A still from 1948 sex-ed film Human Growth. Source: Public domain.
When I was in middle school, my P.E. teacher taught my health class’ unit on sex education. It took one hour: I learned (more than once) that abstinence was the only foolproof way to protect yourself against pregnancy and STIs, that genital herpes was akin to the plague, and that heterosexual sex was the only kind of sex.
Aside from a brief mention of the clitoris, and that its only reason for existing is pleasure, the lesson’s message was clear: There are a ton of consequences that come with having sex. And they aren’t pretty.
Paltry sex education like mine is the norm in public schools across the United States: 37 states require abstinence education as part of their sex-ed curriculum. On the flip side, only 13 states even require discussion of sexual orientation in sex-ed class. But a new generation of sexual health advocates are working to change that. In October, California passed the Comprehensive Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Prevention Education Act—a law that requires all schools to teach some form of comprehensive sex education in middle school and in high school. Under the new law, schools have to address sexual assault, harassment, and abortion, and they also must discuss LGBTQ identity in a way that’s “unbiased and affirming.” The new law means abstinence-only sex-ed is prohibited. Schools will instead adopt a curriculum that’s meant to “encourage a pupil to develop healthy attitudes concerning adolescent growth and development, body image, gender roles, sexual orientation, dating, marriage, and family.” This builds on a law passed in September 2014 that made California the first state to define affirmative sexual consent, leading to the integration of consent in high school sex education classes.
“Our schools are a critical environment for providing young people with the knowledge and skills that they will need to protect their sexual health,” Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) said in a statement. “This is about empowering all young men and women—whatever their orientation or gender—to make the healthiest decisions possible.”
In recent years, federal funding has turned away from abstinence-based sex-ed to evidence-based education.
So what does “comprehensive sex education” look like? The Netherlands provides a good example. Sex education in the Netherlands goes beyond risks and mechanics to discuss identity and body image. And it doesn’t just begin in middle school.
For a week every March, it’s “Spring Fever” in Netherland’s elementary schools: Four-year-olds discuss love and nakedness and bodily autonomy, eight-year-olds discuss gender stereotypes and body image. Eleven-year-olds discuss the best way to break up with someone (not through text!) and sexual orientation and contraceptive options.
It’s what the Netherlands calls comprehensive “sexuality education”—a program spearheaded by Rutgers WPF, a Dutch sexuality research institute. And though the law permits some flexibility, all schools in the Netherlands are required to provide some sort of comprehensive sexuality education—which requires addressing topics such as sexual diversity and sexual agency. The goal is clear: to encourage acceptance and respect for all sexual preferences and to give children the tools to protect themselves against sexual abuse, coercion, and intimidation. Although the United States and the Netherlands are similar in wealth and education, the United States has one the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the Western world, while the Netherlands boasts one of the lowest. Dutch teenagers have fewer abortions, fewer HIV and STD infections, and a higher overall rate of birth control use.
They also seem to have better sex. Researchers found that among 12 to 25 year olds in the Netherlands, most reported “fun and wanted” first sexual experiences. Compare that with American teenagers, and the reality is sad: A whopping 66 percent reported they wished they’d waited longer to have sex.
These numbers are likely due, in part, to the fact that Dutch teenagers can easily purchase condoms from vending machines and birth control is free for anyone under the age of 21. But a recent study by Georgetown University showed that sex education might also have something to do with it: The earlier kids began sex education, the fewer unintended pregnancies, maternal deaths, unsafe abortions, and STDs occur. That doesn’t mean the Netherland’s sexuality education model is perfect: For instance, why wait until children are eight years old to speak to them about the social construction of gender—especially when research tells us that children begin identifying appropriate “girl” and “boy” behaviors at four years old? Also, might 11 be a little late to begin talking about different sexual identities, when kids are exposed to homophobic ideas well before their pre-teen years?
Nonetheless, Netherlands' sexual progressiveness—this idea that information and discussion about sex shouldn’t be withheld from young people—is impressive. And, according to a Rutgers short documentary, Dutch Lessons on Love, the country has a history of sexual openness. When the birth control pill was introduced to the market in the '60s, for instance, Dutch pharmaceutical companies widely accepted it, making Dutch women the highest percentage of birth control users in the world. Even Bishop Bekkers, a popular bishop at the time, spoke publicly about the importance of family planning within Catholic familys, encouraging the spacing out of childrens’ births.
According to the documentary, organizations like the Dutch Association for Sexual Reform and the Rutgers Foundation (both founded in the '60s) also contributed to Netherlands' sex-positivity. They provided contraception, as well as walk-in clinics and sexuality education for young people—including educational cartoons for children.
There’s also a difference in how families discuss sexuality in the United States and the Netherlands. “In the U.S… there’s a lot more ambivalence about whether or not young people at 14, 15, 16 can form love, whether they should,” Amy Schalet, associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told Truthout. Schalet is also the author of the book, Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex, which focuses on the differences between the United States and the Netherlands. “So therefore sexuality remains this sort of unanchored force; it’s not contained in some ways within the context of an established sexual relationship.”
Another factor, Schalet explains, is the religious right: After all, even in a country that’s moving away from religion, the “purity ball” movement began only a few years ago.
Sex education in the United States is changing. Since Obama became president, the federal government has quietly shifted funding from abstinence-only sex-ed to evidence-based sex-ed. There’s a growing movement of advocates and educators pushing for comprehensive sex education that looks more like the Netherlands’ model. California’s new law is proof of that. Let's hope other states follow suit—every kid deserves an education that will help them be their most healthy, safe, and empowered sexual selves.