Speaking Double Dutch- Fact finding trip to Holland with Warwickshire’s Respect Yourself Campaign Team:
I was lucky enough to be one of 20 professionals that had the opportunity to spend a week in Holland during October 2011. Generally this was a fact finding mission to investigate how the Dutch approach sex and relationship education for their young people.
Indeed, it is well documented that the Dutch statistically have the lowest number of teenage pregnancies in Europe, plus very low levels of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among young people. But more than this, the Dutch also top the tables on the UNICEF Children’s Well-being survey (which takes in to consideration wider factors such as: poverty, education, health, sexual behavior etc), the UK came a lonely 21st. The Dutch have been held up as a model of good practice and we wanted to investigate is this due to their attitude and approach or merely a historical cultural feat.
We were working with Rutgers WPF, a government funded health organisation that co-ordinates their national sexual health campaigns, who had planned a very comprehensive programme for us that covered all our areas of interest.
Most days consisted of around five presentations by various professionals with activities, chances to view their resources and time to ask questions. Sometimes groups split off to have talks simultaneously or to go out on a separate visit. Built in to the day was time for us to present to Rutgers WPF on our own organisations and background in a spirit of sharing good practice.
There were short breaks between presentations to allow us to grab a drink and make ourselves comfortable, but more importantly these became a buzz time to bounce ideas off each other excited by what we had just experienced.
Personally I left the Rutgers office every day bouncing and excited with a head full of ideas and questions to talk to my peers about. For me this was one of the most beneficial parts of the experience – the chance to throw ideas around with fellow professionals -spending 24-7 thinking about SRE. Indeed, this time was some of the most valuable as it was here that many of the most important discussions took place and the ideas began to flow at the end of the day with discussions over dinner.
I have to say that I was very impressed with all of the speakers and other professionals we visited. Not only were they able to make presentations and answer our, often very complicated questions, in English – which was very humbling and highlighted how ignorant we are as a nation when it comes to speaking foreign languages – but were also able to deliver sarcasm and humor at the same time! They were equally passionate and extremely accommodating to us as a party.
One thing that was very reassuring in as much as there are plenty of things that we are doing here in the UK that is very similar and as good as and in some cases even better than what they have in Holland. Surprisingly, the Dutch are no less conservative than we are and still have a very gendered notion of Sex Ed’ – in that sex is something that guys do to girl’s and much of their promotions reflect this notion. At the time we went they didn’t have any specific programmes that targeted young men.
So, the question remains – why are the Dutch so much better at SRE statistically? For me it is the Dutch attitude. They are not afraid to ask the important questions in terms of their research, regardless of whether it might make people blush. They have the same concerns and issues as we do in the UK around the morality of sexuality education and sexualising young people, however they deliver the work anyway because they know it is the right thing to do. This is especially noticeable in terms of their work in primary schools and with parents.
There is also far more emphasis on the build up to sex in the Dutch campaigns rather than merely focusing on the act of sex. We seem to neglect this area of work and instead put all our efforts in to STIs and pregnancy. As an extension of this is the encouragement to reflect back on their sexual experiences which I feel is important. I have always been of the firm belief that many young people are interested in sex and like the idea of it but the reality is somewhat different – and it is focusing on the grey area between sex and unwanted or ill-enjoyed sexual experience that is key.
So, what did I take from the experience? That the focus on attitudes and behaviours is far more important than merely knowledge. That open and honest information at the earliest stage is essential and that we need to follow through on our convictions in the face of making polite society uncomfortable. There is nothing wrong with being embarrassed by the topic of SRE, however it is natural and essential to our personal identity.
As a small independent provider or SRE I have the relative freedom to deliver SRE to young people in my own way with my own ethos – much of which
around being open and honest with young people and the belief that the more we encourage young people to ask questions and take control of their own sexuality the better the outcomes will be. For me this trip offered an opportunity to validate not only my own ethos but also the work I am delivering and compare it with those thought to be the best on paper. As an opportunity too good to miss.