How effective is the Dutch approach to teen sex?

Salon staff writer Tracy Clark-Flory thinks Americans need to be more like the Dutch when it comes to teenage sex. In a recent column, she wrote that Dutch parents can teach their U.S. counterparts about “respect and acceptance of teenage sexuality.”

Clark-Flory finds her views supported by a couple of studies, including one from 2003 that showed two-thirds of Dutch girls age 15-17 are allowed to spend the night with boys in their own bedrooms:

Dutch parents… downplay the dangerous and difficult sides of teenage sexuality, tending to normalize it. They speak of readiness (er aan toe zijn), a process of becoming physically and emotionally ready for sex that they believe young people can self-regulate, provided they’ve been encouraged to pace themselves and prepare adequately. Rather than emphasizing gender battles, Dutch parents talk about sexuality as emerging from relationships and are strikingly silent about gender conflicts. And unlike Americans who are often skeptical about teenagers’ capacities to fall in love, they assume that even those in their early teens fall in love. They permit sleepovers, even if that requires an “adjustment” period to overcome their feelings of discomfort, because they feel obliged to stay connected and accepting as sex becomes part of their children’s lives.

More generally, the country’s “moral rules cast sexuality as a part of life that should be governed by self-determination, mutual respect, frank conversation, and the prevention of unintended consequence.” It’s no coincidence that the country has also secured easy access (for both teens and adults) to contraceptives and other sexual healthcare.

Clark-Flory points out that Dutch teens have far fewer STDs than Americans and that U.S. teen births are eight times higher. That didn’t surprise her — her own parents let her boyfriend sleep over a lot, too:

My point is that I was allowed an unusual degree of autonomy over my own sex life. Instead of sneaking out of the house to have sex in the backseat of a car, I was engaging in playful exploration in my childhood bedroom with my first love — and my parents were right across the hall the whole time. I had no sense that sex was a naughty or shameful act; it was a fun and meaningful activity to which I felt fully entitled. And you know what? I consistently used condoms, I was on birth control pills and I insisted that both of us were tested for STDs.

I guess if all that matters is STDs and birthrates, Clark-Flory may have a point. Of course, there’s a lot more to the emotional and spiritual health of developing human beings. 

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Zoe Romanowsky is writer, consultant, and coach. Her articles have appeared in "Catholic Digest," "Faith & Family," "National Catholic Register," "Our Sunday Visitor," "Urbanite," "Baltimore Eats," and Godspy.com. Zo

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