School's Out: The (Queer) Sleepover Dilemma

For a lot of people, the idea of a sleepover conjures an image of wholesome youthful fun. In a culture that assumes that close friendships are usually same-sex, these occasions represent something platonic. At the same time, from an early age, a disproportionate degree of social anxiety and moral panic manifests around the bedroom, the nighttime, and the ambiguous meanings of the verb “to sleep.” Why so much parental concern over making sure that, as their kids grow older, they aren’t sharing any of these activities with others of the “opposite” sex (as though there is an opposite to a person’s experience of self!)? What about the queer kids?

Not to harp on Maclean’s, but it featured an interesting article earlier this year titled “The Sleepover Dilemma,” which asked the question “should you let your teen have sex at home?” and threw me straight into one of my usual analytical overdrives. (By the way, this also seems to me a super ethnocentric question, ignoring plenty of families in North America for whom cultural or religious norms mean that kids don’t just grow up and move away from the family or that sex and family are conceived way differently.)

In response, the article offers a number of examples that have to do with the dangers to which American parents expose their children by dramatizing teen sex. Male/female double standards of promiscuity, girls’ (in)ability to set boundaries with boys, and the high incidence of unwanted pregnancy and disease are among the topics covered. Youth sexuality is once again conceptualized only in the narrow terms of reputation, disease and pregnancy among hetero-normalized couples. There isn’t one mention of GLBTQ youth. So where are the queer kids? Are they such a “special interest group” that they can’t be talked about in the same breath as all the other teens? Are they rendered invisible under the guise of friendship?

The present moment is one in a (painfully gradual) transition from a cultural insistence that queers must “come out”—usually as adults after a period of university-aged experimentation—to a time when queerness is not so shocking that it requires a public announcement or a series of “failed” heterosexual encounters to validate it. At the forefront of this objection to loudly proclaiming oneself as the sexual “other” are younger kids and teens. Why, then, can articles like the one in a national magazine continue to assume that same-sex or -gender sleepovers are free from the threats to sexual safety and social respectability supposedly posed by different-sex or -gender sleepovers?

This kind of public discussion needs other voices talking back to conventional assumptions, even when they’re formulated in such a way that they appear progressive—or permissive (i.e., That parents should allow their kid’s partner to sleep over because they’d “rather know where [their kids] were and that [they] were safe.”) Merely acknowledging the sexual autonomy of youth does little to recognize the many questions they face, only two of which are whether and where to be sexually active.

So what are people are really afraid of when it comes to young people having sex, and what are the stigma that just don’t seem to apply when that sex is between two girls, two boys, or between people who don’t see themselves as a part of these categories?

Katy Perry gets hit with feather pillows in a pillow fight scene from her video for "I Kissed a Girl"Does the impossibility of pregnancy with same sex sexuality assuage the protective impulse at all? What about with lesbian sexuality? Not only are women not culturally construed as sexually predatory, they’re also accepted as somehow “naturally” more prone to expressing affection with each other in a way that fluidly slides between the friendly and the sexual (thank you, Katy Perry for confirming “ain’t no big deal/it’s innocent” *eye roll*). And they’re imagined to be freer from the burdens of sexually transmitted disease, specifically HIV/AIDS. (As a doctor once misinformed my partner at an annual physical: “There’s less risk of disease involved with female/female genital contact—so we don’t need to do all those usual tests.”)

Of course the latter perception is often reversed when it comes to gay male intercourse, raising, for some parents, the spectre of bringing a highly stigmatized disease into the home. And in all cases, a general climate of homophobia may pose even greater problems in the parental imagination than the issues of social propriety surrounding boy/girl relations.

Have any readers had experiences with the sleepover dilemma? Can remaining silent about same-sex desire be a way for queer teens to actually use heteronormativity to sidestep sexual regulation? Is there an ethical obligation in some circumstances to not strategically pose as straight? Is mainstream culture getting any less hypocritical about the youth behavior it will panic about in the news but exploit for ratings in popular media?

