The double-Dutch standard in Sex Ed

Secular, not sexular: why straight-talk about sex is wishful thinking

By Betsy Middleton

Talking about sex sounds like the kind of thing that Dutch people, known for their no-nonsense pragmatism and ‘directness’, would do well. Not least in schools.

The Netherlands is famous for its uncomplicated approach to the kind of ethical sensitivities that cause consternation in other countries. Grown-up ideas about sex are reflected by the corresponding savviness in public policy. Prostitution is carefully regulated, and taxed. The Dutch were first to legalise gay marriage in 2001. Amsterdam, especially, enjoys a global reputation as ‘The’ gay capital. 

Next to this supposedly enlightened attitude, Dutch lawmakers appear serious about protecting individual rights too. In February 2021, the senate - de Eerste Kamer, entrenched a constitutional ban on discrimination by extending Article 1, which explicitly forbids discrimination on grounds of religion, conscience, political affiliation, race or sex. The amendment adding disability and sexual orientation was adopted by a handsome majority of 58-15, reported public broadcaster NoS.

All this could augur well for Sex Ed, a section of the school curriculum where public policy meets the private belief systems of family, religion and personal sexual preferences. The Dutch example in reproductive health education set an impressive precedent, frequently adopted by other countries (including the UK) as a template for an inclusive, informative curriculum for schools. 

According to Rutgers Institute, a foundation, teaching young people to think about the context of their own and others’ ways of life can prepare them “to respectfully deal with sexuality and diversity within society, including sexual diversity” - leert respectvol om te gaan met seksualiteit en met diversiteit binnen de Samenleving.

With the exception of Muslim girls, girls talk a lot more about sex than boys - Lang Leve de Liefde, handbook for schools

From this solid foundation, the principles of inclusive, informative and (this is the crux of the issue) ‘appropriate’ follow. You might expect that Sex Ed would be an exception from the Dutch tendency to a parochial exceptionalism in what passes for the national conversation on culture, race and identity politics. 

Alas, not. 

Ample evidence confirms that what young people learn about sex in school is routinely adapted and adjusted on the basis of cultural assumptions about minorities or religious beliefs (especially Islam). On closer inspection, the reality is far from ‘inclusive’ of all students. Sex Ed is culturally biased in ways that belie its best principles and defer to a crude stereotyping of immigrants and non-white ethnicities. 

Not ‘appropriate’ 

If Sex Ed too often fails the test of cultural sensitivity, the fault can’t be blamed on the curriculum. In fact, no concrete curriculum exists. Official guidance for education in reproductive health relies, instead, on ‘attainment targets’ - Kerndoelen basisonderwijs -  determined by central government. 

Official targets require pupils to learn about “similarities, differences and changes in culture and ideologies” in the Netherlands - overeenkomsten, verschillen en veranderingen in cultuur. Such criteria reflect a liberal discourse around sexuality, but what happens in classrooms can reflect less high-minded perceptions of cultural, ethnic or religious identity. 

A recent study of two high schools found both had emphasised or ignored issues such as homosexuality and virginity. Approaches varied in ways that effectively reinforced ethnic stereotypes: in ethnically diverse classes, for example, teachers routinely gave greater emphasis to lessons on virginity and sexual diversity. The same issues were often neglected in predominantly white classes. 

Freed from the influence of Christian conservatism, Dutch society grew suspicious of socially conservative influences - especially Islam - from immigration 

One teacher dismissed a homophobic incident between two boys as “just kids being young”. A handbook widely used in Dutch schools, Lang Leve de Liefde - Long Live Love, ascribed social behaviours to religious and sexual identities: “With the exception of Muslim girls, girls talk a lot more about sex than boys” - met uitzondering van Islamitische meisjes praten meisjes veel vaker over seks dan jongens

A booklet distributed in Islamic schools in Rotterdam, Help! Ik word volwassen, was withdrawn amid concerns that it described homosexuality as a sin, reported NoS. “Teaching material specifically for Muslims is superfluous. Such booklets are static, it says what it says. While social norms and values ​​shift every ten years,” a director of Islamic schools in Amsterdam told Parool.

Teachers were understandably wary of provoking parents, reported Volkskrant. Many assumed that strictly religious families object to discussion of sex in schools. Others underestimated or ignored what young people were told at home. When a female teacher told her multicultural class of hairdressing students that ideas about the hymen were a biological myth, “a large number...mostly Moroccan girls, panicked”, noted a researcher at University of Amsterdam. 

For a generation glued to their screens, perhaps more even than the rest of us, educators have vested high hopes in technology. Jihad Alariachi, columnist for Dutch-Moroccan online forum maroc.nl, who answers anonymous questions from young Moslem readers on sensitive sexual topics, said the “shame and boundaries” - de schaamte en grenzen - differed between Dutch families and those of Moroccan descent.

