Since 2012, the Dutch education minister has mandated that all students, beginning in primary school, receive some form of sexuality education that includes lessons on health, tolerance, and assertiveness. The core objectives are to prevent sexual coercion, crossed boundaries, and homophobic behavior, as well as to promote inclusion. And new research confirms that students who receive comprehensive sexuality education in school—that is, lessons on sexual diversity and inclusiveness in addition to biological lessons—are less likely to engage in name calling and more willing to intervene when a LGBTQ or female peer is bullied in school.
The power of inclusive sex education
In Dutch schools that use the country’s most popular sex-ed curriculum, Kriebels in je buik (Butterflies in Your Stomach), yearly lessons begin with 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds talking about differences between male and female bodies, learning about reproduction, and discovering their own sexual likes, dislikes, and boundaries. Third-graders learn about love, including how to be kind to your crush. Before middle school, children get lessons on sexual diversity, gender identity, deciding when to have sex, and how to use barriers and contraceptives. All along, students are schooled in healthy relationships and how to reject gender-role stereotypes. (Gender-stereotypical thinking is a risk factor for poor sexual-health outcomes.)
In contrast to the nationwide blanket approach to school sex ed in the Netherlands, fewer than half of American high schools and only 20 percent of middle schools—let alone elementary schools—provide instruction on all 16 topics that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevents (CDC) considers critical to sexual-health education. Schools mostly operate under state and local, not federal, control, meaning that the quality of American sex ed differs enormously from state to state and district to district.
Of course, no country is immune to sexual violence, but sex ed serves as an important bulwark against it. As the CDC reported in 2016, “comprehensive sex education programs have been shown to reduce high risk sexual behavior, a clear factor for sexual violence victimization and perpetration.” In the Netherlands, Kriebels in je buik and other sex-education curricula attempt to instill known preventative factors such as empathy and concern for how one’s actions affect others.
While health matters such as birth control and abortion access are considered private rather than public concerns in the Netherlands and other more gender-equal countries, in the U.S., partisan politics can whiplash policies and programs geared toward sexual health. For example, the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, initiated in President Obama’s first term and credited with a massive reduction in teenage pregnancy, has been transformed by the Trump administration to favor abstinence-only education, despite a mountain of evidence showing that abstinence programs are ineffective at preventing sexual activity and can leave young people uninformed and unprepared when they do have sex.