Previously: Teaching Homosexuality?, Tonight, on a Very Special Episode…

by Sharday Mosurinjohn
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12 Comments Have Been Posted

This really made me think

This really made me think about my teens. I come from a very conservative family and was not allowed to have boyfriends (or really talk to males other than relatives). I was however always allowed to have sleepovers with other girls. Thing is, I've known for the longest time that I'm a lesbian. So I often stayed over a my 'best friends' house. My family knew her and knew we were very close. They accepted and even encouraged our close friendship. I even remember my father saying she was my wife and that we bickered like an old married couple. Going by their reaction when I finally came out to them as an adult (only after moving far away and being financially independant), they would have been horrified to know what sort of things went on at my girly 'sleepovers' (not much sleeping hehehe...). Though it was mostly with friends, I also got myself in to some rather dangerous situations by sleeping over at a'friends' (read stranger, but it's a girl so it's OK from my family's point of view) house. Afterwards, I couldn't even tell my family. I think teens are very creative and will have sex regardless of parental input/ prevention measures. It's dangerous to overlook LGBTQ teens when it comes to considering potential dangers. I learned the hard way that girls can be every bit as predatory and foreceful as boys. Suggesting that bad things only happen when there is a mixing of genders and/or sexes leaves many youngsters vunerable. I've managed to forget the point I was going to make...I think it's time to go to sleep.

Oh, I used "heteronormativity

Oh, I used "heteronormativity to sidestep sexual regulation" like crazy, though I was years away from understanding that language or theoretical framework. My slumber parties and Girl Scout sleepovers were filled with some pretty steamy rounds of Truth or Dare, uninterrupted by parents who left us unsupervised because we were all girls. I think it was healthy exploration, but there was an implicit understanding that what we were doing was NOT to be mentioned outside the context of these gatherings, neither among our parents, our friends, or even ourselves. I think I would have benefited from being able to process these explorations with someone outside the context of heteronormative sexuality; instead, the only sex ed I'd received was the basic week of birds and bees curriculum taught in the public schools that focused on sex only long enough to explain the origins of pregnancy. I had no one in my life or culture modeling or validating queer sexuality, which made my desires seem even more taboo because even the girls I was fooling around with would never acknowledge our activities by the light of day. This contributed to a pattern of secrecy and self-shaming that inhibited my sexuality as a teenager and young adult, which I have only recently worked through while coming out in my early thirties.

Schalet's research plus my experience

So I just finished reading Schalet's book, Not Under My Roof, which the Maclean's article is drawing on. In the book she's very clear that her exploration of "parents, teens, and the culture of sex" is limited to white, middle-class families in the U.S. and the Netherlands. And while she asked her questions in a gender-neutral fashion (meaning partners were not presumed to be of the opposite sex), most parents and teens appear to have responded by talking about other-sex partners, not same-sex relationships. So some of those omissions, in the research, are because of the sample set, not the researcher's assuming it wouldn't be there!

I identify as fluid, currently in a lesbian relationship. The issue of a sleepover never came up for me growing up 'cause I didn't find anyone I wanted to be intimately involved with until I was in my late twenties (this was not about me being intentionally abstinent -- it just didn't happen). I had friends stay over, of both sexes, when I lived under my parents' roof. The close girlfriends sometimes shared my bed, sometimes not. My parents were actually more like the Dutch parents in Schalet's book than the American parents. We were always encouraged to integrate our emerging adult selves with family life, and both my siblings brought their partners home with them. To my knowledge, by brother never had a sleep over with his girlfriend, but that would have been because her parents objected. My sister and at least one boyfriend slept at our house, and had sex under my parents roof.

Today when any of us go to visit my parents, we expect to be able to share a bed with our partners, married or not. I know a number of families where that remains impossible or unwelcome, even into adulthood. It's really strange to me, and sad, that one's sexuality and relationships are expected to exist so wholly separate from your family of origin.

Thanks for giving some more

Thanks for giving some more background on Schalet's book, annajcook. It's interesting to think about what biases there might be in statistical sampling methods that may regard themselves as objective or where there's no way for certain validation scales to account for the things that parents and their teenage children would rather hide.

