Over the last couple of years I’ve noted articles in the English press about the very liberal Dutch attitude to sex education and its apparent connection to good things like a low rate of teenage pregnancy, and an older age at which they start having sex (compared to Britain anyway.)
I see that the Guardian is on the topic again, with a Comment is Free column headed “Let’s talk about sex – to four year olds”.
Mind you, the actual kindergarten “sex talk” at that age is relatively mild:
My son won't bring home the leaflet "Sex Yes, Worries No", about the use of contraceptives, until he is at least 10. He wouldn't be able to read it at the moment anyway. But his teachers will be talking about cuddling, friendship, newborn lambs in the fields and the differences between boys and girls. And his class might be visited by pregnant women and nursing mothers with their babies.
But the article, and the commentary following, is more noteworthy for its general discussion of the difference between Dutch attitudes to the role of government generally, and how it seemingly combines (despite its tourist reputation) social conservatism with very liberal inclinations towards government. As the article notes:
The Netherlands has a lurid reputation abroad when it comes to sex. Everyone knows about the red light district in Amsterdam and legalised prostitution. So it might come as a surprise to some to hear that deep down, the Dutch are very conservative people who take sex seriously. Very seriously, in fact. Sex education has traditionally been an important part of the school curriculum here. Lentekriebels is in line with the Dutch tradition of assigning to schoolteachers responsibilities that might elsewhere be handled within the family. As my teacher in primary school in the 1970s told me: "If your parents don't bring you up properly, our school has to do the job for them." The issue then was not sex but prayer (we didn't pray at home), but the principle is the same. Parents are not to be trusted to do a good job and sex is a danger zone, like drugs or smoking.
In comments there is a bit of a theme that it is the fact of their conservatism, in the sense that they take sex seriously, and generally have a much more stable family life, that accounts for the lower teenage pregnancy rate compared to Britain. (This was noted in an article I quoted from in a previous post.) In the current Guardian piece, this comment I found interesting:
If the Dutch are so conservative then that is the answer as to why a Dutch style of sex education won't work over here. The Dutch, like the Scandinavians are disciplined and conservative in the first place. That is how 'socialist' welfare states and low teenage pregnancy rates come about. And even conservatism can extend to helping others regardless, this is not socialism, but more like the Polder model. Polder models (and thus good welfare states) can often be seen where there is a harsh adversity, ie the weather which draws people together and cooperate.
Another comment from someone (from England, I assume) who lives in Holland:
It seems to be a fair conclusion to say that the effects and success of sex education in any country is highly dependent on the broader social attitudes to be found there.
2. "Teenage mothers" Any girl under 21 is considered a teenage mother. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen anyone under 16 on the street with a pram containing their own child. And yes, if a girl under 18 is pregnant, her parents need to prove that they can support their child and grandchild emotionally and financially to stop that child being taken into care. Children have to be in education until they are 18 and after all, if you as a parent have some responsibility towards your child's actions.
3. "Teenagers" Probably have as much sex here as they do anywhere else in western Europe. Fact of life, can't stop it, so embrace it. Firstly, there's almost no single sex education here. This means that girls and boys are always very comfortable around each other. Boys are taught to respect girls and girls are taught to make sure they know what they want for themselves in terms of physical relationships.
You rarely see big gangs of girls or boys out in the town - they go out as mixed groups. They drink, of course, as much as the brits, but you never see hoards of them rolling around drunk, fighting, showing their boobs.
Parents give their children much, much more freedom here (they cycle to school alone from the age of about 8) and there's a mutual respect between many teenagers and parents that you just don't see in the UK. How many 18 year old English teenagers do you know that would want to go on the family summer holiday with their parents? It's quite common here.
And one can also conclude that a welfare state works best when the attitude of its citizens is to act responsibly in all aspects of life. Many on the conservative side of politics argue that it is the welfare state that is itself corrupting of a social sense of personal responsibility. But the example of the Netherlands appears to be a pretty strong counter argument to that, and that is why I find these articles and comments on that country so interesting.
I’m also reminded of Theodore Dalrymple’s interesting essay about changes in the British national character which I linked to in 2008. He argues that its conservative “stiff upper lip” came into being under King William IV (the king before Victoria), and that it has eroded away since the Second World War. His claim (not with a lot of detail in this particular essay) is:
The moralization of the British in the first third of the nineteenth century—their transformation from a people lacking self-control into exemplars of restraint—was the product of intellectual and legislative activity. So, too, was the reverse movement.
He argues that relaxed liquor licencing laws in Britain have been quite harmful in this respect, and urges the US to maintain a drinking age of 21. Yet he also seems to be happy with European attitudes to drinking, presumably because he considers they have more of the sense of the importance of responsible drinking than the British, for whatever reason, seem capable of. (This will mean that a bunch of libertarian types will not take him seriously at all.)
But how, today, any country achieves society wide re-conversion to the ideal of self control and taking personal responsibility seriously seems to be a puzzle. I can see the failure from both sides of politics: libertarian relaxation of regulation falls on barren ground if there is not a pre-existing sense of responsibility in place, and libertarians don’t think the government has a role in instructing attitudes; welfare state-ism which fully embraces individualism in lifestyle choices can be seen as rewarding lack of personal restraint and does seem to teach people that they can carry on regardless.
That’s the problem, I guess: if both ends of the political spectrum adopt a “hands off” attitude to trying to influence a society’s sense of personal responsibility, neither of them address the heart of the issue.
Update: I was thinking about what I was said about the different political sides on this, and feel I should acknowledge that the Left generally is inclined to run campaigns that encourage what might be called "better behaviour", be it from a public health perspective (anti-smoking, anti-obesity) or relationships (see the current "Draw the Line" campaign that I only noticed yesterday.) Apart from public health, which both sides of politics generally does support, partly for the pragmatic reason of keeping health costs down, the problem I guess I have with what we see in government social education is the feeling that this is not the appropriate source for moral instruction. Simply because of the source, it's easy to imagine the people who would benefit most from it dismissing it.
But, with the churches weaker than ever as a source of (for want of a better term) life instruction in society, where else can it come from? It's not as if the West has the same cultural background of a place like Japan either, which does so much for maintaining a sense of personal responsibility there.