5 Countries That Do It Better: How Sexual Prudery Makes America a Less Healthy and Happy Place
Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
To extreme social conservatives of the far right, the word “prude” is not an insult — it’s a badge of honor. “Prudes,” they would argue, should be upheld as exemplary role models because a sexually repressive society is also a society with fewer unplanned pregnancies and fewer sexually transmitted diseases. But not only do the facts not bear that out, they also demonstrate that the exact opposite is true. Countries that embrace many of the things social conservatives detest (comprehensive sex education, pro-gay legislation, nude or topless beaches, legal or decriminalized prostitution, adult entertainment) tend to be countries that have less sexual dysfunction than the United States, not more. And when one compares sexual attitudes in the United States to sexual attitudes in Western Europe, it becomes evident that there is a strong correlation between social conservatism and higher rates of teen pregnancy, abortion and sexually transmitted diseases.
The Christian Right would consider the following five European countries to be quite “permissive” when compared to the United States. All of them make a strong case for social liberalism and sexual openness.
1. The Netherlands
The Netherlands has a reputation for being one of the most pro-sex countries in the world, and it isn’t hard to understand why. From comprehensive sex education to legal prostitution (Amsterdam has one of Europe’s most famous red light districts) to nude and topless beaches, the Netherlands is a social conservative’s worst nightmare. On top of that, the Netherlands was the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage (the Netherlands legalized same-sex civil unions in 1998 and gay marriage in 2001). But while Rick Santorum would no doubt view Amsterdam and Rotterdam as a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, the reality is that all that sexual openness is having positive results in the Netherlands. Sociologist Amy Schalet (author of “Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and the Culture of Sex” and a professor at the University of Massachusetts) has done extensive sex-related research on the United States and the Netherlands, often asserting that Americans would be much better off if they had the sexual openness of the Dutch.
And the data bears that out. The United Nations reported that in 2009, the Netherlands had a teen birth rate of 5.3 per 1,000 compared to 39.1 per 1,000 in the United States that year (teen birth rates provided by the United Nations, the Guttmacher Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Advocates for Youth and other organizations typically look at females in the 15–19 age group). Advocates for Youth has reported that the Netherlands had an abortion rate of 8.8 per 1,000 in 2006 compared to 14.8 per 1,000 in the United States in 2007 (abortion rates, as a rule, are based on the number of abortions per 1,000 women aged 15–44). And Advocates for Youth has also reported that in 2009, the United States had three times as many adults living with HIV or AIDS as the Netherlands (0.2 percent in the Netherlands compared to 0.6 percent in the United States). Also, in 2006, there were roughly 13 cases of gonorrhea per 100,000 Netherlands residents in the 15–19 age group compared to roughly 458 per 100,000 in the United States that year. So when it comes to sexual health, the United States is clearly dropping the ball compared to the Netherlands.
In 2011, there was some relatively good news in the United States : The teen birth rate had fallen to 34.3 in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) . That was a slight decrease from the abovementioned 39.1 per 1,000 in 2009 and 41.5 per 1,000 in 2008, and a major decrease from 61.8 per 1,000 back in 1991. The bad news: That is still much higher than countries in continental Western Europe, including Switzerland (where the teen birth for 2008, according to U.N. statistics, was only 4.3 per 1,000). In other words, the United States had almost ten times as many teen births as Switzerland in 2008. Further, Switzerland had an abortion rate of 6.4 per 1,000 women in 2008 compared to 19.6 in the United States that year (abortion is legal in Switzerland during the first trimester). But the fact that Switzerland has lower abortion and teen birth rates than the United States does not mean that it is a bastion of social conservatism by any means. Switzerland has same-sex civil unions (though not gay marriage), a high tolerance for porn, legal prostitution (including licensed brothels) and sex education as early as kindergarten. A few misguided Christian groups have complained about the amount of explicit sex-ed that Swiss pre-teens are receiving, but the vast majority of Swiss educators have no desire to adopt the failed abstinence-only programs of the American Christian Right. Bottom line: Social liberalism is serving Switzerland well.