Sunday, February 5, 2012

Going Dutch

Okay, last week's topic was suicide, and for this week I promised something lighter.  So here we are: teenage sex.

I seem to be in global comparison mode lately, seeking out indexes that rank countries in various ways.  Global indexes are blunt-force data and, as such, present an irresistible temptation to do some baseless hypothesizing, which I did quite a bit of with the suicide tables.  Ideally, data should lead us to conclusions, but there are people who approach data with their conclusions already drawn, like gunfighters waiting in ambush.

I'm one of those people.

Here's some data.

Percentage of Dutch teenagers between 15 and 17 whose parents allow them to have their steady girlfriend or boyfriend spend the night with them:  72%.  (This excludes Muslim households.)

Percentage of American teenagers between 15 and 17 whose parents allow them to have their steady, etc.: approximately 16%.

And, you may ask, so what?

The "so what" is (are) more data, some of it (them) pretty startling.

The teen pregnancy rates for the Netherlands:  11.8 per thousand.  For the U.S., it's 72.8 per thousand, or more than six times as high

The teen birth rate for the Netherlands is 4.8 per thousand.  In the U.S., 42.5 per thousand or nine times higher.

The teen abortion rate for the Netherlands is 7.8 per thousand.  For America, 19.8, or nearly three times higher.

The HIV rate for the Netherlands (in the general population) stands at 0.2%.  In the U.S., it's 0.6%, or three times as high.  I admit that this is a dicey statistic, given the various modes of HIV transmission.

But this isn't.  The ratio of gonorrhea infection among American teens is thirty-three times higher than it is among their Dutch counterparts.

The teen Chlamydia infection ratio is nineteen times higher here than in the Netherlands.

And on and on and on.

So here's the point toward which I'm bending all this data.  Those Dutch parents who are okay with sweetheart sleep-overs reveal an attitude toward sex that is more accepting, more natural, less censorious, and less Puritan than that of most of their American counterpoints.

Puritanism is a blight on the American psyche.  The apparently unending reverberations of our Puritan and fundamentalist heritage have warped the national character to the point where our horrific attitudes about sex -- attitudes that literally baffle most of the rest of the world -- endanger our children.  They've mandated the banning of great books and the creation of the most insane censorship code ever imposed on the motion-picture industry, resulting -- I think -- in the glorification of violence because sex was taboo. They lead us to vote for brainless pencilnecked peckerwoods whose only qualification for public office is that they keep it zipped and pledge to distort the entire science curriculum to bar apes from the family tree.

I was in Asia -- Thailand, China, and Japan -- during the Lewinsky incident, and people kept asking me what the fuss was about.  In their eyes, America was close to overthrowing one of the world's most charismatic and effective leaders because -- well, because he was a man.  Mirabile dictu -- think of that.  A man. And, of course, as we learned later, much to the laughter of Asia, many of those who were leading the witch-hunt (Newt Gingrich among them) were similarly sinful.  Little hypocrisy there?  Of course, if America were sane on the subject of sex, the hypocrisy would have been unnecessary.

Puritanism is fundamentalism.  Fundamentalism encourages knee-jerk reactions and discourages rational responses - although, if I believed a Supreme Being gave us the power of reason, I would also believe that implicit in the gift of reason would be the obligation to use it.

I know this has crossed the border into rant territory, but those statistics make it clear (to me) that Puritanical attitudes toward sex are physically endangering tens of thousands of young people every year -- not to mention the emotional damage.  I also know that this is a classic example of whistling in the wind.

It's not much lighter than last week's post, either.  Next week, I promise.

Tim -- Sunday


  1. I love the gunslinger analogy! My previous favorite was that there are people who use statistics the way a drunk uses a street lamppost - more for support than illumination.

    1. I think that the Netherlands has the lowest abortion rate in the world. That was just stated in a study done on global abortion trends.

      However, important points must be stressed: Sex education and contraceptive availability in high schools. Responsible behavior on the part of both young people is taught and reinforced in the schools.

      In the U.S., many states forbid sex education, and certainly contraceptives aren't available at schools.

      Look, over here, the right-wing campaign against science and teaching evolution is ongoing and has impacted many school districts. So, of course,
      many young people are not educated about these matters. Lots of them don't know about birth control until it is already too late. It's unconscionable.

      I could ramble on and on about the right wing here and what they're doing and how now there's a fight brewing against the government's ruling that insurance plans must cover contraception, although religious institutions have some loopholes.

      It's absurd. The figures you cite are a case in point.

      I don't agree about Clinton though. The right wing went after him for political reasons, a la Ken Starr. It was ridiculous, the whole impeachment charade and carried out by those who do the same things or worse.