I have always been fascinated about the point you raise regarding the artificial separation that can occur between family of origin and the sexuality that children develop, or that it may take to create children, or to maintain good relationships between parents. I'll be posting on this topic in the coming weeks!

Story from Amy Schalet's book, "Not under My Roof"

It is interesting to read about the commentary on an article that cites my book. In light of the discussion here, readers may find the story that opens the book of interest:

Karel Doorman, a soft-spoken civil servant in the Netherlands, keeps tabs on his teenage children's computer use and their jobs to make sure neither are interfering with school performance or family time. But Karel would not object if his daughter Heidi were to have a sexual relationship: "No," he explains. "She is sixteen, almost seventeen. I think she knows very well what matters, what can happen. If she is ready, I would let her be ready." If Heidi were to come home and say, "Dad, this is him," he says, "well, I hope I like him." Karel would also let Heidi spend the night with a steady boyfriend in her room, provided he did not show up "out of the blue." But Karel thinks that he would first "come by the house and that I will hear about him and that she'll talk about him and ... that it really is a gradual thing." That said, Karel suspects his daughter might prefer a partner of her own sex. Karel would accept her orientation he says, though he grants, "the period of adjustment might take a little longer."

Hah, I most certainly

Hah, I most certainly sidestepped sexual regulation (and parental authority) by using heteronormativity! In early high school, I certainly had sleepovers with girls that my parents thought were merely friends, and we certainly experimented. The possibility of being walked in on, though admittedly slim, made it all the more exciting. Later on, I would say that I was spending the night at a friend's house and go to my boyfriend's place instead - he was older and lived on his own. I had a cell phone at that point, so beyond a quick call to check in, I was free as a bird. Later still, when I was in university but still living at home, my mom let my boyfriend spend the night a couple of times, knowing full well that we were sexually active. She made us crepes for breakfast and he was freaked out by the fact that she seemed perfectly ok with it, even though we were both adults.

I suppose my experience might not reflect the norm because sleepovers are a very Canadian/American thing and my family is originally from Europe. My mom admits that she wanted me to feel like I fit in and let me go to sleepovers despite the fact that it was something she had little experience with; maybe that let me get away with more than I should have. Given my experiences, I think I would be more upset about my (hypothetical) teen sneaking around behind my back than if she or he had sex under my roof, though maybe my attitude will change when I actually have kids!

Does the impossibility of

<cite> Does the impossibility of pregnancy with same sex sexuality assuage the protective impulse at all? </cite>

Pregnancy is not impossible with same sex sexuality; trans people exist, they have reproductive systems, they can impregnate/become pregnant by same sex partners. Please stop erasing trans LGB people.

Thanks for raising this

Thanks for raising this point, Gabrielle. I should have been clearer in my language to specify that I was referencing the conventional assumption that "same-sex" or "same-gender" relationships are non-reproductive - which is of course inaccurate in many ways not only for transpeople but also for cis and genderqueer people. Nonetheless, your request highlights the way that when I was talking about queer people, I largely implied cis queer people, and the larger pattern of which this language is a part. Stay tuned for a blog post in the near future where I'll be discussing the lumping in of trans lives with the LGB acronym (or LGBQIA2, and so on, depending on the context) and what that can mean for trans youth.

That's not same sex

That's not same sex sexuality.

Could you clarify your

Could you clarify your comment, PamelaD? I'm not sure I understand.

I mean it isn't same sex

I mean it isn't same sex sexuality if trans people are involved. A trans woman isn't the same sex as a woman who was born a woman, and a trans man isn't the same sex as a man who was born a man. A trans person identifies as the opposite gender, (which is a whole other issues I have problems with) but that doesn't equal being the opposite sex (from what they were assigned at birth). Therefore, if a trans woman and a woman who was born a woman are together, it really isn't same sex sexuality.

You raise a complex set of

You raise a complex set of debates, and though it's not my place to arbitrate what different sexualities "are" or "aren't," I should probably chime in as a moderator for this thread that some GLB trans people may identify with "same-sex" as a label for their sexual and/or romantic activities. The only point that I intend to make in this thread is about the importance of honouring the right to self-determination that's expressed in such acts of self-definition.

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