Although the Netherlands is seen as a forerunner when it comes to sexuality education [1
], Dutch high school pupils think the sexuality education they receive can be improved. Young people rated the information they received in school as mediocre (5.8 on a scale of one to ten), as shown by the Dutch survey Sex under the age of 25 [3
]. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth-rated it even lower with a 5.2. From the survey, we cannot distinguish the reasons for these low ratings, but they clearly raise concerns about the current practice of sexuality education in the Netherlands. This is reflected in an inquiry by the Dutch Inspectorate of Education in 2016 [4
], which showed that sexuality education at schools was dependent on the teacher and not delivered on a structural basis, but randomly.
What is considered sexuality education varies across countries and programs? Often, sexuality education is shaped by a narrow understanding of sexuality, focusing on sexual contacts, sexual anatomy, reproduction, birth control, and disease prevention [5
]. Our interpretation of sexuality education is based on the World Health Organization European Expert Group on Sexuality Education [6
], looking at sexuality education as a lifelong learning process of acquiring information and of forming attitudes, beliefs, and values about relationships, intimacy, and identity. Sexuality education has been mandatory in Dutch primary and secondary schools since 2012. However, the national education curriculum merely says that schools must pay attention to sexual diversity and sexuality, without giving any guidelines on content, frequency, or number of classes. The Dutch constitutional principle of freedom of education creates a barrier for a nationwide implementation of sexuality education, as Dutch schools are free to determine the amount of time, the approach, and the methods they use. Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) is characterized by a positive approach to sexuality that accepts sexual feelings, desire, and pleasure as essential components of young people’s sexuality [5
]. A comprehensive approach puts sexuality in a wider perspective of personal growth, development, and building up mutually consensual (sexual) contacts and relationships [5
]. Dutch evidence-based, comprehensive sexuality education methods are available for use in- and outside of biology, but the implementation of these methods highly depends on contextual factors, such as teacher training, school policy, governing body support, and student response [7
]. At present, sexuality education is predominantly taught within a biology framework, linking sexuality to puberty, sexual reproduction, prevention of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and unintended pregnancies [8
]. Consequently, Dutch pupils often only receive sexuality education from 13 to 15 years as many pupils quit biology in senior grades.
Sexuality education has frequently been criticized for its failure to meet the needs and hold the interest of young people [9
]. This should not be a surprise, as increased efforts to provide young people with sexuality education often emerge from moral panic around higher rates of teenage pregnancy, STDs, or sexting, with the aim to control young people’s sexualities, displaying coherent medical and moral values [13
]. Allen’s study amongst young people aged 16–19 in New Zealand showed that content that does not address the questions and issues young people deem important may be dismissed as irrelevant [10
]. One of the main issues Allen found was that the content of many sexuality education programs is very protective and directed towards risk management, offering young people very limited space for sexual agency, which does not register with their own sense of self and entitlement and even disempowers them.
