Modern American sex education is lacking. Please, take a page from the Dutch

My surprisingly woke parents actually taught me about sex the right way. Most American children are not so lucky

Published December 11, 2021 10:00AM (EST)

A teacher points to a diagram of female reproductive organs projected on a screen in a classroom in a scene from Human Growth, an education film on sex education shown to students in Oregon junior high schools beginning in 1948. (Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
A teacher points to a diagram of female reproductive organs projected on a screen in a classroom in a scene from Human Growth, an education film on sex education shown to students in Oregon junior high schools beginning in 1948. (Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

One night in first grade, my mom came back from the video rental store with a surprise. Her usual token rental was a "Care Bears" or Disney VHS tape; this time, she instead arrived home bearing a cheesily-animated movie whose art style resembled the "Cathy" comics. Yet unlike Cathy, whose main concerns were her own neuroses, this animated film was all about the birds and the bees.

As a relatively with-it first grader (or so I thought), I had this theory that babies happened when a dad pushed a sunflower seed inside a woman — not too far-off for a seven-year-old. But this video gave a pretty good, albeit pared-down version of the hanky-panky, complete with a naked couple with resplendent (animated) pubic hair on display. My five-year-old sister and I watched it, and then rewound and watched again. (As an adult, I figured out that VHS was called "Where Did I Come From?")

My mom's decision to screen this for her young children was perhaps unorthodox, at least for our community. Indeed, I am positive that, if they knew I learned about sex in first grade, most of my friends' parents at the time would fly off the handle.

But they shouldn't. Numerous studies show that despite the malevolent efforts of the deeply religious and Republication-leaning, teaching comprehensive sexual education continually starting at a young age doesn't turn middle schoolers into sex-craved deviants full of crabs and zygotes. Rather, it curbs pregnancy rates and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

The Dutch, a society that sociologists consider the gold standard for sexual education, begin formal sex ed in primary school. And yes, that means with 4 or 5-year-olds. In turn, the Netherlands has a low teen pregnancy rate, better sexual communication, and fewer teen STIs.

Indeed, comparative studies confirm that young people who complete comprehensive sexual education experience a lower rate of pregnancy than peers who get their information from abstinence-only (or no) sex education.

Certainly, American sex ed today has come a long way since the '50s, when teachers shared how plants reproduced and hoped students would catch on. Yet sex ed is still lacking.

In the 1960s, sex ed in public schools truly started to garner support. Today, state policies vary, and many are left up to school districts. However, for the last several decades, public education has become more abstinence-focused. And not all states even require sex ed to be taught.

"Thirty states and the District of Columbia require public schools teach sex education, 28 of which mandate both sex education and HIV education," according to the State Policy National Conference of State Legislatures. Recently, the Guttmacher Institute noted that only 18 states require medically accurate sex education. Nebraska recently made news when some parents complained about a newly revamped state-wide sex education program that included gender identity and expression.

Regarding my own aforementioned sex ed journey: despite my imperfect childhood, my parents did a fairly decent job at making sure my education covered most of the bases. Indeed, my Dutch grandparents would be proud. Let me walk you through it.

At public school in suburban Cleveland, I came of age as part of the D.A.R.E. generation. I was first exposed to formal sexual education in school in fifth grade, where we basically learned about anatomy and given primitive period education after we were split into boy/girl groups. I remember it being a mix of what I probably ought to have been learning and some weird stuff too, like being essentially forced to sign an abstinence agreement by a woman who came to speak one day in the music room. I definitely had no sex drive at the time, though I felt certain that my classmate Joey was cute. 

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Recently, in another (more bourgey) suburb of Cleveland, parents' uproar over a senior College Credit Plus class (meaning an advanced high school course where students get college credit) class using a supplemental writing prompt book that included exercises in which students were to write sexual fantasies. The uproar became local news. Of course, the spineless school district apologized over what was a perfectly safe age-appropriate writing exercise.

Dutch law actually mandates sexuality education in primary school, and doesn't just focus on STI and pregnancy prevention, but includes sexual diversity and sexual assertiveness. So perhaps it's no surprise ex ed in primary school curbs unwanted pregnancies, maternal deaths, unsafe abortions and STIs, according to a Georgetown University study.

As a poll conducted by Planned Parenthood found, sex ed is "widely supported by the vast majority" of Americans. Their survey found that 93 percent of parents supported having sex education taught in middle school, and 96 percent of parents supported having sex education taught in high school.

During middle school, my own parents enrolled us in Unitarian Universalist Sunday School where how they brought in real-life lesbians as part of sex ed — which sounds funny now, but at the time was pretty woke. Then I got to touch a condom and a never-popular ladies dental dam, live and in person. 

