<i></i>

Photo: Getty

Growing up in a family of girls, I became fascinated with boy parts somewhere around the age of 14 or 15. Like, how did they work? That erection thing? Boys were only too happy to demonstrate and I took my learning seriously and strictly unilaterally (my body was off-limits). I was in the market for an education, not a sexually transmitted disease, unwanted pregnancy or (shudder) a "reputation".

When I was 15, my first boyfriend and I commuted between our home towns, sleeping over at each other's houses in separate rooms. But parents fall asleep, eventually.

I was 18 when I started dating 24-year-old Norman and my mother, who is a doctor and fearlessly practical, promptly put me on the pill. I adored her lack of hysteria and the way she normalised the deflowering process. Though Norman wasn't allowed to sleep over, at my dad's insistence, I lied and simply slept over at his place.

So now that my daughter is a teenager, can boys sleep over? My husband's take on this is primal. It goes something like: "Over my dead body." But he's still coming to terms with the fact that she menstruates and wears bras. Ask him about our son and you get the old nudge nudge, wink wink - that it would be perfectly okay (read manly, virile) for him to have girls in his bed.

"Double standard," I point out. "Not to mention sexist."

He shrugs. "I know."

"Wouldn't you rather she experimented in the safety of our home instead of in bushes or cars or clubs?" I ask.

"I'd rather she wasn't experimenting at all."

I remind him that he's reaped the benefit of all my experimentation. At which point he puts his fingers in his ears and sings "la la la", as if by doing so his daughter will magically transform back into his little girl, going back to a time when the only thing getting laid was the table for her teddy bear's tea party.

For most of us, the thought of our kids' sexuality is as squirm-inducing as that of our parents'. But parenting teens makes this an inevitable confrontation. Teenagers are bristling with hormones, sexually curious and understandably reaching for the cherry that's dangled in front of them in every music video, MA-rated movie and fashion magazine, not to mention every easily accessed online porn site.

But should we make it easy for them to experiment? Should we be facilitators or bouncers? And do our rules reveal more than just our "values", such as how comfortable (or not) we are with our own sexuality?

Sarah, 18, is the only child of Angela, a primary school teacher and Alex, a journalist. (The parents and teens interviewed for this article asked that their names be changed to protect them from "what people will think".) When Sarah was 15, her boyfriend was allowed to sleep over. He didn't have a car and lived far away, so it was a question of convenience. "The funny thing is that he was religious and didn't believe in sex before marriage," Sarah smiles, "but mum allowed him to sleep over before she knew this."

A girl in Sarah's class had lost her virginity blind drunk in a bathroom at a party. "I walked in on them by accident," Sarah says. "It was terrible. Within five minutes, everyone at the party knew. That poor girl didn't go out for weeks afterwards and has been badly scarred by the experience."

"See, I didn't want that to be Sarah," Angela says. "I always offer Sarah and her friends rides to and from parties and clubs.

I want her to have independence, but with a backup, knowing she can call on us any time if she needs us."

Recently, Sarah lost her virginity to a new boyfriend who was also a virgin. Angela is grateful that Sarah's first experience of sex took place in a loving relationship, and in

the safety of her home.

Psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg warns that teen sleepovers require careful monitoring and supervision. "A unique characteristic of an adolescent brain is an inability to predict the consequences of one's actions," he says. "Add into the mix an 800 per cent increase in testosterone in boys, poor impulse control, peer pressure and a desire to rebel and it's a volatile cocktail."

Still, he doesn't believe in "one size fits all" parenting. "There are some young people who, through personality and temperament, have a track record of making good decisions and keeping themselves safe. The litmus test is that the greatest predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. So there are some kids who have always hung out with sensible peers, never made poor choices and don't have a sensation-seeking temperament, and I'd be more inclined to trust them."

But is it true that teens will jump at sex if they have the opportunity? After all, Sarah didn't. We know they won't abstain just because they don't have easy access to each other. If teenagers are dead-set on doing it, they'll find a way and a place - including intoxicated in the bathroom at a party.

