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What the Dutch can teach us about sex

No, we’re not talking about the relative appeal of sex in clogs. We’ve long sung the praises of Holland’s approach to sex, and, in particular, its approach to sex education. Holland has results that we can all agree are worth aspiring to (even bat shit crazy Michele Bachmann). The teen pregnancy rate in the Netherlands is 12 pregnancies per 1,000 girls aged 15 – 19. In the U.S., there are 72 pregnancies per 1,000 girls the same age. The Dutch teen abortion rate is 20% lower than that in the U.S., and the rate of HIV infection is three times greater in the U.S. Don’t even get us started on how teen STD rates compare in the two countries – these charts say it all. Oh, and not entirely unrelated: those nutty clog-wearing, pot brownie-eating people in the Netherlands use three times less marijuana than we do.

So what are they doing so right? Here’s where the likes of us (sane, rational beings who actually know a thing or two about sex education and who are interested in what kind of behavior leads to those kind of results) disagree vehemently with the likes of Bachmann (who, well, you know the deal). Let’s look at how Holland approaches sex and sex education, according to Amy Schalet, author of the new book “Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and the Culture of Sex.” She’s an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and just happened to live in the Netherlands until she was 21.

  • Two-thirds of Dutch parents report allowing their teenage (15-17 year old) children to have sleepovers with their boyfriend or girlfriend. (Hey, maybe it’s easier to put on a condom in a bed than in the backseat of a car or under a bush.)
  • Sex is about love, not marriage. “Coming out of the sexual revolution,” Schalet tells Time, “the Dutch really decoupled sex from marriage, but they didn’t decouple sex from love.” Which makes so much more sense to teenagers, because realistically, most of them are going to be having sex for years (maybe even decades) before they’re ready to wed. If you emphasize that sex is best with love (as opposed to just with marriage), then it can teach teens a realistic way to respect each other in bed.
  • Just don’t call it puppy love, okay? “There’s a strong belief in the Netherlands that youth can be in love (boys as well as girls) that makes sex in many ways seem safer and more contained because it’s embedded in a relationship.”
  • Most Dutch teenagers lose their virginity in their own bedrooms with their parents’ approval – and with condoms.
  • Sex education starts as early as age five.
  • And don’t forget those more lenient drug laws! “The expectation that a young person can know when he or she is ready [for sex] and can self-regulate is so contested [in the U.S.],” Schalet says.” [The idea that teens can] pace themselves and take protective measures also pertains to the concept [in Holland] that it’s possible for people to smoke marijuana without becoming heroin addicts.”
  • The Dutch idea of gezelligheid is relevant too, Schalet says. “It literally means ‘cozy togetherness.’ Like many words that denote a cultural state, it’s very hard to translate because we don’t have a real equivalent. It’s like ‘pleasant togetherness’ or ‘conviviality.’ What it refers to is the pleasure people are expected to take in each other’s company, parents and children and also teens together in their peer group. There’s a lot of intergenerational gezelligheid. The Dutch also devised policies to maintain it. They made part-time work easy for mothers and fathers, so there are policies that support family life.”

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photo via flickr