What are we doing wrong?
I was born in America but grew up in the Netherlands, so I’ve always moved between these two cultures. In the US, there is this dramatization of teen sexuality–playing up the fear and conflict and danger. The metaphor of raging hormones is so central, and that communicates this idea of sexuality as an out-of-control force.
How is it different in the Netherlands?
Children are taught at very early ages to recognize their own feelings through desexualized, playful exercises. There’s one exercise where the kids feel objects, like pieces of clay, just to decide what feels good and not good to them. Dutch teens have fewer unintended pregnancies and more positive first sexual experiences.
What does the ideal model look like here?
It wouldn’t just be one class; it would be something that happens throughout kids’ education, starting in first grade. Self-knowledge–what you want, what you don’t want–should be part of a continuum of things, from learning about sexual anatomy all the way to relationship building. And it should be mandatory to address the needs of young people with diverse sexual and gender identities.
Is this more important now that porn is so ubiquitous?
Absolutely. Kids who stumble on porn should feel they can ask their parents about it, and they should have the tools to understand what they’re seeing. When these topics are shrouded in shame and taboo, young people don’t feel comfortable asking adults for help.
Are there immediate steps adults can take?
Talking to kids about their platonic friendships makes it easier to get them to open up about sexuality. We should also make sure to use correct terms for anatomy and feelings and actions. There are so many euphemisms adults use. My American nieces will ask, “Is this an ‘adult’ conversation?” You’re creating a situation where sex becomes an avenue through which to prove you’re an adult. When we talk in code we’re withholding information, and what we’re withholding isn’t just contraception and condoms but the opportunity to develop crucial life skills and self-awareness–and that comes at a huge cost.