      But Clinton should not have exploited the situation within someone who was much younger, where he used the inequal power relationship to his advantage. It was not he right thing to do. Not very good thinking or acting in a principled way.

      He didn't deserve to get pilloried by the conservatives, but he doesn't get any medals for good conduct!

  2. Education seems to be the key. What I find a little disturbing is the "new" freedoms accorded to girls here in the states, and the presence of men, more than happy to accommodate them. It feels like a free for all, without much thought for consequences. It is also hard sometimes to see who is exploiting who. We have a lot of growing up to do in this country of ours, and quite a bit soul searching on the part of the hypocrites who want to run the country.

  3. There is no mention of the physical and emotional costs of sexual activity at an early age. Sexual relationships should be based on a commitment to another and this, in turn, should be based on a knowledge of self. In society today, that is missing from adult relationships as well.

    Serial monogamy is a popular trend but it doesn't address the question of how long the series should be before one or the other moves on to the next monogamous relationship. When applying adult world view to teenagers, the world can come crushing down. Teenage girls have to have convinced themselves that they are in a relationship that is going to last forever before they have "consensual" sex.

    Sex education, the availability of birth control, and the openness of parents to their children's sex lives avoids the issue. Teenagers don't think like adults. They believe they are invincible, that bad things can't happen to them. An "enlightened" parent may provide sons with condoms but that doesn't guarantee they will be used (condoms ruin the experience). Kids make decisions based on the conventional wisdom passed on by their peers: pregnancy can't happen the first time, sex while standing prevents conception, etc. The amount of misinformaion that kids take as gospel is stunning.

    The difficulty in comparing the Dutch to Americans lies in the composition of the societies. America is a multi-cultural society with value systems and religious beliefs that run the gamut. Whether sex education is taught in schools depends on the liberal/conservative composition of the community. Agreement within families is difficult to find.

    The various levels of physical and emotional maturation among teenagers has to be considered. On occasion there will be a ninth grade boy who needs to shave mixed in with the majority who look no older than 10 but no matter how old a child appears, mentally and emotionally they are still children.

    Do children in the Netherlands need parental permission for an abortion? The answer to that question could skew the statistics.

    Sex ed is perceived to be about not getting pregnant when is should be about teaching kids the skills necessary to avoid being pushed into behavior for which they are not ready. Instead we have a society in which kids in their early teens of both genders are bullied because they are virgins.

    That's my rant.

  4. Teens in the Netherlands need to have permission to get an abortion from their parents until they are 16.

    I agree that teens are, by far, not like adults. I believe they are hormone driven (well, some adults are, too. Possibly many adults come to think of it) and can not think rationally yet, nor will be able to think about the future like they will be able when they've grown up.

    But I also believe, like many Dutch people, that teenagers will want to have sex. It's a biological thing, it's the human race, it's stronger than they are. And the Dutch believe that if one takes that for a fact, that teenagers are biologically driven by a force stronger than themselves, to experiment with their bodies and preferably with that of the opposite sex, too. That we'd better educate them and help them and be gentle to them. Because they are only teenagers. And they need help.

    And thus my biology teacher sent me to a Pharmacy when I was only twelve, together with a male class mate she picked for me. So that the two of us would conquer our shyness. And buy condoms. We'd have to bring them back to her and she'd show the class how to use them. Believing that having sex was something all of us would experiment with sooner or later. And that it would be such a shame to let that experiment end in a disease or an unwanted pregnancy. Just because we would have been to shy to buy, or talk about, or learn how to use condoms.

    Just some Dutch 2 cents.

  5. Now this is a subject worthy of serious attention and comment.

    I spent much of my children's adolescent years anxiously preparing them to address the wide-open sexual times into which they were headed. Then came AIDS and an abrupt reversal of attitudes and advice.

    As far as I can tell, more young people than we'd like to think who are well aware of the STD risks of unprotected sex, have grown up knowing no other times, and as such are far too willing in practice to dismiss the dangers as as something not to be feared but accepted.

    On that note, Tim, I think I'll do something lighter. Like watch the Super Bowl.

  6. Michael -- thanks for the new and better metaphor, and you're right, that's pretty much what I was doing, leaning on statistics that can be plausibly made to support something I already believe.

    kathy, in the data I was looking at, Germany's abortion rate (TEEN abortion rate, anyway) was lower's than that of the Netherlands. But I agree with the rest of your points. Sex education in the schools is much more likely to be present and adequate in a culture in which parents aren't hysterical about teen sex. And I don't think we should ignore the other likelihood, which is that sexual education IN THE HOME is also more likely in a culture that's not suffering sexual hysteria.