Unitarian Universalists, who basically have no exact belief system other than being a good person and respecting the Earth, offer a comprehensive sex ed program, used by other faith and secular organizations, called Our Whole Lives. Although I no longer identity as a U.U., I am forever grateful for the education and attitude the people there helped me cultivate.

I don't remember much of what my '90s public middle school taught me, but I don't think we learned about sex every year. For middle-school-age children in the Netherlands, sex ed focuses on sexual orientation and contraceptive options.

In high school during the 2000s, my friends fell into one of two categories: curious experimenters or those who had never even experienced a first kiss. (For most of high school, I was the latter.) My formal public school sex ed teachings included our gym teacher showing a VHS that we all thought was scandalous because it included a baby being ejected from a vagina. I think we only really had sex ed for one year. My school was semi-woke to be the first in the area to have a LGBT (this was before the Q) alliance.   

Meanwhile, my mom kept it real with her realistic (and sage) advice: "Wait until college until you have sex, and hopefully it's with someone you love, or like."

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey from 2017 found that nearly 40 percent of all high school students report they have had sex. I did not.

Then and now, public schools mostly fail to teach much about other sex acts past vaginal penetration, or anything more than surface-level about LBGTQ sex or identities. I also think we could have learned more on consent, female pleasure, and flinger-flicking fun. Yes, some of these hot topics were eventually taught to me vis-a-vis friends, but they didn't always get it right.

As far as the land of the wooden clogs: A Rutgers WPF study found that when Dutch adolescents did have sex, nine out of ten of them used contraceptives the first time. Moreover, Dutch teens are among the most avid users of the birth control pill. And the World Bank says that the teen pregnancy rate in the Netherlands is among the lowest in the world.

It wasn't until college when I took a human sexuality class that actually had the breadth and nuance most teens need and most adults could use. Additionally, college is where I finally did lose my literal virginity. Curiously, my sister and I had sex for the first time on the exact same day (Valentine's Day), on the same campus — though, luckily, not to the same guy — a fact she casually brought up during her maid of honor speech at my wedding. 

Even though Dutch and American teens lose their virginities around the same age (17-18), teen births, although on the decline in recent decades, are still five times the rate of Dutch teens (who also have fewer abortions).

Why do the Dutch excel not only in cooking up delicious stroopwafel, but also in having lower rates of all the problematic sexual outcomes?  

Evidently, it's because sex education and access to contraception matter. Since comprehensive sex ed curbs teen pregnancy, youth who are privy to only abstinence-only or no real sex education are more likely to do all the things that those who think they shouldn't learn don't want them to do.

The Guttmacher Institute also noticed a decline in birth control education, especially in the rural parts of the United States. "The share of rural adolescents who had received instruction about birth control declined from 71% to 48% among females, and from 59% to 45% among males," the research organization noted. Their white-paper also noted that "only about half of adolescents (57% of females and 43% of males) received formal instruction about contraception before they first had sex," and only "about four in ten (46% of females and 31% of males) received instruction about where to get birth control."

Again, the Dutch, on the other hand, are already doing it right (in more ways than one.) The Guttmacher Institute reports that "as of 2015, fewer than six percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students aged 13–21 reported that their health classes had included positive representations of LGBT-related topics." Education aims to reduce stereotypes, beef up sexual confidence, and help people know what a health relationship looks like.

Beyond that, Dutch teens say they enjoyed their first time more often than American teens, whom 66% of say they regret their first sexual encounter. Dutch teens are also less promiscuous, better communicators, and report higher levels of sexual satisfaction.

Maybe it was my liberal-minded upbringing that helped instill healthier attitudes in me. I've never had an STI. I've been pregnant exactly one time and had one child, on purpose.

That's not to say everyone who receives a comprehensive sex education makes "more healthy" choices all the time. And that's certainly not to say that those who make less than ideal choices in the moment don't need to be supported with plentiful resources.

If I could make a change tomorrow in the American education system, I'd offer free (no insurance, no questions asked, no parental permission needed) birth control for all students on demand in schools.

We have to teach more than just the surface of sex education. Other beneficial goals, beyond reducing disease spread and unwanted pregnancies, must include teaching kids tools that ultimately reduce rape, LGBTQ harassment, positive sex experiences and beyond.

At the very least, America needs to institute age-appropriate sex ed into the curriculum of all grade levels. Sexuality is not just something that happens sporadically, and needs to be taught more than every few years. Every school district and every child nationwide needs comprehensive education that is gender inclusive and covers all the other nuances we miss in so many cities throughout the country.

More on American sex ed:

By Allison Jack

MORE FROM Allison Jack

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