Scholars also pointed out that many sexuality education materials and practices are not tailored to fit the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) youth [14
]. The higher rates of dissatisfaction with sexuality education amongst young people who differ from cultural ‘normalcy’, for instance, by being non-heterosexual, can be explained by the link between sexuality education and the dominant sexual culture. Sexuality education runs the risk of reproducing and reinforcing social inequalities and injustice, as it reflects the values, ideas, and stereotypes of the dominant culture [18
]. Sexuality education may easily reproduce existing sexist, racist, and classist notions of sexuality, thereby ‘projecting a particular message and vision of who and how teens are and should be’ [18
] (p. 61). This plays out not only on heteronormativity, but also on gender inequality, classism, and racism [20
] and secularism/religious diversity [24
Another field of concern that is illuminated by many scholars is the lack of a safe class atmosphere during sexuality education [15
]. Sexuality is not just the subject of sexuality education; it is present all the time within and outside classrooms. The school is a space where sexuality is played out [28
]. Krebbekx’ ethnographic study of sexuality education practices in Dutch schools shows how sexuality education classes can be used by young people to reproduce existing popularity hierarchies in class and how the probing by teachers to open up about their experiences can lead to bullying or publicly ’outing’ someone as sexually active [28
]. Clearly, creating a safe atmosphere is closely linked to teachers’ pedagogic strategies, which is an area that arises in several studies on what young people voice as a concern in how sexuality education is delivered [10
]. A meta-analysis of qualitative studies on sexuality education in ten countries illuminated three main problems [31
]. The studies originated from the UK, Ireland, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Iran, Brazil, and Sweden. Firstly, schools take insufficient account of the ‘specialness’ of sex as a topic: ‘[S]ex is a potent subject that can arouse strong emotions, reactions, and feelings (…) yet the prevailing approach within schools appears to be to deny that there is anything exceptional about the topic and to attempt to teach sexuality education in the same way as other subjects’ [31
] (p. 4). Secondly, the study suggests that schools struggle to accept that some young people are sexually active, leading to sexuality education content that is out of touch with the lives of sexually active young people. Finally, the evidence indicates that young people dislike having their own teachers deliver sexuality education. Other studies illuminating young people’s perspective put emphasis on the desire for different content in sexuality education: Young people want less information about biological aspects of sexuality, and more explicit and accurate information about gender and sexual diversity, violence in relationships, intimacy, sexual pleasure, and love [10
]. Studies also highlight that young people not only want classroom-based sexuality education, but also online sexuality education programs, with practical, age-appropriate content in the age range from primary school through to university [33
]. As sexuality education, sexual culture, and the sexual practices of youth are strongly embedded in the cultural context, we cannot simply transfer the findings of international studies to the Netherlands. This paper explores what good sexuality education looks like from the point of view of Dutch young people.
3.1. Young People Express a Strong Need for More Sexuality Education during Their Whole School Career
Most research participants voiced they want sexuality education at high school to be given more attention. The few participants who did not value sexuality education at school argued that they already know all there is to know, they do not need to know because they are not sexually active, or they feel too uncomfortable during sexuality education lessons. Clearly, younger participants (12–14 years old) had weaker ideas about sexuality education compared to participants aged 15 and older. “Well, you should know about it, because it is part of life. So, it is useful to get some information.”
Many participants underlined that sexuality education prepares them to make good decisions in the future. “So you know what to expect, what are sensible choices and what are not.”
Others stressed that sexuality education is relevant for their lives at this moment, as relationships and sexuality are very important issues to them. They emphasized the importance of continuity in sexuality education when they grow older and have more sexual experiences. “I have the idea our teachers think you should know it all when you are 16. But that is not true for everyone. If you are 16, you don’t know all the implications. They throw you in at the deep end. Go discover it yourself, we won’t help you anymore.
” Most participants indicated sexuality education should be given throughout their school careers, starting from elementary school. “By repeating more often and more frequently, it becomes a more normal thing to talk about from childhood onwards
.” Other reasons why they found sex education at school important, is that not everybody gets good information at home, and some participants argued that it’s hard to find proper and reliable information on the internet. And proper information is needed to empower young people to make their own decisions: “There are families where contraception is taboo. But well, you should be able to think for yourself, without your mother deciding everything for you.”
Other studies among young people conform to a strong need for school-based sexuality education [30
]. However, the specific demand to extend sexuality education to senior classes does not explicitly emerge from other studies, probably because it is more common in other countries that sexuality education is (still) taught to young people aged over 15 years.
3.2. Sexuality Education Should Cover More Issues
Although almost every participant received some information about sexuality at school, this information in most cases only concerning contraception, reproduction, and STDs/HIV, usually provided in biology. Participants argued they want more sex-positive education. “Now it is quite negative, while sex can be good too. They just tell you half the story. When nobody tells you how it should be, how can you recognize being in a bad relationship? So, I feel both sides have to be told.” Female pleasure should be getting more attention, as a girl clarifies: “It is important that sexuality education makes clear that girls need to have pleasure too, so boys do not feel sex is just for them. Boys need to know about vaginas, you know, about the most sensitive part, the clitoris.” Participants particularly missed education about subjects that are relevant for them at present, not in the future, about feelings, relationships, dating, sexual harassment, communication, and online and offline sexual behavior. “Sexuality education is focused too much on ovaries and too little on how it feels, or what you like. Or on how do you talk about sex together?” Participants also missed information on how to deal with problems and conflicts: where to get a Sexually Transmitted Infection test, how does a pregnancy test work, where to turn to when you need an abortion, how to find help after sexual violence? They wanted concrete scripts for situations they encounter: “When you do not want to have sex… How do you say that? And how can you be clear you want to move forward?”