    I believe the point with Clinton is that, yes, the right went after him for political reasons, but it's the sexual climate in this country that allowed them to turn a tawdry little assignation into a constitutional issue. Most of the world's nations EXPECT adults to play around from time to time, and don't see every affair or peccadillo as political ammunition. And I think that Bill and Monica, so to speak, were equally responsible for what happened between them; to say otherwise seems almost anti-feminist to me. She was an adult, of consenting age, who was ambitious and courageous enough to be miles from home and family in pursuit of some form of advancement (I don't mean that in a snotty way) and arguing otherwise makes her sound like a blow-up doll who had no independent will, intelligence, or experience. I personally don't see a problem with sexual relations between people of widely different ages as long as both are beyond the age of consent and not mentally impaired. Although I do agree that it wasn't Clinton's finest moment.

    Beth, it's a great rant. I said at the outset that statistics were a blunt instrument, and they're obviously useless when the discussion turns to such issues as the lasting impact of early sex (even though "early" is a term that's been applied to a number of ages) or the individual differences among teens. I think, however, that the differences among individual teens are likely to be much the same in Holland as they are here, I think it's better for kids to have their early experiences in a safe place, where they don't need to be furtive, where it doesn't gain in glamour by being forbidden, and where there are likely to be condoms available. And, although you and kathy talk about sex ed in the schools, I keep coming back to sex ed in the home, where not only mechanics and mores, but also ATTITUDES can be conveyed. In the best of all possible worlds, I think kids would learn about sex in both places.

    Anonymous, thank you so much for that breath of sanity. Here's what I was trying to say and failed, whereas you didn't: "... the Dutch believe that if one takes. . .for a fact, that teenagers are biologically driven by a force stronger than themselves, to experiment with their bodies and preferably with that of the opposite sex, too...that we'd better educate them and help them and be gentle to them. Because they are only teenagers. And they need help." It's hard to imagine a more positive and gentler way to put it.

    Jeffrey, dead right -- we've got a generation and a half who grew up in a world where there's a possibility that sex=death, or at least serious disease, and American puritanism mitigates against kids getting the information they need to remain safe. "Just say no" isn't going to cut it.

  7. Despite several conversations with my late brothers' kids, at least one of them had unprotected sex on a regular basis, sometimes with a really dodgy partner whose judgment was highly questionable and fathfullness unlikely. Yet these are well educated, smart kids. This is today's version of the invulnerability of youth.

  8. Wow, interesting conversation.

    Some observations:

    America may be a multicultural society from the inside, but from the outside it's not. Americans are different - different from Europeans, different even from Australians, who are pretty close in many ways. In Oz we have a Prime Minister living with her partner without being married - no deal at all. A government minister is a lesbian and has recently adopted a baby with her female partner - no deal at all. That's a difference.

    Australian kids have appalling sexual habits - they actually seem to like sex. Unfortunately they also like alcohol, and those two don't mix. So we have sex education. It seems like no big deal.

    In short, America is built on a Puritan foundation, and Europe and Australia aren't.

    1. I wish that all youth were given sex education in the home in the U.S. That's ideal. Many are not. (I say that as I was in Chicago as a pre-teen explaining the birds and the bees to kids my age who knew nothing, not about the basics. Would have it been better if their parents had told them? Heck, YES! But they didn't. And many still don't.

      There is much more teen pregnancy where there is no sex education -- anywhere! home, or schools. The only way to educate every one of them and make sure they get it is at school. It's a social issue. Teen pregnancy is society's issue, not only that of the young person and her parents.

      A friend of mine donates to help young women who are pregnant get legal abortions. One recurrent theme is that they did not know about birth control. No one, not their parents told them or grandparents. They didn't even realize they were pregnant -- and told no one -- until it became a crisis.

      There are different cultures and beliefs here in the U.S. Witness the fights over school curriculums in some states and attacking birth control by certain presidential candidate wannabes!

      This really is a social problem. Teen pregnancy harms many people. It is not an ideal situation, should be prevented, whatever it takes.

      If the Netherlands has it figured out, or Germany, fine with me. What's going on in the U.S. is not working. They do believe in education on these matters in Europe.

      Also, there are national science curriculums in Europe, but not here. That would help with some of it.

      The only way to ensure all young people learn this is doing it in the schools.

      The stories I could tell from friends who have been social workers dealing with young people make my hair stand on end. Ignorance is not good.

      And, Clinton, I surely am for Monica's freedom to choose her life, but power, prestige and wealth can skew judgment. Unfortunately, she had to pay a price, too, due to the right-wing attacks on her, her being held against her will in a hotel room (without lawyer or parent) being interrogated, then hounded and harassed until she left the country for awhile.

      I'm not blaming her at all. I am saying there are inequalities in the society and someone in a position of power should exercise judgment and think about repercussions on others involved.

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