We the Dutch have a … not necessarily flattering reputation of being, euphemistically, direct in our communication. For those who are not in the know, this is generally perceived as being, well, rude, frankly. However, although there are widely differing approaches to what is and is not too far in directness between the Dutch provinces, we generally like to pride ourselves on our honesty, as we emphasise the importance and moral goodness of open and frank discussion. Without an open debate in which everyone expresses themselves honestly, there can be no honest consensus and no growth. To say anything less than the truth is to be at best less than useful, and at worst, deceitful.
This is, of course, ironically not a truthful or objective self-perspective; those do not exist. Dutch people tell white lies, big lies, avoid (sometimes) hard conversations when they don’t feel like it just as much as anyone else. Although you may get an answer you don’t want when you ask questions like “do you like my new haircut?”, we are still people after all, and there are some things people don’t like talking about.
When it comes to adults, teenage sexuality is one of these things. Although we know that teenagers are, surprisingly, also people, and that their hormones lead to the development of a more sexual self, the idea of teenagers having sex is somewhat uncomfortable. Sure, if you don’t masturbate at any point during your adolescence that may be considered strange – but please don’t tell me about it. Equally, please don’t ask me to talk to you about masturbation. It is too private, too fraught with difficult moral and sociological problems.
Having said that, sexual education has been a national establishment in the Netherlands for around 40 years at this point, and although not necessarily an adored part of the curriculum is generally seen as a necessary, if awkward, part of schooling. This sexual education is, unsurprisingly and unfortunately, however, old fashioned. While it deals at length with topics such as semen (where does it come from?), protection (what types are there? Can you put a condom on a styrofoam penis?), menstruation and, relatively recently, the clitoris. It is not so concerned with queer sexualities nor the emotional side of sex. Even with the impact that American and online movements like #MeToo have had on public discourse, Dutch sexual education is slow or loath to change.
One recent study, conducted by Rutgers (a Dutch research institution focused on sexuality) in a collaborative setup of adult and teenaged researchers, interviewed students in secondary schools to find out what their opinions were about their sexual education. In a nation where grading is done on a 1-10 system, with 5.5 being a pass, students gave sexual education a damning 5.8 – the type of grade your teacher would be severely disappointed about. In an interview on the national broadcaster with two of the student researchers, they highlight the following, amongst other issues (quote translated by me):
Pauw [Interviewer]: ‘Do you want your teacher to explain in class how to do some nice fingering?’
Peeters: ‘No, not that either. But I do want it to be discussed what to do when you hit a wall in your relationships, or how to prevent that from happening.’
Dekker: ‘Or how to say it when you think someone is not doing a nice job fingering you. […] Sexual education is only done in biology class, which quickly limits it to one perspective only.’
Besides the seemingly patronising tone of the interviewer’s question, we can also clearly see demonstrated, here and in the official research report, that Dutch teens desire not only help in how to talk about sex, but also open discussion about emotions – and consent. They demonstrate a clear frustration that consent and emotions are treated like a taboo topic, and that they want and need to talk about these things.
This is odd, right? Here we have a people who pride themselves on being direct, honest and open, socially progressive and sex-positive. Yet when it comes to dealing with adolescent sexual desires, emotional needs, and concerns with consent, they shy away from the topic (leaving aside for the moment other, massively important debates that are either simply not had or hurriedly moved on from). The Dutch are not alone in this; there is, for example, extremely little empirical research conducted on adolescent understandings of consent. Even within YA scholarship, which (as we can see in this conference) deals with sex itself a fair amount, there is almost no discussion of consent. The notable exception to this is Corinne Matthews, who is a PhD student at the University of Florida and also presenting at this conference.
However, although consent and sexual desire appear to be taboo in Dutch society, it is not like there is no reflections on sex, emotions, relationships and consent in Dutch YA. Dutch children’s literature is, in fact, often more progressive than the socio-cultural majority, and has a lot of space to transgress and change moral boundaries. For my conference paper, I analyse Tjibbe Veldkamp’s De Lovebus, a local novel to my university’s city (and therefore admittedly partially chosen because of a desire to integrate). It deals with adolescent sexual desire and emotional confusion explicitly and honestly, and requires work from the reader to figure out the boundaries and meaning of consent. Analysing novels like this one can help us create an image of what adults think adolescents need and struggle with when it comes to issues of sex, desire and consent, and perhaps even work on constructive change in policy and public discourse.
Vera Veldhuizen is a lecturer at the University of Groningen. She recently finished her PhD on Empathy, Ethics and Justice in Children’s War Literature at Cambridge University. Her current research project is on the construction of untruths, truth and “what really happened” in children’s literature. Her most recent publication is “Narrative Ethics in Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners” in Children’s Literature in Education.