Should Parents Allow Mixed Sex Sleepovers?

Since reaching adolescence my boys have been keen to have girls who are “just friends” sleep at our house, and I have been just as keen to avoid it.

Boys sleeping over have never been a problem. Over the years I have happily purchased bunk and trundle beds, as well as air mattresses, to facilitate it. But female friends? Sorry, I kept telling my sons. I’m just not comfortable.

But no-because-I-say-so really doesn’t cut it as a reason for adolescent boys and fair enough, too. I’ve always prided myself as a person who has reasons for what I do. As a parent, when I don’t have a good reason for saying no, I try to say yes.

Except when it came to girls sleeping over. Was I worried the girl’s family was in the dark? Maybe, so when my son last asked I agreed to speak to the parent. The exchange was comforting – the mother certainly knew where her daughter would be and was realistic about my minimal capacity for control – but my unease persisted.

“You’re being unreasonable about this,” my partner said. “Do you really want to imply that boys can’t have friends who are girls?”

He shrugged. “And if they’re going to have sex, isn’t it better it happens here instead of a park – away from prying eyes and close to condoms?”

All good points but something still felt wrong, however inept I was at articulating what it was.

“You’re acting like you’re worried your boy will take advantage,” a friend finally said.

“No!” I said firmly. “That’s not it at all. My boys would NEVER touch a girl in a way they thought she did not want.”

But here, perhaps, was a clue to my discomfort. What if the girl didn’t know what she wanted?

There is a relatively straightforward relationship for boys between what they want, what they say they want and what they pursue – with sex, and everything else. Arguably, female socialisation is all about severing such links so women can make the needs and wants of others – friends, parents, needy children, ageing parents – their own.

We certainly know that adolescence is when many girls lose their vitality, resilience and sense of self. Perhaps consequently, it is also a time they are at increased risk of depression and eating disorders.

According to researchers Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown, girls struggle throughout their teens to take their own experiences, feelings and thoughts seriously. Some can arrive at a place where it seems to them that they cannot say or feel what they feel and know. Battling to stay in a “genuine relationship” with themselves, they replace their authentic voice with a stream of “I don’t knows”.

Suddenly, I had a way of explaining my angst. Sexual relationships are complicated at the best of times. Introduce youth and the stuttering of a partner who may be in the midst of a developmental struggle to identify and express what she wants and misunderstandings seem inevitable. I wanted nothing to do with it.

I also didn’t want to add to the confusing mix of social messages girls get. What if saying yes to a sleepover felt subtly coercive to the girl, as though I thought adolescent sex was normal or even expected. Instead, I wanted to be like Switzerland when it came to adolescent sexual activity, wanting only for each young person what she or he authentically wanted for themselves.

Good thinking or over-thinking? I’d welcome your view.

Publication history

Should I let my boys invite girls to sleep over?  The Sydney Morning Herald