Sex ed in the United States is fraught with controversy and discomfort. Left to the discretion of each U.S. state — of which fewer than half require teaching of the subject — the subject is subsequently still overwhelmingly focused on minimizing the risk of pregnancy and STDs from conventional heterosexual intercourse, leaving out the many other dynamics of sexual relations (how to handle feeling of intimacy, the importance of granting as well as accepting consent, etc.). Little wonder why almost 40 percent of young Americans report that their sex education was not helpful, and why so many people remain uncomfortable about so much as discussing the topic, let alone the act itself.
The U.S., among other countries, should take lessons from the Netherlands on implementing a comprehensive and results-driven approach to sex ed. Granted, it would be a tough sell, given that students start learning about it as young as age four. But as a PBS report notes, the nature of the class is not what one would think.
You’ll never hear an explicit reference to sex in a kindergarten class.In fact, the term for what’s being taught here is sexuality education rather than sex education. That’s because the goal is bigger than that, says Ineke van der Vlugt, an expert on youth sexual development for Rutgers WPF, the Dutch sexuality research institute behind the curriculum. It’s about having open, honest conversations about love and relationships.
By law, all primary school students in the Netherlands must receive some form of sexuality education. The system allows for flexibility in how it’s taught. But it must address certain core principles — among them, sexual diversity and sexual assertiveness. That means encouraging respect for all sexual preferences and helping students develop skills to protect against sexual coercion, intimidation and abuse. The underlying principle is straightforward: Sexual development is a normal process that all young people experience, and they have the right to frank, trustworthy information on the subject.
“There were societal concerns that sexualization in the media could be having a negative impact on kids”, van der Vlugt said. “We wanted to show that sexuality also has to do with respect, intimacy, and safety”.
This unique and controversial approach is not the only reason why the Dutch model of sex ed, as it were, has gained so much international attention: the country can boast some impressive and measurable results due in large part to this strategy:
On average, teens in the Netherlands do not have sex at an earlier age than those in other European countries or in the United States. Researchers found that among 12 to 25 year olds in the Netherlands, most say they had “wanted and fun” first sexual experiences. By comparison, 66 percent of sexually active American teens surveyed said they wished that they had waited longer to have sex for the first time. When they do have sex, a Rutgers WPF study found that nine out of ten Dutch adolescents used contraceptives the first time, and World Health Organization data shows that Dutch teens are among the top users of the birth control pill. According to the World Bank, the teen pregnancy rate in the Netherlands is one of the lowest in the world, five times lower than the U.S. Rates of HIV infection and sexually transmitted diseases are also low.
Though easy and affordable access to contraceptives is certainly factor, a good amount of research credits effective sex ed courses that cover all the bases of sexual experience and activity.
Proponents of the Dutch model argue that their approach extends beyond those risks. Their brand of sex ed reflects a broader emphasis on young people’s rights, responsibility and respect that many public health experts say is the foundation of sexual health.
A 2008 United Nations report found that comprehensive sex ed, when taught effectively, allows young people to “explore their attitudes and values, and to practice the decision-making and other life skills they will need to be able to make informed choices about their sexual lives”. Students who had completed comprehensive sex education in the Netherlands were also found to be more assertive and better communicators, according to an independent health research agency that conducted a study of the Dutch programs.
“We have to help young people navigate all the choices they face and stand up for themselves in all situations, sexual and otherwise”, said Robert van der Gaag, a health promotion official at Central Holland’s regional public health center.
Young people are not the only ones being imbued with proper knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors regarding sex. Their parents are learning a lot too (and obviously, future generations down the road will continue perpetuating this virtuous cycle as well):
In the Netherlands, schools aim to educate parents too. Parents nights are held to give parents tools to talk to their kids about sex. Public health experts recommend that parents take cues from their kids and make it an ongoing conversation, rather than one awkward, all-encompassing “birds and the bees” talk. For example, they advise, if you walk in on your child masturbating, don’t react shocked; don’t punish or scold them. Have a talk about where it is appropriate for such behavior to occur.
“We talk about [sex] over dinner”, said one father at a Spring Fever Parents Night. Another said he recently answered questions about homosexuality posed by his twin 6-year-olds during bath time.
In light of the clear success of the Dutch model, and the grim legacy of poor sex ed in the U.S. — high rates of abortion, teen pregnancy, and STDs by developed world standards — many jurisdictions in the country are experimenting with more comprehensive and open methodologies.
[The] tide is shifting toward an approach closer to that of the Dutch. Two of the largest school districts in the country — Chicago Public Schools and Florida’s Broward County — have recently mandated sex education for elementary school students. Chicago Public Schools requires at least 300 minutes a year of sex education for kindergarten through fourth grade students and twice as much time for fifth through twelfth graders. In the fall of 2015, schools in Broward County will teach sex education at least once a year in every grade, and the curriculum will include information about topics like body image, sexting and social media.
Most importantly, by taking into account all the feelings and nuances of sexuality — love, relationships, respect, dignity — the Dutch approach goes a long way in cultivating a healthier, deeper, and more well-adjusted mentality towards sex and all the complexities it brings. Consider this telling anecdote from one Dutch classroom of 11-year-olds.
There is an anonymous ‘Question Box’ in her class during “Spring Fever” week. Students submit questions that teachers later address in class. “Nothing is taboo”, Hasselaar says. One of her students, for example, wrote: “I think I am lesbian. What should I do?”
Hasselaar addressed the issue in class: “It’s not strange for some girls to like other girls more than boys. It’s a feeling that you can’t change, just like being in love. The only difference is that it’s with someone that is the same sex as you.”
And in fact, most of the questions from her students aren’t about sex at all. “Mostly they are curious about love. I get a lot of questions like, “What do I do if I like someone?” or ‘How do I ask someone to go out with me?'”
Questions like these are taken just as seriously as the ones about sex.
“Of course we want kids to be safe and to understand the risks involved with sex, but we also want them to know about the positive and fun side of caring for someone and being in a healthy relationship”, van der Vlugt says.
In the U.S., adults tend to view young people as these bundles of exploding hormones. In the Netherlands, there’s a strong belief that young people can be in love and in relationships”, says Amy Schalet, an American sociologist who was raised in the Netherlands and now studies cultural attitudes towards adolescent sexuality, with a focus on these two countries.
“If you see love and relationships as the anchor for sex, then it’s much easier to talk about it with a child”, Schalet says. “Even a young one”.
What a novel concept.