Op-eds, Opinions

Frankel ’20: The Dutch don’t have sex earlier, they just have sex smarter

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Op-ed Contributor
Friday, February 14, 2020

“Isabel sent a topless picture to her whole class?”

Dumbfounded, eight-year-old me stared at my six-year-old cousin’s birthday invite. She had painted a big six across her chest and belly, striking a pose and pointing at her torso with a huge grin. Isabel and I had a lot in common. We both inherited our grandma’s curly hair and drove our families crazy with ceaseless singing. We watched the same movies, read the same books and both loved Special K with strawberries. But this, I would never do.

Despite our similar upbringings and shared genetics, our fundamental difference is that Isabel grew up in the Netherlands, and I grew up in the United States. It wasn’t until years after the birthday invite that I began to recognize my reactions to Dutch culture, like this, to be signs of the puritanical values deeply woven into my worldview. Eight-year-old me did not yet realize that there should be nothing sexual about a six-year-old’s chest.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized more and more that behaviors I grew up seeing as “weird” or “inappropriate” reveal a fundamentally different view of bodies and sexuality, and I’ve begun to recognize that there’s something to the Dutch mentality. It could even help us move past some of our American hypocrisy and public health crises.

The Dutch are known to be sensible and straightforward, and the way they handle bodies and sexuality is no exception. The Netherlands’ recognition that sexuality is a normal part of human development has created an education model that promotes informed choices, consent and self-advocacy. It has also been able to maintain one of the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the world. By contrast, the U.S. has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates amongst developed nations. According to a 2011 National Institutes of Health study, the US had 72.2 pregnancies per 1,000 teenage girls, while the Netherlands had 11.8. Our rates have lowered slightly since then, but our pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection rates are still among the highest in the developed world.

While American liberals and conservatives alike want to fix this unacceptable status, their approaches are polarized. Generally, liberals push for more comprehensive sex education, while conservatives advocate for abstinence-only programs. Our lack of standardization and polarized approaches to sex education have resulted in scattered requirements and contradictory laws across states.

The conservative approach has dominated the federal government’s strategy. Until former President Barack Obama advocated for funding to science-backed sex education programs, the only federal funding went toward abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. According to Sex Ed for Social Change, Congress put more than two billion dollars into AOUM programs that withhold information about contraceptives and STIs and often rely on scare tactics to promote abstinence as the only option.

The Trump administration is actively shifting funding back toward the abstinence-only approach. President Trump is appointing abstinence-only crusaders across the board, such as Valerie Huber, a senior policy advisor at the Office of Global Affairs in the Department of Health and Human Services.  Huber is notorious for “cherry-picking findings and dismissing large bodies of scientific theory,” according to Jesseca Boyer, senior policy manager at the Guttmacher Institute.

Huber and I are in complete agreement on her belief that “abstinence only” is the only certain way to avoid unwanted pregnancies and STIs. Absolutely. Teens who choose abstinence have hands down the lowest pregnancy and STI rates. But Huber chooses to ignore that not all teens are choosing abstinence. The simple fact is that states like Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, that heavily emphasize abstinence, also have some of the highest unwanted teen pregnancy rates. Coincidence? Perhaps not.

Advocates for comprehensive sex education align much more with the Dutch model. Like the Dutch, these advocates propose to arm adolescents with accurate, evidence-based information and awareness of resources.

But the Dutch are still one step ahead. Even the most comprehensive sex ed in the US tends to overwhelmingly focus on danger and risk prevention for heteronormative sexual activities. The Dutch cover the risks — thoroughly — but they go beyond risk prevention. “We (Americans) have failed to see that sexual health is far more than simply the prevention of disease or unplanned pregnancy,” said Deb Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit dedicated to sexuality education. Hauser and other proponents of the Dutch model favor its “broader emphasis on young people’s rights, responsibility and respect that many public health experts say is the foundation of sexual health.”

Liberals and conservatives alike are often alarmed to hear that Dutch sexuality education begins in kindergarten. It’s important to clarify what these conversations with four-year-olds sound like. Ineke van der Vlugt, an expert on youth sexual development at Rutgers WPF, the Dutch sexuality research institute behind the sexuality education curriculum, clarifies: “You’ll never hear an explicit reference to sex in a kindergarten class. In fact, what’s being taught here is sexuality education rather than sex education. That’s because the goal is bigger than that, … It’s about self image, developing your own identity, gender roles, and it’s about learning to express yourself, your wishes and your boundaries.”

A teacher might ask, “Who here has been in love?” or “How does it feel when someone you like hugs you versus a stranger?” These questions prime the kids on concepts like consent, boundaries and self-advocacy. It’s not until age 11 that conversations around contraceptives and STIs enter the classroom. Interestingly, my progressive San Francisco sex ed also introduced contraceptives and STI information when we were eleven, but we had not been previously primed to cover these topics in a mature and empathetic way like the Dutch.

What’s the result of beginning these conversations early on in a child’s life? Perhaps a lot of good. A Rutgers WPF study found that when Dutch teens do begin having sex “nine out of 10 Dutch adolescents used condoms the first time.” What’s more, when surveyed, most of these teens report “wanted and fun” first experiences, while two-thirds of sexually active American teens surveyed said they wished that they’d waited longer to have sex for the first time.

While many conservatives worry that earlier sexual education may lead to earlier instances of sexual activity, in reality, Dutch teens are not having sex earlier than American teens. The average age is about the same for both countries, hovering around 17 to 18 years old. It is a fundamental misunderstanding to think that arming teens with information encourages them to start sooner.

It’s also crucial to understand that too often, becoming sexually active is not the teen’s choice. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association of Internal Medicine found that “almost 7 percent of women surveyed said their first sexual intercourse experience was involuntary; it happened at age 15 on average, and the man was often several years older.” This disturbing study underscores the importance of the Dutch model. Teens need to be empowered with the knowledge of resources and awareness of their right to self-advocacy.

Dutch reform to sexuality education is fairly recent. During the sexual revolution in the late sixties, the Dutch, very much like the Americans, “roundly disapproved of premarital sex,” according to Amy Schalet, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts. The revolution was tumultuous in both countries, but while “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,”  wrote Peggy Orenstein in her book “Girls and Sex.”

If we can look past our ideals and at the data, it’s hard to argue with the progress the Netherlands has made in a short time. Our crisis is not teen sexuality. Our crisis is our neglect to handle it sensibly. The conservative approach to sex education continues to fail American teens, and the liberal approach — though on the right track — has yet to move beyond risk prevention. It’s not too late to reverse the effects of the misinformed, fear driven reaction in the ’60s. Let’s shed some of our puritanical hypocrisy — the hypocrisy that makes us comfortable to watch hypersexualized Hollywood images yet squeamish with basic conversations about love, respect, bodies and health — and replace it with a little more straightforward Dutch sense.

Allison Frankel ’20 can be reached at allison_frankel@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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