Both girls and boys disclosed that gendered social norms influence their self-esteem and their sexual agency. Girls protested the double standard and want to have this addressed in sexuality education. “I think it is so wrong… the difference people make between girls and boys… when a girl has sex once, she is a slut, but when a boy has sex ten times, he is the hero for all the boys..“ In one of the focus groups, boys discussed the shaming and blaming of girls sending sexy selfies: “I do understand why some girls are called a slut, if you see the selfies they post.. they just want attention.” Another boy responded: “If a boy sends a dickpic, do you think he is a whore too?” The answer of the group: “No, no, he is just a fool.” Another area where gendered norms play out are uncertainties about their bodies. Participants argue sexuality education can play a role in diminishing uncertainties: “Many boys and girls are insecure about things that are very normal. It is important to talk about this, to know that it is not crazy. That sex is not shameful. Relationships are also important to talk about. Just to break the taboo.” Participants also emphasized that it is important to know that everybody develops physically and emotionally at their own pace. “So, you don’t need to be ashamed if you are late having sex or getting your period. We need more diversified examples. Different stories. To learn that development is not one-dimensional. Everybody is different.” Moreover, especially girls wanted to know more about their rights: “It is good to know when you are entitled to say no, to know your rights, especially around #MeToo. When can you stop and say ‘this is it! These are my rights. I do not want this!’”
When it comes to sexual and gender diversity, many participants reported that it is often dealt with in a very limited way. “Yes, they do admit it exists, but we don’t talk about it. We don’t really address it. I feel it should be dealt with differently. Not just mentioning that bisexual, gay, and transgender people exist, but also mention heterosexuality (…) So not to pretend heterosexuality is the norm. Just talk about all sexualities.
” Participants wanted sexual diversity integrated into the whole area of sexuality education, not isolated as a single issue. They want to have a more comprehensive approach to sexuality education, including subjects like sexual orientation and gender identity, consent and coercion, online sexual behavior and sexual pleasure. This is in line with findings in other countries of the needs of young people regarding the content of school-based sexuality education [10
]. Studies also confirm that current Dutch sexuality education fails to address the social norms that limit young people in their sexual development and relationships and reproduce inequalities [17
3.3. Sexuality Education Requires a Safe Atmosphere and a Self-Confident and Sensitive Teacher
According to the participants in our study, sexuality education can only succeed if there is a safe atmosphere in the classroom. If they felt uncomfortable, they would not talk about sexuality. “Just a nice atmosphere in which you can feel comfortable. So, you don’t have to be afraid to show who you are. That you can just be yourself.” Participants thought differently about sharing personal experiences. Some participants did not want to share anything personal, while others very much want to. “I do want sexuality education, but if you have no questions or you don’t want to talk in a small group, I feel it should be not mandatory, you know like ‘you have to talk about it’.“ Participants shared stories about friends being bullied after sharing personal information. “Of course people are allowed to make jokes, but not nasty jokes… like they do about homosexuality or racist jokes…” Participants argued they need teachers to be sensitive to this risk of exposure and bullying and not to expect them to open up in front of a whole class about their own experiences. The possibility to ask questions anonymously, working with available stories (in films, or written), and working in small groups helped to increase safety.
