In The Netherlands Sexuality Education Starts At Age 4

Did you learn about sex with an awkward talk from a parent or by watching porn?

Recently, I’ve covered a few topics related to porn, which sent me down the internet rabbit hole of porn addiction. I found this Cambridge study on porn addiction that led me to a television documentary, Porn On The Brain. The British documentary from Channel 4 discusses that Cambridge study, and it carefully tries not to fuel the moral outrage against pornography. However, the sheer amount of porn available to children online raised concerns about addiction in Porn On The Brain. The social growth of the late 60s and 70s paved the way for Playboy and other adult magazines to be prevalent in grocery stores in my youth. Adult stores were no longer relegated to the “bad” part of town, and the hilariously named “Family Video” rental stores in the Midwest had sizeable porn sections. In those days store owners and clerks were the gatekeepers. Today, all kids have to do is search online.

As the host of the TV Documentary, Martin Daubney, looks for solutions to the problem of addiction he meets some city council women who feel that schools should start teaching sex education at an early age. Enter the final stop in the rabbit hole I created for myself, PBS NewsHour. The link has an excellent story on sex education in the Netherlands, much of which is provided by Rutgers. An organization for sexual and reproductive health rights, Rutgers, has experts focused on research, advocacy and education. Ineke van der Vlugt, is one of the experts from Rutgers featured in the PBS article.

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.”

In contrast, sex education in the U.S. focuses on preventing STDs and unwanted pregnancies. The article goes on to explain how few U.S. schools actually have a sex education program. Young people are then forced to seek other sources for information about sexuality, like porn. Just as any scene you pick from the Fast and the Furious series defies the laws of physics, porn is far from reality. Therefore, pornography is a poor source. Furthermore, giving students advice on abstinence & disease prevention are not enough. Kids should actually be taught about intimacy and their bodies.

While you think it might be difficult to talk to small children about sexuality, the curriculum is far more than just explaining the act of making babies. For example, this lesson plan is a discussion on being naked. The lessons are built on being open and discussing emotions, rather than indicating that something is forbidden or taboo. In fact, one teacher mentioned in the piece has an anonymous question box in her classroom. She answers questions about sexuality, love and getting someone to go out with you.

“People often think we are starting right away to talk about sexual intercourse [with kindergartners],” van der Vlugt says. “Sexuality is so much more than that. It’s also about self image, developing your own identity, gender roles, and it’s about learning to express yourself, your wishes and your boundaries.”

The system is noteworthy because it has proof to back it up. Netherlands has a significantly lower teen pregnancy rate, “nine out of ten Dutch adolescents used contraceptives the first time.” On top of that, the article points to World Health Organization data that illustrates that Dutch teens don’t have sex any sooner than other kids in Europe or the States and that the teens in Netherlands actually enjoy their first sexual experiences.

Of course, sexual education isn’t the sole responsibility of the schools. Parents have to be willing to participate in open and frank discussions 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.

That’s amazing advice that rails against the cliché chat about sex that makes us groan. As I looked for other recommendations for talking to children about sex, I was surprised by how many sites seemed to promote avoidance. I saw terrible advice consisting of suggestions to skip naming the body parts pertaining to sex and telling children to ignore the x-rated internet ad they saw because it is for adults. Children are curious, so we should be providing the best possible answers.

I encourage you to have a look at the PBS NewsHour story on sexuality education, but if you found this article because you’re looking for answers I have some other suggestions. If you’ve got personal questions, try The Awkward Human Survival Guide. You can send anonymous question to the show by going to awkward.email. Those of you seeking advice for talking to your children about sex, might want to have a look at amaze.org. AMAZE has short animated videos to help break the ice with children, so that you can have meaningful conversations about sexuality.