Coed sleepovers: Platonic or premature?

Adolescent sleeping habits have long been the stuff of rules and rancor - battles over curfew, "lights out" policies, prep-school dorms bolted against male intrusion. But these days, late-night games of "truth or dare" have a new twist, and girls' pillow talk a deeper rumble: Coed sleepovers are on the rise, creating a whole new realm for rules - and rebellion.

While precise numbers on the phenomenon are hard to come by, the trend has come increasingly into public focus. In a recent survey of youths by TeenPeople, more than half of respondents had attended coed slumber parties. Time magazine and the Los Angeles Times published rules for safe coed sleepovers last year. And parenting experts attest to a flurry of questions about slumber parties where boys and girls lie side by side.

For parents and children, the events spark difficult questions as well as boisterous excitement. Many adults worry the parties open the door to early sexual experimentation, the modern equivalent of late nights in a '57 Chevy. But if they shudder with concern, they're also loath to be Scrooges, quashing innocent nights of popcorn and Pictionary. For boys and girls, coed sleepovers mark a desegregation of adolescent development that can seem both awkward and promising.

"Ten years ago, I think the idea would have been very disturbing, but it's become more mainstream," says Robert Billingham, a human-development and family expert at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Some experts cast the parties as evidence of closer Platonic friendships between girls and boys. With girls heavily involved in sports, and with more cultural models of cross-gender friendships (think "Will and Grace," or Elaine and Jerry on "Seinfeld"), the notion of such intimate bonds may simply be more accessible.

The adolescent social world "used to be very segregated: Boys did this, girls did that, and people made an effort to keep them apart," says Tina Tessina, a Long Beach, Calif., psychotherapist. While calling "the very nature of these boy/girl sleepovers slightly provocative," she sees themas signs of how friendship is evolving.

No shared sleeping bags

That was Barbara Cooke's philosophy when she let her 16-year-old daughter, Jenny, host five friends after their Homecoming dance this fall in suburban Deerfield, Ill. Jenny's party, she says, was "almost like a campout.... The girls and guys call each other by their last names half the time."

Still, Ms. Cooke laid out clear rules: No drinking, no drugs, separate sleeping bags, everyone in one room, and no sex - which, she explained to Jenny, meant no contact below the shoulder blades. After a detour for broomball, the group got home at 2 a.m., changed into their pajamas, watched 20 minutes of a movie, and promptly - chastely - fell asleep, sprawled on the carpet of the tan-paneled basement rec room.

With her boyfriend coming to the sleepover, Jenny had balked at the prohibition on shared sleeping bags. But she insists sex wasn't a concern for her or the five friends there: "It's not like that. Out of respect [for me], they would be embarrassed" to do that.

But when Cooke wrote a column about the event for her newsweekly chain, the Pioneer Press, some readers were furious. "You are either naive or uninformed," wrote one. "I am incensed at the article and do not believe it should be published in a family paper."

Some experts share that wariness. To Mr. Billingham, same-sex and coed sleepovers serve very different social functions. The former, he says, help children see how they fit in with members of their own sex and show they're grown-up enough to be away from home. The latter subvert that purpose, because adolescents "have not had time to define themselves within their own sex group."

With his own children, Billingham allowed coed sleepovers up to age four. But his son, now 11, finds the notion "pretty gross" - and Billingham is encouraging that view.

Cooke, too, sees a dividing line in age: "If this had been an eighth grade graduation party, I should have been thrown in jail." But she let her three children attend coed sleepovers once they were juniors in high school.

For the most part, Jenny agrees with her mother. "You're not as mature yet," she recalls of her salad days in early high school, "and so you're more likely to give into peer pressure."

But down the road in Deerfield, Jacquie Lewis puts coed slumber parties off limits - far off limits - for her daughters Andi, 16, and Shelly, 15: "To give them the opportunity to have a sleepover with kids of the opposite sex can only lead to curiosity," she says.

Ms. Lewis worries that the gatherings spawn promiscuity, and she's heard horror stories, such as one about a romantic couple separated from friends by a sheet pinned up as a makeshift (but not soundproof) curtain. Indeed, in the TeenPeople survey, 83 percent of respondents had heard of peers "fooling around" at coed sleepovers. Yet the magazine's online message boards are filled with raves about coed slumber parties, making them seem as routine as the SATs.

In setting policies, parents don't want to overreact to their fears. That desire kept Cathryn Tobin, a pediatrician and author in Toronto, from outlawing her youngest daughter's sleepovers with boys. Still, she's been surprised at their frequency in the age 10-to-12 set, and was relieved when fifth-grade Madison decided she was tired of boys' teasing and wanted to end the sleepovers.

Dealing 'v-cards'

If you're a parent looking for reassurance, don't ask Dennis Aguiling, 18, of Renton, Wash. His friends at all-male O'Dea High School host coed slumber parties a few times a year - usually planned strategically so the parents are gone.

He says sex, as well as alcohol, is "a legitimate worry": He talks about holding his "v-card" (virginity), while other friends are "dealing" theirs. "We're hormonally driven beings who think of nothing other than personal gain," he concedes. "So in the right situation, the right mood, it's gonna happen."

So should parents keep lock-and-key tabs on their children? To Ms. Lewis, it's not such a harebrained idea: "There's no need for kids to explore that level of sexuality at that age."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.