The dreaded sleepover question
In a world with flexible gender and sexual identities, what’s a parent to do?
I’ve been asked about sleepovers through two channels in the last few days, so it seemed the right time to finally write a post about it. This question comes up all the time – first in the wake of the sudden awareness in the US that in other countries parents actually allow their teenagers to have sleepovers with boyfriends and girlfriends (see Dr. Amy Schalet’s 2011 book Not Under My Roof, her NYTimes piece on the topic, and the millions of blog posts/articles/insanity that followed) – and as more and more youth come out to their parents as gay, queer, bisexual, trans, etc.
“WHAT DO WE DO??” is the stressed-out question from so many parents, and I wish I had an easy answer.
This question really speaks to a feeling of unsettlement that comes with relinquishing clearly defined gender norms and the associated assumptions about sexuality that parents have been so accustomed to falling back on throughout their adolescents and even now in their adult lives.
Our cultural assumption is that girls and boys have sleepovers in single-sex groups. With children this is because children are primarily friends with kids of the same sex, and so is driven by the children themselves. As children grow into teenagers there is another cultural assumption that they will continue to be friends with same-sex peers and date opposite-sex peers, thus making the sleepover decision easy.
Young people, however, are re-making the meaning of so many of the words in that last, italicized sentence as to make it sound old fashioned, to say the least. The line between friendship and girlfriend/boyfriend/boifriend/partner is getting thinner. Opposite-sex becomes a misleading term, at best, when you’ve acknowledged the wider range of gender identities. Many teenagers spend at least a short amount of time pondering their attraction to others across a range of gender identities rather than assuming from the start that they are heterosexual.
So what’s a parent to do in a world that, from the outside, appears to have gone crazy?
The goal of single-sex sleepovers among teenagers was generally to provide a sense of safety to parents of both young people that the teenagers wouldn’t be having sex. That sense of sexual safety is no longer there regardless of the sex or gender of the young people – but it wasn’t really there before either. Ask many adult gay men and lesbians whether they had sex with their same-sex friends as teenagers. While not all of them took advantage of this, enough did to make a notable sample!
So now, parents, you are aware that your teenager could, in theory, be sexually attracted to someone they’re asking for a sleepover with. Or that person could be attracted to your teenager. The answers are no longer cut and dry.
It is time to face that musical ambiguity and embrace it. Talk with your teenager about their gender identity, their sexual orientation, and that of their friends. Ask them who they’re interested in romantically and how that’s different from being interested in friendship with someone. Acknowledge that these are not one-time questions because the answers are likely to be evolving. Understand that your teenager is likely to have sex – that most people have sex – and that having sex for the first time in the context of a sleepover in your parents’ home is generally better than first time sex in a car.
I could go on and on about the things you should talk with your teenager about. But they all come down to this: What are your fears? STIs? Pregnancy? Heartbreak? Being sexual in ways they aren’t ready for? Assault? Pin them down, those fears, and then address them specifically with your teenager.
You can also talk about the benefits of sleepovers with your teenager. What’s fun about them? How can you help them achieve that goal of fun? (The answer might be to stay out of the way and have fun on your own. This is not an insult.)
Both of you will be better off for the conversation.