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?
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?