When I was 12 years old, growing up in the Netherlands, a woman came to school to give us sex education. She was grey-haired, tough and unsmiling. I recognised the type: my grandmother had taught sex ed at my mother’s school.
We boys and girls sat in the classroom embarrassed. But I also remember wondering: what could this woman teach us? We’d already been taught all about sex at primary school. “I won’t teach you about sex,” she began, “because you know all that. Instead, we’ll talk about relationships.”
Living across the road from me back then was an American teenager called Amy Schalet. Later she returned to the US, and discovered a different world. Many American teens, she noticed with surprise, got pregnant. Some had received scarcely any sex education. Their parents often tried to ban teenage sex, just as American lawmakers try to ban marijuana and prostitution.
Schalet is now a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and she has just published Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and the Culture of Sex (University of Chicago Press). Her book starts in the adolescent bedroom, and ends up explaining why the US is so conservative on social issues and the Netherlands so liberal.
The book opens with a question that Schalet put to “white, secular or moderately Christian” middle-class Dutch and American parents. Would they allow their teenagers – typically aged about 16 – to spend the night with a girlfriend or boyfriend in the parental home? Nine out of 10 American parents responded, in the phrase of one mother: “No way, José.” Nine out of 10 Dutch parents said they’d allow or at least consider it.
You might think this finding supports foreign clichés of Dutch permissiveness. Yet that isn’t quite right. Dutch parents aren’t hands-off at all. By allowing the sleepover, they gain great control over their children’s sex lives. As one Dutch boy told Schalet: “If it happens at home, at least they [his parents] know where I am.” The parents can put their daughter on the pill beforehand. The sex happens practically under their noses. The partner – whom they probably already know – might be summoned for family breakfast the morning after. If they don’t like him, they can subtly start ousting him. If they do, he is adopted as a kind of son-in-law, expected to show up for obligatory Dutch family gatherings like great-aunts’ birthdays. Often the teen sex evolves into a bland mini-marriage. When we were young, a Dutch friend told me he couldn’t dump his girlfriend because his parents would be upset.
In short, Dutch teenage sex happens under parental control. It’s a zone of order. No wonder Dutch teenage girls are nearly five times less likely than American girls to get pregnant, and less than half as likely to have an abortion, even though they can get abortions without parental consent.
Dutch parents treat teen sex much as Dutch society treats drugs or prostitution: permit it, hug it close, control it. The Dutch know that some people will take drugs. They just make sure this happens in a zone of order. As John Travolta explains Amsterdam’s marijuana cafés in the film Pulp Fiction: “I mean, you just can’t walk into a restaurant, roll a joint and start puffin’ away. They want you to smoke in your home or certain designated places.” And Dutch marijuana cafés – like prostitutes – pay taxes.
By contrast, Americans banish these activities to zones of disorder. American parents forbid sleepovers, and so teen sex typically happens without contraception, in places like the backseats of cars. Kids have to “sneak around”, something that Schalet calls “an important ritual of American adolescence”. In fact, sneaking around enhances the thrill. When I took my English college football team on tour to Amsterdam 20 years ago, my teammates insisted on spending every night in marijuana cafés. One night, our American goalkeeper dreamily reflected that he was glad he’d grown up with everything banned. “We had the fun of sneaking around buying beer with fake IDs,” he said.
American society tries to enforce good behaviour through the institutions of marriage, church and prison. This doesn’t work well. If you just ban, you create unsupervised zones of disorder. The US is trapped in a vicious cycle. Because Americans create so many zones of disorder – inhabited by single mothers, drug gangs and other poor people – American anxiety over disorder stays high. And so Americans keep prohibiting, which only pushes more people into zones of disorder. Of course these zones fascinate teenagers. That may be why American teens take more drugs than Dutch teens, who, as I recall, can be quite snooty about marijuana cafés. One reason Dutch politicians are now closing many drugs cafés is “drugstoerisme”: foreigners wrongly think the cafés are countercultural havens and come flocking.
The Netherlands has done everything humanly possible to make teen sex and drugs seem dull. American social conservatives should try it out.