September 14, 2011
Straight Talk About Teen Sex
“For American parents, teenage sex is something to be feared and forbidden, and sex is often a source of family conflict,” says Assistant Professor Amy Schalet (sociology), an expert, author, and media commentator on adolescent sexuality. “In the Netherlands, where teenage pregnancies are far less frequent than in the United States, parents aim above all for family cohesiveness, often permitting couples in their late teens to sleep together and providing them with contraceptives.” Probing our child-rearing for what it tells us about our culture, Schalet’s new book, Not Under My Roof (University of Chicago Press) offers an unprecedented, intimate account of the different ways that girls and boys in both countries negotiate sex, love, and growing up.
Not Under My Roof features personal stories of parents and teens, a sociologically and historically-informed analysis, and a roadmap for guiding American social policy on adolescent sexual health. It is especially relevant for parents and those who work in adolescent development, education, and health care.
The book is the result of personal experience, education and research. “My parents moved to the Netherlands from the U.S. when I was young,” Schalet says. “I returned to the U.S. as a college student almost two decades later. My research on cultural differences at the University of California Berkeley, where I earned my PhD, was inspired by observations that came from moving between these countries. Because both are rich democracies, they often are thought of as similar, but in fact they have very different prevailing cultural beliefs and practices—including approaches to teenage sexuality.”
Knowing both cultures intimately, Schalet was able to study them in depth and has written about them by combining insider and outsider perspectives. “Crossing disciplinary boundaries—sociology, public health, education, policy, psychology and history—has allowed me to create a book that is accessible to a wide spectrum of readers.”
After receiving her PhD in 2003, Schalet pursued post-doctoral training at the University of California, San Francisco’s School of Medicine. “There I learned and wrote about the public health implications of my research. I also developed a unique way of answering former American Sociological Association president, Michael Burawoy’s 2004 call for a ‘public sociology.’ Working with health and education professionals—relating my research to their concerns and presenting it in ways they could use—I have supported the work of practitioners and expanded the reach of my research.”
Since her arrival at UMass in 2006, Schalet has, besides writing Not Under My Roof, published six peer-reviewed articles (two in collaboration) in highly respected sociology and women’s studies publications, as well as top journals in demography and health services research. “To reach a diverse readership of health and education professionals, advocates, policymakers, the lay public and students,” Schalet says, “I published a chapter in a reference manual for mental health professionals, coauthored a widely disseminated research brief, and placed two opinion pieces in two major national newspapers.” The first of these was reprinted in fourteen other papers and in a high-school reference book on teenage pregnancy.
The Ford Foundation has supported Schalet’s multi-pronged research and outreach agenda with nearly $400,000 in two dissemination grants. Exploring, with leading adolescent health care providers, the implications of her research for clinical practices and policy, Schalet has developed a new conceptual model of adolescent sexual health that she uses as a framework to distribute existing research and conduct new research. She is well known for translating her research into formats and language that are useful to broad audiences.
As part of her public engagement agenda, Schalet has given more than two dozen presentations—including six keynotes—at nonprofits, government agencies, and public health conferences. She has served on the boards of national and local health organizations, consulted with community groups and the media, and collaborated on clinical and educational materials. Schalet also has delivered colloquia and trainings at the American Academy of Pediatrics, Columbia University’s School of Public Health, the Michigan Departments of Community Health and Education, the STD-prevention branch of the Centers for Disease Control, among many others. Without doubt Schalet is a major contributor to the public discussion on adolescent and family well-being in the United States and beyond.
“As social scientists, we study social problems and contribute solutions, but typically our training doesn’t prepare us to communicate effectively about our research to nonacademics,” Schalet says. In response, she cofounded the Public Engagement Project at UMass. “This initiative,” she says, “helps researchers disseminate their work outside the academy. We host speakers, run workshops, hold panels that address a range of skills and situations that academics face in working with the media, policymakers, social movements and practitioners. Most recently PEP led a daylong workshop on effective public engagement, including a module I led on writing for nonacademics.”
Schalet is happy to be working at an institution where her public outreach work is valued. “UMass has the mission to serve the public and is committed to strengthening the university-community relationship. Just yesterday, for example, I learned about opportunities for faculty to learn about integrating public service into their teaching. I also love the diverse student population at UMass—a real cross-section of the general population. Sometimes it’s challenging because students have different levels of preparation for college, but I enjoy finding different ways to engage students.”