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Sexuality education in Dutch high schools

What is the state of sexuality education in Dutch high schools? Jelle Wiering gives insights from his fieldwork.
JELLE WIERING: As of 2012, Dutch high schools are obliged to integrate the topic of sexuality into their curriculum. This implies that sex education has become an important and much-debated issue. In my anthropological research among Dutch sexual health organisations, I noticed that the sex education classes were built on two crucial assumptions. One, sexuality has to be practised in a healthy way informed by medical research. And two, sex has to be something that can be discussed openly. Both ideas strongly influence what sex education classes look like. For most of the sexual health professionals, the medical framework is considered as morally neutral. Medical research is believed to be about plain facts about the body grounded in scientific evidence.
However, this implies a focus on healthy sex, which means that many sex education classes focuses on dangers related to sex. STDs, unintended pregnancies, and experiencing pain during sex are the typical kind of issues that are discussed. This makes one wonder whether there should not be more room for the more positive features of sex. And, given this focus on sexual health problems rather than opportunities, one could wonder what kind of rather negative qualities of sex did these lessons actually communicate? The second observation is that the lessons feature an obsession with the act of speaking about sex. Students are expected and stimulated to engage in dialogue about sexuality, supposedly under the protection of the classroom safe atmosphere created by the teacher.
This idea of openness as a key solution is rather popular in the Netherlands more generally, and it is nicely captured in the following quote from a former director of Rutgers the largest Dutch sexual Health Organisation in the Netherlands.
SPEAKER 2: The Dutch have a very open attitude towards sexuality. This approach towards young people and sexuality is pragmatic. They accept that all young people have sexual feelings, just like everyone else. Young people will have sex anyway, so we better give them sex education. Then, they will acquire know-how and skills to make well-informed choices, and consequently, they will start having sex only when they feel they are ready for it.
JELLE WIERING: However, we may ask what exactly does it mean for a sex education class to be open? When is a conversation in the classroom considered to be open, and according to who? Teachers had difficulties to hold up the guarantee of a promise of the classroom as an open and safe setting without consequences. For example, students present in the lessons were likely to join in future lessons too, actually remembering what has been said in a previous sex education class. They could thus easily take the private content of a sex education class outside the suggested safe setting. And these other students will also be there after school, potentially confronting their classmates with what they said during the sex education class.
The idea of an open and safe classroom, furthermore, neglects the fact that the class teachers are present and are listening eagerly to learn more about what is going on in the private life of these students. One might therefore wonder whether an open and safe atmosphere in the classroom is really what sex education should be claiming to offer. These critical observations regarding the notion of an open and safe classroom are crucial because a significant part of the Dutch sex education class is about a teacher convincing the students of the veracity of this promise.
Teachers are taught to suggest to students that the classroom is an open and safe setting and they are also taught to use their body to underscore this premise. They sit on tables suggesting they are on the same informal level as the students and also implying that they could be trusted. Moreover, they adopt an open attitude that invites input from students and they include around of introduction at the beginning of the class where they display a sincere interest in the students. These acts are all geared toward making students feel comfortable, to engage in a conversation about sex, and preferably, by putting forward personal stories.
However, one could wonder on what grounds it is actually legitimate for sex educators to keep asking for personal input? Why is embarrassment conceived of so negatively, and should there not be more respect in this space for students’ rights to keep views and experiences private? On what grounds can one compel students to discuss sexuality with a stranger of a very different age? And thus, the aim of normalising sexuality perhaps show that the field draws a bit too much on catalysed secular sentiments from the 1960s. Taking both these observations of sex education classes into account, one may also critically question the notion of non-religious sexuality as liberal, and as unconstrained more generally.
Healthy and openness are crucial terms in the grand scheme of the Dutch. Though both are terms that many in the Dutch society assess positively, one can think about how both impose particular normative expectations and requirements concerning one’s body and behaviour, and are therefore not neutral, but infused by particular values and ideals.

In this mini-lecture Jelle Wiering reflects on sexuality education in Dutch high schools. He points out the emphasis on open speech, which is based on the assumption that there should be no taboos around sexuality. Jelle will discuss the gender/heteronormative dynamics of this, and the challenges of including diverse religious and cultural groups.

For more information, you can read the following text on Jelle Wiering’s findings on sexuality education in his PhD thesis.

(Click on the top-right British flag for English)

Answer the following questions:

  • Sexuality education in the Netherlands is thought to be open and without taboos, what are Jelle Wierings observations about how this works out in practice?
  • How does Wiering propose to understand young peoples reluctance to talk about sexuality in the particular setting of a school classroom?

We invite you to share your thoughts in the comment section below.


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Religion and Sexual Wellbeing: Pleasure, Piety, and Reproductive Rights

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