Many pupils liked their own teacher (biology, social science, or mentor) to teach sexuality education as they were familiar with him or her. Some participants preferred having a different expert teaching sexuality education because it felt too intimate to share sexual content with their own teacher. Ultimately, it depended on the competence of the teachers. Participants mentioned four competencies of teachers that are crucial. First, teachers should be at ease with giving sexuality education. “A teacher should be self-confident in teaching sexuality education. Not someone who hesitates all the time and obviously feels shy. Then I think ‘never mind’…
” Second, teachers should encourage young people to form their own judgment. For instance, when discussing porn, a participant warned about moral judgments: “Of course, porn is exaggerated. But you must be careful not to pressure people how sex ought to be. That is up to the person themselves. Maybe there are women who like anal sex, who knows? So, it is not right if a teacher says that porn is not realistic, and women do not want to be treated that way. It makes no sense to start about different sexualities, hetero, gay, bi, to make people accept each other, and then continue that certain forms of sex are not OK. What you should say is that porn gives an idealized image of breasts, vulva, large penis, that does not match reality.”
Third, teachers should take young people and sexuality education seriously. Participants explained that a teacher must find a delicate balance between seriousness and humor. “The atmosphere should not be too tense, because nobody will interact, but it should also not be too treated like a laughing matter, because people will not feel safe to open up.”
Fourth, pupils want a teacher they can trust, someone they can turn to if something bothers them. It does not matter to most participants whether the teacher is young or old, a man or a woman. Mentors were often referred to as good teachers, because they are a little closer to young people. The finding that it is not the gender or age of the teacher that matters, but their competence to talk openly, be trustworthy, and facilitate meaningful discussion, corresponds with findings by other scholars [11
]. One of the main issues Pound, Langford, and Campbell [31
] found was that young people felt sexuality was dealt with too casually. This need for sensitivity to the ‘specialness’ of sexuality is mirrored in the urge for a safe atmosphere. However, unlike the young people in the ten countries included in the meta-analysis of Pound, Langford, and Campbell [31
], Dutch young people obviously do not feel that teachers neglect or deny the fact that they are sexually active. Probably this is connected to the Dutch dominant cultural logic, which accepts adolescent sexuality [2
]. In fact, young people voiced that the lack of sexuality education in senior grades gave the impression that they were supposed to know everything at the age of 16 and be self-sufficient and agentic in their sexual experiences.
3.4. Young People Want Diverse Teaching Methods
Participants expressed their need for diverse sexuality education teaching methods in the classroom: Discussions, practical assignments, tips, movies, and games. They did not want to listen to lengthy explanations from their teacher but wanted to work through more interactive methods. “For instance about STDs, you can also make small groups and each group gets the assignment to explain about one STD, how can you get infected, is it a bacterium or a virus, how is it treated, what are the consequences,
etc. Then you get more interaction between pupils and not just your teacher talking all the time.”
Participants had different ideas about splitting the class into separate boys’ and girls’ groups. Some argued it would create more safety to ask delicate questions when you have separate boys’ and girls’ groups, where others felt it should be mixed so you can learn about the other sex as well. “Just together, because you also have to know how the other sex feels about things. Recently there was a boy who asked me, how many times do you have your period, four times a year? I thought ‘really!’”
Participants also stressed the importance of hearing people with different opinions. “It is good to get out of your comfort zone and hear people who are looking from another perspective, to understand their views.
” According to our participants, guest speakers and ‘experience experts’ are a good addition to the lessons of a teacher. “Especially about things that are not accepted by society. Then you have a very quick tendency to judge because you feel it’s not normal. But if there is a guest speaker who has experienced it themselves, then you know someone, and you feel much more respect for such a person.”
Participants wanted variation in the lessons and methods, to get the opportunity to form their own ideas and points of view on socially sensitive topics, such as abortion, sexting, and sexual violence. This finding corresponds with the recommendations by other scholars to provide multiple stories in sexuality education, to enable young people to form their own views and identities and learn to navigate conflicts [30
]. Naezer [47
] (p. 720) concludes from her study of Dutch youth, ‘Finding people who are able and willing to confirm the “normalcy” of certain feelings, experiences and identifications requires the availability of a multitude of perspectives, a requirement that is absent from Dutch sex educational policies.’
