The Dutch, Repartnering, and Sex Education (part 1 of 2)


I had an unexpected break in the middle of my afternoon yesterday, so I spent several hours watching the Argentina-Netherlands game. I’m rooting for all the North/South American teams, so I was hoping that Lionel Messi and company would catch fire. I was also terrified of the following, especially after this man owned the Netherlands-Costa Rica game.

Fortunately, Argentina’s midfield and fullbacks contained Arjen Robben until the end of regular time, where the Argentine keeper made a brilliant save. The Dutch, once again, failed to win the World Cup.


Today, I want to reflect on an area where the Dutch consistently excel: sex education.

Three years ago, Amy Schalet, a sociology professor at UMass, published a study comparing American and Dutch sex education. In her book Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex, Schalet explains that Dutch families will set up co-ed sleepovers between their teenagers and the teenager’s significant other, with the expectation that they will have sex. The parents of both teenagers meet to negotiate the setting for the sexual experience and give a blessing to their teenagers to enjoy their bodies.

Schalet writes in a NYT post, “The Dutch experience suggests that it is possible for families to stay connected when teenagers start having sex, and that if they do, the transition into adulthood need not be so painful for parents or children.” Research seems to support this sentiment: for instance, in 2008, 27% of American infants were born to single mothers not married to or living with their partner, compared to a mere 8% of Dutch infants.

Regardless of your position and coinciding anxieties about the sleepover option, it makes a fascinating arena for research about teenage sexuality, family structure, and sexual development.

For example, Katya Ivanova of the University of Amsterdam co-published a study correlating teenagers’ initial sexually intimate experiences with varying kinds of family structure. In “Parental Residential and Partnering Transitions and the Initiation of Adolescent Romantic Relationships”, which was published in June’s Journal of Marriage and the Family, Ivanova explores the relationship between the number of family structure changes (such as separation, divorce, repartnering) and the likelihood of a teenager having more sexual experiences. (Note: The statistic about 8% of Dutch infants comes from this article.)

Ivanova and her colleagues interviewed around 1500 teenagers, asking them questions about their family communication patterns, the presence of parental transitions, exits, and entrances, and initial sexual experiences. They confirmed previous research which states that teenagers are more likely to encounter more sexual experiences when there are higher amounts of family structural changes, suggesting that teenagers look to other sources for emotional security during times of family restructuring.

Sexual initiation by teenagers is most likely to happen when their mothers initiate their own romantic relationships. (Interestingly, not their fathers, although the researchers acknowledge the fact that fathers are often non-custodial in restructured families may play into their findings.) The interviewed teenagers acknowledge that their mothers (or custodial parents) spend less time with them as they pursue their own romantic interests, leaving the teenagers with more unsupervised time, less emotional connection to their parents, and more reason to emotionally/sexually connect with others.

In part 2, we’ll think about practical ways to improve communication and adolescent sexual development for families that have restructured. Between now and then, what are some of your thoughts on how to do this?


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