Pam Lewis, director of Clinical Services for Relationships Australia NSW, points out that the values and culture of the family, combined with the maturity and personality of the teenager, drive adolescent sexual behaviour, not opportunism. "If our teenager is sleeping out, it's our job as a parent to know the host family, and whether our family values and expectations are in line with theirs."

"We need to trust our relationship with our teens," says Lewis, "knowing they will call if they feel uncomfortable and need to come home. This is all part of helping our kids to develop and to choose their friends, including boyfriends or girlfriends, wisely."

She adds, "Eventually, kids will have sex."

Laura, a paralegal and mother of three, only allowed her 18-year-old son Daniel's girlfriend to sleep over after she'd spoken to the girlfriend's mother, who gave the all-clear. Laura is convinced her relationship with her son was strengthened when she endorsed his status as a grown-up.

Laura also didn't mind when her younger son Harry, 14, spent time alone in his room with a girlfriend, though she'd knock intermittently and announce "Parent approaching", then give them a few moments before entering. She's comfortable with the idea of her children exploring their sexuality, but doesn't want them to be precocious with it. "You can be sexual without having sex," Laura says. "Everything in its right time. There's no rush."

But Laura admits she may not feel as liberal when her daughter Tessa, now six, is a teenager. "I don't want my daughter to feel I can't embrace her sexuality. I'd rather that if she has sex it's in a safe and contained place, but I'll have to wait and see how

I feel when she's older."

So, are parents who allow teen sleepovers like those who take drugs with their kids at home to ensure that the environment is a controlled one? In which case, should parents provide condoms? The pill? The Kama Sutra? Sex isn't just about safety, it's about pleasure, too. Just how involved should we be?

Those who believe parents shouldn't be involved at all are not just religious and sexually conservative parents, but progressive thinkers too, like Eve, a finance manager with two boys, 18 and 20. Eve has never allowed her boys to have girlfriends sleep over. "It's the ultimate voyeurism," she claims. "I don't want to know my children's sexual business. That is their private life."

She believes either you're an adult or a child. "If I still have to tell them to clean their rooms and I'm still supporting them, they're too young to be having sex under my roof. No one's having sex in my house except me."

Eve's views are founded in her feminist principles and her desire to raise men who respect women. She believes too many women sell themselves short. "If a girl wanted to sleep over at my house, I'd take her aside and give her a talking to about self-respect and self-esteem. Girls need to treasure themselves and not give themselves away cheaply." Eve also believes that teenagers don't "get" intimacy. "If a teenager needs sexual release, there's always masturbation. Knock yourself out, I say - but I don't want to know about that, either."

Helen, a mother of four, believes sleepovers only fast-track an experience she thinks should be delayed until at least the age of 18. But her eldest daughter Jade,15, disagrees. "If you're at home, you're more in control of the situation. There's less of a chance of being pressured. If a boy is in your zone, it's easier to back out, and say no. You can just kick him out,'' she says. She also disagrees that sleepovers lead to sex. "All that might be happening behind the closed door is talking and cuddling. Besides, at 16 you're legal, so why shouldn't we be allowed sleepovers?"

"Maybe I'm just a prude," Helen counters, "but I can't stand the thought that there are kids in a room in my house having sex." She'd only change her views if Jade had been in a relationship for more than a year and admits that she'll probably feel differently about her boys, exposing again the double standard with girls' and boys' sexuality.

Like most parenting issues, the matter of whether teen sleepovers are appropriate is personal and rests in our personal values. The best we can do is set boundaries, keep conversations going and hope like hell that we've prepared our teenagers to make good decisions.

We may have to accept that a "good choice" may not be the same one we'd make. As Jade says, "Parents can try to control their kids as much as they like, but they'll still do what they want. You have to have faith in your child. There comes a time when a parent can't protect you and you have to make your own mistakes and learn from them."

Wise words. Except no parent wants their kid to learn the hard way that an unplanned pregnancy or an STD is "a mistake".

Finally, I wonder if, as parents, we don't get too hung up on what's being touched and who's touching who. I'm more concerned about who's got my children's backs. I want them to know they can come to me in a crisis, the way I always knew I could go to my mum. She saw me as a whole, sexual person, not just her good little girl.

And secretly, I think she was happy for me. That Norman was a real spunk.