Sex education in the Netherlands can be quite different to sex education in America. I remember at about age 12 being herded into the school auditorium, along with all the other girls my age (boys were not admitted) and shown a sex education film. It was about how a girl’s body matures, explaining the menstrual cycle and how pregnancy occurs. It was all very technical, and it was easy to think the entire thing was something that took place in a lab somewhere. I had a hard time believing two human beings were actually involved in this event.
We were also instructed on the dangers of sex. Especially how it could lead to acquiring any one of a number of nasty diseases. I was horrified. “How appalling,” I thought, “who would ever want to do such a thing?” Not exactly inspiring to early pubescent youth beginning to explore their sexuality and those awkward first relationships with another person. But that’s how things were taught in America (if at all).
The Netherlands, however, has a different attitude toward sex—one that emphasizes teaching children from a young age that sex is about relationships, both with others and with themselves. Not only that, it can actually be fun—an idea that would shock most US school boards. When I got a notice from my 7-year-old daughter’s Dutch school that the following week’s theme was to be “Lentekriebels” (Spring Fever), I was reminded of one more reason I love living in the Netherlands.
The Dutch are sensible about sex education
The Dutch are very practical about dealing with issues many other countries (especially the US) struggle with. Rather than sticking their heads in the sand and advocating abstinence-only—a policy that has been proven to be a dismal failure—they realize that human sexuality is a perfectly natural part of life, and the more resources with which children are equipped, the better off they will be.
From age 4, all children in Dutch schools receive compulsory age-appropriate sexuality education classes. And they are not just about the nuts and bolts (so to speak) of sex. The main emphasis is on building respect for one’s own and others’ sexuality.
Teenage pregnancy in the Netherlands
The teen pregnancy rate in the Netherlands is very low. When you compare it with the rate of teen pregnancy in the US, which is the highest in the developed world, it is 8 times higher than the Netherlands (interestingly, it’s the English-speaking countries that have the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world—the US, followed closely by New Zealand and the UK), it’s obvious that the Dutch approach is the one that works.
Dutch teens tend to have their first sexual experience slightly later than their American counterparts. When they do finally have sex, the majority of Dutch report it as having been a positive, fun experience. Nearly 70% of American teens say they felt they should have waited longer before having sex.
Dutch sex education classes teach children to respect others’ boundaries, stressing the importance of sex in the context of a respectful, loving relationship. One of the earliest lessons revolves around consent. Children are taught skills on how to say “no” until they feel they are ready for sex, to decide what and how much they want, to tell their partner what feels good to them, and to act responsibly in terms of both contraception and respect for their partner.
Two different views of teenage sexuality
Amy T. Schalet, author of “Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex,” a book about the differences between American and Dutch norms in regard to teenage sexuality, indicates the cultural differences between the two countries have something to do with a more mature view of sexuality. “There’s a real gender component there, and that’s also where the Dutch, I think, do things differently,” she says. “They leave room for boys to think of themselves as romantic, of having feelings. And it’s not that American boys aren’t romantic, it’s that everything in their culture tells them that they shouldn’t be.”
Dutch sex education also includes topics such as gender identity and homosexuality. Children here learn early that it is perfectly natural for two men or two women to be in love. I can’t help but think that this type of early training can help prevent atrocities such as what recently occurred in Orlando.
No subject regarding sex is taboo in these classes, particularly in the later grades, where it is not unusual to find discussions on subjects such as masturbation and oral sex. And girls are not expected to take a passive role in sexual negotiations. They are taught they can make choices about their own sexuality, not to feel pressured by boys or their friends. In fact, Dutch women are known to be very forthright about what it is they want in bed. Girls learn their sexual desires are perfectly natural, and boys are encouraged to embrace their emotions and romantic feelings.
Dutch teens are instructed in the use of contraceptives, and condoms are readily available from vending machines in many public bathrooms. Thus, teens here have considerably lower rates of sexually transmitted infections compared with the US and Britain. In addition, the contraceptive pill is available free to any girl under age 21.
Unlike the days of my youth, most Dutch teens feel able to speak openly with their parents about sex. They do not have to resort to sneaking around behind their parents’ back, reduced to awkward fumbling in the back of dad’s car. It is not uncommon in a Dutch household to find your daughter or son’s partner sitting at the breakfast table in the morning. Two-thirds of teens between 15 and 17 report their parents allow their steady partners to share their bedroom. As one parent I spoke with put it, “I’d rather have my daughter at home where I can be there for her if she needs me, and I can get to know her boyfriend better.”
If this sex education model were adopted in other countries, I can only think the world would be a healthier, more satisfying place. What do you think of all of this? Feel free to share and comment!
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2016 and has been updated in December 2019 for your reading pleasure.