Teenage sexuality has been a frequent topic of conversation lately with my friends and colleagues who have teenage or nearly-teenage children. We immigrants to the Netherlands are confronted with an attitude toward sex that is very different than we’re used to. That difference can be, frankly, shocking at first, and forces us to confront the assumptions we make about teenagers and their sexuality.I decided to write about it today after reading a blog post by Tes Solomon Silverman. In it, she wonders when it’s time to stop her daughter from spending time alone with a friend who’s male.
I moved here from the US with my family 17 years ago. My daughter was only four when we arrived, and my son, now 15, was born here. That meant I had time to acclimate to the Dutch way of doing things, and I certainly needed that time.
To start with, the Dutch are very open about their bodies and sex. TV programs and commercials show nudity, if only briefly, as a matter of course. Schools teach children about where babies come from very early – and without asking permission from or informing the parents ahead of time.
In the equivalent of US seventh or eighth grade, when the kids are 12 or 13 years old, they learn about sex in biology class. And I don’t mean in the coy way that might happen in other countries, where the actual what-goes-where details are left out. I mean with drawings. And I mean with complete and thorough explanations of various forms of birth control. And when I say “complete and thorough,” I mean the teacher demonstrates how to put a condom onto a dildo.
But the really surprising part is the way most parents deal with their children’s burgeoning sexuality: they accept it.
I don’t know what goes on behind closed doors, but I assume there’s some pretty open discussion about personal boundaries in Dutch households. I know that I spoke to my children about the emotional aspects of sex. I didn’t want them to see it as a purely mechanical thing, but as something that they need to be emotionally ready for. I wanted them to be able to say “no” if they’re not ready, but also to accept and respect “no” from a girlfriend or boyfriend who’s not ready. And I wanted them, if they chose to have sex, to keep it safe.
What I do know is that here, if a teenager wants to have sex with his/her boy/girlfriend, they are allowed to. The parents provide condoms. The parents even let the other kid sleep over, provided it’s okay with his or her parents (I assume they all check, though I don’t actually know that.)
This probably seems shocking, if you grew up in the US. It certainly did to me, when my husband told me years ago that when our kids were teenagers and felt ready he’d be fine with their girl/boyfriend sleeping over. I wasn’t fine with it!
The longer I’ve lived here, though, the more I’ve come to believe that this makes perfect sense, and jibes with the very pragmatic Dutch approach to other issues like prostitution and marijuana.
We all know that what’s forbidden is by definition what teenagers want to do. So what do they do? Think about what you did when you were, say, 16 years old. Teenagers in the US have sex, whether their parents want them to or not. Saying “not under my roof” doesn’t stop it from happening.
The sex they have, though, is more likely to be rather desperate and sordid (back seats of cars, for example) and unsafe, both emotionally and physically. For the teenagers involved, it becomes more a matter of defying their parents or taking a dare than of experimenting in private with feelings of love and trust and sensuality.
The statistics back this up: in the US, the adolescent live birth rate is 31 live births per 1000 girls age 15-19 (according to the World Bank). Keep in mind that that’s just the ones who carry the baby to term, and doesn’t include however many pregnancies end in abortions.
Here in the Netherlands, many – perhaps most – parents don’t forbid pre-marital sex. Instead, they discuss sex openly and honestly with their children, and it’s addressed honestly in school as well. This message – that it’s the teenager’s decision and is not forbidden – means, I suspect, that it loses some of the excitement: the lure of the forbidden.
And it works: the teenage live birth rate in the Netherlands is 6, among the lowest in the world. Though it’s notoriously difficult to know for sure, indications are that Dutch teenagers, despite being told more about sex, actually become sexually active later than US teens, and they use birth control more consistently.
So perhaps we shouldn’t be so worried about our kids spending time alone with the opposite sex. Perhaps instead we should arm them with information, support, understanding, and condoms, and trust that they’ll make decisions that are right for them.
What do you think? Do you subscribe to the not-under-my-roof approach? How have you dealt with this issue with your teenager, or how are you planning to deal with it when your kids reach that age?