What the U.S. Can Learn from the Dutch About Teen Sex

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The Dutch are known for their liberal attitudes toward sex and drugs: while not officially legal, marijuana use and sale in “coffee shops” is tolerated in The Netherlands, as is prostitution, most notoriously in the street windows of Amsterdam’s red light district. Pragmatism, the Dutch have long believed, is better than punitive prohibition — and they’ve got lots of data on their side.While 12% of the American population has smoked marijuana in the last month, for example, the same is true of only 5% of citizens of The Netherlands. (More on Time.com: 5 Little-Known Truths About American Sex Lives)

As Salon reports, this practical attitude — and data favoring it — extends to teenage sex. Two-thirds of Dutch parents allow their 15-to-17-year-old children to sleep with their partners in their homes, according to a 2003 survey cited by the Salon post.

But rather than resulting in crazed teen orgies and high rates of teen pregnancy, abortion or transmission of STDs, the Dutch have far lower rates of these problems than the U.S. For example, the teen pregnancy rate in the Netherlands is just 12 pregnancies per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19. In the staid U.S., there are 72 pregnancies per 1,000 girls the same age. The Dutch teen abortion rate is 20% lower than that in the U.S. And the rate of HIV infection in America is three times higher than in The Netherlands. (More on Time.com: Study: ‘Hyper-Texting’ Teens More Likely to Have Had Sex, Tried Drugs)

The differences between the cultures, and between the parenting styles in each country, are many, but key among them is attitude toward sex. The Salon article highlights a telling passage from the paper “Sex, Love, and Autonomy in the Teenage Sleepover” by University of Massachusetts, Amherst, sociologist Amy Schalet, comparing Dutch parents’ stance on teen sex to that of Americans:

Dutch parents, by contrast, 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.

The Sociological Images blog has produced a collection of charts showing just how “awful” the results of realism on teen sex have been in Holland. If parents really want to keep their teens safe, rather than closing their eyes and pretending that kids don’t have sex, they might be better off going Dutch. (More on Time.com: Can an iPhone App Save Your Marriage?)

Read Schalet’s full paper here [PDF].

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