Picture this: You’re sitting in a room full of teenagers as the teacher gives a speech about the dangers of losing your virginity. She makes you chew a piece of gum and spit it out into the wrapper. “That’s what your virginity is,” she tells you, “It’ll never go back to the way it was before, no matter how much you want it to.” Unfortunately, this is close to the reality for most American teenagers today.
Sex education is a widely debated topic that is the often the subject of extreme discourse and controversy. Despite much evidence showing the correlation of safer sex to increased and regulated sex education in school, it remains a disregarded area of study in numerous countries, including the USA, with the majority of the states lacking sex education as a mandatory part of their curriculums, and a mere 13 of those states requiring the information to be scientifically accurate. What’s more is that people aged 15 to 24 make up only 25 percent of the American population, yet they accounted for 50 percent of all STDs reported in 2013. Although the US, in addition to many other countries, is lacking in proper sex education, some countries have taken strides to create a curriculum that can serve as a model for other nations, and in particular: the Netherlands.
The Dutch sex education curriculum is extraordinarily progressive compared to that of the USA. It takes an entirely different approach - one that emphasizes teaching children from a young age that sex is about relationships with both others and themselves rather than teaching only abstinence. From age 4, all children in Dutch schools receive compulsory classes that are adjusted to fit their age and comprehension level in regards to sexuality. These courses teach children to respect others’ boundaries, and describe sex in the context of a respectful, loving relationship. One of the earliest lessons revolves around consent. In a survey conducted in the US by the Guttmacher Institute, 29% of teenage boys and 54% of teenage girls stated that they had mixed feelings about and/or did not consent to their first intercourse. This contrasts sharply with Dutch teens, which when surveyed, around 85% stated that their first sexual experience was positive and enjoyable. When comparing these rates, it’s clear that the Dutch teenagers, who were taught about consent and safety, engaged in much safer and enjoyable sex.
In addition to teaching consent, the Netherlands also aims to raise awareness about gender roles in relation to teenage sexuality. Amy T. Schalet, author of a book about the difference in Dutch and American sex education, elaborates, “they leave room for boys to think of themselves as romantic, of having feelings. And it’s not that American boys aren’t romantic, it’s that everything in their culture tells them that they shouldn’t be.” Moreover, Dutch girls are taught to not be expected to take a passive role in sexual negotiations. They are taught to make their own choices about sexuality, not to feel pressured by boys or their friends. The Dutch curriculum also includes topics such as gender identity and sexual orientation, and many other realms which are considered taboo in the American curriculum.
To integrate these changes into schools that are in a similar state to those in the US, the first step would be figuring out the best way to introduce the topics that the Dutch cover. Luckily, there is a clear outline on how this is done, provided by Rutgers, the organization behind much of the Netherlands sex education curriculum. Rutgers’ sex education is geared to help young people make well-informed choices, and has been adopted by a number of local and international schools in the Netherlands. The appeal of their method comes from the use of direct, age-appropriate language and simple images.
Rutgers’ Spring Fever curriculum begins at age 4-5 discussing feelings, being a boy versus a girl, etc. At age 7, the classes cover ideas such as respect and attraction, and at age 8-9 same sex attractions are discussed. By age 10-11, topics include changes during puberty, love and dating, and the role of men and women in the media. This is followed by the 'Long Live Love' (Lang leve de liefde) curriculum, which aims to give teenagers the skills to make their own decisions and focuses not only on the biological aspects of reproduction (as is common in American schools) but also values, attitudes, communication, and negotiation skills. Incorporating this ideology into schools worldwide would not be easy, but with time, can be achieved.
As women, it should be of our utmost priority to focus on how sexual education globally is largely catered towards a heteronormative patriarchal society which views the topic as taboo or shameful. The Dutch system in particular is held in high regard to this issue - with consent and willingness being emphasised for girls in addition to addressing topics regarding gender and sexual orientation. The effects that an inadequate sex education on the views of teens regarding topics like consent, contraception, and their own bodies cannot be ignored. This is why we, as a global society, need to place more emphasis on ensuring that students are well-informed enough to make healthy decisions,and the Netherlands serves as a perfect model for what this looks like.