Something to Learn: Sex Ed in Europe Versus in the U.S.

During the summer of 1998, immediately following my graduation from high school, Teen People sent me on a two week tour of Europe. It was an exciting trip, but I didn't go as a tourist. I was joined by 42 American "experts" (writers, students, educators, clinical workers, activists, politicians and clergy) and we were all there to examine the European approach to teen sexuality.

European policies and programs have dramatically lowered teen birth, sexually transmitted disease and abortion rates. The annual European Study Tour, sponsored by Advocates For Youth, a non-profit organization that focuses on preventing teen pregnancy and HIV, and paid for by the Kaiser Family Foundation, encouraged participants to look deeply into why U.S. teen sexual health rates are among the worst in the world.

Coming from a conservative, religious, suburban Ohio background, I saw things that shocked and surprised me. But, looking back, I realize that the trip spurred a series of important changes in my perspective that still affect who I am today. You could say the trip was my own little sexual revolution. While traveling through the Netherlands, Germany and France, I discovered that I was part of the problem. I hadn't conceived a child, or contracted an STD, or even had sex. But I was afraid to talk about it, afraid to accept my own sexuality as natural and healthy. In my journal on the first day I remember writing "It's all about sex! I despise talking about my sexuality with people other than my closest, closest friends. I hope no one asks me to 'reveal a personal experience.' I will probably vomit before I say anything."

Of course, I wasn't alone in these feelings. Most Americans don't talk about sex. Slowly, as I heard personal stories from other study tour participants, I started to see that it wasn't so difficult.

Many of people we met with in Europe told us about the open dialogue they maintained with their children. In fact, parents were often among the first people Dutch children told when they became sexually active. When Doortje Brachen's daughter became sexually active, she says she was, "Thrilled. I asked her whether she enjoyed it." Doortje was a presenter on the trip from the Rutgers Foundation, which was founded in the early 1980s by the Dutch government. Its mission is to provide special services for adolescents, reproductive care to the public and sexuality education.


When the Dutch experienced their sexual revolution after WWII, they never looked back. From the perspective of a 17-year-old suburban teen from Ohio, sex pervaded Amsterdam's culture. In the Red Light District there was legal prostitution, a Sex Museum, a Condom Museum and "coffee shops." And then there were four blocks of scantily clad women sitting in shop windows lined with red neon. Although some of these kinds of places surely exist in America, I had never seen them before, and I was left feeling very curious, and a little disturbed.

But outside of Amsterdam, the cultural differences are more subtle. During the trip, we interviewed teens and families in restaurants and cafes. We also spoke with ministers, doctors, government officials and sex educators. I noticed that the same type of activism surrounding abstinence in America wasn't present in the Dutch or European rhetoric. Many of the people we interviewed, including one minister, saw the differences as tied to religion. About 25 percent of Dutch residents report practicing their religion, compared to 44 percent of Americans who say they attend church regularly. The priest I spoke with said he still encouraged youth to abstain, but admitted there was little if anything he could say or do to make teens follow his advice.

But there's more to it than religious differences. In 1968, more than half of Dutch adults disagreed with the statement, "Sex is natural -- even outside marriage." In 1981, this number dropped to 24 percent. In a Dutch sex survey conducted in 1990, the researchers didn't even bother to ask the question. The sale of condoms in vending machines was approved in 1969, legalized abortion in 1981 and contraceptives were covered by national health insurance by 1971.

Parents begin talking with their children around 10 or 11, and not just once. There's no "talk"; it's a dialouge. Girls report taking oral contraceptives around age 16, even if they aren't sexually active. And in school, they start learning about their body and how it works as young as age 5. In high school, they talk about sexual responsibility, using a condom, birth control pills or both, a practice they call the "Double Dutch" method. The strategy is to give youth a lot of information. Information based upon research and statistics, and then to trust them to use it.

In another journal entry, part way through my time in the Netherland I wrote "We watched a prime time television show that aired at 7 p.m. It included people using a banana to explicitly show how to put on a condom, and it was was paid for by the government..."

Because it's so open, experts and the government are able to harness the power of the media. The media campaigns run by non-governmental organizations using public funds are evidence of the cultural attitudes that pervade Dutch culture. Advertisements like this were also present in Germany and in France. France, however, focuses almost all of their media work on AIDS/disease prevention. This is because France is predominantly Catholic, and Paris has the highest rate of AIDS transmission in Europe. Their media campaigns are less strategic than the Dutch or German ones, but are still more extensive than the U.S.

Beginning in 1987, the Dutch government began supporting strategic campaigns supporting safe sex. The campaigns of 1989-1991 focused on excuses for not using condoms, ranging from "It can't happen to me" to "I don't need a condom because I only sleep with decent girls." The theme was "I'll have safe sex or no sex." Other messages included "Be proud of having safe sex," and "Step 1: You fall in love. Step 2: She feels the same. Step 3: You kiss. Step 4: You use a condom." Later campaigns included, "STDs are available somewhere near you. Condoms are, too," "I'll take something off if you put something on," and "Your condom or mine?"

