It started out like a typical morning in a suburban Long Island home. A woman was in the kitchen making breakfast when above the roar of the coffee grinder she heard a familiar low-pitched "good morning." It was her son, a junior in high school.
Moments later there was another "good morning." The voice did not belong to anyone who lived in the house.
The woman turned around. Her eyes fell on a sleepy-looking young woman in a skimpy T-shirt. It was her son's girlfriend.
"It was an awful moment," the woman said. "I had suspected that my son was sexually active; I wasn't happy about it, but I could live with it. But sex in my own house? Never in my wildest thoughts could I have imagined such a thing."
Before long, however, this woman and her husband, who was equally dumbstruck, found themselves reluctantly turning shock into acceptance.
Frightened by AIDS, drugs, street crime and other realities of teen-age life today, they made a decision that some other parents of high-school-age children are also reaching: They gave their approval for their son to sleep with his girlfriend in their house.
To most of these parents, allowing sex at home is a way of protecting their children. If teen-agers are sexually active, the parents reason, they are better off at home than in a place that might not be safe.
Also, parents say, the home allows them to know who their children's sexual partners are.
"It's not that I think this is wonderful," said a mother of a 17-year-old son in a Chicago suburb. Like every parent who agreed to be interviewed for this article, she spoke on condition that her name not be used. "But I don't want my son and his girlfriend hiding in basements or the back seat of a car, getting mugged. I feel better knowing where my child is, so I decided that his room is his territory, his privacy."
Parents were so reluctant to talk about this issue that they did not want to be identified in any way.
As a group, they are well-educated and live in middle-class or affluent urban and suburban communities in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Illinois.
They said that permitting teen-agers to engage in sex at home, which was unheard of when they were that age, was rarely an easy decision. They also said they are uncomfortable telling even their closest friends about it.
"Most of my friends would be shocked," a New Jersey mother said.
Dr. Ron Taffel, a clinical psychologist who treats families and children in New York City, said this issue has become "a real dilemma for parents" in the last few years. "Parents feel caught between two very profound worries," he said. "On the one hand they feel that if they don't accept that their kids are having sex and provide a safe place, the children will have it with people the parents don't know and in places that could be dangerous. On the other hand, parents fear that by doing this they are encouraging their kids to act out sexually."
According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, 60 percent of teen-age boys and 50 percent of teen-age girls have had intercourse.
Dr. Lawrence Aber, an associate professor of clinical and developmental psychology at Barnard College, said being allowed to have sex at home confuses teen-agers. "Parents need to set limits, and it is the children's job to push them," he said. "But when parents don't set limits, it can be scary and disruptive for children."