Sex education in the Netherlands

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!

Feature Image: giovannacco/Pixabay

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2016 and has been updated in December 2019 for your reading pleasure.


  1. Holland just sounds better and better the more I read about it. While some other countries who have potential do nothing except try to win their “sovereignty” back with lame moves like Brexit, Holland actually does amazing things for the country, its people and the environment. After finishing my degree in the UK, I’m highly considering Holland as a place to move. Great job Holland, sounds like an amazing place!

  2. We’re doing something right, even though everybody complains all the time about everything everywhere. Could that be the reason….?? ;-))))

  3. Living in the UK and with a young daughter and teenage son, I just wish the culture was more progressive here.

    I would love to find a way to educate my children in a way that is in line with the Dutch way of thinking. Anyone got any resource anywhere?

  4. this is just clearly the best and most well thought out version of education i can possibly think of. the netherlands always seems to amaze me at every turn

    bravo NL

    • I’m all for education, but speaking as a never-been-a-parent, sounds like Dutch parents are very permissive! (I am thinking in particular about the whole breakfast thing, which seems like it might not be representative.) It is ALSO perfectly natural for parents to set rules (even if kids break them), and it is an essential part of parenting, not to mention beneficial to children (teens included).

      • I disagree. I travelled through Northern Europe for 6 months staying with new families every 3 to 5 days. The only family that did not feel it was alright for their teen son or daughter to have sex at home was a strict Catholic family I stayed with in Southern Germany. Every parent I spoke to said virtually the same thing. “I know they are going to have sex. I’d rather they have it here where they are safe.” Living in denial does not stop reality.

  5. I’m an American with a Dutch Father who has spent every summer of my life till I was 22 years old in the Netherlands. It’s ridiculous to compare sexual violence statistics with the USA considering the landmass and population far surpass Holland in complexity, culture and numbers. Some parts of the USA are more conservative and less open about sexuality while other parts rival the sexual experiences. It may be entirely anecdotal but my Dutch peers were more sexually active and promiscuous than my American friends, and in many cases they took more risks as well.

  6. I am a single gay Mum raising two boys in good old Catholic Ireland.churches run our schools and the sex education is awful. We have our abortion referendum next week but that’s another matter. Anyway, where can I get material on sex education in Netherlands (in English) please? so that I can do the teaching to my boys myself. Thank you

  7. […] The Netherlands is generally quite open compared to a lot of places but my mom in particular is quite old fashioned. She did get us a book from the library that had all of the stuff about sexual education but I still didn’t feel comfortable asking her certain things. I did have a really good friend growing up, his mom was basically a surrogate mother for me. When we were around twelve, my friend and I went together and asked her a few questions. […]

  8. I am Dutch and was raised with this system. Since 1993, at age 36, I live in the US. Social worker by profession, I got to work in child welfare, in Ohio and California. I have seen the worst results of the American culture around sex education. Preventing pregnancy is one thing and enjoying sex for both partners and having respect for your body and the other in your relationship are also great rewards of the Dutch system. But I like to break a lance for the effect of the Dutch model on child sexual abuse as well as Domestic Violence. Let’s stop it and copy something like this Dutch system. I know I made a difference in some lives, with my Dutch approach!

  9. I am parenting in America and would love some resources in the application of these themes! My kiddo is 6. 😊

  10. This is shocking me. As a Muslim I am taught to simply lower my gaze to the opposite gender and avoid sex before marriage. With this simple rule, I live safely and peacefully. I dont need to experience teen pregnancy, abortion, sexual disease, and broken hearts from being used by the guy who is not guaranteed to be my husband. I dont need to let a guy using my body then after he is bored he will use another girl’s body to satisfy himself without responsibility. Besides, the postponement of having sex until married leads to the great happiness in marriage. Love starts after marriage, not ends with it. Sorry, i have different opinion with majority here, but frankly I feel so lucky to be a Muslim. The rules of my religion are not made by God to oppress me, but to protect me from sadness and calamity. Thank you for reading and respecting my opinion.


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