What It's Like to Grow Up in a Country That Doesn't Hate Sex
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The first time I slept over at Peter’s house, we arrived so late his mom and dad were already asleep. We had a fun evening in his attic bedroom, but I was anxious when I woke up the next morning. Raised in America, I had never slept at a boyfriend’s place before. What would his parents think of me? What would I say to them? I walked down the stairs with great trepidation, wondering if I should gather up my things and bolt. Even without articulating it to myself, my real fear was: Would they think I was a slut?
But Peter’s mother, Eva, greeted me at the bottom of the stairs with a huge smile. “Good morning!” she said. “Breakfast is almost ready. Do you prefer coffee or tea?” She was so sweet and warm and matter-of-fact that I wanted to cry with joy. In fact, I think I may have hugged her, right then and there. We became fast friends.
The recent New York Times article “ Sex in a Teenager’s Room?” has generated a lot of conversation, including interesting articles in Slate and the Huffington Post. But for me, the most spirited debate has been taking place in private Facebook groups consisting of Danish women living in America. I’m not Danish, but I had the good fortune to come of age sexually while living in Denmark as a teenager. I wish everyone could be so lucky.
Back in the 1970s, long before it was popular to take a “gap year” between high school and college, I did so by embarking on a high school exchange student experience after I graduated, at the age of 17. The American Field Service program randomly sent me to Denmark.
In Denmark, it is common for teenage couples to spend the night together in each other’s homes. (As in the Netherlands, as detailed in a book by Amy Schalet, “ Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and the Culture of Sex”). This was certainly not how I’d grown up. Though my parents were self-styled liberals, I lost my virginity in a typically American way: in the back seat of my high school crush’s car, parked in the high school parking lot during a school dance. I remember asking my parents, when I was about 10, where babies came from, and my parents fumbled through a faux-jokey response.
Mom: Larry, do you want to take this one?
Dad: [laughing nervously] No, no, Jan, please be my guest.
During that discussion, they awkwardly informed my younger brother and me about the basics, and dispelled some misconceptions (but I thought babies came out of the woman’s butt!). And it was the only conversation we ever had about sex — until the night before I left for Denmark.
My mother was helping me fold clothes into my suitcases when she started clearing her throat. “So, Careen, um … you’re about to go to, um, Denmark. And, you know, they’re a lot more open about, um, sex over there. So, you know, um, if there’s anything you want to ask me …”
I quickly reassured her that I knew everything I needed to know. She smiled in relief, changed the subject, and we finished packing.
So imagine my surprise — after moving in with a gregarious Danish family in their big, rambling house on the outskirts of Copenhagen — when I observed that my younger Danish host brother, at age 15, had a girlfriend who would frequently eat dinner with us … and eat breakfast with us again the next morning. She was spending the night. In his room. And his parents were OK with it. And so, presumably, were hers. I knew Denmark was going to be different, but I hadn’t been prepared for this.