In this section, we will reflect on the main findings and make suggestions for the steps to be taken to realize the changes in sexuality education desired by young people. Firstly, Dutch youth participating in our study clearly voice the need for more lessons of sexuality education, delivered throughout their whole school careers, starting from elementary school and continuing as they grow older and start having romantic relationships and sexual experiences. This is a clear message to developers of school curricula and teachers to expand the amount of time spent on sexuality education and ensure that it does not stop when pupils are 15 years old. Currently, the debate about sexuality education in the Netherlands has a strong focus on what age to start with sexuality education. Less attention is paid to the age at which to end sexuality education. Our study underlines the importance of continuing sexuality education after the age of 15.
Secondly, our study clearly illuminates the need for a truly comprehensive and sex-positive sexuality education. Young people miss information on sexual consent and sexual coercion, sexual diversity, sexual pleasure, relationships, dating, online and offline communication, and sex in the media. “Sex is more than biology
”, as one of our participants voiced. Although this has been voiced by many young people over the past years, the sexuality education that is taught at many Dutch schools still has a very limited scope. A possible way forward could be to integrate comprehensive sexuality education into a broader curriculum than biology, for instance, in civic education, social sciences, or ‘citizenship competences’, as a relatively new course taught in Dutch schools. Citizenship competences are defined as the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and reflection needed by young people to fulfill social tasks that are part of daily life in a democratic and multicultural society [48
]. This study demonstrates that many young people experience tension, which arises from the collision between their needs and feelings and what they perceive as social norms regarding good decision-making, heterosexuality, and gender roles. Sexuality education will benefit from broadening the scope beyond lessons on individual decision-making to address norms collectively and offer learning opportunities and reflectivity [46
Thirdly, one of the most crucial conditions for good sexuality education, is a safe class atmosphere, which enables young people to feel comfortable and relates to the issues presented. This means teachers must be aware and sensitive regarding the social dynamics going on during sexuality education, and outside of the classroom. Teachers should be aware that sexuality is enacted through collective practices, which brings about social effects of popularity, ethnicity, and gender [28
]. For instance, by being aware of the kind of questions that can be asked publicly, and the ones that cannot, by giving space for anonymous questions, by carefully structuring lessons, and by using methods that support social safety. A safe space is especially important for young people fearing social stigma or judgments, like LGBTQ youth. As teachers are also immersed in a dominant heteronormative culture, they need to reflect on their own assumptions and prejudices. Research indicates that teachers might unintendedly reinforce stereotypes and contribute to inequality [28
]. Methods used to address homophobia may be contra-productive when LGBTQ people are positioned as ‘different’ and vulnerable, and by doing so, could reinforce the presumption of heterosexuality. Classroom discussions of homosexuality might encourage controversy [51
] and can even initiate hate speech [52
]. Teachers need education and training to update their knowledge on young people’s varying sexual identities, relationships, and sexual cultures. They need to be aware of various ways of promoting inclusivity, such as by using inclusive terminology (for instance, using partner instead of boy- or girlfriend, avoiding using sex synonymously with sexual intercourse) and resources that represent sexual diversities [29
Fourthly, the need for diversity and interactivity in teaching methods requires an innovative approach. In its Guidance, UNESCO promotes a learner-centered approach to sexuality education and encourages collaborative learning strategies [53
]. When sexuality education aims to empower youth, rather than diminish health risks, teaching methods will become an important object of scrutiny [54
]. Empowering methods need to put young people at the center and be sensitive to (the heterogeneity of) their concerns, realities, suggestions, interests, and resistance [55
]. Moreover, methods should include supporting young people’s own ways of knowledge building and learning strategies [56
]. Developing sexuality education that builds on young peoples’ active participation will ensure content that is much more relevant to their lives, and additionally, it will always be up to date in language, dating trends, and technological developments.
This study has some limitations. The main limitation is that we were unable to explore whether differences between pupils’ needs and wishes were related to differences in sexual, gender, cultural, and religious identities. As we did not gather much information on the sexual orientation and ethnic background of participants, we cannot make proper distinctions based on these categories within our group. Ethically, this was information that could not be obtained using face-to-face research methods among pupils in a school context. A recommendation for future research would be to combine face-to-face methods with more anonymous data collection methods.