of parents’ rationalizations for whether or not they will allow children’s boyfriends and girlfriends to sleep over. In other chapters, Schalet widens her gaze to look at historical trajectories leading to these divergent views and values, as well as contemporary policies and cultural norms that shape parents’ and children’s understandings.

Sociologists looking to use Schalet’s work to inform their own scholarship will find that she has opened a series of fruitful conceptual questions regarding culture and politics: How do cultural attitudes surrounding individualism shape how power unfolds at both micro- and macro-levels? Under what contexts are these attitudes liable to shift? As she suggests, her framework should prove useful in exploring other examples of social regulation – punishment and deviance, for example – and their variation across different historical periods and cultural contexts. Future research may extend Schalet’s approach by focusing on how different strains of individualism conceal, exacerbate or mediate gender, race and other lines of difference in regulatory contexts beyond teenage sexuality.

For scholars looking to use this book in the classroom, Schalet’s writing style is clear and engaging, and she has written this book with both academics and the wider public in mind. This book is particularly ideal for encouraging introductory students to “think difference differently,” as gender scholars are apt to say. One of the central—and most challenging—aims of introductory classes is to help students begin to critically examine their taken-for-granted expectations about society and to realize that “it could be otherwise.” Schalet’s book is well situated for this task: it takes on a topic, adolescent sexuality, that will be personally familiar to most undergraduates, and it illustrates the profoundly different discourses that have arisen around it in the Netherlands and the U.S.

- Kate Mason, Jennifer Carlson and Jessica Cobb, UC Berkeley

Purchase this book at University of Chicago Press.

Follow Amy Schalet and her book on her website,