Going Dutch: Sexuality education in the Netherlands

The Netherlands has a longstanding tradition in sexuality education. This cannot be seen separately from general cultural context and developments. In this blog, I wrote about this background, but also about the principles of Dutch sexuality education, and about effects it may have on young people’s behaviour.

A recent history

This country has a peculiar history. It was a powerful nation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However, the power of the Dutch derived mainly from trading, rather than from colonisation, like other European countries. In order to be successful in trade, it is important to stay friendly with those with whom you are dealing. It requires the ability to allow others their peculiarities. This is probably an important precursor of what we see as our present-day tolerance. [Actually, a lot can be said about this quickly eroding self-image, which I will probably do in a future blog sometime]

However, the history of sexuality education as we know it is much more recent. It wasn’t until after the second World War that people understood that young people should be prepared for married life, including sexuality. The idea that sexuality was something one needed to learn had taken hold. Then the Sixties came, with its liberated ideals about sexuality. However, the behaviour of most Dutch people did not change dramatically, as evidenced by the 1969 ‘Sex in the Netherlands’ study.

The introduction of birth control pills was probably at least as important as ‘the sexual revolution’. Sex and reproduction had already begun to be separated since approximately one century, resulting in smaller families. However, ‘the pill’ boosted that development. Now, the pleasure of sex could no longer be denied, increasing the need to prepare young people to take sensible decisions with regard to sex. This led to widespread sexuality education, not only at home, but also in schools.

Comprehensive sexuality education

Sexuality education is a normative undertaking. It aims to teach students values about sexuality, as well as to provide them with the means to act decently and sensibly when sex is concerned. Morality was traditionally the domain of religion. However, religions quickly lost their hold on society during the second half of last century. Secularisation was quicker and more pervasive in the Netherlands than in other countries. This does not mean that all religious values were lost, but they were attributed to the self, rather than to God. Some values, however, came increasingly under pressure. For example, abstinence until marriage was replaced with the advice to have sex only if it’s with somebody you love. This was seen as a more modern and moreover, a more practical ideal. Research had already shown that most young people were having sex before marriage.

This practical attitude pervaded Dutch society, which did not give way to a value-ridden society, but rather to a new morality. Sex among minors was not encouraged, the age of consent remains 16 until this day, but it was accepted as a fact of life. The message to convey to these young people was therefore not to have sex until they are ready, with somebody they love (and who loves them), and to be well prepared. To be prepared meant mainly to protect themselves from the risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The most reliable way to do this is to combine pill and condom use, which came to be known as ‘double Dutch’.

Back to the normativity of sexuality education. Young people do not change their attitudes and behaviour just because somebody tells them to. Therefore, they are encouraged to think and discuss about how they want to treat others and how they want to be treated. Comprehensive sexuality education does not only include all the topics, such as pregnancy, STIs, sexual violence, and sexual and gender diversity. The main focus is on developing attitudes and skills with regard to relationships and sexuality.

Does it work?

Dutch young people are very sensible and responsible when it comes to sexuality. They do not start having intercourse earlier than in countries where no sex before marriage is propagated. When they do have sex for the first time, the vast majority protect themselves by using either oral contraception or a condom. Three quarters of these young people use a condom. ‘Double Dutch’ is common, but when a relationship last longer, young people tend to stop using condoms if the girl is on the pill. This results in very low teenage pregnancy rates. Approximately 14 of every 1,000 girls become pregnant. Of these girls, almost two thirds opt for an abortion. The Dutch abortion rate among older women is very low as well, approximately 8 of every 1,000.

Can these positive outcomes be attributed to the comprehensive sexuality education that almost all young people receive at school? This is difficult to say, because they may be caused by other factors as well. In order to get some idea, a comparison was made of different European countries and the US. This report concludes that sexuality education probably contributes to better sexual health among young people, but it is not enough. For example, Sweden has a high teenage pregnancy rate despite comprehensive sexuality education. An important factor is contraceptive use. Countries where oral contraceptives are used by many adolescents, have low pregnancy rates.

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