Teenage sex and Dutch courage: From an early age, youngsters in the Netherlands talk openly with their parents about sex. We have much to learn from their approach, says Susan Marling

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Romany was 13 when she had sex for the first time. Her mother celebrated the occasion by showering her with confetti. Ivo is 17 and homosexual. His mother buys his condoms for him. Tamara, aged 15, and Maryn, a boy of 16, are both sexually active but they tell their parents what they're up to and, with disarming candour, willingly talk about relationships, contraception and sexual technique.

In their grounding for life all four teenagers are typical products of The Dutch Way. Each has grown up in a family in which sex is discussed without spluttering and blushes. Each received sex education at school that went a lot farther than tadpole drawings of sperm headed for ovaries. And each has had easy access to contraceptives and advice in a country where public opinion is more focused on pragmatism and personal responsibility than on a desire to wag the finger in the name of morality.

The proof of the Dutch system is in its results. The Netherlands has the lowest rate of teenage pregnancy in the Western world. Out of every 1,000 pregnancies in the Netherlands, nine are to girls between 13 and 19. In Britain the figure is 69. The teenage abortion rate is one-tenth of that in Britain. As Tamara says: 'Everything is out in the open here. We all know how to take care of ourselves, that sex is good but that we have to be careful.'

We are talking in the head office of the Rutgers Foundation, the Dutch family planning organisation based in The Hague. Romany, Tamara and the boys know each other because they recently took part in a television series called Sex with Angela, which was aimed at 12- to 16-year-olds and was presented, at peak viewing time, by a popular Dutch rock singer. There were eight programmes about different subjects, such as the first time, how to talk to parents about sex, homosexuality and Aids. Maryn talked about his first sexual experience on the show: 'I told how, when I was 15, a girl asked me for sex and how I was afraid that I, you know, wouldn't be able to find the hole. We talked about masturbation, too, and although I was a bit shy I thought that it would be good for the kids watching at home if we were really honest.'

Doortje Bracken, the education and information officer for the Rutgers Foundation, which acted as a consultant to the programmes, says that the public response was so positive that a second series is in production. 'We also advise on a TV education programme which is broadcast just before the summer holidays. Young people do have sex on vacation so the show gives explicit advice about everything, including how to use a condom. We thought there would be noises about that but in fact nearly 200 schools have written in asking for a copy of the video.'

Since its first public funding in 1969 the foundation has tried to fashion its projects around the realities of young people's lives. Knowing, for example, that one of the side-effects of taking Ecstasy is a craving for sex, it now hires dancers who go to rave parties with supplies of condoms, which they hand out. When it was suggested that boys were often left out of informal sex education it responded by funding a group of boys to produce their own magazine about sex and sexual attitudes.

Next door to the Rutgers headquarters is one of the seven houses run by the foundation offering a discreet service to young people. Accommodated in ordinary semis or terraced houses, staff are available to deal with every sexual inquiry. 'I went there for the morning-after pill when something went wrong,' says Romany. 'I was 14 but age wasn't an issue. You don't have to answer any questions. They're just there to help and I have found the people there easier to talk to than my doctor.'

Doortje emphatically denies that the foundation's work stimulates young people to have sex. 'We've done studies which show that those kids who know the score are actually likely to postpone intercourse rather than rush into it. Also we found that the girls who use the abortion clinic weren't any different from the girls who come for contraception in social background or in what they knew about sex, but they were the ones who were most reluctant to talk about it with their mothers or their boyfriends.'

Tamara is equally dismissive of the idea, frequently heard among finger-waggers in Britain, that too much talk about sex encourages children into a sexual career before they are emotionally ready. 'I don't think there is a pressure on you to have sex. What we are told is that we must make the decisions for our own lives. We have good information to make up our minds. Plenty of the girls in my class haven't had sex yet, but it's not like a competition.'

No school is obliged to include sex education in its curriculum in the Netherlands, but most of them do. As Romany points out, 'Moroccan girls, for example, are not going to hear anything about sex at home so it's important for them to learn it at school.' Where there are significant numbers of Islamic students boys and girls may have these lessons separately, but in general those who deal with sex education are trained to use mixed classes positively. 'In our sessions the boys drew up a list of what they didn't know about girls and vice versa,' Ivo told me. 'I wanted to know if girls masturbate, because with boys, well, it's so obvious. We'd started with the words we use about sex - we could say anything, even the dirty words. And, then, at the end, we each opened up a condom and put it over our fingers, made fun of it a bit to get used to it. To make us think it wasn't anything special or scary.'

Such is the framework of trust established by these lessons that Ivo says he was able to talk about his homosexuality in front of his classmates. 'I think some boys were frightened before. It was a big step to tell them but I'm not ashamed and now they are not so negative - they want to ask me questions about it.'

When I asked what was the real age of consent in the Netherlands, neither Ivo nor the others had an answer. This is because the rules are a Dutch compromise between a law that protects the innocent and a deliberate lassitude that avoids the absurdity of criminalising the routine private behaviour of many teenagers. So while the age of consent is officially 16, no action is taken over children between 12 and 16 who have sex willingly. At the same time any 'under-age' child who makes a complaint about abuse to the police (and they can do so alone) must be taken seriously. In fact, very young sex is quite rare in the Netherlands. According to foundation figures, only 6 per cent of 13-year-olds have had sex and the figure rises to 50 per cent among 17-year-olds - so that Dutch youngsters are starting with sex slightly later than their British counterparts.

The only difference is that Dutch young people have built safer sex and fewer unwanted pregnancies into their way of life. Sexually speaking, Dutch courage has come to mean facing the truth about teenage sexuality, shouldering responsibility to give young people the best help and offering more than soap-box oratory to the 'rising tide' of young single mums.

(Photograph omitted)

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