These ads didn't run on television at 2 a.m. They ran during prime-time, on posters and billboards in bus and train stations, on streets, in pharmacies and other public places. They were appealing, funny, and definitely trendy. They would be perfect for America's MTV audience. They don't stress fear or shame, or place blame. They clearly targeted sexually active people with one message: If you're having sex, do it safely.
My experiences in the Netherlands, Germany and France show that young people can act responsibly if they have the information and skills to either delay sexual intercourse or protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy and STDs. The average age of first intercourse in the United States is 15.8. In the Netherlands, it's 17.7.

And as a result, 85 percent of Dutch teens use protection at first sexual intercourse-46 percent use condoms alone, 13 percent use oral contraceptives, and 24 percent use "Double Dutch."

Simply put, sex in the Netherlands, Germany and France is a public health issue, not a moral one. It's about protecting your partner and protecting yourself.


Three years after I returned to America, my friend Sara became pregnant. She was 20 years old. I watched her deal with the typical responses from her community. Sentiments like: "It won't happen to me," and "If she would have only gone to church," and I couldn't help but wonder if she would have been provided with more information or more open and understanding parents, would this have happened?

Sara was not a stereotypical young mother. She graduated from a waspy, suburban high school, in the top 20 percent of her class. While in high school she was an active athlete, she attended church regularly, and she even waited until after graduation to have sex.

Sara's sex education was as minimal as my own (until I traveled to Europe.) Five hours during the sixth grade, and 15 hours during our seventh-grade health class. Although we were told what a condom was and provided with accurate information about its effectiveness, we were never shown how to use it.

This is puzzling, considering the fact that almost half of all high school students in this country have sex by the time they graduate from high school. And every year nearly 900,000 teenage girls become pregnant.

As policymakers in the United States debate sex education in schools, too few seem willing to face the truth about teen mothers. The familiar rationales used to explain the "Sara's" of the world aren't good enough. They don't speculate about love, or the difficult choices young women face when making decisions. They forget that it feels good to be accepted even if you're not the smartest or the most beautiful, that it feels good to experience pleasure. They don't address the fact that in some American public schools, unlike in most of Europe, there is only one allowable day of HIV education. They don't consider the impact of substance use. They don't take into account that free protection isn't available on street corners or in public bathrooms or public schools.

And they don't ever include images of safer sex in movies or on TV. Think about it, when was the last time you saw a condom appear in a love scene? I often wonder: Does James Bond wear a condom?
Sex in the Netherlands, Germany and France is a public health issue, not a moral one. It's about protecting your partner and protecting yourself.

I don't know whether he does or not, but I do know that many Americans' perceptions about sex are badly skewed. The debate surrounding sex education in America often involves two different approaches: a comprehensive approach to sexuality education that includes messages about both abstinence and contraception, and an abstinence-only-until-marriage approach that censors information about contraception. I'm for the first approach. This combination comes close to matching the European model. It borrows from them the idea of an open, honest, medically-accurate dialogue, but it also takes into account some of the American cultural norms that don't exist in Western Europe.

The average age of first marriage in this country is now around 26. If we tell all young people that they can't have sex until they are married, we are ignoring the fact that more than 90 percent of couples do not wait and some may never marry. We cannot control the choices other teens make, but we can control the knowledge we have, the skills we learn to delay or protect, and the support we give them to take control of their own lives.

In order to accomplish this, youth need a new national dialogue about sex based on rights, respect and responsbility. We need to talk openly with youth about values, morality and sexual health. We need to act to put honest, realistic sexuality education in our schools, not keep young people in the dark. Finally, we have to trust youth to use that information and guidance to find their OWN way to do that.

My experiences in the Netherlands, Germany and France show that young people can act responsibly if they have the information and skills to either delay sexual intercourse or protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy and STDs. The average age of first intercourse in the United States is 15.8. In the Netherlands, it's 17.7.

As for me? I've done a lot of growing since I traveled to Europe. I've tried to shed my judgments, my negativity and my fear. I don't blame Sara, nor have I abandoned her. Unfortunately, though, she lives in a society where sex and being a sexual person is filled with shame, guilt and fear tactics. But I'm trying to change that, trying to empower youth to create an open dialogue about sex based upon respect not shame, ridicule or guilt.

Melissa Harris, 21, is a senior at Northwestern University .

This story is second in our series: Teens and Sex in 2002. If you haven't already, check out the first story: Ignorance Is Bliss: Preaching Abstinence in America by Virginia Pelley, WireTap


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