What the Dutch can teach us about our daughters and sex

By Peggy Orenstein
@peggyorenstein

Here’s a solution for parents concerned about their daughters’ sex lives: move to the Netherlands.

Okay, maybe that’s not the most practical advice. Perhaps, though, a little of the Netherlands can be moved to America. Because the Dutch seem to have it all figured out. While Americans have the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world, they have among the lowest. The US teen birth rate? Eight times higher than theirs, and the US teen abortion rate is 1.7 times higher.

Yes, there are some significant demographic differences that affect those numbers: the US is a more diverse nation than Holland, with higher rates of childhood poverty, fewer social welfare guarantees and more social conservatives. Yet even when controlling for all that, the difference holds. Consider a study comparing the early sexual experiences of four hundred randomly chosen American and Dutch women at two similar colleges—nearly all white, all middle class, with similar religious backgrounds. So, apples to apples.

The American girls had become sexually active at a younger age than the Dutch, had had more encounters with more partners and were less likely to use birth control. They were more likely to say they’d had first intercourse because of “opportunity” or pressure from friends or partners. In subsequent interviews with some of the participants, the Americans described interactions that were “driven by hormones,” in which boys determined relationships, male pleasure was prioritized and reciprocity was rare.

As for the Dutch girls? Their early sexual activity took place in loving, respectful relationships in which they communicated openly with their partners (whom they said they knew “very well”) about what felt good and what didn’t, about how “far” they wanted to go, and about what kind of protection they would need along the way. They reported more comfort with their bodies and their desires than the Americans and were more in touch with their own pleasure.

It’s enough to make you rush out to buy a pair of wooden shoes.

What’s their secret? The Dutch girls said that teachers and doctors had talked candidly to them about sex, pleasure and the importance of a loving relationship. More than that, though, there was a stark difference in how their parents approached those topics. The American girls’ moms had focused on the potential risks and dangers of sex, while their dads, if they said anything at all, stuck to lame jokes. Dutch parents, by contrast, had talked to their daughters from an early age about both the joys and responsibilities of intimacy. As a result, one Dutch girl said she told her mother immediately after her first intercourse, “because we talk very open[ly] about this. My friend’s mother also asked me how it was, if I had an orgasm and if he had one.”

The attitudes of the two nations weren’t always so far apart. According to Amy Schalet, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts and author of Not Under My Roof, in the late 1960s the Dutch, like Americans, roundly disapproved of premarital sex. The sexual revolution transformed attitudes in both countries, but whereas American parents and policymakers responded by treating teen sex as a health crisis, the Dutch went another way: they consciously embraced it as natural, though requiring proper guidance. Their government made pelvic exams, birth control and abortion free to anyone under 22, with no requirements for parental consent.

By the 1990s, when Americans were shoveling millions into the maw of useless abstinence-only education, Dutch teachers (and parents) were busy discussing the positive aspects of sex and relationships, as well as anatomy, reproduction, disease prevention, contraception and abortion. They emphasized respect for self and others in intimate encounters, and openly addressed masturbation, oral sex, homosexuality and orgasm. When a Dutch national poll found that most teenagers still believed that boys should be the more active partner during sex, the government added “interaction” skills to its sex ed curricula, such as how to let “the other person know exactly what feels good” and how to set boundaries.

By 2005, four out of five Dutch youth said that their first sexual experiences were well timed, within their control and fun. Eighty-six percent of girls and 93% of boys agreed that “We both were equally eager to have it.” Compare that to the United States, where two-thirds of sexually experienced teenagers say they wish they had waited longer to have intercourse for the first time.

It’s not just about sex, though—according to Schalet, there’s a fundamental difference in the countries’ conceptions of how teenagers become adults. American parents consider adolescents to be innately rebellious, in thrall to their “raging hormones.” We respond by cracking down on them, setting stringent limits, forbidding or restricting any behavior that might lead to sex or substance use. We end up with a self-fulfilling prophecy: teens assert independence by breaking rules, rupturing their relationships with parents, separating from the family. Sex, which typically involves sneaking around or straight-up lying, becomes a vehicle through which to do that.

An American sex educator named Charis Denison, for instance, told me that roughly half the questions she fields from students about parents involve how to get contraception or testing for sexually transmitted diseases without Mom and Dad finding out; the other half are on how to bring up sensitive issues so they will actually listen. Both speak to a rift between teenagers and those who love them most—one we parents more or less create. Girls, Schalet said, are particularly suffer, wrestling with the incompatibility of remaining a “good daughter” while becoming sexual. They end up either lying to their parents or copping to their behavior but keeping it invisible, outside the home. Either way, closeness can be compromised.

Dutch teens, on the other hand, remain closely connected to parents, growing up in an atmosphere of gezelligheid, a word most Americans can’t even pronounce, which Schalet translates loosely as “cozy togetherness.” Parents and teens are expected to discuss the children’s psychological and emotional development, including their burgeoning sexual drives. As part of that, Dutch parents permit—wait for it—co-ed sleepovers, which are rare in the US or UK, except in the most progressive circles. A full two-thirds of Dutch teens 15 to 17 with a steady boyfriend or girlfriend report that the person was welcome to spend the night in their bedrooms.

That’s not to say that it’s a free-for-all over there. Quite the opposite: the Dutch actively discourage promiscuity in their children, teaching that sex should emerge from a loving relationship. Negotiating the ground rules for sleepovers, while not always easy (parents admit to a period of “adjustment” and some embarrassment), provides yet another opportunity to exert influence, reinforce ethics and emphasize the need for protection.

And you can’t really argue with the results.

Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein is published by Oneworld.

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This piece is part of our Motherwell essay series based on Peggy Orenstein’s Girls & Sex.