In Trouw, Monique de Heer described the experience of a software developer who built a digital tool to support Sex Ed. Digital learning was seen as a route to connect with immigrant families, who rarely spoke about the sex: “Er zijn met name allochtone gezinnen waar weinig over het onderwerp wordt gesproken,” commented the developer. 

The paradox in Pim Fortuyn

Acceptance of sexual diversity is often seen as deeply ingrained in Dutch society, but the claim to sexual tolerance as a ‘traditionally’ Dutch trait - a national value - dates from a period known as “depillarisation”, the process of social and political change after the Second World War. 

By the 1960s, the historical authority of churches and other social institutions had yielded to rapid secularisation. Many traditional arbiters of ethical choices were displaced by this new attachment to individual freedoms and an emerging notion of Dutchness premised on secular government. Observance of religious teaching on personal and social issues felt non-Dutch, at least to the non-religious. 

In contrast, sex was crucial to that secular national identity. Ideals of sexual tolerance became so important to Dutch policy-makers that a question on attitudes to homosexuality was added to the citizenship test for migrants seeking asylum.

Freed from the influence of Christian conservatism, the mainstream of Dutch society is openly suspicious of socially and sexually conservative influences - especially Islam - from immigration. Hostile attitudes to immigrants and religious minorities routinely demonstrate suspicion of the social conservatism in Islamic teaching.

A growing body of anecdotal and research evidence argues that the attitudes, behaviours and preferences of ‘white Dutch’ dominate SexEd in schools

None of this is unique to the Netherlands, of course. Yet these tensions may be more obvious in Dutch society than in the Netherlands’ near-neighbours. The default mode for ‘modern’ Dutch society is a hybrid notion: the heady cocktail of sexual freedom spiked with a stiff secularism. 

No more potent symbol of this sexually progressive, anti-immigration identity exists than the late Pim Fortuyn, a politician murdered a few days before the general election in 2002. An openly gay former academic and repentant Marxist, Fortuyn left the Socialist Party to campaign on a nationalist, eurosceptic, anti-immigration ticket. His Pim Fortuyn List won 17% of the ballot, a posthumous transformation of the Dutch political landscape. 

‘Sexularism’

A more optimistic way of looking at the obstacles to effective Sex Ed in classrooms might be to turn the telescope around. Before the Netherlands can truly live up to its liberal ideals, proponents of more inclusive Sex Ed must first reconcile the Dutch attachment to sexual liberation with essentially conservative attitudes to cultural integration. 

If this contradiction in the national self-image were acknowledged more readily, Sex Ed could become a stepping stone to more meaningful diversity in the Netherlands: a remedy, in part, for underlying problems of social exclusion.

Such tensions are not unique to the Netherlands; but the paradox is unusually visible in Dutch society, much more than in its more populous western European neighbours. In classrooms, despite high-minded notions of respect for diversity, Sex Ed has tended often to reinforce behaviours and prejudices of the ‘white Dutch’ mainstream. 

There’s the rub. An unintended consequence of the Netherlands’ world-leading early legalisation of same-sex marriage, and the mostly relaxed gay scene in the metropolitan centres, was to entrench a sense of national superiority. It’s precisely that achievement, the embrace of liberalisation as a building block of modernity, that reinforced an insular nationalism. 

A real liberal - and singularly Dutch - dilemma. 

In the phrase often attributed to the 12th-century Cistercian abbot Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153): the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Among the Netherlands’ non-white ‘others’, groups who don't embrace the secular ideal, the risks of ostracism are high - especially in ethnically diverse classrooms. The idea of a secular state, untrammelled by religious dogma, has become essential to Dutch identity - but loyalty to that ideal has come at a price. 

One index to gauge that price is the credibility and influence of the populist politician Geert Wilders, whose anti-immigration PvV, Freedom Party was until March 2021 the official opposition, and still the third-largest group in parliament. Wilders’s commentary on the “non-Dutch values” of citizens who are not ethnically white resonates with a large part of the Dutch population.

In surveys, more than half of respondents reported an aversion to Islam, while up to 80% consider the integration of Muslims into Dutch society has failed. For an account of Wilders’s racially charged evaluation of the anti-lockdown riots, see A separate development

Liberal values may be crucial to the Dutch conception of Dutchness, but they have not diminished a deeply rooted racism that surfaces in almost every aspect of Dutch life, from SexEd to - notoriously - the government algorithms exposed by the Belastingdienst child benefit scandal (see: On track to come back: Rutte’s bloodless finale).

At the mutable centre-ground of Dutch politics, the thorny question of what to do about racism is already a point of intense argument between coalition parties. Perhaps parliament is the wrong forum for that discussion, or just not up to the task. Meanwhile, “Could Do Better” is a fair assessment for the state of ‘Sexularism’ in schools.

Betsy Middleton is a postgraduate student in the social science of technology and guest correspondent for 2nd Opinion.

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